Scott Adkins transformed his passion for 80s action entertainment into a lifelong pursuit for authentic cinematic adventures.
Scott Adkins is the real deal. Growing up as a child of the 1980’s found him idolizing the Hong Kong heroism of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as well as their Hollywood counterparts including Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme. At 14 he took up Tae Kwon Do and Kickboxing and then brought those skills with him to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. He was determined to join the ranks of his favorite ass-kickers, and when he was 21 he scored his first role in the Hong Kong action film, Extreme Challenge. After a few years squaring off against guys like Corey Yeun, Sammo Hung, and his childhood idol Chan, Adkins got serious notice as the terrifying brute Boyka in Undisputed II: Last Man Standing. This led to a string of low budget brawlers like Ninja, Close Range, Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning, and Savage Dog. While mainstream audiences may have missed these royal rumbles, action movie connoisseurs know that Adkins always delivers on his fight scene choreography. The authenticity and brutality of the 80s action scene is still alive and well on an Adkins set.
In recent years, the big budget behemoths have come calling to Adkins to add a little of that flavor to their productions. We’ve now seen him join ranks with Stallone in The Expendables 2, get tactical with Zero Dark Thirty, and battle it out on the astral plane of Doctor Strange. For American Assassin (made recently available on Digital HD and Blu-ray), director Michael Cuesta brought on Adkins to provide some serious physical veracity to Michael Keaton’s elite squad of killers.
The actor spoke with us recently from his home in England, just after a long day of intense ADR work. The second he’s done with one flick he’s on to three more. We chat about Dylan O’Brien’s tenacity for combat training, being a ghost for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the legendary battle cries of Bruce Lee.
So just jumping right into it, my wife is a huge fan of yours. I am too, of course, but we just watched Savage Dog earlier this year, and she immediately put you in her stable of baes.
(Laughter) Oh yeah.
I guess I’m happy that you’re in England and not here.
(More laughter) Yeah, I’m in England. Actually, I’ve got a very gruff throat because I was actually doing ADR today, earlier today, for another, yes another, action film. I’ve done that much screaming and shouting in these five sequences I did that I’ve destroyed my voice. These are the perils of being an action star, my friend.
Well, then I’m even more appreciative that you’re talking to me today. Thank you. My wife and I watched American Assassin together the other night, and she was very disappointed that you didn’t completely devastate Dylan O’Brien when you were at Michael Keaton’s backwoods compound. You had to have been holding back a lot in that fight.
Well, that’s what I do, isn’t it? That’s my job is to hold back. I started off as the whipping boy for action stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li so I’m used to … Well, they would employ me so that they could trust that I wasn’t going to hit the main actor. They put me with Hugh Jackman, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, whoever, Van Damme. Part of the reason why I got the job is that I was a good stunt fighter and they could trust me to do that part of the job, so yeah, that’s what I do.
But I have to say, Dylan, he’s not known for being an action star, but when we got there to rehearse the fight scenes, we had quite a few days set out for us to rehearse this fight sequence together and he nailed it within two meetings, two training sessions. By the end of the second training session, the stunt coordinator, Buster Reeves, was like, “Well, I guess you can do it then, so we’ll just go home,” because he picked it up really easily. Dylan’s really good. Dylan’s got control. Dylan didn’t hit me.
You’ve been dominating badass genre cinema for the last 10 years with flicks like Ninja, Ninja 2, the Undisputed films, but lately you’ve stepped into movies like Doctor Strange and American Assassin. You kick a little ass and then you depart. How is that different for you compared to stuff like Savage Dog or Close Range?
Well, I’ve got my films that are a little less, or a little low budget, and I’ll have the lead in these ones. I love those films, and they do a great job with them. I work so hard to make it the best we possibly can, but of course, it’s nice to get on these bigger budget movies and it’s a little bit easier, a little bit more comfortable. Of course, I end up doing a little bit less, but that’s the trade-off for me. Listen, I’m a jobbing actor. I love to work. Sometimes these jobs come up, like American Assassin was a last minute thing really.
I got the call, I did a quick audition, they offered me the part. I didn’t really know much about the book, but I felt this is a character that I can play, and who doesn’t want to go and work with Michael Keaton, and of course Dylan and Taylor? So you jump on and you try and play the part, and you try and get the director what he needs. Then you move onto the next. Yes, I’d love to be starring in bigger budget movies.
Well, what I appreciated about Victor, your character in American Assassin, is that he’s supposed to be this antagonistic foil to Dylan O’Brien, but once they’re in the field, they’re in Rome, they operate as a unit. The antagonism kind of falls away. What was your goal for Victor? How do you want the audience to perceive him- or are you even thinking about the audience on set?
I think what we wanted to convey is that Victor has come up through the ranks as the military. He’s a special forces guy, maybe a Navy Seal. He’s graduated from this program where he’s going to be trained to be an assassin for the American government. What we’re trying to convey is that Dylan’s character, he doesn’t have the boundaries that the military types have been given.
