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Scott Adkins Interview: ‘Universal Soldier,’ Fighting Van Damme, and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Scott Adkins interview
Foresight Unlimited

If Scott Adkins isn’t the biggest action star in the world in five years, we as a society have failed.

Over the last half decade, Adkins has become a dependable stunt performer (he was Weapon XI at the end of ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’) and supporting baddie (he fought Matt Damon in ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ and played Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s toadie in ‘The Expendables 2‘) in mainstream films. His work harkens back to the action genre’s bygone glory days, when special effects and computer imagery took a back seat to raw physicality and brute force. Sadly, his only leading roles to date have been relegated to the direct-to-DVD bin, where he’s excelled in lean, low-budget martial arts flicks like ‘Undisputed III: Redemption.’

“I’m like the king of the low-budget sequel,” Adkins joked during our lively, candid conversation at Fantastic Fest. “People ask, ‘What film are you gonna do next?’ ‘I don’t know, but it’s probably got a 3 or 4 in the title.’”

True to his word, the film Adkins brought to Fantastic Fest is a sequel as well, the latest installment in the long-running ‘Universal Soldier’ franchise, ‘Day of Reckoning’ (read my full review here). He plays John, a man who awakens from a coma to find his family dead and his memories missing. He starts looking for answers and finds Luc Deveraux (Van Damme), the hero of the previous ‘Universal Soldier’s. But why did a former hero go off the grid? What does Deveraux want with a simple family man like John? And when is Adkins going to get to punch him in the face?

Not as quickly as you’d think. ‘Day of Reckoning,’ which will be Adkins’ first shot at theatrical stardom when it opens November 30, is a bit of a departure for the ‘Universal Soldier’ series. It features less action, and more horror and suspense than your typical film about reanimated battlefield dead. Though, members of the small but growing Adkins’ cult will still get their money’s worth, mostly thanks to a sequence where he takes on an entire compound of UniSols in a series of brilliantly choreographed long takes. It’s the sort of setpiece that could be accomplished much more easily (and much less impressively) with a lot of angles and some CGI. But Adkins, who grew up in those bygone glory days, says his love of the genre motivates him to keep working practically. “You don’t get the same feeling with visual effects,” he told me. “You don’t get to see the blood actually move the guy as it splashes off his face. As someone who grew up watching those action films from the ’80s, that’s the way I prefer them. It just looks better.”

I chatted with Adkins about working with his heroes, fighting in 3D, how he got cast in Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ and why he was disappointed with his big fight with Jason Statham in ‘The Expendables 2.’

Which came first: the desire to be an actor or the desire to be a martial artist?

I wanted to be an actor first because I grew up idolizing action stars. The first one for me was Bruce Lee, and then there was Stallone and Arnold, and then Van Damme came along in ’88 and really inspired me. I gravitated toward these physical guys, but I’m just a huge fan of cinema in general; for some reason, I’ve always appreciated the art of the fight sequence. I’m fascinated by it and passionate about it.

You fight both Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren in this movie. How does doing a fight scene with one compare to doing a fight scene with the other?

Dolph’s really easygoing. He’s a big guy and he likes his movements to be that of a bigger guy; a little bit slower and more powerful. So you need to address the choreography for Dolph. So it’s a flurry for me, and then a nice powerful movement from him. With Jean-Claude, to be honest, I have to dumb it down a little bit to cater for him, I’m afraid to say, because we’re from different eras. We do it faster, more like they do in Hong Kong these days. And when Van Damme came up, they were doing it the Western way. That’s a bit slower and a bit more step to step.

As a fan, it does seem like you’re held back a little by fighting these guys who come from that other era and have that older style. For me, the real highlight of the film is the sequence where you take down the whole compound of bad guys in long take and you can really let loose.

Yeah and that’s easier because you’re working with stuntmen who do that day in and day out. I mean there’s that great shot where I kick that guy in the head full force. Larnell Stovall, the fight coordinator, is this guy’s friend, and he says “I think you need to take one in the head. You going to be cool with that?” “Yeah man, I’m cool! Let’s do it!” WHACK! The camera angle was wrong on the first one, so we had do it again.

[laughs]

He was pretty dazed after that. But he’s a great, tough guy. I love stunt guys like that who are going to put it on the line for everyone’s entertainment.

How often does that happen, where someone says “Just hit me”?

Not often. But there are some stunt guys that are up for it. And I love that about them.

‘Day of Reckoning’ is in 3D. I’m sure that affects how you do the fight scenes.

It’s different for the cameraman, because it’s a much bulkier and heavier rig. Our Steadicam operator was bigger than Dolph — and we needed him to be that size because we used this massive, epic, RED camera rig.

Somebody told us that the viewer’s depth perception changes in 3D, so we have to get closer with the punches. Normally I’m going to put my fist right here [Adkins holds his hand about a foot from my face] and that’s going to sell. But they were saying, “No, you’ve got to get it here [Adkins moves his hand an inch from my face]. And now I’ve got [former UFC heavyweight champion] Andrei Arlovski shoving his fists in my face like that! It gets to the point where you just accept the fact that you’re going to get hit at some point and you’ve just got to get on with it.

After the screening here at Fantastic Fest, people were asking me which of your earlier movies they should seek out. And I have my favorites, but I was wondering what’s yours.

What’s your favorite?

‘Undisputed III’ is great.

That’s mine as well.

That’s the one you’d recommend people go back and find?

