Jackie Chan may be a martial arts legend, but he admits he could use a break from the stunts.
The 63-year-old actor says he had been searching for more dramatic roles when the perfect project arrived in the form of The Foreigner, a thriller based on a 1992 novel titled The Chinaman by Stephen Leather about a despondent immigrant who sets out to hunt down those responsible for the London terrorist attack that killed his daughter. Chan leaped at the opportunity to play Quan, the soft-spoken-but-deadly antihero, even if it meant some new bruises along the way. “I’m too used to injuries,” he admits. “But if I want to keep making movies, I have to change.”
EW spoke with Chan in July about filming the action-drama opposite Pierce Brosnan (who plays British government official Hennessy, a man who knows more about the bombing than he lets on) and getting a chance to flex his acting muscles along with his literal ones. (Note: This interview was conducted in Mandarin, and has been translated below.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to The Foreigner, to doing a drama?
JACKIE CHAN: To put it simply, I’m not young anymore. [Laughs] If I still want to keep making movies, I have to be, like, an Asian De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, or Clint Eastwood, who at 80 can still be actors. When you think about it, in Japan, Hong Kong, China, U.S., there are so many action stars, but a lot of them now are no longer working.
So that’s why I’m saying I have to change. After all these decades, I’m sure you’ll understand, I’m always changing, looking for a good story. I believe that after these years the audience will understand that Jackie Chan is an actor and no longer just an action star, just a kung fu star. So today I’m still working in action, and it’s not easy, but if I want to keep making movies, I have to change.
What about the story itself attracted you to this role? Did you read the novel?
Yes. A few years ago, the screenwriter was talking to me about the story, and he said to me, “If you don’t do this role, no one can.” And I really liked the story, I liked the character. He’s someone who’s been through a tough past, but found a comfortable life and stays out of trouble, he retired and he doesn’t want to let anyone know about his past, but very sadly, he meets another tragedy. Because of that, he has to rely on his old skills and use them to protect other innocent people, and take revenge on what happened to his daughter.
But even then, this method of revenge isn’t good either, you know? It’s not the best solution. I hope through this film people will understand that violence shouldn’t be the only answer. You can’t say, you screwed with me and now that you’ve done that I’m going to also hurt your people. That’s not right either.
A lot of the stunts in The Foreigner aren’t huge set pieces, but smaller, hand-to-hand combat scenes that take place in corridors and confined spaces instead of, say, through entire hotels or major landmarks.
Yes, because at this age, that helps with my work. And I play the owner of a restaurant in the film, who has spent many years not moving around… So my fighting style in this has to be believable. He’s old, so in the beginning I’m walking slowly. And after I set out for vengeance, then I could start to bring out the force of my fighting style. Just, depending on what scene it is or situation it is, you have to match your fighting style to it.
How intense were those fight scenes? Any injuries?
I’m too used to injuries. To me, if you don’t end up in the hospital, then those don’t count as injuries. [Laughs] That happens very little, but of course, I definitely got some in this; they always happen when you do action films.
Let’s talk about your character a little more. He’s a father who decides to hunt down the terrorists who bombed an ordinary street in London, killing his daughter (Katie Leung). Why do you think a story like this, adapted from a novel published in 1992, is important to tell now?
Because when you look at these past decades, how many innocent people have been killed by bombings and by terrorism? They were innocent, and it’s devastating, and I hope this film will open hearts and help people see that they shouldn’t hurt people and shouldn’t do anything like this. Through The Foreigner, and through the music I write, I want to make it clear that it’s devastating to see so many innocent people hurt in these attacks. Why isn’t it possible for the world to find peace? We can’t let a small group of people hurt this many people. That’s why I filmed this…. The Manchester bombing hadn’t happened yet when we were filming. After we finished, it happened. And something like what happened in Manchester, around there, all around the world, in every corner, things like that are happening.
So filming this was a chance to talk about peace. We, all of us, need peace, in order to build a peaceful world and live a peaceful life. I filmed that, and then I looked around and saw there were bombings everywhere…. I really think, if what I do can help spread peace, then I’m happy! I hope that this movie, after people see it, hopefully there will be fewer bombs, maybe it’ll take away one or two. Even that I feel like would be a positive effect on the world.
Well, speaking of bombs, Quan does build quite a few intricate homemade ones throughout the film to threaten the officials keeping information from him. Was there someone on set who helped you through those sequences?
Yes, on set, there was an expert who taught me.
Wait, so you know how to build a bomb?
Oh, no, no, no. I don’t know how to build them, that’s way too hard. [Laughs] It’s just for appearances.
What was it like working with Pierce Brosnan and director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale)?
Martin is, out of all the directors I’ve met over the years and worked with over the years, one of the most hard-working directors I’ve met. Really! He’s even more hard-working than I am. [Laughs] He works hard, he’s always prepared.
Pierce Brosnan, well, he’s excellent, very focused on his work. He’s an actor who, I’ll tell you this, there was one day he woke up at 6 [in the morning] and got dressed and ran lines and trained with me and then I said, “Okay, now you’re off to hair and makeup?” And he said, “No, I’m going back to bed,” and I said “What?! You came here just to help me rehearse?! Wow!” I was very emotional; I mean these days, how many actors are there who would do that for you? So I felt, I thought my partners and collaborators were very professional, very hardworking. I was very happy.
Did it ever cross your mind that you were in scenes with a former James Bond?
No, we’re just two actors… I’ve met him before, actually. We were in Africa together once for Miss World [in 1993, when Chan was a judge and Brosnan a presenter], but I never thought we’d get a chance to work together. And I remember through Michelle Yeoh, I’ve also met him, so I’m very happy to get to work with him. On set, he could teach me and help me with my English, and when it came to fighting, I would help him. We worked together really well.
What’s next for you, after this film?
I hope every year I can get to make different films and do different things, maybe voice more animated films, or make films where you see me doing things you haven’t seen me try before, or even ones where you see me do familiar things. And on top of that, I want to continue singing songs. It’s all to demonstrate that I can do more [than fighting]. I hope the more you see me, the more you can understand that I’m capable of many things.
The Foreigner arrives in theaters October 13.