Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: An accomplished martial artist, Michael Jai White worked his way up from bit roles and stunt work, landing his first big break playing Mike Tyson in the 1995 made-for-HBO biopic Tyson. Since then, he’s become the definition of a fan favorite: an actor with serious charisma, geeky tastes, and a goofy sense of humor, all of which are on full display in the blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite, which he co-wrote and starred in. White has built up a diverse resume, ranging from blockbusters and sitcoms to animated series and low-budget action movies from the Troma production company. Most recently, he can be seen playing opposite Dolph Lundgren and Tony Jaa in Skin Trade.
Skin Trade (2014)—“Reed”
The A.V. Club: Did you take the role as an opportunity to work with Tony Jaa?
Michael Jai White: That’s part of the reason. But if it weren’t a good script, I wouldn’t have done it. I’m a firm believer in supporting your fan base. And whenever you do things for the wrong reason, I don’t think you deserve the fans’ support. I remember when an actor I was a big fan of—who will remain nameless—started doing these movies where he was just phoning it in, like he was doing it for the money. And that felt like such a betrayal. I never want to do that. I respect my fans, and I’m so thankful to have them.
AVC: Dolph Lundgren wrote the first draft of this script years ago. It was a story he was trying to get made for a while.
MJW: He was going around trying to figure out how to do it. At one time, he was considering me for the co-starring role, until he found the situation with Tony [Jaa], which was a better situation.
AVC: You all come from martial-arts backgrounds, which puts you in a unique category. Is it kind of like a brotherhood?
MJW: It’s combining two loves, acting and martial arts. For me, it’s such a part of who I am. We all pull from the martial arts for our discipline and our focus. That’s one of the things that unites us.
AVD: When did you start studying martial arts?
MJW: When I was about 7 or 8. I’m not quite sure.
AVC: Of course, I picture one of those karate schools in a strip mall…
MJW: Oh, it was nothing like that when I was a kid. Every karate instructor had to have another source of income. It was really a hobby, or kind of like a spiritual thing. The nature of true martial arts is tantamount to a military-type training. Later, martial arts became a business, but when I was young, martial-arts studios were exclusively in the ghetto, where life was really hard. There were no hand pads or protective gear. It was very primordial. My first instructor had sticks and rocks that he hit people with.
If you did something wrong, you had to stand on your knuckles on concrete. We trained on concrete floors. There was nothing glamorous about the way martial arts was first taught in this country.
AVC: Your first credited role—or rather your first two credited roles, because you did the sequel right after—is in The Toxic Avenger, Parts II and III. How did you end up in those films?
MJW: [Laughs.] I was in a cattle-call type audition. And I got a very small part to play a thug. But as I got to know the people and started working, I would come up with suggestions, even though it was probably crazy that I was doing this, and they would put them in the movie. My role was expanded and I ended up doubling for the Toxic Avenger in a couple of scenes and I wound choreographing a lot of the fight stuff. So, I went from basically being an extra to getting like three or four credits. They gave me the credit of “wrestling coordinator” or something at the end, because they already had a stunt coordinator.
AVC: Was that your first time on a movie set?
MJW: Absolutely my first time on a movie set. I remember my first close-up, there was a lighting guy who was about 20 feet away from me, waving. I didn’t understand at the time that he was waving to see where the shadows would be. So he’s waving to see if the shadow of his hand will cross my face, but I thought he was just waving at me, and I start waving back. And then he walks up to me, and takes out this thing, and proceeds to put it up to my face—and I grabbed his wrist. [Laughs.] It was just reflex. I’m like, “What are you doing?” He explained to me that it’s a light meter, but I thought he was crazy because he’s waving at me and then interrupting my space. That was my baptism into film.
AVC: Troma movie sets are not known for being organized…
MJW: Well, I didn’t know better, but I gotta say, Troma taught me a few things. When you don’t have much money, you get creative. There’s so much money that gets wasted on bigger movie sets. I can’t even be comfortable. But when you don’t have much money, you improvise.
