Don “The Dragon” Wilson is no stranger to the world of martial arts. In four decades, The Dragon has won 47 fights by knockouts, won the world championship title eleven times, and is regarded as the best kickboxer in the sport. Aside from fighting, The Dragon holds a passion for acting, as well. He has been acting in films since 1982, including Bloodfist, Ring of Fire, and The Last Sentinel. I had the great opportunity to ask The Dragon about his acting and one of the more recent films he acted in, The Martial Arts Kid.
Don, thanks so much for joining me for this interview.
Ethan H. Gaines: In Paying Mr. McGetty (Summer 2017) you play quite a different character than you did in The Martial Arts Kid or in any other film you've been in. In fact, one of the things you said was that you were used to playing “good guys,” and the role of a “bad guy” was different for you. Which type of character do you enjoy playing more? Did you find playing a bad guy was more fun or interesting?
Don “The Dragon” Wilson: Playing the "Lead" in any film is certainly the goal of most actors. It is great to have projects specifically designed to "make you look good" as an actor-character. I have nothing negative to say about Starring in films but there are certain pressures and expectations which one must consider during the entire process. Such as, "the financial success of any project is usually placed on the shoulders of the Lead" or "Star". But, as the "Bad Guy", I did not feel that type of pressure. Of course, when you are "Hannibal Lechter", it's a different story. If he is not scary, the film falls flat. That said, as an actor, I am not alone in the desire to stretch and challenge myself by playing characters who are very different than I am and who live by their own "set of rules". I combined some aspects of the Leon character in "The Professional" with the hitman in "No Country for Old Men" and came up with Shota. A Hit Man with a code or set of rules in which he operates. By no means is he a "good guy". He is a "for hire killer", however, only if the "mark" is guilty and deserves his ultimate fate. Playing that type of character was a lot of fun because, after 30 years as an actor, it's interesting to try different roles and that one was about as far as you can get from the type of "good guys" I have played in the past. Overall, I think it would be more challenging and fun to continue to play characters who have, at least, "some" bad in them. It's possibly more realistic and audiences may be tired of "good guys" who are too perfect.
Gaines: Kind of on that note, what did you find appealing in your character Uncle Glen in The Martial Arts Kid? What was it that you connected with to make the character seem so believable?
The Dragon: Uncle Glen was a very easy character to play because I was very close to his background and motivations. Here are a few of the real life similarities, we're both Black Belts who taught a class in Cocoa Beach, Florida, we both were former Kickboxers, we are both at least friends of Cynthia Rothrock and not just her character in the film, my father worked for NASA and so did Uncle Glen, etc. I really could use the "What IF" school of acting style for most of the scenes in that film and needed very little "imagination" to feel "truthful-real".
Gaines: In The Martial Arts Kid, how much influence did you have on the teaching scenes? Did you lend some of your experience to the film or was that formulated by the writing team?
The Dragon: Michael Baumgarten gave me a lot of respect and consideration regarding what lessons-techniques I taught in the MA School. He just let me choose the actual techniques while he controlled the dynamics of relationship and how the techniques and teaching would affect "Robbie's" life outside the Dojo. "By perfecting these techniques, you can become more confident in your life" outside the school. Ie Robbie finally gaining the necessary confidence and taking the job at the bike shop in spite of his problems with "Bo".
Gaines: In the final fight between you and T.J. Storm in The Martial Arts Kid, the action is so real and utterly believable. How much practice did you put into the final fight?
The Dragon: For safety reasons, all fight scenes MUST be rehearsed many times to lessen the chances of mistakes-mishaps. In these lower budgeted martial arts action films, we work out the moves and rehearse them on the set minutes before turning on the cameras. It takes very high level martial artists like TJ, who are also experienced at "fighting for film", to safely and quickly shoot these scenes in the amount of time available. He was great! They say fight scenes are like dancing, everyone must move together and make it look easy! I can not overemphasize the fact that TJ, Marcos R Taylor, and others made me look good and not the other way around. In UNIVERSAL's "Scorpion King 4" I rehearsed 4 days before filming, in "The Martial Arts Kid", more like 6 hours total rehearsal time!
Gaines: The Martial Arts Kid deals heavily with anti-bullying. Do you have any history with bullying and how did you feel during the filming?
The Dragon: Although, we never thought about "Bullying" when I was a child, I now realize that growing up as the only Asian kid in Cocoa Beach, Florida, caused me to experience a certain kind of prejudice which led to bullying. I was given more "spankings" from the Principal of my elementary school than any other child one year. Not because I was starting fights but because others were attacking me. But, since I wanted to be accepted, I worked hard in sports and learned that when you sink a 30 foot jump shot, they don't care what color you are....Eventually, I was the MVP of my High School Football and Basketball team. I turned a negative into a positive.
Gaines: You did such a great job portraying Uncle Glen and made it seem like you really enjoyed it, were there any days where you didn’t want to act? We all have those moments, but have you ever had any of those days?
The Dragon: I have NEVER had a day "I did not want to act". Of course, I have been ill on sets and then, as they say, "the show must go on" but other than those times, I've always loved the process. It is so creative and organic in a way that makes every day on the set exciting and fun. We are all trying to make the best film possible so it's very much like being on a sports team and working together to "make that touchdown"! We either succeed together or fail together and that feeling has been one of the great things about filmmaking for me. Teamwork!
Gaines: This film has quite a few similarities with the famous The Karate Kid. In fact, your character references it when Robbie (Jansen Panettiere) is washing the cars, you tell him, “You know, you can wash on, wash off all you want; you’re not driving any of our cars.” Do you know how much of an influence The Karate Kid had on The Martial Arts Kid?
The Dragon: Of course, there are the obvious similarities of a troubled teen who through the student-teacher relationships and the study of the martial arts betters his life and "gets the girl" in the end. But, we did MANY things differently ie using real-life famous martial artists instead of actors as the teachers, having Robbie become proficient but not unrealistically ie a National Tournament Champion in a couple of months, etc. Also our theme of Traditional Martial Arts and Family Values, hopefully, resonates with the audiences.
Gaines: You have quite the history in martial arts. 11-time professional world kickboxing champion with 47 knockouts over 40 years, and a European Martial Arts Hall of Famer, plus a movie star. When you first started, did you ever think you’d amass such accolades?
The Dragon: NO! I absolutely did not know, in the beginning, that the martial arts would become my life. It was just something "like a sport" that I could do after College. Each step I took and new goals I set led me to the World Titles and Starring Roles in over 30 films. I could not have predicted this or planned it but I know each small step led me closer to my goals and ultimate destinations. It's been like a roller coaster ride, exciting but unpredictable! I owe most of my success to my friends and family who have always supported me, especially when things got tough or negative.
Gaines: With your history in kickboxing and martial arts in general, do you ever think about training fighters? Do you choreograph any of the fights in any of your movies?
The Dragon: I am a selfish athlete. I enjoy "doing" not as much the "teaching". But, I do "give back" and teach seminars, etc., however, I loved fighting with a passion unmatched in my daily life. I add my "personal touch" to some fight scenes but I like using different choreographers so all my fights do not look the same. There are many talented choreographers and I've been lucky to work with them.
Gaines: Don, thanks for your time. I really appreciate it.
The Dragon: Thanks for this opportunity, Ethan!