Most of us have fond childhood memories of toting quarters into the arcade and attempting to beat the high score on the fabled Capcom Street Fighter game. Ever since Byron Mann first grabbed our attention as the con artist Ryu Hoshi in the big-screen adaptation almost two decades ago, the martial arts star has starred in a plethora of action flicks such as Red Corner with Richard Gere and The Corruptor with Mark Wahlberg.
Hitting both theatres and television this month in Universal’s martial arts flick The Man with the Iron Fists with RZA, Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu and a starring role on the CW’s new hit Arrow, Mann took a break from his kick-ass duties to teach us how to be a martial arts hero, the secret to winning over Lucy Liu and the intensity of filming an action flick.
Playboy.com: What can you tell us about your new film, The Man with the Iron Fists?
Mann: It’s an original film—it’s not based on anything. It’s based on a vision by RZA. It’s set in 18th century China. It’s a story involving several clans at war with each other, with an English man—played by Russell Crowe—and a black man—played by RZA—caught in between. The best way to sum it up…think of the movie as Lord of the Rings meets Genghis Khan meets Enter the Dragon. The martial arts in this movie are jaw-dropping.
Playboy.com: What was the hardest thing to film?
Mann: The action was not easy. The [action] was directed by Corey Yuen, who does all of the Transporter movies. To give you an example, I broke my knee while filming—I ran full-speed into the corner of an apple box. It blew up to the size of a basketball, I was rushed to the hospital…and then I came back and continued filming. Everybody had to step up [in this film], it was heavy, heavy action. There were wires everywhere. We had 120 days of shooting, then we had a second unit doing just the action and that was another 120 days.
Playboy.com: What was the biggest challenge with filming in China?
Mann: We filmed at a studio called Hengdian, the biggest studio in China and perhaps the world. It sounds nitpicky, but one of the largest challenges was the cold. It’s not like shooting at Universal Studios—there’s no heating at all. We were shooting in -20, -10 degrees and no heating. It’s hard to act; it’s not as easy as shooting here [in L.A.].
Playboy.com: Tell us about your character, Silver Lion.
Mann: Silver Lion is basically the main villain in this movie. He’s like the son of the king who turned out to be the bad guy and he basically betrayed everyone—RZA, Russell Crowe’s character—all of them are after the Silver Lion. He becomes an evil prince. Originally we don’t know that he’s bad until a third of the way through the movie, but that was an initial long cut; you can’t have a three-hour movie, so it’s now clear that he’s the evil prince from the get-go.
Playboy.com: It’s been almost 18 years since you filmed Street Fighter. What have you learned about the action film industry and martial arts since then? Is there anything you would have liked to have known back then about filming this genre?
Mann: I would’ve done more stretching…[laughs] I actually mean it. To really do stunts and action well, you need to be limber—that’s the first prerequisite. Since Street Fighter, I’ve trained in Wushu. It’s a fancy word for Chinese martial arts plus a little acrobatics. I was trained by Tony Chang, who did all the martial arts for Hero, House of Flying Daggers, all these big films. But what I love about it is that you learn these stretching techniques which make you 100 percent more limber. Before [SF] I thought that the bigger, the better; the bigger the muscles and body, the better. Now as I look back it’s better to be lean and mean. Instead of bulk I go defined. It’s better on your body: you go faster and it’s better on your joints. A lot of guys have humungous chests and biceps, but their legs are like chicken feet. So they have knee problems because they’re supporting their upper bodies. There’s a way of hitting hard but landing lightly. There’s ways of doing things.
Playboy.com: How intimidating is a sexy woman like Lucy Liu when brandishing a sword?
Mann: [Laughs] Lucy brandishes much more than a sword in the film. She was fantastic; she has that reputation as the ice queen but she was very warm. She asked me where the nearest organic food shop was in China. I told her there were none. [laughs]
Playboy.com: How does one impress the great Ice Queen?
Mann: No pun intended, but if you can do the playboy well, you’ll impress her. She likes to laugh. I think certain things that I did made her laugh; maybe my character was funny? [laughs] I wasn’t working to do it, but it came out naturally.
Playboy.com: Can you give us five things you need to know to become a martial arts hero?
Mann: As I mentioned, you’ve got to be limber.
You’ve got to know how to hit hard and land soft or you’re not going to make it.
You’ve got to be able to follow the choreography. It’s choreographed—follow it!
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Gone is the age that the hero is invincible. People need to relate to you; show some vulnerability.
You’ve got to either be smart…or know how to act it. [laughs]
Playboy.com: You’ve just joined the cast of The CW’s Arrow. What can you tell us about that?
Mann: Wow, I signed this confidentiality form…but I can tell you Arrow is about a rich kid (played by Stephen Amell) that’s on a ship and it capsizes and everyone dies except for him. He gets marooned on an island for five years, then returns as a vigilante. It’s based off the DC comic book Green Arrow. My character is a very secretive character, but I can say it’s someone he meets on the island. My character is intrinsically involved with his evolution into the Arrow. My character up until last week didn’t have a name—his name is Yao Fei—my character is based off a character from the comic book but has been modified. Watch me shoot some arrows! [laughs] [Arrow] is going to be much more gritty, darker and edgy than Smallville.
Playboy.com: What do you have coming up?
Mann: I have a film [A Stranger in Paradise] I did last year with Stuart Townsend. It’s a thriller set in Bangkok, and we were filming when the country was flooding. Each day I’d wake up I’d look out to see if flooding was coming down the street. Crew members would be getting phone calls that their homes are underwater while filming—they kept filming! I also did a big Chinese movie that’s opening in China that’s called Cold War. It’s kind of like that film Infernal Affairs which was [the basis of]The Departed.
Playboy.com: What was your first Playboy?
Mann: I was in Hong Kong and my buddy got ahold of a Playboy magazine—and we were 10 years old. At that age you’re looking at these images and you’re shaking—your body doesn’t know what’s going on. We were hovering over it at the park—it’s like Noah’s Ark. We couldn’t take it home so we decided to dig a hole in the park and cover it. It’s probably still there.
Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Follow Byron Mann on Twitter @Byron_Mann