Dr. Craig D. Reid
Early Monday morning, no time to eat, wife by my side, we’ve got a hopeful three-hour drive from San Diego to Los Angeles. Why? We’re heading to James Lew’s home to interview one of Hollywood’s iconic stunt coordinators who last year cemented his legend by winning TV’s most coveted prize, an Emmy Award. Considering that in 2002 there were 182 scripted shows on American TV and in 2017 there’s 500+ shows, it represents that Lew’s Emmy is more than just being 2017’s best, it makes his dynamic achievement on one of America’s most popular TV shows, Luke Cage an even more powerful accomplishment. Plus, he’s the only person from the show to win an Emmy.
We pass by Camp Pendleton Marine base, which is a shuriken’s throw from Navy SEAL Unit 5’s training facility, where we see a large ship on the ocean surrounded by hovering helicopters, one of them leaving a black smoke trail. An accident slows the traffic down from 85 mph (136 kph) to zero for one hour, then a highway security check point adds to the delay…their inspecting cars for illegal immigrants. None of this will stop us. Upon our arrival, a most kind and humble Lew greets us with open arms, two dogs, two cats and there she is…Emmy. Weighing in at 6.2 lbs (2.5 kgs) and with her two long spiked pointy wings and arms grasping an atom, she’s also a formidable kung fu weapon.
Dr. Craig (Dr.C): What does it personally mean to you to win the Emmy Award?
Lew: I’m the first Chinese American stunt coordinator to win an Emmy…to me, that’s important. (pensively) I’m pretty proud of that. Was watching the Oscars and there was a piece on editing. My wife says, ‘Every clip is showing action.’ Stunt coordinator Jack Gill has tried to establish an Academy Award for stunt coordinating for a long time, we still don’t have one. (frowning) What’s the reason? It makes me realize how important getting this Emmy is. Yes, it’s about ego, yet it’s most strongly about the business part, because without this recognition it doesn’t elevate it up to the professional level. Chinese cinema does it right, awards and recognition for great stunt coordinating and action direction.
What’s important to me is safety. (sorrowfully) My good friend John Berneker was killed on The Walking Dead set last summer. I met John when he first started out, used him on Stallone’s Escape Plan 2, we laughed, joked, great memories. (sighs) Still don’t know any details and that means someone doesn’t want people to know what happened. If it’s an act of god accident, then that’s it. It just hurts.
Which comes back to getting the Emmy. By getting recognized it shows we’re a serious part of the process and with that we can gain more authority and responsibility so if something doesn’t feel right, we have the power to say, “No!” We’re the stepchild of production. When we’re scheduled for action on a day, by lunchtime, still haven’t began…wait around (shakes his head) nothing…then at day’s end…go, go, go, rush, things get overlooked…you’re pressured to get things done on that day. (DrC: Like Brandon Lee on The Crow) (sadly nods) They’d never rush a production designer. Stunt coordination isn’t just another job, there’s a responsibility that comes with trying to elevate our profession…and an Emmy can help that.
Dr.C: What important moments in martial arts training impacted you to pursue stunt coordinating/fight choreography?
Lew: Bruce Lee (face beaming), he’s the first Asian character I saw on TV, Longstreet, Kato. Finally having a Chinese guy with a cut of an accent, sounding cool in the way he delivered it, his attitude, he encompassed complete confidence. One day my best friend said, “Whatcha wanna do today?” Totally bored, we decided to take a karate class and that’s how I began martial arts, no special reason, just something to do. When that friend started Inside Kung Fu magazine, I met world class kung fu masters and I was their dummy during photo shoots. It was a blessing to cross hands with them, even with Jackie Chan. (reliving the moments) After the shoots they’d give me hints. I soaked up crazy amounts of knowledge. Never met Bruce, would’ve been great to cross hands with him.
My first job was being a kung fu practitioner on Kung Fu on the Shaolin Temple set that was in Burbank (laughs). Learning all the different kung fus was an advantage so when I had a job I could say, “What do you want?” If you just know grappling, but a film doesn’t want it and wants kung fu, you have to adapt because you can’t push for what you know.
When I first started, there was a lot of TV work in LA. I had a good reputation for getting the crap beaten out of me and make the hero look good. A coordinator brought me on and I’d put fights together while he’s at meetings. He’d return with the director and tell him this is what we worked out. I was doing his job. Then it clicked, I can do this. I learned about falling off buildings, getting lit on fire, car chases…it all flows into the action.
Dr.C: Ever received any great advice?
Lew: One of my stuntman’s association sponsors was the legendary Terry Leonard an old cowboy of sorts. He said, “Jimmy. If you want loyalty in this business, get a dog.” It still holds true to this day, and in the world too. Most times, you’ve got to help yourself.
Dr.C: When you’re a stunt coordinator do you also do the fight choreography?
Lew: I’m a bit of a control freak, take it very seriously and if I’m stunt coordinating I don’t want a separate fight choreographer because I know what I want, the fights are part of the stunts and action. It’s all about the script, and the story and characters must be consistent, so you don’t do a fight just for a fight scene.
Great example. Luke Cage. First, it’s not a martial arts show or an Asian thing. He’s the first black superhero and me being raised in South Central LA, I felt a connection to that, and it meant a lot to be part of the show. I created cool moves that made sense for his character. There were battles on set because the different directors, who seemingly didn’t read the comics or see prior episodes, wanted Luke doing things out of character. Marvel told me, “You’re the keeper of the action and responsible for all of this stuff.” So if it goes off in highfalutin directions, it comes back to me. So I had to stick to my guns.
Dr.C: What was your experience like working with Jet Li on Lethal Weapon IV?
His films are amazing and I respect his talent. I thought, “Man, Jet Li’s gonna beat me up.” Little did I know that was about to really happen. I wore a light jacket and tank top, thus no room for padding. When I arrived on set they already had the fight together. Without rehearsal they showed me on the spot and told me what they wanted.
I run onto the rooftop then from nowhere he hits me with a full on side kick to my chest. Several full contact kicks later, when I look under my tank top I could read his shoe’s sole imprint on my chest. He stomps on my foot, I open my mouth in pain then he hooks his forefinger into my mouth and (funny taste in mouth face) I feel the grimy, black sandpaper, roof-covering dirt under his nail dig deep into the lining of my mouth. Then he takes his prayer beads, wraps them around my neck arteries and squeezes.
Seconds later, I look up from the ground wondering what was I doing on the ground. He chocked me out for real. After blacking out he dropped me to the ground. Face-plant on the roof, the sharp sandpaper ripped the skin off my whole face and I bit my mouth. Blood gushed out of a huge facial gash and covered my face. They patched me up and we continued. I was surprised no one asked if I was okay. But that’s part of our business, we take those risks, aches and pains. It was a solid scene and I got to work with Jet.
Dr.C: Ouch man! Any final words?
Lew: I’d like to thank by beautiful wife [Jordanna], (adoring smile) she’s my support system.