Jason Statham Takes the Wheel as Hired Gun
By Gary M. Kramer
Brawny and bulletheaded, Jason Statham has been attracting attention since his sizzling debut in Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998. He careened to the forefront of action films with his role as The Transporter (and its two subsequent sequels) and captured more fans after appearing in caper films like The Italian Job and The Bank Job. Yet Statham's appeal lies not only in his penchant for high-energy hits like Crank and its sequel—it's also in the combination of charm, good looks, and cool demeanor that have made him a star at the box office.
Statham's latest starring vehicle is Safe, opening April 27, a thriller set in New York but shot mostly in Philadelphia. In this adrenaline rush of a film, Statham plays Luke, an ex-cop who keeps preteen Mei (Catherine Chan) "safe" from both Russian gangsters and Chinese Triads. Lawrence Bender (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds), the producer, has Philadelphia roots: He attended school in nearby Cherry Hill, New Jersey, from sixth through 12th grades. In a recent phone interview, Bender likened Statham to Steve McQueen, praising the actor's "combination of [expressing] vulnerability with a twinkle in his eye and an ability to kick ass and get the job done."
"Jason's a guy's guy. Guys want to be him and women love him," Bender continued. "He's got the good looks and a heart of gold, and he's tough—and that's a great combo for his character: someone who's lost everything you can lose, but by saving this girl, he can save his soul." With the sequel to The Expendables and the film Parker on the horizon, Statham is a man constantly on the move. He was shooting Hummingbird, a story about a veteran haunted by a criminal past, in London, when Philadelphia Style caught up with him to discuss his style, Stallone, and Safe.
In Safe, you seem to be punching, kicking, and shooting everyone—in the subway, on the streets, in restaurants. How much fun, and how hard is it, to make an action film?
JASON STATHAM: I do love it. I come from a world of athletics. I did a lot of crazy things as a kid. I was a high diver. I do martial arts, gymnastics, and other things, and you get skills that you learn and can use in front of the camera. It's great to do them as an adult and get paid.
You tend to do your own stunts. We can't decide if we were more impressed by your jumping on a moving SEPTA train or flying through a Bellevue hotel window. What was the trickiest sequence for you to film in Safe?
JS: I couldn't tell you what's most difficult. Each situation is tough. Shooting in the subway wasn't easy; there are rules and regulations that get in the way. There was more we wanted to do, but we had to follow guidelines for what's safe and allowed. The complicated sequences are tough. Pyrotechnics are nerve-racking—you don't have control, and you have to be aware so there are no mistakes. You try to concentrate on the end result, not the consequences where fear can creep into your view.
The first shot of you in Safe has you shirtless and about to do some cage boxing. We saw you and we thought: chiseled. How and why did you decide to become a rough, buff, tough guy?
JS: [laughs] Oh, my God! I don't know if that's the right description. Making action movies, you can only do yourself favors by keeping yourself in shape. The greatest action heroes are in better shape than me. Stallone is carved out of rock. You need to be disciplined, not eat pizza and drink beer.
What about car chases? These seem to be a staple of your films: The Transporter, The Bank Job, Death Race, Crank, The Mechanic, and now Safe. What are you really like as a driver?
JS: I am not a bad driver. I think any guy would admit he thinks he's a good driver. The reality is different. The only fun you can really have behind the wheel these days is on a racetrack or making a movie. So we get a few guys together and spin around a track.
Although the film is set in New York, it is shot in Philadelphia. Tell us your impressions about filming in the City of Brotherly Love.
JS: It was great. The people were really good. They have a straight attitude, and I'm keen on that. I have great memories of Philly. I have a close relationship with Stallone, so it's difficult not to head to the Rocky statue.
Speaking of the local sights, did you check out the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall? Or are you one of those Brits who are still mad at us "colonists"?
JS: [laughs] One of the most frustrating parts is going to the great places and not getting enough time off. The time you would like to do things, you don't have; we get stuffed into rehearsals and read-throughs, and you're completely spent. You can't organize days to do what you want. It's a curse of the job.
Your character, Luke, gets a nice pinstripe suit at Boyds here in Philly. Since this is Philadelphia Style, how would you describe your style?
JS: God, I don't know what my style is. Quintessentially English.... I've not coined a phrase for it. You get the benefits of playing characters in movies. They give you good clothes to wear, and sometimes you get to keep them. [laughs] I like British tailors. Savile Row has not developed a reputation for no reason. In California, though, your Savile Row suit doesn't go far.
Did you know or did you learn Russian for your role? You have that great one-liner, which we won't spoil...
JS: I learned it phonetically for what I had to say. It is difficult enough to learn a language for a movie; quite a task.
We were surprised when your character shed a tear in a scene early in the film. You don't strike us as someone who cries.
JS: Tough guys don't cry. I didn't know I could cry.
We have seen you in the terrific dramatic film, London. Do you want to keep making action films, or do you want to do different things?
JS: I love the opportunity to do both. They push the same food under your nose every day, and it can be satisfying to a point. But you need variety. Most of the time I get action, since I'm right for it. London, I had a good time making it—such a great script. The Bank Job was a bit more dramatically driven and an amazing experience.
In Safe, Mei says to you, "You're a crazy man, but not so stupid." What have you done that's either crazy or stupid?
JS: I try to look forward, not back. Stupid? When I've been drunk. I don't tend to be stupid when sober. But it's hard when you are English.
Safe is a film about gangsters. What gangster films do you like, and why do you think they are so appealing in popular culture?
JS: Scorsese: The Godfather, Goodfellas. They are fascinating because of the morals—family, and love of that, protecting that, and keeping it together. Crime is a fantasy for people not into that. They want to feel what that would be like, not going to the office. There is escapism in watching criminals. They are flamboyant. Money comes in easily. They have street poetry, a colorful language, and are larger than life, most of the time. That's the attraction.
So who or what provides you with a feeling a security?
JS: People that you love. They give you protection and reassurance.
Photography by Daniel Smith