LIKE LAURENCE OLIVIER, Richard Burton, Michael Caine and so many British actors, Jason Statham has made the leap from the UK to Hollywood to worldwide fame. But he stands out from the Brit pack in several important ways. For starters, his training ground was the gritty streets of London instead of the West End stage. And rather than a smooth-talking lady killer, Statham most often plays the edgy antihero. Dirty Harry with an English accent and even more attitude.
It was a young (and soon-to-be-famous) director named Guy Ritchie who plucked Statham off those streets and placed him – without any acting experience – in the middle of the 1998 British cult crime comedy Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He held his own against the movie’s seasoned actors and, two years later, Statham was with Ritchie again, starring alongside Brad Pitt and Benicio del Toro in another black-comedy caper called Snatch.
Statham has never looked back. Those initial hits – and his realistic, resolute badguy performances – were a springboard into a career that now includes more than 30 films, more than US$1 billion in worldwide box office and a cache of incredibly memorable characters. He was driver-for-hire Frank Martin in the Transporter series, Handsome Rob in The Italian Job, hit-man-turned-victim Chev Chelios in Crank, and the knife-wielding Lee Christmas in The Expendables franchise.
Somewhere along the way, Statham’s roles took a tender turn: richer and deeper characters like petty criminal Terry Leather in The Bank Job, identity thief Joey Jones in Redemption and his upcoming turn as imperilled husband and father Phil Broker in Homefront (slated for release this month) with James Franco, Winona Ryder and Kate Bosworth.
His own early life reads something like a movie script, a twisted take on Billy Elliot in which the young working-class protagonist craves high-diving fame while supporting himself by hawking black-market goods in the streets of London. Statham starred on Britain’s national diving team for a decade while flirting with a wide-boy lifestyle. Age finally took him out of the pool; Ritchie may have saved him from a possible life behind bars.
Fifteen years later, Statham is flying high in both his personal and professional life. Current girlfriend Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is a successful British model and budding actress who shares Statham’s passion for fine clothes. In addition to Homefront, Statham has several other movies on deck including Heat and The Expendables 3. We caught up with him early on an October morning in Atlanta, Georgia while he was filming Fast & Furious 7 on location with Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson.
How is Fast & Furious 7 going?
It’s a big, big production and obviously there’s a lot of stuff going on. There are humongous stunts. There are great things happening. But the good thing is that we have a terrific director, James Wan. He’s so enthusiastic, so excited to be making a big action film. And we’ve got Tony Jaa – who I’m a huge fan of – he’s a very gifted martial artist and action-movie hero – and Djimon Hounsou. There are some really good people. It’s everything you can expect from this franchise. They’re always pushing the boundaries and they want to do something better each time.
From The Transporter to The Italian Job and now Fast & Furious, an awful lot of your characters have something to do with cars. Are you a car guy in real life?
I’d like to think so, yeah. I’ve always had an interest in cars and running around and learning driving skills from different opportunities that have come my way from making movies. I’ve had a chance to fool around and race on tracks. And being in this business you get the opportunity to get your hands on great machines. That tweaks your interest and sort of satiates that appetite.
What do you drive at home?
I’ve had many different cars. At the moment I’m driving an Audi S8. You know, comfort and speed. It’s difficult to have something that rocks around at 200 miles an hour because basically living in LA you can’t do that. If you want to go fast, you have to save it for the track, because otherwise you get into all kinds of mischief.
You do a lot of your own physical stunts, but do you also do your own driving stunts?
It seems the bigger the budget and the more expensive the movie, the more cautious they are about keeping you alive. There’s a lot of money at stake, so they’re very diplomatic about what they can really allow you to do. I remember in the early days, when I was working for Luc Besson while I was doing the Transporter series, literally I did 99 percent of the driving. But it was a much smaller budget and we had everything in our control. Obviously they’ve got very big, very elaborate sequences. But you have to try and get behind the wheel as much as you can. You have to try to push the studio, push everyone else to allow you to do what you can do.
