Steven Seagal: Even Steven
LG: Were you going against the Yakuza, the Japanese mob?
SS: I'm not going to use the word "Yakuza" any more because I'm just really trying to stay away from the fucking sensationalism. Maybe the Yakuza were involved, maybe they weren't. They were bad people, criminals, okay?
LG: So how did you deal with them? You were a foreigner, alone, still basically a kid...
SS: Yeah, but I was a tenacious motherfucker, man, and I was fearless. I jumped right into their faces. What I think ended up saving me was being able to get to the press.
LG: The media actually helped you get them to back off?
SS: Yeah, and they got the property back.
LG: And that's where you opened your dojo?
LG: What's the most dangerous thing you've ever done?
Kelly LeBrock: [bottle-feeding Dominic] Staying with his ex-wife.
SS: [smiling] That wasn't nice.
LG: I thought he was going to say, marrying his latest one.
SS: [puts his arm around Kelly] You're a banshee, aren't you? Isn't she beautiful? [back to the question. . .] The toughest situation you can be in is when you know you're dead. And you say, "This is it, I'm fucking dead." It's happened many times to me. It's like war. But I never tell war stories. I was involved in a lot of things that I would just like to forget about.
LG: Was marrying Miyako one of them? During your marriage you had two children, a son and a daughter. You told Arsenio Hall that your ex-wife takes the money you send her but she doesn't let you see your kids.**
SS: I may have to go to court about that. I send a lot of money there all the time, she'll never let them come here. I believe that if I'm sending that much money I have a right to see them. And I want them to be able to come here to see me.
LG: What finally went wrong with your marriage to Miyako?
SS: I tried for ten years to make it work. In the end I left because I didn't like her, didn't like the kind of person she was.
LG: Didn't you also meet Kelly while you were in Japan?
SS: We met in Japan, yeah. I got a phone call from a friend who was a publicist who said, "Listen, a client of mine is here, would you take care of her while she's there?" I didn't know who she was. She tells the story of me knocking on her hotel room door and looking through the peep hole wondering, "Who is this ugly guy?" Then she opened the door and thought, "Well, pretty ugly, but not as ugly as he was through the peep hole."
LG: This was before you had anything to do with films?
Kelly: He was a martial artist.
LG: Did you demonstrate your skills?
SS: I demonstrated my healing skills on her.
LG: Where did you pick up spiritual healing?
SS: I studied acupuncture, bone manipulation, and herbology over there for many years.
LG: While in Japan you also made contact with people in the CIA, didn't you?
SS: A handful, yeah. It was a good theater for the CIA, there were a lot of Soviets there involved in espionage, whether it's computer technology or whatever.
LG: So these CIA people saw your martial arts and linguistic abilities and what? Were you recruited?
SS: I'm just going to say, no comment. I knew a bunch of them, I worked with some of them. Stuff like that.
LG: What about stuff like dealing with the Shah of Iran?
SS: I never did anything for the Shah of Iran, but I did try to set up a safe passage and security for some of his family.
LG: One of whom, a nephew, got killed?
SS: That happened, yeah. He got killed because he didn't listen. He just didn't think he needed security.
LG: But South Africa's Archbishop Tutu did when he came to America. Were you involved?
SS: I'm not going to say exactly what I did. With Tutu there were thousands of people who saw me bring him into the United States and get him out. There are other things that I did that were very covert.
LG: Have you ever done anything illegal where you've been arrested?
SS: I was arrested falsely a couple of times. I'm not sure that I want to see this stuff in print, it didn't have anything to do with drugs or assault and battery. I was just in possession of some weapons that they weren't sure if it was kosher or not and I ended up being able to show them it was.
LG: Did you have licenses for these weapons?
SS: Let me put it this way, if I were to carry a weapon I would have a license for it.
LG: How versed are you in firearms?
LG: Is there a particular gun that you like to use?
SS: A .45 is my personal favorite.
LG: How do you reconcile the use of weapons with the philosophy of the martial arts?
SS: To me the martial arts are the ways of war. In wanting to become familiar with the ways of war I tried the best I could to get on top of things. And be able to be a well-covered warrior.
LG: On screen you seem to have two signatures: one is that you break limbs, the other is your pony tail. How did each come about?
SS: The pony tail thing was something I never even thought about, I just didn't cut my hair and everybody liked the way I looked. The breaking limbs thing is something that I know how to do better than anybody else in film. When you want to give the bad guys a comeuppance, I thought that was a cinematic way to do it from time to time. I'm hoping that those are not my only signatures.
