Michael Jai White is a lover and a fighter. The career martial-artist kicks in the small screen both directing and starring in the sequel to the mixed martial arts flick, Never Back Down. The straight to DVD sequel, Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown, finds White reprising Djimon Hounsou role as a fight instructor passing on valuable lessons to some young men with a myriad of problems.
White is also in production for the animated version of his popular Blaxploitation film, Black Dynamite. Adult Swim will be airing the series at the top of 2012. But since man can’t live by kicking ass alone, White will also be reprising his role as Marcus in the Why Did I Get Married TV spinoff, “For Better Or Worse.”
TheUrbandaily spoke with Michael Jai White to learn more about his real-life knuckle game, why he took on this movie and if fighters like Kimbo Slice are good for the sport of MMA.
TUD: Why do a sequel to Never Back Down?
MJW: I thought I could provide an inside look at the subject matter. Many times I’ve seen martial artists depicted in films but not truthfully. I owe a lot to the martial arts. This movie had a quarter of the budget and time of the original, but I offer more of an inside look, an almost documentary type of style look into the martial artist and this growing sport.
What is your background in martial arts?
I’ve been a black belt since I was 13 years old. I’ve studied seven different martial arts and currently on my eighth. It’s something I’ve studied my entire life and been committed to and it enhanced my life in several ways. I’ve been a competitor, an instructor and made my living doing martial arts and I’ve supported myself as an actor. Having a chance to fuse those things together was a great opportunity.
What was it like balancing your directorial duties with the demands of fight scenes?
Like in the first movie, I’m playing Djiamon Honsou’s role and he fought even less. With me there is this expectation of seeing me fight. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I have to show my kicks. I did a rewrite and added a lot of the insight of the fight world and bumped up the humor. Thinking about it as the writer I understood I needed to do some fights. The reality of that fact that I’d have to do these fight scenes and direct the rest of the day didn’t dawn on me until the days I had to do it. I was sparring with Lyoto Machida unchoreographed and I was like ‘what the hell are you doing?” He’s gonna leave, shower up and rest and I still have to direct. I created the fight scene where the guy fights against cops with just his feet while he’s handcuffed. That’s a hard enough thing to do when you’re not directing the damn movie. It’s something to laugh at now.
In a pivotal part of the film one of your students goes rogue. Have you had the experience of someone you taught abusing what they learned?
That happens all the time. My instructor could tell you that. I was one of those people. It’s not like I joined martial arts for any respectable reasons. I wanted to be able to beat people up and not get in trouble for it. I started it because I loved to fight but it balanced me out and taught the principles of Martial Arts. It adjusted my attitude and taught me discipline. It’s not about violence, it’s about control and conquering yourself. That’s a big message in the movie. One issue I had with the first movie it almost taught that anger was a secret weapon, when it’s not. In fact, the more angry you are the least control you have.
There is a popular Youtube video of you with Kimbo Slice, who was a successful street fighter that didn’t cut it in the pros. Does someone like that help or hurt the sport of MMA?
People like that help the sport ultimately because they get more eyes glued into it. Someone like Kimbo really educated people to the fact that you can’t just leap into something. You have to do your homework. I think that’s a great message. There is no real fast track for hard work. It all balanced out in the end.
Pretty soon we will at least get to see your animated self get his hands dirty. Where are you in production with the “Black Dynamite” animated series?
It’s going to be out the top of the year. Funny thing, is I was just doing a voice for it today, actually. The episodes are really funny and people are going to really enjoy them. The sky’s the limit with animation. If Dynamite threatens to put his foot up your ass he can literally do it.
Another one of your characters, Marcus, does more verbal sparring than physical. Tell me about the Why Did I Get Married spinoff, “For Better Or Worse.”
In the movie you have four different couples and you only see the bickering times between Marcus and Angela. But it makes sense when you see them hugged up watching their favorite football team together. You get a chance now to see the other side of those characters to see where the love comes from. I know characters like this where they speak on an animated level, but they make sense in some kind of way. They are the only two people for each other. The series will make sense of it. In the second movie they are the couple with the least problems. But because they bicker it makes you think there is more at steak.
Lastly, you were one of the last people to work with the late Heath Ledger. What was he like on the set of The Dark Knight?
He was a really nice guy. Sometimes it upsets me when people speculate that he was this method actor that got too deep into his character. We traded magic tricks between takes. It was the goofiest stuff you could imagine. He was a regular guy, easy going. He played with teh character. He was not full of himself at all, very generous. There was no occult that occurred during that movie. He passed away working on his next movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor. I think he made the mistake of double-dosing on the same type of medicine. I’ve come close to making the same mistake. It’s not about drug addictions. Some people have problems sleeping and they naturally up their dose, but if you get an unexpected injury and take a pain killer not thinking it’s similar medicine. If my wife wasn’t a doctor I could have made the same mistake. This happened a few years ago. Sometimes I’ll want to catch up on sleep and take an Tylenol PM. At the same time I’ll take a Motrin for my injury and she said “no! you can’t do that.” Two things that seem harmless. It wasn’t lethal, but it wasn’t safe. That’s how easy it is to make that mistake. Plus there is no accounting for how many people have passed away from that same mistake. It’s far more common than you may think.
Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown is available on DVD now!