BGN had the pleasure of talking to Michael Jai White about the action film he wrote and plays the lead role in: As Good As Dead. The film centers on Bryant, a former cop who moved to Mexico to escape his past, only for it to return to him with a vengeance when the martial arts training of his mentee Oscar (Luca Oriel) is released online.
This interview has been edited for time and clarity.
What led to the decision to make the beginning of the film mostly in silence in your writing process? There are others parts that are in silence too, but the beginning particularly stood out to me.
It just what came to mind when I was thinking about it. Let the visuals tell the story. It’s what I was inspired to do.
What led to that inspiration?
I like to do things that would be considered global in storytelling. Those images, they do work for [the storytelling]. Just wanted [the audience] to settle back and see what this life is. Many times, I think dialogue is a crutch. I just wanted to get people in the right frame of mind. To settle in and be a voyeur to someone’s life.
I always want someone in Istanbul to be able to feel and understand what it’s like going on in a movie without, necessarily, the dialogue. I think those things are more powerful.
What was it like working with the stunt doubles and stunt coordination? What was the team effort in the actors’ fight choreography versus the stunt doubles?
I do my own action. We don’t rely too much on the stunt doubles. Only in certain cases. It’s just irresponsible to put the actors in harm’s way. With this particular fighting style, I thought, it led to what I was describing in the movie: having a fighting style that, once the bad guys see it, they can identify and track my mysterious character to that style.
What was it like working with your co-stars?
I couldn’t have been more lucky to have the co-stars that I had. It’s not very often you have someone who can do martial arts and act. And to have that in a seasoned actor [like Luca Oriel] doesn’t happen often. Turns out Luca trained with one of the best martial artists, Peter Cunningham, who is a friend of mind. Luca won several tournaments, but was also working as an actor. His temperament, his spirit, it was like [Oscar] came to life. I set the film in Mexico, where you don’t see a lot of demand for Latino action stars. But I found one.
There’s a certain assigned imagery that comes with [Hector, Oscar’s older brother, played by Guillermo Ivan], but sometimes our heroes come in different packages. I like how he gave the character that spin. It all comes down to what our opportunities are.
You have named being influenced by films such as Karate Kid and blaxploitation films. What about your lived experiences influenced the process of writing this movie?
One of my main influences is my brother. He left the United States, went into Mexico, fell in love, and started a family there. I’ve always had a love for the Latin community. I wanted to have this movie unfold in that community. My love for the Latin community and the homage to my brother, who passed away just before we started filming. I use his name in the movie, Bryant.
This film was comprised of a great deal of things from my life. My other brother just retired as a secret service agent. I’ve always been close to law enforcement in my life. I was almost a cop before I was an actor, but my IQ test score was too high. Thinking that would be a positive, it turned out to be a negative. If your IQ is too high, it gives them information that you won’t be challenged in the job or will be more led to corruption.
You wouldn’t have been as compliant.
Yeah, which was a shock to me. It is a further shock that that is something pervasive throughout law enforcement. Which kind of helped me understand how law enforcement is designed to think alike.
I was offered to go back to school to become a federal agent or the internal affairs side of things. Even as an actor, I was going to go be a reserve cop, right around the same time Shaquille O’Neal was doing it. But they always did it in the summer when I was working. It’s been something that’s been in my spirit. Part of something I really believe is service to others. It comes full circle; as an entertainer, I am in service to others.
As you name being in service to others in your craft, I’m curious about how you have been taking care of yourself in your grief in your craft.
No matter what, you have to be honest to yourself. I would be remiss if I didn’t do that. I am so blessed to be able to get my art out there. So many people try and try, and they’re unable to continue to do that. I want to encourage people to try. If you’re inspired by what I’m doing, please, continue to try. I’m blessed to be able to get my messages out there.
I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet getting to do the art I fought and bled for. Not a lot of people from my background get a chance to tell their stories. So, I’m in a unique place where I must do this. I’ve been on my own since I was fourteen. I’ve experienced things that people only see in movies. I think I have something to contribute in storytelling and my unusual path to where I am.
As Good as Dead is out now in theaters and all streaming services.
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Maya Williams (she/her & they/them) is a writer based in Portland, ME. Maya has contributed to spaces such as The Tempest, Black Youth Project, RaceBaitr, The Gay Gaze, and more.