GS: So maybe instead of Dragon, Map of the Human Heart is what got you into this primal man type of role.
JSL: Yeah, martial arts really evolved from that kind of mindset because people up there were really survivalist.
GS: Tell us how you landed the Dragon role.
JSL: [Dragon director] Rob Cohen was friends with Bonnie Timmerman who was the casting agent [for Map]. He called her on a whim and said, “I'm looking for an actor to play this part and I'm finding it hard to cast, do you have anyone in mind?” “Not really but I just ran into this actor who auditioned for me. I think that might be your guy. He has a good physique and did the reading tremendously well but we had an advisor here who claimed he didn't really pass for Mohican, but I think he's in between agents now so you might want to call him at home. Here's his number.”
So Rob called me and left a message and I had no idea who he who. I had finished Map of the Human Heart maybe six months ago and I was still high from that experience. I talked to Rob and Rob said, “Would you come in and meet some people? I want to give you a script to read.” So I came in and everyone was waiting for me and I'm sitting there and he said, “This is the Bruce Lee project.” I said, “The Bruce Lee project? You mean like a biography? You want me to do his voiceover?” He goes, “No no no, this is like his biography.” I said, “You want me to play Bruce Lee?” He says, “Right now what I'm feeling is that you're the guy.“
GS: He said that right off the bat?
JSL: I said, “Why do you think that? He goes, “Because you're athletic. I've looked at martial artists but I had a hard time believing in their ability as actors.” He apparently saw some footage from Map of the Human Heart and said, “Hey, this guy has some ability to act.” He said, “Please take the script and read it...” I said, “You know what, I don't even know if I want to read the script because if you're talking about what I saw when I was young, it's impossible. You gotta be kidding me!”
I've always been fairly honest with myself about what I can and can't do. Then after I turned him down he says, “That's why I want you even more.” I said, “Why is that?” He goes, “Anybody that's that honest, who says they can't do it, that's the guy you want because anybody who thinks they can emulate Bruce is kidding himself.” There was no one out there at the time who could emulate him. People had tried. But when you're thrust into it and you know that everything is going against you, time and your own abilities, you're just going, “This is hell!” But the outcome was close enough, I think. It gave an impression of the man and that's all I could do for my abilities at the time.
GS: When people think of Bruce Lee these days, they think of Dragon.
JSL: Yeah, because it's sort of an updated rendition of the man.
GS: So you've become Bruce Lee in a way. You've talked about how you learned from Bruce Lee's teachings but are there ways in which you are similar to Bruce Lee or that you share a lot of the same traits as Bruce Lee.
JSL: Yeah, I think there are some things. I can be very animated when I need to. I think that's something Bruce had. Physical abilities. I've been an athlete all my life. But I think the thing that differentiates myself and Bruce is his drive in the martial arts. His drive was in the combative sense and the physicality sense. It was much more fire going on. He had more gas to carry it out longer.
GS: He had more demons to drive him?
JSL: Yeah, yeah, to exorcise. Bruce in a sense was a street kid and he was a street fighter and grew up brawling and being kind of a punk.
GS: He had more to prove.
JSL: For myself, I didn't have all that stuff to have to get rid of.
GS: How did you have the physique and the athletic ability at that stage? What had you done to build yourself up to being a Bruce Lee prospect?
JSL: Ever since I was small we were playing on the beaches. Eventually we got into surfing and being in the ocean all day. And I was a gymnast for four or five years. In my elementary school days and my intermediate school.
GS: So that built up your physique?
JSL: My balance and my coordination and all the handstand stuff I do, or the kip-ups and whatnot.
GS: Despite all that, you still didn't want the part?
JSL: I had seen Bruce Lee movies. He was in a whole another stratosphere. He could practically fly as far as I was concerned. And the dynamics of his actions in the movies -- you can't get that in six months. You can try but you're going to have to enhance it somehow.
GS: You mentioned that you had to practice or had to take lessons for quite while before the film. You were saying that there was much that was painful and that you couldn't do. What were they trying to make you do that was so difficult?
