Steven Seagal: Even Steven

Three years ago Steven Seagal, a complete unknown, appeared on the cover of The Los Angeles Times Calendar section, accompanied by a story that said CAA head Michael Ovitz intended to make this man a star. Those who scoffed--and there were many--didn't know Michael Ovitz very well. Seagal's first picture, an action/aikido movie called Above the Law, was a success, especially considering its miniscule budget. And Seagal didn't go away. His next two movies, Hard to Kill and Marked for Death, did even better. Suddenly Seagal was being counted among the most powerful men in Hollywood. The scoffing ceased.

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Who is Seagal? His background has been shrouded in ambiguity and intrigue. This we know: He was raised in Orange County, in Southern California, but left home early for Japan, where he studied the martial and spiritual arts until he reached a high-degree mastery of aikido. He married a Japanese woman, had two children, established a dojo (an aikido training center), met the actress Kelly LeBrock, divorced his wife and married her. He supposedly got involved with the CIA, traveled to Third World countries, then returned to the U.S. to set up his dojos in Taos, New Mexico, and Los Angeles. An aikido student, Ovitz saw Seagal's fighting ability, and larger-than-life (6'4") presence, and thought he'd make a tough action hero. The three pictures followed quickly. But Seagal wasn't happy. He didn't like the director of his second picture, didn't like the writers of his third, felt he could do better himself. Now comes Out for Justice, a film he has co-produced. At last, he says, it's a film he believes in.

When I spoke with people who have worked with or for Steven Seagal I found a reluctance to talk openly about him. One assistant said she just didn't want to say anything. A crew member on two of his films said only that he was a wild man, that I'd better be prepared for whatever paranoia he's expressing at the moment, and warned that I'd better keep my car running. A writer said I must be very careful around him, he knows firearms for real and could be a very dangerous person. Someone who knew him before his first movie says he invented his persona, that he went to Japan to dodge the draft, that he never even met the aikido sensai he claims to have studied with. But all of this comes from people who speak in whispers, who refuse to be quoted, and thus is no more than hearsay.

On the set of Out for Justice Seagal is working with the director, John Flynn, on a scene where actress Jo Champa and her son have to dive into a bathtub to dodge bullets. Seagal wrote this scene and is excited about it. "This is a great scene, a great scene," he says to his wife Kelly, who is there with their two small children, Dominic and Annaliza. After the scene is shot, Seagal doesn't quite see the greatness in it. Not enough bullets, he decides. The sound of gunfire must be more rapid--eight, ten shots in a row, then a few more at random. It's set up again, ears are plugged, the shots come louder, quicker, smoke is in the air. Seagal is satisfied. He walks out past the food table, grabs a handful of candy bars, and heads for his trailer to eat a hearty three-plate lunch, down Super Papaya Enzyme Plus pills by the dozens to aid his digestion, spend a few moments with his family, and talk about all the contradictions that have been printed about him.

Lawrence Grobel: There are a lot of distortions out there about you. Think we'll be able to clear some of them up?

Steven Seagal: You do 1,000 interviews, 20 percent of every one is not what you said, or is twisted a little. If you multiply 20 by 1,000 you've got a lot of inaccuracies out there. And all that these asshole people will do is they'll take all the different inaccuracies, build them up and say, "See, he's a phony. See, he's a liar." It's humiliating and degrading to have to talk about things that are so trivial.

LG: People _magazine and the _National Enquirer recently openly questioned the truth of what you say. Why have you allowed yourself to become a media target?

SS: In the beginning they were very nice to me, but I was warned by my publicist that when you get too big, there's always some pricks who are going to try to come after you. Do Kelly and I look like we're having a problem?

LG: Is that the latest?

SS: Yeah, the fucking Enquirer wrote we're getting a divorce. You read this shit and we have to laugh, there are details about these fucking intimate arguments that we got in and she stood in front of the door and held the clothes... what is this shit? It's all made up!

LG: And was People's piece delving into what they called your "murky" past also made up?

