When audiences watch a Jackie Chan movie, they know exactly what they're in for — lots of punching — but there's something that might surprise people about the actor. "I hate violence," Chan says. "But I make action films."
Chan got his start in his native Hong Kong as a low-wage stuntman, working on films with the legendary Bruce Lee. For over five decades in the movie business, he has crashed through glass, tumbled down stairwells and landed on moving trucks. It's the kind of work that Hollywood doesn't typically honor, but he's made a mark that's hard to ignore. Last year, the 63-year-old star received an honorary Oscar.
"That means to me, just like complete my life. I only make cheap action movies, comedy," Chan says. "I never thought I could get an Oscar."
On Bruce Lee's influence
I think after Bruce Lee died, and those kind of action movies [were] so popular, and they cannot find enough action stars. Even myself — all the acting, all the skill, all the kicking, just like Bruce Lee. You have to [be] exactly like Bruce Lee, the face, the look, all Bruce. Even my name, "Second Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan," when you'd see the poster. ... I'm not happy. In the poster, you'd never see my name, you see only BRUCE LEE, Jackie Chan.
I'm very lucky. There's a producer [that] called me up and said "Let's do something different." I said "OK, let's do some comedy."
On getting critically hurt jumping from a castle while filming Armour Of God
From the castle, I jumped to the middle of the tree. The tree bent to another castle. Between the castle, that's about 35-40 feet high, but I jumped, the tree break. Break, break, break break ... then I was just landing on my back, my head. The rock immediately hurt my skull.
I just asked myself "If I die, what [have] I done for this world?" OK, making a movie, fooling around at night, crashing a car in the morning, buy another car in the morning. At night, crash another one. ... Then I said, "If I can survive, I have to do something for the world."
On why he went into retirement in 2012
I've been doing martial arts for 57 years, every day in the studio fighting, teaching people how to fight. And I always ask myself: When I should stop, when should I retire? ... Because I'm not as fast as before.
On being typecast
I'd rather be an actor who can fight, not the fighter who can act. Probably you can see my Chinese films, when I go back to my own country, I can do whatever I want. I can do a drama, I can do comedy, I can do action, I change. ... Here, I always receive the script: Police from Hong Kong, police from China, CIA from Hong Kong, CIA from China. Always Rush Hour 1, Rush Hour 2, Rush Hour 3. Then, Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Knights. Can I have something different? ... I really, really hope one day I can make a drama film without one punch.
Even in China, difficult. They're just not used to it, to see Jackie, slow-motion on the beach, kissing the girl. I like to do that, but nobody hire me!
This story was edited for radio by Shannon Rhoades and Danny Hajek, and adapted for the Web by Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know, when you watch a Jackie Chan movie, come on, you know exactly what you're in for.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHTING SCENE)
GREENE: Which is why, when I got the chance to talk to him, I heard about this fact, and I was like, really? I wanted to start with something that might surprise people about Jackie Chan.
You hate violence.
JACKIE CHAN: Yes, I hate violence, but I make action film.
GREENE: Yeah. He does. Over five decades in the business - he has crashed through glass. He has tumbled down stairwells. He's landed on moving trucks. This is the kind of work that Hollywood doesn't typically honor. But Jackie Chan has made such a mark, it was hard to ignore. And last year, they gave him an honorary Oscar.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHAN: Many thanks to all my friends, fans around the world because you - I have a reason to continue to make movies, jumping in window, kicking and punching, breaking my bones. Thank you so much. Thank you, Oscar. Thank you.
CHAN: And the 63-year-old star is still at it. His new film is called "The Foreigner." He is a dad in London whose daughter is killed in a terrorist attack, sending him on a search for justice.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FOREIGNER")
CHAN: (As Quan Ngoc Minh) Twenty thousand pounds for the names of the bombers.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's not how we do things here.
GREENE: Oh, yeah. He's a dad who also happens to be a former Chinese special forces guy with some mad fighting skills.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHTING SCENE)
GREENE: All right. So Jackie Chan got his start in his native Hong Kong as a low-wage stuntman. He worked on a couple films with the legendary master of martial arts, Actor Bruce Lee. Lee's shocking death in 1973 left a huge void. And there was so much pressure on everybody to be the next Bruce Lee.
CHAN: I think after Bruce Lee died - those kind of action movies so popular. And they cannot find enough action star. Even myself - all the acting all the skill, all the kicking just like Bruce Lee. You have to - exactly like Bruce Lee to face low - all Bruce. Even my name - Second Bruce Lee Jackie Chan.
CHAN: When you see the poster...
GREENE: It would say the second Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan?