But you’ve had some “incidents” in vehicles over the years. Wasn’t there something in Bulgaria while you were shooting The Expendables 3?
Yes, there was an incident there. I haven’t spoken about it yet. I’ve been asked not to speak about it right now. I’m saving the story. If I tell you the story, it’s going to take up your whole interview.
The next film you have coming out is Homefront, which seems like a transformation character-wise for you.
It was a wonderful opportunity for me. Sylvester Stallone…I have respected and admired him for years and [he’s] become a good friend, and it was a very opportune moment where he presented me with a script that he had written. It’s an adaptation of a Chuck Logan novel and as you can imagine, it’s full of great action. But more importantly it had a real heart to it – great characters all along the way. I just really responded to the relationship with the girl who plays my daughter, and Stallone does such a good job at providing great dialogue and some really great situations that you can actually try and act. Sometimes the curse of these sort of genre movies is they don’t have enough depth to them, whereas Sly turns that around on its head and gives you some great characters. Look at Rocky and the many things that he’s written. They just hit a chord with the audience. Hopefully I’ve done justice to what he really imagined I could do. We’ll find out.
Is this the first time you’ve played a father in a movie?
It is, yeah. It’s the first time I’ve played a dad. And you know, having a child, it gives you all the motivation to do everything you can to protect that. It presents an opportunity to provide some great action on the back of something like your daughter is in trouble.
As your career matures, do you find yourself looking for roles with more depth?
I’ve been looking for roles with more depth constantly. It’s not like I’m only trying to do that now. You can only eat from what’s on the table. You get presented with opportunities and you either sit on the sofa or you go to work. Not everything is exactly what you want it to be. But you have to push through and try to make something great that was not necessarily perfect to start with. We’re always trying to push to do something good, and the opportunity comes when it comes. You’re always trying to work with better actors, better filmmakers, and each time you get presented with an opportunity you decide whether you want to do it or not. We’re constantly trying to strive for something good and of quality.
Which of your films are your personal favourites?
I had a great experience with Guy Ritchie with Lock, Stock and Snatch. They were an integral part of me getting started as an actor. Obviously me working with Luc Besson and Corey Yuen on the Transporter series was a real turning point for me getting into a starring position. Roger Donaldson on The Bank Job. And Redemption with Steven Knight. They were all great. But I had a bit of fun doing the Crank movies too. It was balls-to-the-wall mayhem for five weeks in LA. Obviously there’s an audience for that type of lunacy.
How do you feel you’ve changed as an actor since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels?
I’ve accumulated more experience. There’s no substitute for that, really. You learn so much each time. You learn a lot about the process of making a film and what works and what doesn’t, and you just get more confident. It really takes about 10 years to really know what you’re doing. But you’re always learning. You never know everything you need to know. You’re always figuring it out.
So were you just winging it in the beginning?
I’m still winging it now to a certain degree [laughs]. I’m not the sort of actor who’s spent hours in drama school or with an acting teacher or anything like that. I sort of just throw myself in at the deep end with a certain amount of commitment to the part and hopefully you have a really smart director who can give you something to do. Guy Ritchie years ago, when I did Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – he was the one who encouraged me not to go to drama school. I had no experience as an actor in any shape or form. But he said, “Look, there are two types of actors: the ones that have a technique and they hone that technique, and then there are others that are more of an instinctual sort of actor. And I think you’d be better off just going for that instinctual place and not try to clone yourself into doing what everyone else is doing.”
Before hooking up with Ritchie, did you ever think about acting?
