‘Brick Mansions’ Star RZA on Action, Acting and His Many On-Screen Faces
There are plenty of people in Hollywood who are as impressive as the multitalented RZA, but few are as consistently surprising.
Looking at some of the provocative material he’s created over the years, be it as a rapper, actor, writer or director, RZA seems sometimes like an unchecked id, hungrily satisfying any creative urge that pops into his head. But closer scrutiny of those projects reveals a precision, and more than that, a guiding philosophy that suggests the refinement and control of the superego. And even if a role like that of Tremaine, the villain in the new film Brick Mansions, feels as if it lands somewhere between those two extremes, RZA doesn’t fail to infuse it with equal amounts of ferocity and deliberation.
Speaking with Spinoff Online at the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, RZA offered some remarkable insights about his work as a musician, actor and filmmaker. In addition to revealing the surprising infrequency with which he exposes his true self through his performances, RZA detailed some of the aesthetic differences between action movies from different cultures, and finally offered a uniquely appropriate and evocative metaphor to encapsulate the sweeping, ambitious approach he takes when exploring his creativity.
Spinoff Online: What to you are the differences between French action movies and the Chinese or the Hong Kong ones you’re more familiar with?
RZA: I think a lot of the Asian martial arts movies — not all of them but a lot of them — they go for the fascinating, and maybe even the impossible. You watch a movie like The Grandmaster, which is a great movie, beautifully shot – the great Wong Kar Wai, you can’t never take nothing from him. But that train [during the fight scene] did take about two minutes to pass at a high speed. But it was beautiful. So their imagination is maybe very exaggerated. As kids, remember the first time you saw somebody jump onto a roof was in a Chinese movie, and you thought Chinese guys could jump that high – did you not as a kid?
Yeah, of course.
Yeah, I did too. I mean, people would say, “Bruce Lee could jump at least 12 feet!” That was like a neighborhood rumor, but it’s a movie. And in parkour, kids can do it and they are doing it. Do you know what I mean? Now of course, it’s still a movie. I mean, there are some pads somewhere, but we saw a demonstration earlier that shows you that these guys are very capable of doing incredible stunts. That’s what made Jackie Chan famous. There’s always a few artists that come out of any genre and give you the authentic [feeling] of what it could be. Tony Jaa and Ong Bak, bringing Muay Thai to the forefront. The Raid: Redemption brings silat, the Indonesian style, to the forefront. And here, we in Brick Mansions are bringing parkour to the forefront, so the American audience can see it and enjoy it. We’ve seen it a little bit in [Casino Royale] and maybe a little bit in Divergent, but this is all of it all the way through. And they’re going to have fun.
What were your feelings about the original District B13, and did that make you more or less eager to sort of jump into what was going to be an American remake.
The screenplay didn’t read like the original. I’ve seen the original, I own it. I remember everybody was talking about getting it. I remember my friend Oli had it and [said], “God, did you ever see this here?” I said, “I’ve had it for seven months at my house. I get bootleg shit quick.” But I knew it was not going to be like that, just like The Departed is not Infernal Affairs. Do you know what I mean? I had that confidence that this was going to be something – I want to say better, not taking anything from Luc Besson, the creator of this, the writer, but even when he rewrote it I think he wanted to write something that he knew would appease our audience. He’s had success with Taken, and he had success with other movies, Colombiana and things. So he knows our tastes. And he wrote this movie, I think, to our tastes. And so when I read the character of Tremaine, a few other [reporters] wondered how much did I change, and there’s no more than 10 percent changed. Ninety percent of that was already on the page. Of course, I threw a few lines here and there – you know what I mean. That’s how I do. But I’m happy that that character who I’m emulating is being a character that I’m creating, and I’m pretty happy with that personally as an actor.
Last year when G.I. Joe: Retaliation came out, everybody was so thrilled to watch you playing Blind Master so much because it’s you and what you bring to that role. How much do you believe in transforming yourself, and how often do people want you to come in and want you to be the RZA as this character, to bring your legacy, your presence to it?
I’ve been acting for, like, 10 years now, and maybe a few of my faces are getting similar – like Robert De Niro’s got “that face.” But besides that you have not seen me on the screen, really. You have not really seen me yet. I want to show myself one day. I want to get the role that could show me. I mean, there’s been glimpses of me. And even right now I’m doing the whole TV series, and I was thinking like once every other episode I’m like, yeah, I’m about to be me right there. You know what I mean? And everybody laughs. And at the same time, I do something so ridiculous and they be like, what’s he doing? So I don’t think they’re buying me. They’re buying an actor that they see me portray. And the trick is, who knows that I’m acting besides my friends? Do you know what I mean? Because that’s kind of the blessing and the curse.
