Since co-founding the Wu-Tang Clan in the early 1990s, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs — better known to millions of fans as RZA — has parlayed his skills as a hip-hop legend into a diverse Hollywood career, with acting gigs on shows like Californication and in movies like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Brick Mansions. One of his most impressive achievements, which also showcased the many hats he’s worn as a creative, was Universal’s 2012 martial arts film The Man with the Iron Fists. He co-wrote the script with Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino, directed, composed the soundtrack, and starred as Thaddeus the Blacksmith alongside Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu and Jamie Chung. Now RZA is back in a straight-to-video sequel, The Man with the Iron Fists 2. RZA talks about his love of martial arts movies and explains how The Man with the Iron Fists franchise has inspired his remake of The Last Dragon in this exclusive interview.
Were you thinking of franchise potential when you first created The Man with the Iron Fists?
In a way the potential was there in the sense that it was a very long story that was the basis of the screenplay itself. So, you always hope that you can dance again, you know, one way or the other. But you don’t know what’s going to happen of course.
You handed off the Iron Fists directing duties to Roel Reine — what your experience like this time around?
It was kind of more easy to just focus as the character. So I think the fans will notice the character seems a little bit less somber…like he has a little more humor inside of him. He seems a little more freer in his expression of himself, and that could come from acting and focusing on developing him, figuring out what he would be later on in life after going through his jungle village experience.
What martial arts films influenced when you were growing up?
A lot of the old Shaw Brothers’ films: The 36th Chamber with Gordon Liu and Five Deadly Venoms are two of my favorites. Of course, Fist of the White Lotus and Clan of the White Lotus had a strong influence on me for many years.
Has working on The Man with the Iron Fists franchise given you a new respect for what they were able to do with those films that you grew up on?
I’ve gained a super respect. I’ve always admired what they did, but you never know how much martial arts work it takes, how much practice it takes, to make an action scene. Just for 30 seconds of fighting, sometimes there’s days of work. And we had the action team practicing months earlier, designing the moves and the ideas. It takes a lot of work to make these kinds of films, and so now that I have lived through it I really appreciate it more.
How has the creative work you did with these two films influenced your vision for the Last Dragon remake?
Now that I’ve been through these two films and I have a clearer understanding of how to make them, it’s like I’m graduating from college. You know, the first film graduated me. The second one sort of became my Masters Degree. All the experience that I’ve gained, all the people and different crews that I’ve worked with, both American and foreigners, has helped me find a synergy that works. We’re talking about hundreds of people with diversity coming together to make one image, and it’s been a great experience for me. I feel more capable of anything right now. It has sharpened my sword.
What your first exposure to Playboy Magazine?
To be honest, my mom kept Playboy in her bathroom. I think I was maybe nine years old and we were living in Brownsville [Brooklyn] in a two-bedroom duplex and they had a half-bath upstairs that my mother would use. She had her Playboy magazines in there — and I don’t know why she had them in there — but I know I used that bathroom a lot, you know?
When you gotta go, you gotta go.
I was willing to take the whipping, you know?
What movie scared you the most when you were a kid?
Man, the movie that scared me the most was Evil Dead. That movie was crazy. It was so scary that I didn’t think you could anything else with it, but Part 2 became more of a comedy. But Part 1 — The Exorcist was terrifying of course — but something about Evil Dead and the tree. It was like you wasn’t safe. When the tree raped the girl in Evil Dead I was like, “Man, okay. I want to add a story to that.” One of the coolest, craziest guys we know is ODB. And I saw Evil Dead first and I told him about it and he watched it and was scared. He thought he couldn’t go to sleep. He was like, “Yo, man, why you make me watch that shit? That shit was scary, man.”
Heaven forbid you end up on death row — what’s your last meal?
I hope I wouldn’t end up in that situation, but I’m going to say something totally, totally disgusting for you. I’m a vegan, but I probably would like a meal that included some steak, some fish, some noodles instead of rice, and some broccoli with a nice glass of grey tea sweetened. But what I would like for desert would be a woman. It’s Playboy — I can make these comments.
What’s the first song you knew the words to that wasn’t one of your own?
The first one I sung from top to bottom nonstop was probably The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
What is your pop-culture blind spot? I think maybe I’m blind to what’s happening on today’s TV. I don’t watch enough shows to know all the great things that’s going on. I just seen one episode of Scandal, you know what I mean?
What was your first car?
The first car that we bought was an old Coupe DeVille. It was a used car and it was so old and decrepit, but we could drive it around with girls in it…and mice would be in the car.
I bet the girls loved that.
Yeah, we lost a few dates based on that.
What would consider your favorite mistake in life?
I can be totally honest with you: I think my favorite mistake, man, was not pulling out, you know what I mean? But it turned out to be a life that I needed. You know some young teenagers, just doing it, running around having fun and not paying attention to that ten minutes can change your life. And I experienced that, but my life changed for the better at least, and that’s why it wasn’t something that was like a real plan. But it turned out great.