Interview: Action Star Michael Jai White on Choreographing Fights in The Commando, His Blaxploitation Trilogy Plans and Filming During the Pandemic

For the better part of 30 years, actor Michael Jai White has been someone I’ve admired for being one of the few action stars who also can go toe-to-toe with some of the greats as an actor. From a small role in Universal Soldier to playing the title character in Spawn, White shows what it’s like to combine brains and brawn in his roles. He went on to such films as Exit Wounds, Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, The Dark Knight, and perhaps one of the most famous deleted scenes in movie history, one that was cut from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 2. But for me, the role that White created that gave me the most joy was that of Black Dynamite, in the film of the same name, in which he played the greatest fictional African-American action star of the 1970s. The film was dead-on as a parody of Blaxploitation cinema, but it’s also a damn good movie, and it changed my perception of what film parodies could be.

The Commando
Image courtesy of Saban Films.

More recently, White debuted his feature directing debut, The Outlaw Johnny Black (which he also co-wrote), doing for westerns what Black Dynamite did for action films. As you’ll read in this interview, he plans to make a trilogy of homage films, with his next one being a parody of Black horror films, like Blacula, and I can’t wait to see it.

The project that brought us together for the first time for this interview is his new movie, the crime thriller The Commando, in which he plays an elite DEA agent who returns home after a failed mission when his teen daughters make an unexpected discovery in their house—a stash of roughly $3 million in cash, left hidden in the walls and floors by the previous owner, who just happens to be getting out of jail. They soon face the threat of this criminal (Mickey Rourke) and his crew who will do whatever it takes to retrieve the money, including kidnapping the agent’s daughters. Directed by Asif Akbar, the film co-stars Jeff Fahey as a corrupt sheriff helping out Rourke and his crew, and features a much-talked-about fight scene between White and UFC superstar Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. The action is the high point of this strictly B-picture, but I never get tired of White being the smartest and toughest guy in every movie he’s in.

We sat down recently for this quick chat about The Commando (which is currently in a limited theatrical run), The Outlaw Johnny Black, and much more. Please enjoy…

One of the most enjoyable things about watching you work is that you frequently find ways to blend the mind and body in your performance. You’re a gifted actor but you also know how to kick ass. In this film, you play a guy who’s suffering from PTSD, so that mind-body connection is broken in him. Tell me about your approach to this character from that perspective.

I try to approach it with as much truth as I possibly can. I have very close family members who are dealing with PTSD, and if you don’t look really deep, you may not be able to see the triggers. It’s subtle to everybody else, but for the person going through it, it’s a whole different thing. That struggle is something I wanted to represent physically on screen.

We see a couple of therapy sessions that your character has. To your knowledge, are those fairly accurate in terms of how a therapist allows her patient to check his surroundings and make sure everything is real?

Yeah, but everybody is different. There are things in my actual life that I’ve witnessed from early on. I’ve been on my own since I was 14. The mind is powerful. Of course, there are people who get all the way to schizophrenia, where they’re having delusions, but there are a lot of roads that lead to that point, and this film is representative of that.

When word got out that you and Cowboy Cerrone were going to have a fight scene together, people got extra excited. Tell me about your approach to working with someone who isn’t used to pulling their punches. Is that a tougher experience for you sometimes?

No, not for me. I’ve sparred with so many people throughout my life that I’m more comfortable under those conditions. In fact, what I did was, I went to Cowboy Cerrone’s gym, in his house, and we sparred. It was a little tough because I had a badly sprained ankle, but I wanted to spar with him and see what techniques he was the most comfortable with. Then I would put that into the choreography. He’s well known for throwing really strong combinations, so I wanted to find his best combination so he could throw that in our fight scene, because that would be a combination he would have thrown a thousand times and would take little effort for him. That’s the way I tried to craft those kind of fight scenes.

Speaking of pulling no punches, the whole film builds to this fight scene between you and Mickey Rourke. The guy has seen it all and come back like this phoenix recently. What do you learn from a guy like that, either about acting or just being a human being.

I’d actually worked with him just three months earlier on a film called Take Back. My wife [Gillian White] was the lead in that movie. I was only in one scene with him, but my wife ends up shooting him. So I’d already known him, and we already had a shorthand. I’d seen him over the years. Funny thing is, I bought a car from him about 20 years ago, but I didn’t bring that up with him on set because I didn’t want him to have to relive that time period. We have a lot of friends in common, and I’d see him at UFC fights and we’d speak. One of the things I will say about him is that I consider him one of the last generation of old Hollywood, with these characters who were bigger than life, everyone from Clark Gable to Telly Savalas—you couldn’t take your eyes off of them because they had so much magnitude to them. That doesn’t really happen these days. We have celebrities and actors, but we don’t have many true movie stars. I think about the magnetism he has in Angel Heart, 9 1/2 Weeks, and even Sin City, under the prosthetics, he just radiates something from a bygone era. So it’s great to work with somebody who still has that. Today, it’s a whole different thing, it’s a different metric by which people are cast.

You just debuted a film you directed called The Outlaw Johnny Black. It’s a western revenge story that I can’t wait to see. What is it about, and more importantly, when do we get to see it?

When I did Black Dynamite, I always intended on doing three in that blaxploitation genre: action, western and horror. So this is the western story reminiscent of Buck and the Preacher or Take A Hard Ride. I just tested it in front of a pretty big test audience, and it had five applause breaks and/or standing ovations. Some people said it was better than Black Dynamite, which is amazing to me. But it’s different in that it’s a western in the truest sense of where westerns come from. Dare I say, it’s a faith-based, western blaxploitation kung-fu drama comedy romance [laughs]. It’s an absolute buffet of a movie.

Is the horror film coming soon?

That’s the plan. I’m going to be a little tight-lipped on that one, but back in the ’70s when they made these things, there was a certain aspect that they had where it’s really funny when you re-create it. When you look at any movie, especially in the sci-fi and horror at the time, it’s pretty funny. They thought there would be flying cars in 1994 [laughs]. It’s been fun to look at in retrospect.

You shot The Commando under COVID protocols. What were some of the unique challenges outside of making an action movie that you had?

It’s always a challenge nowadays, but you have to do things in a much more condensed way. Someone I worked with recently, John Malkovich, put it great when he said, “Back in the day, you were paid to wait. Today, you’re paid to be prepared because you have almost everything your character is written to do in a matter of a few days, whereas before, it would have been spread out over months.” You have to do that workload in a very short period of time because the paradigm is different now. You’re shooting full features in three weeks; it used to take two months.

Michael, thank you so much. This was a real treat.

Thank you. This was cool.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.