In conversation with STARBURST, Mann reflected on the defining moments that led to him to a career in front of the camera, which has seen him become the filmic incarnation of Street Fighter’s Ryu, and more recently collaborate with Eli Roth on The Man with the Iron Fists. The action star also reflected on creating a shorthand within this family dynamic, unexpectedly invading theatres, and the uncertainties of the profession.
STARBURST: Why a career in acting? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Byron Mann: That's a very good question. I had the hardest time deciding what to do because I honestly didn't know. I went to law school with the full intention of being a lawyer. But then upon my first semester I realised that the work was very dry, and in my first year I had a summer internship, at the end of which the partner sat me down and said, “You should do something else. Your heart is not in legal work and it is easily detectable.” He told me to do something I enjoy doing. I said to him that the only thing I enjoyed that I can remember was acting in high school, in theatre, and he said, “Well why don't you just do that?” I was going to school in Los Angeles and so I said, “Okay, I'll go back and I'll try.” So having that talk was defining first of all, and then I just remember being on the set of one of my earlier movies and thinking “I could do this without even being paid. I would love to do this.” It felt easy. I was in my element, and honestly I still feel that every single time I step onto the set, and I've been doing this for twenty years. So those are some of the defining moments where I realised that I really enjoyed doing this, and I'd do it without even being paid.
When you first read the script for Absolution, what was it that appealed to you about both the story and the character?
Well I have to give you some background. This is my fourth or fifth project with Steven Seagal. We are friends and so that is one. Number two, I have done three or four movies with the director Keoni Waxman and the producer, Philip B. Goldfine. So we are like family, and it is kind of like Guy Ritchie with all of his actors in the UK. So when they called me, I said, “Yes, absolutely! Just tell me where and when.” I didn't even have to read the script. They basically told me the story: it is you and Steven; you guys go to Russia and take on Vinnie Jones. Done! That is all I needed to hear. But he said, “Listen, this is sort of your movie because you have to do double the amount of action that Steven does, and so you just have to be ready for a lot of action.” You hear this a lot, but you like to work with people you like because you spend a lot of time doing this. A movie can take up to two or three months, and so you better like these people.
You mention the family dynamic. How does that shorthand develop across multiple projects, and does it make the collaborative relationship more instinctive?
Well that's a very good point. One of the things that I do with Keoni Waxman is I sit down with him - and as many directors as I can – with the script before we start, and I basically mark up the whole of it. This scene needs to be in this direction or this scene has too much dialogue; we can cut this piece out. Sometimes I will write my own dialogue and a little of that is in the final film. There is a fight where I pour some hot water onto a bad guy, and the dialogue that ensues was what I wrote up with Keoni. So the shorthand quote on quote that I share with him is that we are very good with and we are very open to ideas, and I am not shy to tell him it's shit. And all that work is in the film. I will tell you a good story. This film was not meant to be released in the cinemas; it was only meant to be for Video on Demand. But all this work we put in that I have just told you about translated so well that Lionsgate were beyond belief when they saw it that they said, “This is fantastic. We have to get it into theatres.” And this is essentially what happened.
Contemporary action films are often accused of relying too much on action when what draws the audience into the story are the characters. Telling this story, how conscious were you that the action must compliment the character and story rather than overwhelm these elements?
A very good question again. Okay, so listen. I grew up in Hong Kong with Hong Kong cinema. As you know there are a lot of martial arts, kung-fu movies coming out of Hong Kong, and I worked with a lot of Hong Kong directors. Their saying is that they really like good action, and sometimes if you see a Hong Kong film with a lot of martial arts it can just be non-stop action, wall-to-wall. A fight scene can last for fifteen minutes . The guy just doesn't go down, just keeps on fighting. I had an experience when I did The Man with the Iron Fists with RZA and Eli Roth, and I remember being in the editing room with Eli. We shot that opening action scene in one month, and you can imagine the footage that we had. Yet they whittled it down to what was essentially a two minute scene. The reason they did that was because Eli explained, “Every fight has to have a story. You can't just have a fight that goes on and on. The audience will grow bored because it is tiring for them.” I absolutely took that to heart and on this film I said to Keoni, “Usually on the day when we film that what the stunt coordinators had choreographed is sometimes non-stop action, and I think we need to break it up. Sometimes we need to see my character Chi in danger; he's almost going to get killed or there has to be a purpose to the fight.” So every action scene that we did there was a little crescendo; a little spark to the fight scene and it leads up to something. Again it went so well that all this made Lionsgate say, “Wow, we’ve got to release this theatrically.” So it all paid off.
How does the physicality of the character serve to define the character?
When I first learned acting, my acting teacher said that with every character the most important thing to do is to figure out how the character walks and how the character talks. How he walks and how he talks . That is absolutely true. If you nail that down then you've 75% of the character. So for instance with my character Chi in Absolution, this guy is a Hong King Triad enforcer. He is a heavy, he fights, and he has a co-existing relationship with Seagal’s character. Growing up in Hong Kong I grew up with people like that, and so I didn't have to do any research. I kind of knew how a guy like that would move and how he would talk. So to answer your question, absolutely. The physicality of the character definitely informs the character, and it would be absurd to not take that into account. Even sometimes having the right wardrobe on. If you don't put on the wardrobe then you can't feel the character. I'm shooting a television series right now called Hell on Wheels, which is out in the UK as well later this year. It is a western, and once I put on those western clothes I will be able to feel the character.
Do you look back on every film and each of your characters as a unique experience? Is it a series of moments that builds an appreciation that deepens with time?
With our career you never know what the next project will be or what experience you will have. You honestly don't know. I'm shooting Hell on Wheels right now, and in two weeks time I am going to New Orleans to shoot a movie with Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling. I don't know what that experience is going to be like, and so you just have to be open, and that’s all I can say. Just be open and don't try to hold onto any expectations. Be open, both as an actor and as a person going on set, and you'll enjoy the experience a lot more.
Absolution is available in the UK on DVD and digitally courtesy of Content Media.