Actor, Musician And Knife Maker: Johnny Strong Talks SINNERS AND SAINTS
Johnny Strong is one busy man, being an artist, actor, musician, martial artist and knife maker. As an actor, he has appeared in features films such as Black Hawk Down, The Fast and The Furious and Get Carter. Most recently, he played the lead character Detective Sean Riley in William Kaufman's Sinners and Saints, a role that won him the Breakout Action Star Award at the Action On Film International Film Festival. Johnny also composed and performed the music for the film. One of his upcoming projects is the sequel to Sinners and Saints, in which he will collaborate again with director William Kaufman.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Johnny recently about his films, music, martial arts and knife making.
TWITCH: After THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS and BLACK HAWK DOWN in 2001, your next acting role was in SINNERS AND SAINTS 9 years later. Why were you away from acting for so long, and did you miss being in movies?
After shooting Black Hawk Down, I got back from Morocco and bought some new recording equipment. I had been making music for years, and in order to record on quality gear, you had to go to actual studios to record. But this was 2001 and the ability to get a rig you could use at home had dramatically dropped in price. When I got the new equipment, it made recording so much easier for me, that I spent the majority of my time writing and recording music. I would get phone calls about different film roles and projects, but I was really focused on my music at the time.
I also was spending the time I wasn't writing and recording, learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu 5 nights a week. It boils down to the way my mind functions. As an artist, when I am inspired by something, like a script/movie or song, or canvas, or martial arts, knife making, I become engulfed in it, and it is nearly impossible to pull my focus from it. So during that period, it was my intention not to over-extend myself artistically to too many projects at once. I focused on music, and released a few albums and toured. On my last tour I was contacted about Sinners, and the opportunity to act, as well as score the film really sparked my interest.
So what was it about the original SINNERS AND SAINTS project that appealed to you so much that you decided to act again after an extended break?
I had received a call from a friend of mine who had facilitated a working relationship with William Kaufman on his first film. William wanted to use some of my music in his first film, I gave him 5 or 6 tracks for him to use in his movie. A few years later, I had received a call from the same mutual friend, that William wanted me to read a script called Sinners and Saints he was developing as his next film. I was on tour for one of my records at the time, so in between shows I read the script on the bus, and right away I thought to myself this is not only something I'd like to do the music for, but I'd love to star in this. Originally I was under the assumption that William just wanted me to do the music, but later on he told me getting me to do the film was his plan all along. William and I talked, and after a year or so of discussions and collaborations we were in New Orleans shooting the film.
How do you find working with William Kaufman?
It's a pleasure working with Will. I've always had the philosophy since I've been in the movie business, which is: A great director who is prepared and knows what he is doing is confident in collaboration. Will and a few other directors that I've worked with have that confidence. The directors that lack confidence, or who are unprepared, are less open to working "with" people. They'd rather have people work "for" them. Though this was William's second film, he had the confidence to collaborate, and I think it made for a great film.
What does SINNERS AND SAINTS mean to you as an actor?
Everything I do, whether it be music, film, martial arts, knife making or any other creative endeavor, means the world to me. It's how I spend my life. There are some people whose lives revolve around one thing, whether it is being an actor, or musician, etc., and they can look at their body of work and say this thing meant more to me than the other. But I do so few films and so few records and all my art is limited to the time I can put to each aspect of my creativity that each one holds a great deal of importance. If proposed the question, "What does Sinners and Saints represent to me in my body of work as an actor", I would say it is the progression of smaller supporting roles, such as The Fast and The Furious and Black Hawk Down, to a starring role.
Do you prefer working on blockbuster movies like BLACK HAWK DOWN or limited-budget independent productions like SINNERS AND SAINTS, and why?
To me it's not about how big or small a budget is. It's about the time you put in to something. If I feel the film / record / knife / painting is worth the effort and time I would put in to it, then whatever the budget is, I go in a hundred percent, just like any other project I believe in. I'm not monetarily motivated.
There are a lot of intense action scenes in SINNERS AND SAINTS. Was having a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and experience in mixed martial arts helpful when you played those scenes?
The Black Belt helps in the sense that I have a better awareness physically. Due to certain circumstances, we didn't do too much BJJ in the actual fight scenes.
Tell us about the training that you underwent in preparing for your role in SINNERS AND SAINTS.
I followed my usual regimen of boxing, kickboxing, judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on a daily basis. And I met with Ron Balicki to expand my knowledge and training in Kali eskrima a few months prior to filming the movie to help develop the fight sequence (see first embedded video below). I also trained with Sonny Puzikas and a friend of mine who will remain nameless in weapons manipulations such as pistols, shotguns, and the AK and M4 platforms (see second embedded video below).
I read that you started studying martial arts at the age of 7. Did you already know you were going to become an action star one day?
I was taken to the movies when I was young, and realized I would definitely be doing that one day. But more so, I think my gravitation to martial arts is like music, drawing, writing, acting or any other form of expression. Just a way I was able to communicate my emotions.
One of your most recent projects is in knife making. How did that interest develop?
I've collected knives my whole life, and was given the opportunity to learn how to make knives from a Canadian Mastersmith, Wally Hayes. We worked in his shop for four or five days, hammer forging steel, and when I returned home, I bought a bunch of equipment and started grinding. Within a year, I earned the coveted spot on the cover of BLADE magazine. It featured my COMBAT ASSASSIN model, an innovative design that features three different edges. Knife making, music, acting, fighting, painting, sculpting... it is like water that flows from the same source. I've also begun writing recently, and I enjoy it, and one day I may also direct. Did I mention I know how to pilot a helicopter? We'll save that for a future interview...
Many of our readers are big fans of SINNERS AND SAINTS and really excited about the upcoming sequel. So could you please share with us some exclusive scoop about SINNERS 2?
In the first film we see Sean when he is a detective for the NOPD. Before that Sean was a Special Forces Operative. He left the military and became a police officer after his son was born. In Sinners 1, we are at the point where his son has passed away, and when the sequel picks up, we will see events, that sever Sean's ties to his occupation, and it will give him the freedom to become what he was before a cop, a soldier. Sean is set on finding the ones responsible for the "Spartan" contractors coming to New Orleans. The trail leads him to Eastern Europe; he is off leash, and intent on finishing his mission.
What can fans expect in terms of action in SINNERS AND SAINTS 2?
It picks up a little bit after where we left off. The story pushes my character Sean Riley into some very sinister territory, which leads to some very aggressive sequences. I don't want to give up the ghost on it, but it will be much more intense than the first film.
Have you and Will ever discussed the possibility of making SINNERS AND SAINTS 3?
Yes, there have been a few conversations about a third instalment, but you always have to keep your eyes on the fight in front of you. If you can't win that one, then there's no point in thinking about the next.