By Jeremy Smith
When I was offered the opportunity a few weeks ago to talk to Steven Seagal, I knew the interview had the potential to turn into “The Chris Farley Show” – and I didn’t care. Ever since his perfect onscreen introduction in Andrew Davis’s ABOVE THE LAW, I have been an unabashed Steven Seagal fan. His unique use of Aikido – wherein the combatant turns their attacker’s momentum against them – was a visually arresting form of combat; there wasn’t a martial arts star who fought like him at the time (not in the studio system, at least). Even more unusual was his soft-spoken demeanor, which charmingly offset his capacity for violence. In most of his films, Seagal plays decent men confronted by viciousness; he is a righteous warrior whose distaste for evil manifests in ass-kickings of the highest order. Try to do him or anyone he loves harm, and your limbs are likely to get bent in wincingly unnatural directions. If you’re really naughty, you may get a) your eye gouged out, b) stabbed in the crown of your head, and c) said knife-bearing head smashed through a radar screen. And god forbid if you don’t know where Richie is…
At the age of sixty-three, Steven Seagal remains a remarkably busy man. He’s turning out roughly a film a year (down from his three-a-year pace of the late aughts), patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border, occasionally dropping in on his friend Vladimir Putin, playing blues guitar, and being identified as the reincarnation of the Tibetan “treasure revealer” Chungdrag Dorje. Seagal has lived a rich and strange life, and I find it all terribly fascinating. If I’d had more than fifteen minutes to chat with him, I would’ve certainly delved into these myriad topics, but given that our discussion was timed to the release of his latest action film, ABSOLUTION (co-starring Vinnie Jones as a sadistic human trafficker), I thought it wise to stick to the movies. They’re what drew my admiration in the first place, and, having looked at previous interviews, it’s a subject most journalists tend to brush aside.
Readers of this site might recall that last year I co-hosted “Seagalogy”, a four-film Steven Seagal film festival. It was an amazing evening for many reasons: Vern, the man who literally wrote the book on Seagal, made his first public appearance (signing books for fans, and dazzling everyone in attendance with his encyclopedic knowledge of Take Sensei); Phil Blankenship, the organizer of the whole event, went above and beyond in his quest for 35mm prints of UNDER SIEGE 2 and ON DEADLY GROUND; best of all, at the end of the evening, film editor Robert A. Ferretti arranged for Seagal himself to call in for a well-deserved curtain call.
In the following interview, Seagal and I discuss that crazy evening, and what he thinks of our four selections. We also talk about ABSOLUTION, how the film industry has changed over the last twenty-six years and what it was like to film that phenomenal pool-hall fight in OUT FOR JUSTICE. I did this interview as a fan, for fans, and I did my best to keep the gushing to a minimum. I hope you enjoy.
Jeremy Smith: Hello, Mr. Seagal.
Steven Seagal: Hello. How are you, sir?
Jeremy: I’m fine. How are you today?
Seagal: Very good, thank you.
Jeremy: You’re quite the world traveler. I guess I should ask where in the world are you today?
Seagal: I’m in Scottsdale at the moment. But we’ve got to go to Bucharest, Russia and Thailand. We’re supposed to leave early tomorrow morning for all of this stuff.
Jeremy: I don’t know if you remember, but you called in to a film festival I co-hosted last year. We showed four of your films, and [editor] Robert A. Ferretti got you on the phone for us. I suspect all you heard was cheering.
Seagal: I do remember that. That was really nice of you guys. Thank you.
Jeremy: In organizing the festival, trying to select just four of your movies proved difficult because we all have our favorites. We went with HARD TO KILL, UNDER SIEGE 2, OUT FOR JUSTICE and ON DEADLY GROUND. How do you feel about those films?
Seagal: I think ON DEADLY GROUND is a special film in the sense that it did and said everything twenty years earlier that Al Gore did when he got an Academy Award and a Nobel Peace Prize – which is hilarious. But it’s a very good movie because of the message and all of that. Major motion pictures that are environmental movies are very few and far between. So that one I like quite a bit. UNDER SIEGE 2 I like quite a bit. HARD TO KILL I’m indifferent. What was the other one?
Jeremy: OUT FOR JUSTICE.
Seagal: OUT FOR JUSTICE has some great action in it. Some great fight scenes, and some good acting.
Jeremy: I think the pool hall sequence is one of your finest set pieces.
Seagal: I agree.
Jeremy: In your latest film, ABSOLUTION, you’re up against Vinnie Jones, which offers a very stark contrast in styles of fighting. He’s a scrapper. I’m curious as to how you decided on Vinne Jones for the role of the villain.
Seagal: He’s just a good friend of mine, and some of my friends said that he’d like to do it. So I thought it would be nice to work with him again.
Jeremy: You’ve been working with [ABSOLUTION director] Keoni Waxman since 2009. You’ve made a lot of films and television with him. What is it about that relationship that works for you?
Seagal: I think that Keoni is one of the brightest young men out there. I think he’s a very good director. I think he has a wonderful story-mind, which is very important – in other words, he doesn’t just have to film what’s on the page; he understands what’s on the page. I think he’s a wonderful director who understands editing, looping, dubbing, mixing, foley… he just understands all of that stuff. He’s a great friend: very ethical and very moral. I’m his biggest fan.
Brother, can you hang on a second?