Nah…I used to sell perfume and fake jewellery on street corners. That was the way I got a living. I used to sell from a milk crate outside Harrods with a suitcase of fake jewellery. Half a dozen shills in the crowd. When the police came, we would close up the case and, as we said, we would be “on our toes”. That’s what I did ever since I left school. I worked in the markets and I worked in the streets, hustling for money. Basically that’s all I ever knew. So I had no pipe dream about being an actor, because where is the opportunity for that with what I was doing? Light years away from me being able to even meet a director or meet the producer that was going to put me in a film. I think you have to resign yourself to what’s really available to you, and working in Hollywood wasn’t. So I just got on with what I was doing. I was making a living and putting decent money under the mattress and I was quite happy. I didn’t have a frustration about not being able to be an actor.
But you were also a successful athlete for much of that time.
I was high diving for Great Britain. I picked it up as a little hobby and I ended up doing quite well and travelling the world and competing for the country. But when I wasn’t training, I’d be down on the street corners selling fake jewellery for a living. So that was the combo, and that went on for years and years and years until I stopped messing around with the diving. I realised that I’d started too late, so it was sort of a dead-end job. I didn’t want to become a coach or anything like that. I thought I’d better give that one a miss and figure something else out. The market game and working on the streets was sort of fizzling out; a lot of the reasons for that I don’t really understand. So being in a position of being offered a job in a movie was just, you know, a right-place, right-time opportunity.
What would you be doing now if you had never met Guy Ritchie?
Oh dear, oh dear [laughs]. I would have a very different life. It would be very different indeed. All the people I used to work with on the streets, the market trading. Not market trading like stocks and shares, nothing like that. I’m talking about the open market where people on a Sunday go out and buy cheaper clothes or cheaper food. Basically the ’80s and ’90s British high streets. All those people that I used to know so well that used to make a good living are now really struggling. It’s basically a nonexistent way to make a living now. It’s really, really tough. Most of them are in a dark spot not making any money any more, so that would probably be me.
Can you still do your dives off the high board?
I don’t know…but I’d like to think it’s like riding a bike. It would be a few sessions before it would come back to me. But the orientation and that level of awareness are always inside you. I did a lot of tumbling, a lot of gymnastics, so you build that sixth sense, that aerial sort of feeling like a cat always lands on its feet. You kind of know where the ground is. And that doesn’t go away. It gives you a strong upper hand in terms of being confident in having certain skills and doing certain stunts because you have a great sense of balance, a great sense of confidence in that area. All those years of training that I thought would be lost into nothing have sort of come back in a certain way with what I do now when it comes to the stunts and fights.
How do you spend your time off ?
I learned to surf recently. I love skiing and I have a lot of friends that also like to ski. It’s a great social thing to go skiing and I really, really enjoy myself with good people. Doing an activity I always find is more fun than just sitting around boozing, which I’ve done a lot of as well. Which is what I tend to do a lot when I go back home [to London] and see all my good old pals.
You’re also into fashion, right?
I’ve always liked clothes. My mum was a dressmaker and my mum’s mum was a dressmaker, so when I was a kid they used to put me in the worst clothes ever. They used to make them rather than buy them. So at some point I thought, “You know what? I’m going to get my own stuff going.”
Are you a Savile Row type of guy?
Yeah. I buy my suits at Anderson & Sheppard, which are my favourite tailors. I get my shirts at Turnbull & Asser. And I get my shoes at George Cleverley. So all my fine tailored or appreciated belongings come from London.
How would you like to see your career play out?
I’m trying to imagine what the future holds and it’s such an unpredictable place, in the movie industry. People have flavours and they go off certain actors and they go off people all the time. You don’t know what your future holds in terms of public appreciation. All you can do is hope you make decent films and work with good people. The insurance and the safety net is to work with talented directors that know how to keep you safe. That’s why you see people like DiCaprio always running to work with Scorsese. Because you know that’s a good fucking bet. You know that he’s going to get the best out of you. He’s going to have the best writers, the best cinematographers, the best sound technicians. It’s like playing with the ultimate football team. More than likely you’re going to win the game. When you’re working with a team in the Premier League, you’re going to give the best of what you can and they’re going to bring the best out of you.
+Prestige Hong Kong