SS: Someone said to me that People made the turn from a magazine to a shit periodical like the Enquirer after they fucked Robin Williams. Now, no movie star will ever do an interview with them. My publicist gave them the truth about me and they chose not to print that. I could sue them and I could win, but I don't want to spend fucking five years and five million dollars. But it's a Time/Warner publication and I'm not going to forget that. Believe me. I spent 30 years of my life going through a tremendous amount of training, things I could never begin to explain to you, to earn a reputation that I think was fairly well deserved. There are a lot of people out there who think I'm one of the best in the world at what I am. And I didn't work these many years to develop this reputation, which is based on honor, for some flighty little male impersonator to take these cheap stabs at me. It bothers me because I just don't think it's right.

LG: We'll get into your story and try to clear up some of the myths, but first, I've got to tell you that, in researching your background, I've never come across so many people who didn't want to go on the record about an interview subject. Is it because you're close with Mike Ovitz, one of the most powerful people in the industry? Or are they just afraid of you?

SS: I don't think people don't want to talk about me because I'm close to Ovitz. Some of the people that you're talking about know that I have a bit of a mysterious past, they know that I'm a man of honor and if they say something they should know what they're saying. With some of these people there's a very good reason why they haven't been able to talk about me. Because maybe I had an incident with them where I said, "Look, this is the way this is, if you want to talk about me, know what you're saying. Let it be the truth, because if it's not I'm going to come back and talk to you." That's the way I am.

LG: And have you "straightened out" those who have talked in the past?

SS: You know, you could make me look really bad, but let me just say this: if somebody said something about me that was untrue, yeah, I would go talk to them. And if I haven't, I still will, yes. But please don't paint me in the wrong light, I don't want to be painted as a fucking thug and a jerk. It's a point of honor.

LG: What got you interested in the Oriental arts?

SS: When I was a little boy I saw a demonstration of the martial arts at a football halftime in Michigan. This was in the '50s. And I can remember seeing a little old man out there tossing these big people that were coming at him like they were pieces of paper. There was something that came up inside me that said, "That is what I am meant to do."

LG: It's been written that you studied with Morihei Uyeshiba, the founder of aikido and a great Shinto mystic. It's also been written that he died two years before you got to Japan. What's the truth?

SS: Never met him. I got to see him, listen to him, watch him, never met him.

LG: What was it about aikido that attracted you more than karate, t'ai chi, or jujitsu?

SS: Aikido is not merely about fighting and the development of the physical self but the perfection of the spiritual man at the same time. It has very harmonious movements, very beautiful to watch and beautiful for your body to feel. The movements are basically based on another person attacking you and you using that momentum and their state of mind to turn it back on them.

LG: Aikido plus Shinto mysticism constitutes a religion that must have been very different from your own Western background.

SS: I was a very religious kid. I was raised as an Episcopalian. Like every religion that I'd ever known as a child, particularly Catholicism, their doctrine would say: We are the way and we are the only way. What I found with Shinto mysticism and aikido was that they were the first religion that said, "We are all searching for God and we may go different pathways but we are all trying to get to the same place." That was very meaningful for me.

LG: You say you were an Episcopalian. I had heard that you were Jewish and that you changed your name from Siegel to Seagal like Marion Morrison changed his to John Wayne.

SS: No. Everybody thinks that. I didn't know John Wayne wasn't his name. Marion's a nice name.

LG: Did you get into many fights growing up?

SS: Yeah, I got into fights every day of my life for a long time. It's a little embarrassing for me to recall childhood incidents and recount them.

LG: Did you ever have a nickname?

SS: That's a great question. I'm sure I had a few.

LG: Such as... ?

SS: They're too embarrassing.

LG: What about sex, how embarrassing was that?

SS: Nobody talked to me about it, it was something I learned about in the streets.

LG: How old were you when you lost your virginity?

SS: About 15, 16.

LG: You seem reluctant to talk about your childhood.

SS: I have a gift of completely letting things go out of my mind that I don't look at [as] having value for me. I always hated being a child. I always felt like an adult trapped in a child's body.

LG: Were you close to your mother or father?

SS: I was so afraid of my father that I tried to be real careful around him.

LG: Was he as big as you are?

