“In real life, justice takes a bit longer than a 30-minute TV episode or a 90-minute movie. And you have to worry about innocent bystanders, children and the elderly being nearby, or good Samaritans wanting to jump in and help. On a movie set if something doesn’t go right you just do it again.”
Action star Steven Seagal is also a bona fide lawman, with a badge, and is well aware of the difference between justice on screen and off, as he explains in this exclusive interview as he’s about to leave for Australia for An Evening with Steven Seagal.
Think action hero and a few names jump to mind. But count them on one hand and you won’t run out of fingers. Seagal is right up there. He’s 67 in April, still making movies. In fact his next one is going to be a sequel to that very first film, the one that launched him in the ’80s, 36 films ago.
He’s always strived to be the thinking man’s action star, the martial-artist with a conscience, and that’s given him the chance to bring us some great characters. Perhaps at the top of the list is the chef who takes on terrorists aboard the battleship Missouri. Unforgettable.
He’s from Russian Jewish background and two years ago was granted citizenship of Russia where he now lives. Putin, no less, was on hand to welcome him.
Next month he’s coming to Australia to talk about his career and passion for the environment and martial arts.
Your first film, Above the Law (1988), was a hit which began a career now up to its 36th film – ironically, Above the Law 2. In a business as fickle and fashion-driven as Hollywood, how have you managed to keep doing it for so long?
Hollywood and moviemaking is tough and when people ask me how they get into showbusiness I tell them they should look at doing something else [laughs]. It hasn’t been easy. The landscape of moviemaking has changed over the years and audiences’ tastes have changed since I began in the ’80s. From blockbuster tough-guy action movies to your special-effects-driven comic-based movies. Yes, I’ve been lucky to be doing it for as long as I have thanks to a fantastic base of fans who enjoy what I do.
On screen you’re strong, positive, in control, winning against the odds . . . but real life is never as easy. How hard is to keep believing in yourself, and your product, when you're surrounded by the relentlessly negative people that this industry throws up from time to time?
You have to believe in yourself, otherwise you wouldn’t get out of bed every day. This is a job. I get paid to beat up bad guys and make sure good triumphs over evil. We just constantly have to come up with new ways to make that exciting on screen for the fans. I won’t have negative people around me, so being based in Russia and spending a lot of time in Asia, I don’t have a lot of industry people around me unless I’m on set.
You have to believe in yourself or you wouldn’t get out of bed each day. I get paid to beat up bad guys – we have to keep coming up with new ways to make that exciting. I won’t have negative people around me.STEVEN SEAGAL
. . . And how hard is to keep a straight head during those moments of hard-earned triumph when you're able to turn the nay-sayers on their heads?
It’s not hard at all. When you know what you’re capable of, you just ignore those who bring negativity.
Success never lasts; thankfully, neither does failure! Most of us walk a juggling act between the two most of the time. What have you taken away of lasting value from (a) your successes . . . ?
You’re only as good as those around you. So when you have a great director, producer, writers and cast you can make great productions for the fans. It’s important to remain humble and appreciative of those collaborations that result in magic on screen. The same when walking the path of a peaceful lifestyle, when you have family and friends who hold the same values as you, it’s an enjoyable time. You enjoy the successes and things you do right personally and professionally and focus on that.
. . . and (b) your failures?
I’ve made some great movies and I’ve made some poor ones but you do your best each time with what you have. You look at what you did well and do more of it in future and look at what didn’t work so well and note how you can do it differently next time.STEVEN SEAGAL
Again, with failures it’s all a learning experience. Failures in business or on screen happen for a multitude of reasons. People have different visions of how things should be done. Or budgets get cut which results in a substandard film. I’ve made some great movies and I’ve made some poor ones but you do your best on each one with what you have. You try to look at what you did well and do more of that in future and look at what didn’t work so well and note how you can do it differently next time.
You’ve spent time working as a real lawman, away from the screen. What did you do in this field? In what surprising, unexpected ways is real-life law enforcement different to the screen version?
