Ray Park and Martial Arts: Part 1
From China to Star Wars and beyond
by Dr. Craig D. Reid
When you first meet Ray Park he's a very unassuming lad, quick to toss you a joke or give you a hand. Kind, peaceful and energetic, it's what martial artists are partially supposed to be made off. Kungfumagazine.com sat down with Ray to speak about his film career and his martial arts. Although his latest film BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER didn't do well at the box office, it hasn't dampened his spirits. But you certainly can't blame Ray for that debacle. In fact, the final version (which was re-cut and re-edited by somebody at Warner Brothers), is so far removed from the original director's cut that if you ever see that one, you'll love the film. Politics in film runs as rampant as in the White House, where the American public and audience are really like the Sergeant Schultz? of life, "We hear and know nuzzing." But Park tells us all he knows.
Speaking with Ray, I quickly learn that we have several things in common: We're both serious martial artists from Scotland but raised in England, do fights for film and have a parallel sense of wacky humor. One major difference however, is that when I acted in Chinese films and TV, I was usually the villain, the token white guy in plain view getting my butt kicked by the Chinese hero. Park on the other hand plays wonderfully dramatic villains caked or cloaked in make-up, hidden from view, so if you saw him in the street you'd never know him. His appearance in STAR WARS: EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE as Darth Maul was indeed the martial art centerpiece of the whole film, and his prowess in the current ECKS VS. SEVER also brings his wushu kungfu background to the front.
Ray jovially notes, "I used to get 11 pounds 50 pence a week for my paper route (about $18), and every Saturday when I got paid, I'd go buy my "Beano" (A British comic book) and "Martial Art Illustrated" which sometimes had special edition Bruce Lee posters inside. I mean, I had Bruce Lee all over my walls, and I used to photocopy Jet Li pictures and put those up too. My brother had women all over his walls, all these sexy goddesses, yet I had all these martial artists. So I'd lie in bed with my head phones on for hours looking at the pictures imagining doing that stuff.
"I actually gave up my engineering career to train martial arts. My dad was an electrician. And I went to college. As I was in my third year, I only had one year left and I could have been an electrician, but I went to China to compete in the World Wushu Championships and got a gold and two silvers. And I thought, 'Wow, I beat the Malays and the Chinese,' but I really didn't feel like I beat the Chinese. I mean I won but didn't feel proud because I really felt like I still wasn't the best. I just wanted to train full time, so I gave up everything and trained."
Or has luck would have it, his dreams of becoming the penultimate martial artist took a turn when the chance arose to be in Robin Shou's MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION.
"I've always wanted to do get into film, ever since I can recall watching the WATER MARGIN and MONKEY MAGIC on TV (two Chinese literature classics adapted into TV kung-fu soap operas for Hong Kong TV.) And my dad was into that as well, a big fan of Bruce Lee. It wasn't until we moved to London when I was 7 when I got a chance to do Chinese martial arts. My dad didn't want me to do karate or stuff like that, he wanted me to start like Bruce Lee did. So I found a school when I was in London and that's how I got started in movies.
"In my teens, I'd heard of Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton, world class martial artists that got recognized in Hong Kong film and that's what I wanted to do -- get recognized for doing martial arts in Hong Kong movies, and then do films later in America. Never thought I'd end up in Hollywood first."
Park's foundation in martial arts is Northern Shaolin kung-fu, specifically the Ching Wu style which of course Bruce Lee plays as the senior student of Huo Yuan Jia's (aka Fuk Yun Gap) Ching Wu school in CHINESE CONNECTION.
"I didn't know that when I started," he confesses, "It wasn't until I was about 16 and went to Malaysia that I found out, 'Hey, I got a bit of history here.' I just wanted to learn more about the style. I wanted to train in China but there was just too much politics going on over there at the time, so I ended up training in Malaysia. I had just competed in the World Championships there in 93, came in fourth, felt I could have done better. I was getting frustrated because I wanted to get into film. So I decided to return to London and got a call from a guy I knew, a stuntman, who told me a film called MORTAL KOMBAT was holding auditions. I went there with all my sticks and swords and treated it like a competition. But I felt awkward because everyone there were stuntmen, and I'm not a stuntman but a martial artist and that's what I do."
Most people at the audition did the usual stuff but Park decided to liven things up a bit and started doing flashy moves, flips, spins -- the whole Jet Li routine. Although the filmmakers liked it, his British stuntmen counterparts felt threatened.
"They (the filmmakers) had to convince the stuntmen union why they should hire me over a stuntman because of skills they couldn't do," Park recalls. "However, the stunt coordinator got sacked, and there's a story behind that, which I don't know about. I was left in an awkward position and was told I should leave because he's leaving and I said, 'I don't know.' I got a lot of flack about it.
