The toughest job in Hollywood is staying the toughest guy in Hollywood.
Unlike a dramatic actor, who only has to be serious, and a comedic actor, who only has to be funny, a tough guy has to be tough, and that isn’t easy.
British actor Jason Statham, recently anointed the “Toughest Guy in Hollywood” by a national magazine, has earned the title in such films as “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, “Snatch,” “The Transporter,” “Crank,” “The Italian Job,” “The Bank Job” and “The Expendables.” He no doubt will hold on to the crown Friday when his new movie opens.
In “The Mechanic,” a remake of the 1972 film starring legendary tough guy Charles Bronson, the 38-year-old Statham plays a hit man who takes on an apprentice (Ben Foster of “3:10 to Yuma” fame).
Statham, who also lends his voice to the 3D animated film “Gnomeo & Juliet,” which opens Feb. 11, is pretty much the opposite of what you might expect from a tough-guy actor. Although he seems as if he could handle himself in a dark alley (he is a former competitive diver on the British national team, and there are rumors of martial arts training), he is friendly, open and good-humored.
Relaxing in his Beverly Hills hotel suite, he talked about playing tough guys in movies, and what it takes to stay a tough guy in movies.
He discussed his controversial past, when he fast-talked people out of their money by selling cheap watches on London street corners, and explained why he still does his own stunts.
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER: You are reprising the role originally played by the ultimate tough guy. Do you think that Charles Bronson would ever have done a voice-over in an animated Disney film, or are you just a pale imitation of Bronson?
JASON STATHAM (laughs): Hey, at least I play a tough gnome.
Q. Are you a Bronson fan?
A. Oh yeah. My favorite movie of his is “Hard Times.” I love that movie. His relationship with James Coburn was great.
Q. Do you ever think about your place in that Hollywood tough-guy legacy?
A. It’s nice to be put in the same sentence as those guys, but that is an overly generous compliment. Those guys have made so many great movies, and I’ve been acting only 11 years, so there is a long way to go.
Q. I wasn’t trying to put you on the spot, but you’re the new guy. You’re the one who has inherited that mantle. That’s what it said on the cover of Men’s Journal.
A. I haven’t seen that yet.
Q. Interesting article.
A. Really? Is it bad?
Q. Not bad. The whole interview takes place in a bar. I was counting the drinks.
A. Was I drunk?
A. Oh my God (laughs).
Q. You didn’t embarrass yourself, but it’s pretty raw.
A. I don’t really drink much.
Q. Really? You could have fooled me.
A. No, I drink every once in a while. I’ll go months without a drink.
Q. Are you a mean drunk?
A. No, not at all. Just the opposite. I’m a happy drunk. Everybody has their loud days, and their quiet days. When I drink, it’s more of my loud days. But it’s all fun.
Q. This town can be brutal when it comes to letting an actor out of his comfort zone. Do you ever feel trapped by the tough-guy roles?
A. Actually, I think there’s something good in doing the same kind of roles. If you have a strength, you’re probably better off to do that than try to do something else you’re no good at. Some people are lucky to find their field. What I’m doing is what I love. I love action movies. I grew up on them.
Q. Do you watch other movies?
A. Sure. Last week, I saw two great movies. “The King’s Speech” was terrific. And I saw “The Fighter.” There are audiences for those kind of movies, and there are audiences for my kind of movies.
Q. Is there a side of you we haven’t seen yet that we might see after you’re done with action movies?
A. I don’t know. I’ve always been told that acting is a long road. I hope I have plenty of years ahead of me, so who knows what’s ahead? I hope my body holds out, but you never know. Nothing lasts forever.
Q. Then again, you just appeared in “The Expendables” with Sylvester Stallone?
A. (laughs). That’s right. He was throwing people around like they weighed nothing.
Q. I take it you admire Stallone?
Q. Who else do you admire in the action field?
A. I love Charles Bronson. I love Clint Eastwood. If I could have 10 percent of their careers, I’d be happy.
Q. You have been quite open about your past, when you were working the street corners of London. Are you sorry you have been so honest about that part of your life?
A. Not at all because it’s what I did. It’s what got me into movies. I wouldn’t be here today if Guy Ritchie (the director of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) hadn’t seen me and put me into his movies. He wanted me because of my selling jewelry on the street.
Q. So, there are no regrets?
A. No. But do you think my past has left a stain on my reputation?
Q. Not at all. In fact, it probably enriches your street cred as a tough-guy actor. It adds an air of mystery to you. It’s not like you were knocking over banks.
A. I guess you’re right.
Q. In your best roles, like “The Transporter,” you hardly talk. You’re the strong, silent type, which makes for the best action hero.
A. Yeah, I think I said three words in that movie (laughs).
Q. How did “The Mechanic” come into your life?
A. I read the original script from the Bronson movie. I signed on because of that script. I hadn’t seen a new script yet. They said they were going to make a few changes, but it would basically be the same. The ending is different, though.
Q. It is different, but it isn’t. And that’s important.
A. That’s right; it is but it isn’t. They modernized it, but it’s the same basic story.
Q. I assume you did your own stunts, as in all your movies?
A. Pretty much. It’s hard to stop me from doing stuff.
Q. The bigger you get, the more they will try to stop you.
A. They do try to stop me, but we kind of force them.
Q. What happens when they absolutely won’t allow you to do the stunts because of insurance concerns?
A. That’s when I switch to romantic comedies (laughs).
Q. What was the most serious stunt you did in this film?
A. The ones that look the most dangerous, like the high falls, aren’t. It’s the close-up stuff, like the fight scenes, that prove to be the most dangerous.
Q. Do you ever worry about the stunts?
A. Not when it’s up to me alone. But when other people are involved, like with explosions or car crashes and I’m not in control, then I might worry. You worry about a guy pushing a button too late, or making an unexpected turn.
Q. After a day of filming action scenes, are you sore like an athlete after a big game?
A. Definitely. Particularly on the fight scenes. You do like eight or nine takes.
Q. Why so many takes?
A. You’re usually not warmed up until the fourth take. It’s only then that you see the explosive power in the fight.
Q. Because of that, do you have to work out in anticipation of an action movie?
A. Absolutely. You have to be physically ready.
Q. Did you have any idea that “The Expendables” would be such a hit? And did you care?
A. Oh, I didn’t care. I was working with Stallone. It was a big deal for me. He’s the man. He’s the Robert De Niro of the action world.
Q. Speaking of De Niro, you just finished working with him on “The Killer Elite.” What was that like?
A. It was amazing. I can’t believe he was working in a movie with the likes of me.
Q. Do you learn from an experience like that?
A. He doesn’t come to teach you anything. But you learn constantly just by watching him and working with him. You know you’re in good hands. You see it in his eyes. You know it’s going to be convincing because there is no one better than him. Every second you survive with him, you gain confidence. I learned that working with people like that brings the best out of you.
Q. Did you share that excitement with anyone?
A. After the first day, I pulled the director aside and said, “I can’t believe we’re working with Robert De Niro.”