SS: As big as me, every bit. I was sort of a loner. I had three sisters--two younger, one older--of whom I had very little to do with, almost nothing. And I had very little to do with my mother and father growing up. My mother was a medical receptionist or a nurse, something like that. I just wasn't close with my parents or my grandparents, who I knew very superficially. I know it sounds hard to believe, but I had no relationship with my family. I just wanted to get out.

LG: When did you get out?

SS: I left home when I was 15 and I started working in Burger King. And I was a musician and played guitar and drums in different places, just tried to get up enough money to eat.

LG: Did you drop out of high school?

SS: No, I graduated.

LG: Didn't you enroll at Fullerton College?

SS: I was there for a couple of weeks and I knew it wasn't for me.

LG: What about reading, anything influence you?

SS: I remember reading something called The Cockroach by Kafka.

LG: Metamorphosis.

SS: Yeah, that was one of the strangest things I've ever fucking read. It sparked my imagination. See, when I was a kid--this is my only kid story, after this you won't get any more--I was in the third or fourth grade and I believed that I had an ability or gift from God for certain things. We had a creative writing class and I came up with this really interesting story about this guy who woke up and found himself in this strange world below the ground, with little people. The story ends as the guy wakes up--having been a test pilot for the military, he'd gotten in a plane crash, and of course this is something that he had dreamed. We were being graded and the teacher gave me a C and in red ink she wrote under it, "Bizarre, to say the least." As a real put-down. That was it for me. For the next 20 years I wouldn't pick up a pen again. Finally my desire to write was so strong that I overcame that, but I'll never forget it as long as I live. And I intend to someday write something that will get some kind of acclaim.

LG: So after the trauma of school you decided to go to Japan. How did you think you could support yourself?

SS: A lot of friends told me I could make a living teaching English there. And I did--enough for me to study what I wanted to study. I went there a few times in my early youth and by about 1970-71 I was there to stay for a long while.

LG: And you managed to pick up the language within a year?

SS: I spoke very well, very quickly.

LG: You were in Japan during the Vietnam War. Some say you went there to avoid being drafted.

SS: First of all, I was never afraid to go and fight. Back then I was politically unaware. I would have thought I was fighting for a just cause, which I no longer think. I would have been happy to have gone. As it turned out, I got a very high lottery number and was so deeply immersed in the Japanese culture that I just decided to make that my life.

LG: Were you involved at all with the drug culture in the '70s?

SS: Missed it all. When I got to Japan I was working so hard to develop special powers and special traits, the last thing that I wanted was a cigarette or alcohol or drugs.

LG: And once you discovered aikido, were you sweeping the floors of your dojo, and doing your master's bidding?

SS: You're the only person I can talk to who might understand this. I was doing a cover for GQ and started to tell this guy stories and he looked at me and said, "What the fuck, you crazy or what? You go to a dojo and you sweep the mats and massage the master and make food for him, what for?" It was so insulting to me I thought, fuck it, never again will I tell another journalist these stories. Westerners can't imagine there's anything else out there. I'm the first white boy to receive these credentials and I went through more than the Japanese went through. It was a little bit harder than sweeping the mats in the morning and massaging the master. I mean, you got your ass kicked.

LG: Did you do anything other than train and teach English in Japan?

SS: I started writing for magazines and newspapers. I did lots of articles, just like you, for a few years.

LG: You also met and married a Japanese woman, Miyako Fujitani, who was also training in aikido. How did you meet?

SS: At an aikido affair. We had no intention of getting married but she got pregnant.

LG: How were you, such a big geijin, accepted by her family?

SS: I learned to become very small.

LG: The People article said her father was an aikido master and that you never started your own dojo but worked at his.

SS: That's another preposterous fucking thing. Her father never even heard the word aikido, he had been dead for the last 35 years. It's all fucking lies. That's what I mean by irresponsible journalism. It's fucking poppycock.

LG: So how did you wind up with your own dojo in Japan?

SS: I had started a dojo in Kansai, in a place called Ishiya, and my fiancee at the time had become the victim of a confidence game where a large building that had a dojo in it was part of it. The building was worth $20 million and there were some very seedy characters that were doing some very bad things to her and her family. I spent a couple years fighting these pricks and finally I won.

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