"But you know, I gave up all my classes. I mean, I was teaching lots of gymnastic and martial arts classes in the London area in schools, it's actually part of the curriculum, and had a good rapport with all the schools in the area. I'd teach and only charge 1 pound a session and give 50 pence per kid to the school and I'd keep the other 50 pence, (about $0.75) and told everyone that the money is so I can go to China. And so all the schools supported me because of that. But I gave that up because I thought I'd be doing this film for 6 months. So if I leave the film, I have nothing."
Besides being influenced by Shou?s great interest in using him for the film, it was his father that ultimately pointed Park in the right direction. A reminiscent nod reflects that he is reliving the moment, that father and son talk we all hope to have at critical moments in our life. "I spoke to my dad," he reflects, "broke down and cried and I didn't know what to do. He slapped me on the side of the head saying, "What do ya think yerr dooin (remember his dad is Scots), een if ya do one film, yerr not a stuntman, whoo is going too tell ya, yoo'll ne'er work agin." Because I was threatened that I would never work again. He said I should have a go because you never know what is going to happen. So I phoned Robin, felt awkward, but asked if I could have the job. Robin was really cool about it and I was back on set and able to show him more of my stuff. I think he liked my wushu background. I ended up doubling for Raydon and that took me to Jordan and Thailand. Of all the people hired as doubles, I was the only one that did the whole shoot. I learned a lot on that set, air rams, wire work and doing stunts. I remember the American stunt coordinator Pat Johnson told me if I can't do something, tell him and he can get someone but I told him that although I'm not a stuntman, I'll give 110 percent and I won?t let him down because I won?t let myself down."
Soon after completing MORTAL KOMBAT, things just took off as he received a phone call from well known British stunt coordinator, Nick Gillard, who was gearing up to do PHANTOM MENACE.
Ray remembers, "Nick asked me to come down and have a chat with him. So I took all my weapons and poles with me, like I did before. The talk went very well and I didn't have to do anything. I felt cool and confident. He wanted to a do fight between a Sith and a Jedi, showed me some of stuff and that the Sith was going to have this double edged light sabre. As I'm studying the storyboards, I'm thinking, ?I can do this character.? I loved the look, that manga sort of thing. I said I wanted to do it but never thought it would happen to me."
But during the filming of the fight scene, he made a mistake during the choreography which seemingly unsettled Gillard who immediately stopping the filming. Park thought it was all over.
"I was frustrated," Park frowns, "I wanted to do fancy sword stuff like I had been doing for years. The way it worked out was I playing the Sith character all through the week, and they'd have me do the motions, like kendo, samurai style of swordplay. Then by accident, I did this block by spinning around then followed with a spinning strike. He said, 'What did you do?' I'm like, 'Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' and he said, 'No, I like it, do what you are comfortable with.' So then I began doing all this one handed stuff and started putting in butterfly twists and worked from there.
"At the end of the week we shot the fight scene. I put on this ball cap because I didn't want to shave my head at that time, and they covered me with that makeup and had me pretending to be the Sith. I was all black, then there was a jedi, and they cut it together with music and effects and it really looked good. That actually became my audition tape. Then I got a call from Rick McCallum saying I got the part. I got that call in my car as I was on my way to a demonstration. I was so excited I had to pull over. So then I got to the demonstration and I was doing back to back routines, butterfly twists, rolling splits, standing up head springs, zipping around and all the guys are all going "Woo, woo, woo" (like Arsenio Hall used to do). I didn't tell them I got the part. We spent 6 weeks rehearsing and I was on set shooting for about 6 weeks in Leavesdon Studios in London. It's an old factory place where they shot GOLDENEYE."
Every day the makeup process took over two hours only to have the knobby projections on his head constantly fall off which were soon replaced, though with real lumps. As he rubs his head he laughs, "Fortunately they didn't come off during the actual fights but I have these two lumps on my head, one here and another one back here, where I got clobbered. What happened is that the strikes pushed the prosthetics down into my scalp and so it bled. The ones on the back were the most dangerous ones because I had to do back falls, so landing on my head on one of those prosthetics could have been dangerous."
But what about the reports that during some of the fight scenes in the film, a computer generated, cyber stuntman was used? Were they true? He looks me in the eye...click...my tape runs out and I ask him to hold on while I change the tape.
And so ends Part I of our interview. In part two we'll discover the truth about Darth Maul, what really went on behind the scenes of his headless horseman character in LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW and his frogman action in X-MEN, a few words on Lucy Liu in ECKS VS. SEVER, and a closing comment on his martial arts philosophy.
Tune in next time?
About Dr. Craig D. Reid:
Dr. Craig D. Reid is a writer and martial artist based in Los Angeles, CA.