We’re trying to say how you could spot these guys a mile away because the training that they’ve been through is embedded within them, but whereas with Dylan’s character, he’s come up to this point through a different way, from the tragedy that happened in his life.
He doesn’t have any of the baggage of being a Navy Seal, a military guy, anything like that. That, in effect, makes him a better assassin. Anyway, so my job really was to create a formidable soldier, that type of character, and in any other movie, he’s going to get the job done but in this one, it doesn’t go so well for him.
Well, I can’t help but feel the authenticity you bring to that tactical unit that other actors just don’t.
Well, I’ve got the physical side of things, obviously, and I’ve done many films now where I’m wielding a gun or running around trying to be an English or American special forces operative. Yeah. Actually, I learned a lot when they sent us on this movie because what was great was they had a military adviser, Yost, that’s trained Dylan, Taylor, myself and Shiva. The gun tactics, how to move around and clear car doors and break the gun down, and move throughout the rooms and all this, which was invaluable information, which I’ll take onto any other film I do in the future now. It’s just about learning. It was worth it for me.
Now, looking back the last couple years, looking specifically at the hospital fight with Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange, that has to be one of the most unique set-pieces in recent memory, certainly within the Marvel movies. Can you talk about the challenges in preparing for something so effects-heavy compared to the physical combat that you see in American Assassin?
It took forever. It was on a green screen. Well, it’s not even a green screen. They’ll build green furniture, green walls, green shelves, green-like shapes that fit in with the real room that you’re meant to be in. There’s a long of hanging around on wires, which is always a bit uncomfortable. Sometimes I’d work with Benedict, sometimes I’d work with his stunt double, sometimes he’d work with my stunt double. Sometimes I’d be kicking a tennis ball, sometimes I’d be pretending to kick him.
There are many different ways to do it, and we started the sequence early on in the movie and continued to be called in to tweak different things throughout the making of the film. But you worked with a pre-viz that’s already been designed and conceptualized, and your job with the director is to bring this pre-viz to life. It was interesting, but yeah, you get sick of the green at some point, and the wires.
Is that as creatively fulfilling as the stuff that you do in other films?
It was nice to do. As far as doing it all the time? I’ve missed just having to fight the way we normally do it. It’s fulfilling when you see the finished product, obviously, because you’ve kind of got no idea really what it’s going to look like until you sit down in the cinema and you see it. That’s very gratifying when you see it up there on the screen. You’re effectively a ghost in a Marvel movie, it’s cool. It’s all smoke and mirrors, it was a fun experience.
You tend to do a lot of your own stunts. Again, it goes back to that authenticity that you bring, but do you ever say, “Well, that’s too crazy,” or “I’m not going to do that”?
What, with the stunts? To be honest, I’ve never been asked to do a stunt that I’ve said, “No, I’m not going to do that,” because I’m an actor. The producers aren’t going to put me in that position. I’ll do as much as I can until somebody says, “No, no. We can’t let you do that.” Then I have to say, “Well, okay. I better not be too silly.” Of course, if you get hurt, look at what happened to Tom Cruise on Mission Impossible recently. He broke his foot, so they have to shut down the production now. He’s the producer, and they can’t possible move forward to do that.
But if you’re working on a film that I’m starring in, which has got a four-week or six-week shoot, you’re shutting down nothing if you hurt yourself. In fact, I have hurt myself on other films and I’ve just had to suffer through it. Once the train leaves the station, there’s no stopping it. They remind me this. So I’ll just do as much as I can, but I’ve never turned anything down. I think the people around me know when to tell me not to do something, to be honest. It’s part of the fun, you know. I like putting myself in harm’s way. You get a good adrenaline rush.
It’s certainly fun for the audience to see it.
Yeah. Of course, I want the audience to know that they’re seeing a legitimate action performer as well, so as much as I can do, I’d like to do it.
You grew up obsessing over the same action heroes that I did, guys like Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Lee. Can you talk about the attraction to that specific brand of entertainment?
Well, I just always gravitated to those amateurs that did their own stuff. That physicality read so well on screen, whether it was Bruce Lee or Stallone or Charlie Chaplin or Howard Lloyd. Anyone that was sharing a bit of physical dexterity on the screen or even just being a chest guy with their muscles out, for whatever reason as a kid in the 80s, I really gravitated towards those guys. Growing up in the 80s, there was that action man boom and that was a big part of … Those guys were the guys I looked up to, so I wanted to emulate that. It didn’t necessarily stay that way to be honest. When you have these tough guys, and their stunts were real, and there was less CGI, when you watched these guys you knew you were watching the real deal.
There’s not many like that anymore, but of course we understand why that is with the advances in digital and CGI. Obviously, it’s nice to make films in a safer environment for stunt guys and all the rest of it, but there’s a certain thrill to seeing something done for real when you know it’s real.