On [Man With the Iron Fists], I read critics said that RZA did a terrible job acting. They said, “Russell Crowe did great and RZA did terrible, even though it was a great attempt as a director, as an actor he was not up to par.” And I think, well, why would they say that? I was actually acting my ass off. I played a morbid, non-pussy-getting guy in China that’s soft-spoken to a girl. I mean, I’ve got songs called “Domestic Violence” – “Bitch, get the fuck up my house before I grab you by the face and put a dick in your mouth.” And that’s nowhere near this guy right here. Do you know what I mean? But then they watch me on Californication and they go, “Oh, that wasn’t a stretch for him.” But all my friends is like, “My God, why would you play somebody so other than yourself? Dude, those are the people you hate. You’re playing somebody you always joke about!” I said yeah, of course. So I wouldn’t mind getting a chance to show myself. Do you know what I mean? But I don’t think I’ve really gotten a chance. But with Tremaine Alexander, I did have a few moments to tap into certain energies that I did experience on our scene. I did come out with the songs, “Bring The Ruckus,” “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing to Fuck With,” and all that. And I think that’s the mentality of him – that was me holding my dick on stage a little bit. Do you know what I mean? But nobody expected that. I didn’t realize that Tremaine was going to do that until halfway into the shoot, when I found out who he was. Because even though you read the script and you accept the part and you’re going and now you’re the character, one day, two days, three days, by nine days in of my part, I was like, okay, I figured this guy out. I’ve figured him out. And that’s when I became him. And whatever was me was comfortable coming through him. Do you know what I mean? And I haven’t seen the end result, but I’m hoping that it paid off well. I’m hoping that the audience enjoys the character. I hope they enjoy my participation in the film.
What is the “real you” in that case, because you talk about the things that you’ve said on your records, but there you’ve adopted these other personas. Is the real you a goof that’s different from these guys who are so hard in these movies? Is it somebody who’s much harder than the character in The Man With the Iron Fists? Who do you feel like it is that you haven’t been able to show in the roles that you played for the most part?
I think the most part about me that never been shown – well, there are two things about me that have really never been shown. One, how seriously funny I am. You don’t believe that.
No, you’re great in Funny People.
Yeah, but that was straight humor. That was the straight guy. Do you know what I mean? How seriously funny I am. But then also I guess I would say I’m a scientist, man. And I guess that Blacksmith was sort of a scientist in his own way, right. But like I said, there’s always a spoonful in there. But could I make the audience cry? That’s what I want to do. I’m looking forward to that day. But I’ve got to say that there has been so many mes and shit that the real me, probably the only one that sees it is probably my wife. Do you know what I mean? Only when I get in the house. When I take off the shirt. When I take off everything, and I’m sitting there in front of the TV with my guitar. Do you know what I mean? And Woody Allen’s on. Exactly. Woody Allen is on. I guess the real me is there, and everything else is just the outside.
As a filmmaker much less as a sort of an enthusiast of action movies, when something comes along like a B13 at the time that it came out or The Raid, how does it change the landscape that you’re looking at?
Well, as a fan I take it and enjoy it. That’s one thing I’m good at. I’m good at being a fan. I go to movies every week. And I’m good at being seen. I don’t care. I have nothing to do with that star shit. And when I’m living my life, I’m living my life. And if you want to fuck with me, you can come and try that if you want and you can do what you want. But as a fan I enjoy it first. Now, as a creator I want to do something better or different – either better or original that you could put beside it. So if somebody likes black tea, green tea, guess what I got? I got mint tea. Do you know what I mean? So that’s what I strive to do. If you think about the action films that came through our system, The Raid 2 is out now, but we don’t normally get a chance to see a lot of them. We’ve got to watch our super heroes. But I think what I did [with The Man With the Iron Fists] was that I gave a different kind of action – well, it was classic Shaw brothers action at one point. But then at the same time, it wasn’t Shaw brothers action because it was like, well, what the fuck kind of action is this? What style is it when the two swords lock together and they swung around doing their ballet dancing? Do you know what I mean? So I like to try to make it original – throw something in there [distinguishes it]. Like, I look at The Raid and I’ll go, OK, that sure was hard-hitting, but the acting was not working for me. OK, what if it was great acting? Or think about the Lone Wolf series – what if it was that kind of intensity, with that kind of action? So my dissatisfaction always kicks in. So even B13, which I loved and shit, but yet the first style of acting is very different than an American style of acting. I mean, the character who played the original villain, he played it way over the top. And it’s like, I can’t get away with that in America. I mean, Jack Nic can get away with it as the Joker. And he did it in his unique way. But I’m not going to get away with that. So I’ve got to find another thing about the guy that does it. And I found this different thing about him.
Gotcha. Gotcha. Well, they’re wrapping me up.
We’ll give you one more.
Thanks. When The Man With the Iron Fists came out, there were a number of other things, like the soundtrack, that you were simultaneously managing. How does that stuff sort of supplement your creativity in addition to just the creative output of making a film?
I think it’s best when you’re doing something to do one thing, to try to focus on one thing at a time, if that’s all you could carry. But I don’t know if it’s a habit or whatever it is, but I’m just a multi-tasker. I don’t know. I’m a DJ who’s the DJ, and then I get off the turntables and I grab the mike and I bust my lyric, and then after that do you know what I do? I go into the break dance. And before I got to the party, I was writing my name on the wall with graffiti. So I’m a lover of it, and when you love it you find yourself doing all of it. So I just want to give you this analogy, and you can walk away with this: Whether it’s good or bad, it doesn’t matter, but I’m the instrument. And it plays all kind of music. Now, a horn may sound better in jazz. It may sound better in rock. It may sound better in funk. Who knows? But a horn finds its place. And with a good player, it sounds good in any genre. But with a bad player it may only sound like a prah, prah, prah, and maybe you can only make hip-hop with just three notes. So I’m an instrument, I feel like. And I let things flow through me. Some things come through beautifully. Some things come through a little stagnant, you know.
Understood. Thank you so much. By the way, I’ve got 20 bucks in my pocket. How about the mp3s of that album, that $5 million album? You don’t have to give me the whole album. I’ll just take the music. Have you guys figured that out yet or sold it yet?
We’re still working on exactly what to do – the right thing to do with it. It ain’t about the cheese. The right thing has got to be right.
Brick Mansions opens today nationwide.