JSL: At first I had a trainer. They gave me who they told me was going to be my trainer and had a knowledge of the arts in jeet kune do and apparently he didn't know it. It was kind of funny. I didn't know either at the time so I was kinda going along with it.
GS: You had never taken any martial arts?
JSL: I had done some tai chi but it was nothing combative. I kinda felt like I was being set off on the wrong foot. A lot of it was, “Since you don't know the martial arts, we're going to lay down some dance steps.” You put your feet here and he moves there. That's not gonna work. You can't do that even with a ballerina. They have to know the technique. They have to know what to do. You can't tell them to go to this spot and move to that spot. It doesn't work that way. It was just ovewhelming because the time was being shortened and we were coming down to the wire and they wanted me to do this kind of screen test. I mean physically, yeah my body was fine. But in terms of coordination in the combative sense, I was way off in left field.
GS: Were they stretching out your legs? What kind of stuff did you find painful?
JSL: Yeah, all that kind of stuff -- lifting weights and bouncing around putting on K-Earth Radio and bouncing back and forth with the music. Bruce did that. That was sort of a theatrical effect even for his kiiyaiis. It wasn't the technique for learning jeet kune do. That was just bogus. It wasn't until later that I found out. It was like after I had done the screentest and they said, “Go ahead, you got the green light to do the movie”.
Linda Lee calls and says, “There's a lot of Bruce's students who want to know who's playing Bruce and they want to meet him.” So she sent me around and this trainer drove me around to meet all these guys, about five of them. The last guy I met was Jerry Poteet. At first I thought, This is all well and good, maybe I can learn a little bit from each one. He was the only person who gave me a demonstration that I thought worthy of what I wanted to learn and was saying things that made sense. I told the director, “I'm not going to do the movie without this guy. This guy is my ace in the hole.” Sure enough throughout the years he's proven it to me. So it wasn't just like an overnight sensation to meet someone and learn from him and move on. He's become my friend and he's become my teacher.
GS: You're still close to him?
JSL: Oh, yeah.
GS: By the time you did Dragon you must have gotten to a certain stage in your acting career because of Map of the Human Heart.
JSL: No, because it hadn't come out yet. It came out a few weeks after Dragon came out.
GS: You said you were between agents. Why?
JSL: When I did Map of the Human Heart, I thought the agent was greedy.
GS: What do you mean?
JSL: He wanted to hold out for more money and we were getting down to the wire as for the research part of the project.
GS: What did you want to hold out for and what did they offer?
JSL: They wanted to offer one-fifty and he wanted four something.
GS: That seems reasonable for that kind of role.
JSL: I was looking at it like it's a great role. I'm a nobody and they could care less.
GS: You fired him and said, “I'll take it”?
JSL: I may have been able to hold out and play that game but I never understood that game. Back then you're in it because you just enjoy doing it. Eventually you fit into the system that had been established. But for the most part you're going, “F***! This is the best thing I've ever read!”
GS: Is that when you parted company, before you took on Map of the Human Heart?
JSL: He said he was really upset by my decision to take the role and not be in support with him.
GS: Was he a big-time agent?
JSL: Not really, but I think he was very ambitious. But I just said, “Oh well.” So after Map I was looking for new representation.
GS: So at the time you did Dragon did you have an agent?
JSL: No, when I got the part I took it into the agencies.
GS: Which agency?
JSL: I ended up going to UTA.
GS: Is that a medium-sized agency?
JSL: Not really, it's top-five like William Morris and CAA and ICM.
GS: Did he drive a hard bargain and get you top-dollar on Dragon?
JSL: No, not necessarily.
GS: What did he get you for Dragon?
JSL: Why do these figures even matter? So the public can see how much money I've made?
GS: Not necessarily how much you made but how much an actor would get at that stage for that kind of role. Some readers are aspiring actors so they have a legitimate interest.
JSL: But when you say a figure like that and throw it out there people take it at face value.
GS: We're talking about twelve years ago.
JSL: I mean they take it for face value that that's the money you're going to get. That's not the money you're going to get; you get about fifty percent of that.
GS: Was it in the six figures?
JSL: Yeah, yeah. Definitely, it was more than what I got for Map of the Human Heart but not by much.