LG: Have you ever broken any real limbs?
LG: Accidentally or on purpose?
SS: On purpose.
LG: Then let me ask you the obvious next question: did you ever kill a man?
SS: No, but I'm about to right now. I'm going to answer that the way you know I'm going to answer. Who, me?
LG: When you moved back to the U.S., you opened up dojos in Taos and in Los Angeles. How did you attract students?
SS: Word of mouth. People want to find the best teacher.
LG: You still have your dojo in L.A. Do you still teach?
SS: I do private classes whenever I can.
LG: How much do you charge?
SS: I teach for free. I never take money, ever.
LG: You've been quoted as saying you became like a guru to Mike Ovitz.
SS: He has been a mentor to me when it comes to Hollywood and acting. And I was a little bit of a mentor to him when it came to some aspects of the martial arts.
LG: He was the one who encouraged you to become an actor and client?
SS: Absolutely, he was the one who picked me up and said, "I see something in you that I want up there and we're going to try to make it happen."
LG: And he brought some Warner Bros, executives to a sound stage for you to show your stuff?
SS: Ovitz wanted me to demonstrate for them. I did, apparently they were impressed, and that's the end of that.
LG: Or, rather, the beginning?
SS: No, that's not what got me a starring role. What got me that is they did a screen test and we shot an entire scene on 35mm and they liked what they saw.
LG: Was it Warner's hope that you would be the next Clint Eastwood?
SS: That's what they may have wanted at one time.
LG: That isn't what you wanted?
LG: How bad could that be?
SS: Clint had a fairly long career but there's only two films that he made that I ever really loved: The Beguiled and Play Misty for Me. And maybe the original Dirty Harry.
LG: When you spoke of Eastwood, you used the past tense.
SS: I like Clint, he's a nice man, but it happens to everybody. It happened to Burt Reynolds. One night you're the biggest star in the world and the next minute nobody knows you. It's going to happen to all of us. The important thing is to be able to take it with grace.
LG: Action adventure movies seem to draw the biggest box-office. Eastwood, Bronson, Burt Reynolds seem to have had their day; Stallone's beginning to wane; Schwarzenegger, Gibson, and Willis are still hot. But studios seem to grasp at the prospect of finding new bankable action heroes.
SS: That was the thing that Fox kept saying to me over and over again, that they felt I filled a void. However, for me, I'm hoping to be able to create a different kind of picture that's not limited to the martial arts.
LG: How important is it in your films to have a woman get shot?
SS: You have to create a conflict, a situation where you have a reluctant hero who wants to just go about his job. Something has to happen to propel him into a situation where he has to step up, at great sacrifice to himself, and get the bad guys. It doesn't work if the bad guys kill his mother's uncle's friend's neighbor's pet dog. You've got to make the stakes high.
LG: Let's talk about your first film, Above the Law. Were you surprised that it got made?
SS: The director Andy Davis and myself never thought that would get released.
LG: Who did you think was going to stop it?
SS: I imagined the government would. Who confiscated the Noriega tapes from CNN and why?
LG: But Above the Law was fiction, a movie.
SS: It's based on fact. Everybody thought it was a simple action film, but if you listen to what's being said, there's a lot going on. When I was on tour for it, I saw on national television a newscaster talking about the CIA being involved in narcotics trafficking for the purpose of funding covert operations and possibly even funding the contras, which the CIA created. And that was what Above the Law was about. I cannot to this day believe that we got away with saying what we said.
LG: Your second film was Hard to Kill, which made a lot of money, but you called it a cartoon.
SS: It's like anything else in life, you have to travel up the escalator fighting for control of your own destiny, your own career. If you're in control, then if you fail you have to blame yourself, but if someone else is in control, it's a hopeless feeling. I had a hard time with Warner Bros. at the time. That was primarily a picture that I felt I could have resurrected and made something very wonderful, but I got a director who didn't know how to direct. It was not a picture that I was proud of.
LG: Kelly acted with you in that one. How was she to work with?
SS: As an actress... deep, sensitive, caring, serious, articulate. The only wonderful experience on the movie was acting with her.
LG: One review of the film pointed out your limitations: "The movie is professional, enjoyable--and totally soulless. Like its star it never, ever sweats." How do you take that?
SS: Like water on a duck's back. I get out there and I sweat my fucking ass off. I have multiple people fucking attacking me, and I do some hard shit. And I do sweat. So, when they say "soulless" tell them to go fuck themselves! What does soulless mean? I'm anything but soulless.
LG: Didn't you say that you rewrote 93 percent of_ Hard to Kill_?