Yeah, because I’m good at playing that character and obviously the fight sequences are great in that movie because we got people like Marko [Zaror] and Lateef Crowder. [Director] Issac [Florentine] shoots it so well and Larnell’s such a great fight coordinator. We’re hoping to do another one.

Is that the plan? ‘Undisputed IV?’

That’s what I want. There’s a script for it. I think it’s going to happen. But I had knee surgery so I had to take some time off to let that heal.

You’re just a few years older than me, so we both grew up watching these movies: the Van Damme movies, the Jackie Chan movies. But I used to go to the movie theater to watch those guys, and that rarely happens anymore. This kind of action film still gets made, but it’s harder to find; you’ve got to seek them out on DVD or Netflix or VOD. What changed?

I think what changed was ‘The Matrix’ came along and all of a sudden Keanu Reeves knew kung fu. And then Matt Damon was kicking people’s asses as Jason Bourne. All of a sudden it became easier to get real Hollywood stars to do these fight sequences, so it kind of made people like me a bit redundant. So now you’ve got to be an actor first and an action guy second. But I think people miss seeing someone that can really do it. You can’t fake it, really. When you see someone doing it and that is what they are and they’re honestly expressing themselves, as Bruce Lee did, there’s something very powerful about that. I still seek it out, as do you. The problem is with the DVD market going the way it’s gone with piracy, we don’t have as long to make these types of movies. When I first started out, we’d get six or seven weeks to make a movie. Now it’s like three or four.

And how many years is that between when you started and now?

Five years.

And in five years, that much has changed because of piracy?

Yeah. These films don’t make any money, especially if they don’t get to go into theaters. They’re just going to get downloaded and they’re not going to make any money, so people need to make them cheaper, and therefore we need to shoot them in less days. You look at a film like ‘The Raid’ — which I love — that’s a 70-day shoot. That’s why the action is as good as it is. It was a cheap movie, because it’s cheap to shoot over in Indonesia, but they still had 70 days. ‘Universal Soldier,’ we had 30 days. And that’s good for that type of movie. ‘Assassination Games’ we had like 21 days, something stupid like that. ‘El Gringo,’ 21 days.

Fans of your kind of movies, these throwback direct-to-DVD action films, often have this very romantic notion of how they’re made — that you guys have smaller budgets but that in turn gives you more creative freedom. Is that true?

You mean in terms of “I’m going to make the movie I want to make, and you’re going to give me final cut” and stuff like that?

Yeah, basically. And also that they’re going to be a little more interesting than the big budget, mainstream action movie that cost $200 million.

Yeah, well it would be in your interest to make it more interesting. But, listen, when you’re making action films on a low budget it’s difficult because action is so time consuming. You need to get lots of different shots to edit together. If you’re making ‘Phone Booth’ and it’s a guy on the phone, just set up 10 cameras and let it roll like a play, and get it shot in a week or whatever. You can’t do that with an action film. There’s too many elements, too many shots to get.

So you’re really at the mercy of the schedule, especially when they’re constantly shrinking smaller and smaller.

For sure.

Speaking of mainstream action, how was your experience on ‘The Expendables 2′?

I was very happy to be part of it, and happy with how I came across in the film. I was able to be with the big boys and hold my own. What an honor to be with the people who have inspired you to do what you do. For me, it was like they were saying “Come on, join the club kid! You’ve earned your stripes. Let’s go do the big summer action film!”

I’ve been waiting to see a fight scene between you and Jason Statham for a long time.

Well that pissed me off.

I was curious about that fight, because I did find it a little underwhelming.

Well, listen, those producers are friends of mine and I want them to give me another job. But at the end of the day, what the hell are you doing giving me and Jason Statham two days for a fight scene, and then taking away half a day so you can film some sequence with [tennis star Novak] Djokovic hitting tennis balls at bad guys, which we knew would never be in the movie? People deserved to have a nice showdown at the end of that movie. If I was making it, it would have been different.

Your next project is Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ I imagine that was a pretty different experience than the stuff you’ve made before.

Yeah. I had that knee surgery, so I had to take time off from action stuff, and I just auditioned for the part like any actor would. They wouldn’t give me a script because it was all top secret, but it’s the kind of thing you don’t say no to. [Bigelow]‘s on the top of her game; her last film won her a Best Director Oscar. It was an amazing experience to work with her, and great to be with all these actors. Even the ones with small roles were such great actors, and everyone was elevating their scenes together.

Just as a film fan, I’m fascinated by the cast list. It’s hard to imagine you and Mark Duplass living on the same planet, much less appearing in the same movie.

Well, they didn’t know anything about me being a martial artist when they cast me.

Really?

Yeah, I just went in and auditioned and they liked it. Look, I’m by no means the star of the movie.

You’re not Osama Bin Laden. You can confirm that.

No, no. The beard didn’t fit.

[laughs]

But it’s an ensemble film and there’s loads of speaking roles in it, and I’m just happy to be a part of it.

Right now, you’re in your mid-30s, and when the first ‘Universal Soldier’ came out —

I was 16 years old, it was the first 18 certificate I ever snuck into. In England, if something’s rated 18, you just can’t go.

Not even with an adult?

Can’t even go with an adult, so I had to sneak in.

So when Van Damme made that one, he was roughly your age, just a couple years younger than you are. And he’s 51 now. When you’re 51, what do you hope your career looks like?

Oh God. If only I can be in Van Damme’s position, and still be getting paid to do something that I truly love to do. That’s the dream. I’m living the dream, and I just desperately hope no one takes it away from me.

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