Nothing compares to that. Even if it’s like in First Blood and you’ve got the guy jumping off the cliff into the trees. You know it’s a stunt guy and you know he’s going into an airbag, but the fact that a stunt guy had done that, it’s much more exhilarating to see that.
Right, absolutely. Look at Bruce Lee. He was the real deal. I know you had a shrine devoted to him as a kid, and he’s certainly an epic figure within the landscape.
Well, yeah. He’s the ultimate martial artist, and he’s the godfather of martial arts. He bust it open in the 70s, made it an international, world-wide thing. Some people didn’t even know what martial arts was before him. So he’s the poster boy, and rightfully so. You can study his teachings, his philosophy. You can study the martial arts he was creating. You can watch him as a film actor, and just enjoy the physical presence that he has on screen, the charisma. You can marvel in how he came up with the idea to make these crazy cat noises when he’s fighting.
It’s absolutely absurd if you think about it and you listen to it. What in God’s name is he doing? (Replicates the Bruce Lee scream) WHHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It is insane, but yeah, it worked so well. So much of what he did was so original. When you get people like him, you think of people that are as original as him, you think of not that many but you think of guys like Michael Jackson or, I don’t know, Muhammad Ali. He’s a pure icon of martial arts. There will never be anyone better than him. In some ways, I think because he died young, that made him obviously even bigger than probably if he’d lived longer. He might’ve made some mistakes somewhere or whatever, but because he died young, he’s held up as this bright shining star of not only martial arts but the film world.
And now you’ve acted alongside these icons in Expendables 2 and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. You stepped into the Hard Target franchise. How surreal is that for you?
Well, yeah. Expendables was brilliant. A Badge of Honor, it’s like Stallone saying, “Welcome to the club. You’ve earned your stripes as a tough guy. Come on and be in the Expendables 2,” so that was amazing. Hard Target 2 was something that I was really not sure whether I could do it or not because I had already been associated with Van Damme, and I already starred in some Van Damme sequels or with Van Damme. He’s like, “Oh, what? Another one?”
But when they showed me the script, and when they spoke to me about what character they needed, I have to say it was like, “Well, honestly, I am the best guy for this job.” I couldn’t think of anyone better suited to play this part. So I went ahead and did it, but with some trepidation I must admit.
Because it’s a tough act to follow Hard Target. John Woo was my favorite director. Van Damme was my favorite actor at that point when that film was released, so I’m literally making the sequel to one of my favorite movies when I was 16, 17, however old I was when that film came out. It’s cool to do, but at the same time, it was big shoes to fill.
(Lionsgate Moderator Interrupts with the two-minute warning)
Brad, you’ve got to ask me about Accident Man. You’ve got to!
(Laughter) Don’t you worry, that is definitely my last question, because I know you are returning with Savage Dog’s Jesse Johnson, and you’ve stepped behind the keyboard to write it. What is that experience? This is coming directly from you.
Yeah. Absolutely. This is based on a British comic book that I found when I was 15. In the local news agents, I always believed it’d make a great movie. I expected somebody to make that movie, they never did, and it was my dream that one day I could make this film and play Mike Fallon, the Accident Man. So I optioned to write it with my own money, and I wrote the script with my best friend from school, Stu Small. He’s an aspiring script writer. I figured, “Well, we’ll just work on it for a bit, and then maybe at some point we’ll get a real writer to come in and finish it,” because we didn’t have the money at the time.
But we ended up with a screenplay that we sold to Sony, and we were able to make the movie. It’s coming out February 5th, 2018. I’m insanely proud of the film. It has got my personality written all over it. It’s the quintessential Scott Adkins film. It’s very British. It’s full of martial arts, obviously, but it’s very quirky and different as well. It’s almost like Snatch meets Fight Club meets Enter the Dragon. It’s a wild one, but I’m very, very proud of it.
Well, I just watched the trailer for it and it’s a great trailer. I can’t wait. Looks bonkers.
Yeah, it’s a really cool film. Very happy with it. I think people are going to be very surprised.
You’ve also got Triple Threat coming around the corner, and that’s got an amazing cast as well.
Yeah, I wanted to work with Tony Jaa for so long. I’m really happy that we got to do that, and it was also amazing to work with Tiger Chen and Iko Uwais from The Raid who’s such a funny lad. It doesn’t come across when you watch him in the film, but to me, that kid, man he’s a hell of a lot of fun and a great guy.
Of course, Jesse Johnson is directing Accident Man and Triple Threat. Also, I have a film coming out called The Pay Up which Jesse also wrote and directed, and that is coming out great as well. I’m so excited about that film. It’s about two debt collectors, a day in the life, and that is a very unique and different film for me as well, so I’m proud of that one.
Scott, thanks so much for chatting with me today. Now go rest that voice.
Thanks Brad. Thanks a lot, mate. All the best.
American Assassin is out now on Digital HD, 4K, Blu-ray and DVD.