I’m sorry, that was Manny Pacquiao’s people. They wanted me to possibly come to this Mayweather fight, and I just don’t think I’m going to be here.
Jeremy: No worries. That’s a bummer. I’m excited for that fight.
Jeremy: You’ve been at this as a movie star since 1989. How has your philosophy changed in terms of what you’re looking for in projects, and what kinds of stories you’re trying to tell?
Seagal: I don’t think my philosophy has changed much. What’s changed is the business, the people, the technology, the attitudes… you know what I mean? It’s like I was saying the other day, I really do the things that people pretend to do. I really am a fully-commissioned police officer. I really do work on the border: I take a machine gun and a plate carrier, and get out there. We go on high-risk warrants, and we chase bad guys. I really do the shit people pretend to do in the movies, but that doesn’t matter one bit to anyone because they can take a huge zero of a person – and when I say “zero of a person”, I mean someone who doesn’t have the ability to do any action at all – and make them a huge action star with the technology we have today. You look at [IRON MAN 2]: you can take a girl who has no background in fighting, martial arts or anything, and just turn them into the greatest action person on earth. It’s all really different now. They don’t need someone who really did it or does it or can do it. They just need someone who looks the way they want them to look, and someone who can act – which I understand.
Jeremy: But there’s a reason we were drawn to your films in the same way we were to Bruce Lee’s or Jackie Chan’s or Chuck Norris’s. There’s an authenticity there. It’s a great pleasure to watch a fight unfold, and see people who can do the actual fighting. I think that’s still true today.
Seagal: That’s nice of you to say. It’s really refreshing. The guys who’ve been doing martial arts all our lives, we’ve always lamented that it doesn’t really matter to the filmmakers all that much.
Jeremy: Are there any martial arts stars who really impress you nowadays?
Seagal: Yes, there is. There’s one guy who is a friend of mine that I think is a thousand times better than anybody out there, and that’s Donnie Yen.
Jeremy: Your movies have often been about violent men who are on a path to peace and/or enlightenment. There’s obviously a bit of a contradiction there, so I’m curious as to how you reconcile these ideas.
Seagal: In the ultimate way – that’s called the “tao” – we believe that the original calligraphy of “dô” means “war” or “warrior”. But within that kanji for “warrior”, if you dissect it from the beginning, it means from the origin “he who has the ability to stop war”. So in my opinion, in order to be a great warrior, you also have to have the spiritual foundation to want to be a man of God. A peacekeeper. One who keeps the benevolence of society, the greater good and the safety of well being of good people and righteousness above all. That’s kind of how I look at it. Does that make any sense to you?
Jeremy: Definitely. This is kind of a broad question, but throughout your entire career, what fight scene was the most challenging to pull off?
Seagal: I think what I did in OUT FOR JUSTICE may have been the most challenging, because Dan Inosanto is known as the greatest Eskrima master in the world, and the greatest knife fighter in the world. He is my brother and my friend. We’ve done a lot together, and I had him there, so I wanted to show one of the best fight scenes ever shown – with my idea of this pool ball in the bar towel, and the Eskrima stuff that I did with Dan. I wanted to take over that bar, and dominate it and really show some great technique. It was challenging, but I think I did it.
Jeremy: Yes. Mission accomplished. And it’s so amazing to watch a scene like that with a crowd. It must be such an exhausting process to pull a scene like that together. Have you ever sat with a crowd and listened to them react to your work?
Seagal: I was just going to mention this to you, but I thought maybe it’s better that I don’t because I didn’t want to sound too self-aggrandizing. I was at the premiere for OUT FOR JUSTICE, and I think it was in New York. It was New York or L.A. But anyway, something unusual happened there. The people throughout the whole movie were going crazy, but during that fight scene… I don’t know if you noticed, but I was actually on my knees doing this fighting with the sticks. It was the moment where Danny and I were fighting, and the sticks were flying faster than hell. You make a little mistake with those sticks, and someone gets a broken face or an eye knocked out or a broken nose or a broken wrist. I’ve never seen this before in my life, but all of a sudden, during the middle of that scene, everybody [in the audience] just stood up and started screaming. That was an amazing moment for me. At a premiere, you usually see people cheering and happy, but everybody went out of their seats and just started applauding during the middle of the fight scene. (Laughs)
Jeremy: That’s what it’s all about. I’m seeing that we’re running out of time here, but I just wanted to communicate to you that your films still have the capacity to bring people out of their seats. I’ve been watching since 1989, and as long as you keep making them, I’m going to keep watching them.
Seagal: Well, thank you, brother. I’m very grateful to God and you for having fans, and I’m still going to do it for a little while longer. (Laughs)
Jeremy: Is there a certain age you’re targeting where you might say, “I think it’s time to get out of this”?
Seagal: I don’t think it’s really the age. It’s going to be more spiritually and philosophically what’s happening in my life. It’s like my police work. (Laughs) There’s going to come a point where I say, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
ABSOLUTION hits On Demand and the below theaters on May 15, 2015.
Los Angeles – AMC Burbank 8 New York – Empire 25 Dallas – AMC Grapevine Mills 30 Chicago – AMC South Barrington 30 Atlanta – AMC Southlake Pavilion 24 Phoenix – AMC Arizona Center 24 Detroit – AMC Forum 30 Miami, FL – AMC Aventura Mall 24 Denver – AMC Highlands Ranch 24 Minneapolis – AMC Eden Prairie Mall 18