When Jackie Chan first heard about the fantastical concept of his new movie The Forbidden Kingdom, he certainly had his doubts.
“I would never make this kind of film,” he says, smiling. “For me, these kinds of films are ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense. But the American audience, I think, is interested. So every time I make an American film, I trust the American writer and the American director.”
The film sees New York young kung fu fan Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) magically thrust into ancient China where he befriends wise kung fu master Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) and a warrior played by Jet Li. They team up to free the Monkey King, who has been imprisoned by the powerful Jade War Lord.
Jackie, who shot much of the movie on location in China, says: “This is just like a fantasy, a fairytale, but I made this movie because I know American culture and American people like it."
Despite Jackie’s initial reservations, he couldn’t resist the chance to work with another famous Chinese movie fighter — Jet Li — either. After years of trying to team up on film, Jackie had almost given up on the idea of working with him by the time Forbidden Kingdom came along.
“I have always hoped to make movies with some people I really admire, like Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, before I retire from this business,” he says.
“Jet Li is someone whom I have wanted to work for more than 10 years. Every time I see Jet we say, ‘Let’s do it!’ This time it happened because Casey [Silver] the producer was in the middle. Every 10 days he would call and tell me Jet Li was happy with the script, before sending it to me. He was the one flying back and forth making the whole thing happen.”
But far from being a battle of the egos between two movie martial arts legends, Jackie says co-ordinating fight scenes with Jet felt comfortable.
“After the first cut, the director comes up and says ‘Can you guys slow down?’” Jackie says with a laugh.
“I want to show off quick and he wants to show off quick, but then we slowed down. It was fun. Fighting with him is very comfortable. I’ve fought so many different actors who just don’t know how to fight. It makes you hurt and it doesn’t look good. And I think because I’m good, it makes him comfortable!”
However, Jet Li, at 45, is almost 10 years younger than 54-year-old Jackie. As the energetic and animated star grows older, it inevitably becomes harder to perform the big kung-fu stunts, he did so effortlessly on film at a younger age, hence one of the reasons Jackie is now trying to make the transition from kung fu movie star to serious actor.
“I think for the last six or five years, I’ve changed my style,” he says, earnestly. “Right after the Forbidden Kingdom, I finished a movie called The Shinjuku Incident. It’s maybe 1% action. Heavy drama. The next one will be big action, then maybe a love story.
“I want to change. I want to be a real actor and not just an action star. An action star’s film life is very short. Jackie Chan is a myth and I’m in survival right now.
“It’s been more than 30 years, but how much longer can I keep fighting? This is why I have to change, change, change. I’m not like I used to be — I’m tired.”
Having shattered his body over years of high-octane movie stunts, Jackie isn’t worried about putting himself into risky positions for his art, although these days, safety is paramount on movie sets, with producers unwilling to risk stars’ safety.
“Making a Hollywood film, you don’t get a very big injury risk because whatever they do they have to check first to make sure everything is safe,” says Jackie.
In fact, Jackie seems more bothered about the excessive make-up he had to wear to play the old Chinatown pawnshop owner and the long wig as Lu Yan in The Forbidden Kingdom.
“It’s so itchy and the shooting was so hot in the desert,” he complains. “Probably the young people are used to it. But for the old guy — wow! I could have killed the director!
“The masks and make-up took hours every day. Five days on the go I got up at four o’clock in the morning, then was in make-up until 12.30. One o’clock after lunch, first shot. Two shots, then wrap. I said, ‘No — shoot more!’”
Although the Hong Kong-born Jackie still keeps his fame very much alive in Western movies, recently providing a voice for the character of Monkey in Dreamworks film Kung-Fu Panda, he is also keen to help build up the Chinese film industry.
He wants Hollywood to make more Chinese films — something, which as the tourist ambassador for the region, he is passionate about.
“I’d like to thank Disney and Dreamworks for making Chinese culture movies like Mulan, Forbidden Kingdom and Kung Fu Panda,” he says.
“Superman and Spiderman, we know. Whenever we try to make some very famous Chinese story overseas, nobody knows about it. But because Disney makes Mulan, now the whole world knows Mulan.
“We need a famous American director or studio to help us make Chinese traditional cultural movies and bring the history to the world. Then people will understand China more. The more they understand, the more people will be interested in China, and the more people will come to China to visit us.”
This year, more than ever, China will be in the public eye, as Beijing plays host to the 2008 Olympics.
Already, the event has been the subject of worldwide controversy with protests over China’s occupation of Tibet during Olympic torch relays. But Jackie is dismissive of the protests, maintaining that politics and sport should be kept separate.
“I’m the Olympic ambassador and I always promote the Olympics,” he declares.
“The Olympics and politics cannot mix. Olympics for me is love, peace and being united.
“I don’t know why but every four years at the Olympics, no matter what country it is held in, a lot of people come out to oppose.
“They did for the US, for Russia. But this year, everyone just concentrates on China. It doesn’t happen just with China, it happens everywhere.
“I want to say, ‘Please understand there are some naughty boys who for no reason, just want to show off on the TV’.
“Like I said, I want more tourists coming to China, watching the Olympics, being welcomed, and more Chinese films,” he adds.
“Please for the future, write more Chinese things.”
The Forbidden Kingdom is now in cinemas across Northern |Ireland.