I’m a real-life deputy with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office in Louisiana, a position I’ve held for over two decades. Obviously, my movie career takes me all over the world, so my time with them was limited to when I was living in the States and had time to dedicate to it. In real-life law enforcement the good guys don't always win. Many officers all over the world have been badly injured, or killed, in the line of duty upholding the law and protecting the public. In movies, most of the time, the good guys win. And I s’pose in reality justice takes a bit longer than a 30-minute TV episode or a 90-minute movie, too.
Secondly, on screen an action-hero enforcement officer can't afford indecision or vacillation but it'd be very different in the field where many more human factors come into play?
In movies, the good guys win most of the time. In reality, justice takes a bit longer than a 30-minute TV episode or a 90-minute movie.STEVEN SEAGAL
In real life, you have to worry about innocent bystanders, unexpected factors like children and the elderly being nearby, or good Samaritans wanting to jump in and help. It’s very different. If something doesn’t go to plan on a movie set, you cut and do another take. Shoot-outs and fight scenes are choreographed and well planned. You don’t get that luxury in real life where you have to make split-second decisions that can affect your future, the suspected criminal’s future and those bystanders caught up in the situation. It can be quite stressful and demanding.
You've worked with some fabulous actors – Michael Caine, Billy Bob Thornton, Kurt Russell, Halle Berry, Pam Grier, Elsie Pistolhead. Which of your famous co-stars did you love working with the most?
I love them all, they’re all fantastic people. I mean, Michael Caine is a legend and that’s why I cast him in On Deadly Ground. I think he was fantastic in the role and it’s one of my favourite movies that has a message I care about and, of course, I directed it.
Playing invincible heroes on screen can lead to awkward moments when people at random might want to take you on.
In real life, you have to worry about innocent bystanders, unexpected factors like children and the elderly being nearby or good Samaritans wanting to jump in and help. If something doesn’t go right on a movie set, you just re-shoot.STEVEN SEAGAL
Well, I’m 6-foot-4, so usually that doesn’t happen to me. Most people are very friendly and they want to talk about their favourite movie or character of mine and they want to take a picture. So that’s not an issue I get.
If you're lucky to find your own special place in an industry it can be a blessing and a curse. You've indelibly owned your own place in the action-hero genre – among a field of names you could count on the fingers of one hand.
Of course, in the era I broke out in, the ’80s, that was the in-thing, the action tough guy. I’m most comfortable in that genre but I’ve been lucky enough to play some amazing characters and write and direct stories I care about, such as political corruption in Above the Law, big-business corruption and the environment in Fire Down Below and On Deadly Ground.
. . . but has it made it more difficult to depart from expectation and say other things dear to your heart? Ever felt strait-jacketed by your success?
Not at all. I’ve enjoyed my career and continue to do so with such great loyal fans all around the world.
Does the world need more Casey Rybacks (the Navy SEAL-turned-cook who fights terrorists in the Under Siege movies) . . . or Forrest Tafts (the greenie martial artist in On Deadly Ground)?
Why not both? Perhaps Navy chefs who protect the environment? [laughs]
What will people in Sydney and Melbourne take away from an Evening with Steven Seagal?
I’m very much looking forward to coming to Australia. I know I have a lot of fans there and I know many Australians who are fantastic. We’ll discuss the movies, martial arts and take pictures with fans and discuss many topics that are important to me. Most importantly, the question will be asked “Has anybody seen Ritchie?” [laughs]. I get asked to say that line from Out for Justice a lot! Thank you very much for the insightful questions. I look forward to seeing everyone in February.
- An Evening with Steven Seagal in Sydney on Friday, February 1, at Wesley Theatre, Wesley Conference Centre, 220 Pitt Street and in Melbourne on Saturday, February 2, at Plenary 1, Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre, 1 Convention Centre Place, South Wharf. Cost: $69, $99, $349, $999. Tickets: stevenseagal.com.au.