AVC: Universal Soldier was your first big studio job. Did you get to know the cast on the first film?
MJW: Actually, Jean-Claude Van Damme—even though I had a very little role—we trained together. He was so incredibly nice. I remember we were in a foxhole in a Vietnam flashback sequence, and it was freezing. We’re [filming] out in the middle of the desert, but it’s freezing. And he insisted that I wear his jacket between takes. This is something I never forgot about the guy. He was so nice to me, and that’s really who he is. And the fact that years later in [Universal Soldier: The Return], I’m his nemesis and we have to fight together… I’d met Dolph before, but I got to know him a little bit on that set a well. And here we are, working together on Skin Trade.
MJW: I was doing theater. I had studied acting in college and afterward in New York, and I was getting quite a bit of work. And when I came out to L.A., I was just taking off in theater, but I knew that I wanted to do film and television. So, when I got out here and landed Tyson, I thought that it was something that could make or break me. Because if I was off on this role, everyone would know. Tyson is basically the same age as I am. Usually, when you’re doing a movie about someone, you’re playing someone who’s dead or very old, and here I am, doing a movie where someone could easily just turn the channel, and compare me to the real guy.
AVC: And you’ve got a fairly deep voice.
MJW: The first time I had to do Mike Tyson’s voice, it was in the audition. I’d never tried it! I went to the audition—this is Jason La Padura, the casting director—and I said, “Am I supposed to sound like him as well?” And they said yes. And I said, “Okay, never mind. Nice to meet you.”
They said, “Just try it.” I wished I could just leave. I really thought that they weren’t gonna have someone do his voice, because it was too hard. But when you think as the character, the voice comes out, in some kind of strange way.
AVC: You spent almost all of Spawn in very heavy makeup. It must’ve been difficult just on the muscles of your face…
MJW: The smothering effect of the makeup is really the more difficult thing, because when I was in the costume, there was nothing of my body exposed other my eyelashes, because even my eyes were covered in thick contacts. The makeup artists were amazing. They had a very malleable mask comprised of about eight pieces, so your face could move freely. It’s very important to be able to express human emotion through all of that grotesqueness. You still have to connect with the audience, and that was a bit of a task, looking like I did.
AVC: It’s gotta be strange to look at yourself in the mirror and see a totally different person looking back at you.
MJW: It’s strange, but I would use the word “fun” more than anything else. Looking at yourself, you kind of discover what you are. There was a voice that I tended to be able to get what I was Spawn, in character, that was hard to do when I wasn’t in character, when I looked different. It was kind of weird doing ADR [dubbing], when you have to do some of the sound over. Because I would have to try to get to that same vocal quality that I had when I was shooting the movie, and it was hard to sound the same way.
AVC: You were up for Jax in the Mortal Kombat: Annihilation movie when New Line decided they wanted you to do Spawn.
MJW: That happened twice. I was up for Jax in the first Mortal Kombat, and it coincided with Tyson, and I wound up doing Tyson. And then, with the second movie, I was gonna be Jax, but then New Line’s own movie pre-empted Spawn. I have yet to play Jax in a movie, which is really what I want to do. That’s primarily why we did the [Mortal Kombat: Legacy] series [following the Mortal Kombat: Rebirth short], because there was a movie intended for afterwards.
AVC: It’s kind of stalled, right?
MJW: I was hoping for [Mortal Kombat: Legacy series director] Kevin Tancharoen, because I think he’s a genius. They’re making a big mistake not putting him at the helm of a great movie project. This guy can make very little look like an awful lot. [Mortal Kombat: Rebirth] took all of $7,000.
AVC: Around 2000, you did a TV series—Wonderland, created by Peter Berg—that aired for only a few episodes.
MJW: That show was the greatest television show I have ever been connected to. It was just way ahead of its time, and it was too real. TV was still in its fluffy stage at the time. It’s the one role that I got to do, the only one in my career where I was able to play myself. That was such a luxury.