GREENE: How did you feel about that saying the second Bruce Lee?
CHAN: I'm not happy. In the poster, you never see my name. You only see Bruce Lee - Jackie Chan.
GREENE: (Laughter). So how did you make a name for yourself after he died?
CHAN: I'm very lucky. There's a producer - called me up. And let's do something different. I said, OK. Let's do some comedy. Bruce Lee never get hurt. I get hurt - pain.
GREENE: Your character's what experiences pain.
CHAN: Bruce Lee can fight 20 people. No, I only fight four people. More than that...
GREENE: (Laughter) Only four.
CHAN: ...I'm only - turn around and run away. That's my real life. I really fought in the street when I was young. I can fight, like, three or four people. Boom, boom, boom. But the more people come, I just run away.
GREENE: You're smarter. You're more realistic than Bruce Lee was.
CHAN: Yes. I just put myself in the movie.
GREENE: And that meant doing his own stunts. And Jackie Chan has the scars, the bumps, the broken bones to prove it. Of course, the scariest had to be his stunt in the Hong Kong film "Armor Of God," where he made a death-defying jump from a castle to a tree and then hopefully to another tower.
CHAN: From the castle, I jumped to the middle of the tree. The tree bend to another castle. Between the castle, that's about, like, 35 or 40 feet high. But I jump. The tree break.
GREENE: Oh, no.
CHAN: Break, break, break, break.
GREENE: All the branches were just breaking down.
CHAN: Yeah. (Vocalizing). Then I just landed on my back, my head. The rock immediately hurt my skull.
GREENE: Did you think you were going to die?
CHAN: Yeah. Then I asked myself what I've done. What I'm doing for this...
GREENE: Why are you doing this?
CHAN: No. I just asked myself, if I die, what I'd done for this world. OK. Making a movie, fooling around at night, crashing a car in the morning. Buy another car in the morning. At night, crash another one.
GREENE: And how long ago was this?
CHAN: Thirty-some years ago. Then I said, if I can survive, I have to do something for the world.
GREENE: And there really is a depth to Jackie Chan. For one thing, he is very proud of his Chinese heritage, though his support for the communist government in China has gotten him into some trouble with critics in places like Taiwan and his Hong Kong home. Now Jackie Chan wants to find that depth and that complexity on the screen.
CHAN: I've been doing my job for 57 years everyday in the studio, fighting, teaching people how to fight. And I always ask myself when I should stop. When should I retire?
GREENE: And you told people in 2012 that you were done with action movies.
CHAN: Yes, because I'm not as fast as before.
GREENE: It's OK.
GREENE: (Laughter) I think people would be OK with that.
CHAN: If a true actor like Robert De Niro, like Clint Eastwood - everybody still acting. I'd rather be an actor who can fight. It's not a fighter who can act. Probably, you didn't see my Chinese film. When I go back to my own country, I can do whatever I want. I can do a drama. I can do comedy. I can do action. I change.
GREENE: There. But here, you feel the pressure still.
CHAN: Here, I always receive the script. Police from Hong Kong, police from China, CIA from Hong Kong, CIA from China. Always "Rush Hour 1," "Rush Hour 2," "Rush Hour 3." Then "Shanghai Noon," Shanghai Knights." Can I have something different?
GREENE: That's a lot of pressure, I feel like, if, when you make a movie in the U.S., you want to act. You want people to see you as an actor. But you've got to get that action scene, too, to...
GREENE: ...Keep people loving Jackie Chan in the same way.
CHAN: Yeah, I really, really hope one day I can make a drama film without one punch. I cross my fingers. I hope one day I can do that.
GREENE: You don't think American viewers are there yet to...
CHAN: Even in China - difficult. Yeah. They're just not used to it - to see Jackie - slow motion, the beach, kissing the girl.
CHAN: And I like to do that. But nobody hire me.
GREENE: So how important was that honorary Oscar that you got? What did that mean to you?
CHAN: That means to me - just, like, complete my life. I only make action movies, comedy. I would never get an Oscar. It's too far away. I never thought I can get an Oscar.
GREENE: I just think about that moment when you were - thought that you were dying and wondering what you had accomplished. And then 30 years later, you're holding that Oscar.
CHAN: Yeah. For me, there's so many miracles in me. Every - sometimes when I get up, watch the mirror, you know, brushing your teeth. I look at myself. Jackie, you're so lucky. Now I get an Oscar. Lucky boy.
GREENE: Jackie Chan, thank you.
CHAN: Thank you.
GREENE: Jackie Chan - his new movie is "The Foreigner." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.