A lot of my roles, they’re somewhat extreme characters. Some actors, like Denzel Washington, they get to use themselves as the nucleus of a character, so you have all of your attributes at your fingertips. So that was such a wonderful opportunity for me, to play someone close to who I actually am.
AVC: How did you come to be involved?
MJW: Peter Berg had met me on a movie where he was auditioning as an actor. It was a movie called City Of Industry, with Harvey Keitel. Stephen Dorff wound up getting the role that Peter Berg was up for. There was an audition process. I had already been cast. We’d gone and set up some scenes—almost kind of like a screen test, where Harvey Keitel and I did the scene with Peter. He remembered me from that, so years later, he selected me to play Dr. Hatcher.
AVC: I happen to be a pretty big fan of Undisputed 2, which you did with director Isaac Florentine. We’ve talked about martial arts and also about resourcefulness, and he strikes me as a pretty resourceful filmmaker.
MJW: That movie I’m very proud of. It cost under a million, and it was a movie that, by description, nobody should care much about. It’s a movie about gladiatorial combat in jail.
What was such a triumph about it is that we rewrote it, and fleshed it out and made people care about these characters. They wanted me to play a martial artist, but I argued that I wanted to be, for the character’s sake, a boxer who has to be humbled and to learn something to defeat this kind of undefeatable champion of the prison. Grown men cried at the end of that movie. And to get people emotionally involved in a supposedly low-budget B-movie is something I’m very happy about. Because I feel like, since you have them engaged—you already have the fight stuff that they tuned in for—why not create a story that people care about, and dare to become these characters that are gonna rise beyond the genre?
Any movie I’m connected to, I want it to be so that if you take the martial arts out of the movie, you should have a great movie by itself. Drama, characters, and a great premise that doesn’t have to rely on the action.
Black Dynamite (2009)—“Black Dynamite”
Thick As Thieves (1999)—“Pointy”
AVC: You first worked with Scott Sanders, who directed Black Dynamite, on a movie called Thick As Thieves, almost a decade earlier.
MJW: I had the idea for Black Dynamite and I was going forward with it. Scott Sanders had given me a script for something completely different, and he asked what I was working on. I told him and showed him some illustrations and explained what the storyline was, and he dropped his project and said he wanted to join in on to mine. That’s what happened. I really liked working with Scott, creatively. We had a ball on Thick As Thieves, with Alec Baldwin. It was a lot of fun, and we wanted to work together.
AVC: You were going for a low-budget look, but at the same time the production wasn’t that expensive either. Did it make you think back to your Troma experience?
MJW: I enjoy logic and logic puzzles. And [filmmaking] is one fun logic puzzle that you gotta win. There are certain things that come with the genre, and I was looking forward to certain mistakes that we could actually utilize. Very organically so. One of the reasons I wanted to do it was all of this residual stuff that we could do while making the movie. I wanted to layer the comedy in a way that I’d been impressed by, growing up, being a big fan of Monty Python. I loved the way that they layered silliness on top of commentary on top of very abstract humor.
Why Did I Get Married? (2007); Why Did I Get Married Too? (2009);
For Better Or Worse (2011-)—“Marcus”
AVC: You’ve worked with Tyler Perry a lot. And you’ve played the same character for him in two movies and a TV series, For Better Or Worse, which is now in its fourth season. What’s that set like?
MJW: The thing that I love more than anything is the cast. My cast members are like family to me, and I love them dearly. When we can put our heads together and help each other and get the best performances out of each other by sharing ideas… It’s a rare thing in this industry to work with people that you look forward to seeing every day.
AVC: Are you a rehearsal person?
MJW: Each thing presents different circumstances. With [For Better Or Worse], you have to rehearse, because we shoot several episodes in one week. Rehearsal is mandatory, but not the point where you can’t be malleable to improv. The wonderful thing about working on a show like that is the improv is encouraged. And I think that makes it special.
AVC: I wish there wasBut time to ask you all kinds of probing questions about Steven Seagal…
MJW: [Laughs.] That would’ve made for some interesting answers…