SS: That was Marked for Death. My attorneys, the director, producers of mine, we all looked at the final script and we counted like 93 percent I had totally rewritten. But I didn't get credit for that. Is that right to you? It's bullshit! But people in the business know the story with the Writers Guild.
LG: What is the story?
SS: It's very simple. If an actor goes on the screen and acts for five seconds he gets credit up there. If I find a screenplay that has an interesting concept but as a screenplay it would never, ever get made and I take it and rework it and spend thousands of hours to fix it up--it doesn't matter how much of it I change, the Writers Guild will never, ever give you credit because you are the second writer that's come on and they'll say, "You have to change over 50 percent of it." But they'll never give it to you no matter how much you change because they have a different way of counting.
LG: So Marked for Death wasn't exactly close to what you had envisioned?
SS: Not even slightly. I'm a man of honor. If you don't have honor you don't have anything. That's why it's real hard for me to tolerate the shit in this town.
LG: How bad is it?
SS: Eighty percent of the people that you meet in this town are not very brave people. My golden rule is, if you're talking to somebody that doesn't have any courage, don't trust them, because they can't stick to their convictions and be honest and stand up.
LG: In other words, you don't think very much of the Industry?
SS: There are two sides to it. One is I consider myself to be the luckiest man alive. I was born a poor boy and certainly I don't base happiness upon money, but I would say that God has really smiled on me and for that I really have to be thankful. I have the greatest wife on earth and four beautiful children. With people like Ovitz, I've been very lucky. Everybody's been very good to me. The other side is, as much as I have to thank Hollywood for what it has brought to me, it's full of the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are a lot of people who really don't care about anything other than what's a piece of meat and what they can market. Some of the greatest actors of our time can't get arrested right now if they piss on a cop's leg. And it's not because they can't act anymore, it's just the nature of Hollywood. One minute you're the king of the hill and the next minute nobody wants to know you. That kind of ungratefulness, that unloyalty, is very distasteful.
LG: You're closing in on being king for the day. Are you beginning to feel your power?
SS: I don't think that there's any one man who's very powerful at all. I mean, if Out for Justice grossed $300 million in America I still wouldn't think that I'm that powerful in the sense that I know that I'm certainly destructible very quickly. And I know if I pissed off the wrong people, or did the wrong thing, in a snap of the fingers I'd be gone.
LG: Still, you're excited about your new film?
SS: Yes, because it was a tremendous opportunity for me to get into a character and have fun with it. I made this a story about friendship, about two kids born and raised together in Benson-hurst and God's strange hand would have it that one of them becomes a cop and the other a mobster, which in Brooklyn is very, very possible, and even common. It's a picture about the neighborhood, about people, all endearing stuff.
LG: Haven't you also said that you'd rather make a Terms of Endearment or a My Left Foot than an action film like Commando?
SS: Yeah, I do. I really do. I haven't had the chance to make the kinds of films that I've wanted to make yet. They have been primarily action, and my greatest fear is to be pigeonholed into simply one genre. Because I'm not a martial arts actor. Do you call Spencer Tracy a martial arts actor because he used it in Bad Day at Black Rock? There's martial arts in The Manchurian Candidate, do you call Frank Sinatra a martial arts actor? How about Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor?
LG: Is directing in your future?
SS: I'm going to try directing at one time, maybe the next piece might be a nice one to cut my teeth on, we'll see.
LG: And what might that be?
SS: An environmental piece called House of Cruise, written by Brandon Guy Alamo. Greatest script I've ever read. It's about a man against nature. Kind of starts out like War Games where you see some sophisticated military base tracking a missile. It goes awry and there's this really interesting cross-cutting with this Stone Age tribe in the Amazon. Sure enough, this missile comes right through the triple canopy jungle and into the mouth of the sacred cave in which they are about to start this sacred ritual. It's a great story--and I didn't write it.
LG: Who are some of the directors you'd like to work with?
SS: Jim Cameron, Dick Donner, Sidney Lumet, Pollack, there's a ton of them out there.
LG: You didn't mention Francis Coppola or Martin Scorsese.
SS: I'm sure Coppola would never want me. Francis Ford Coppola, in my opinion, never had an original thought. Never. And he doesn't mind stealing things that are already published. He stole the entire book, In God's Name, from David Yallop, for Godfather III. Every fucking page, fucking frame for frame, he stole. And believe me, that ain't all he stole.
LG: That's a pretty strong accusation. I take it you didn't care for Godfather III?
SS: I hated it. I thought it was a piece of shit. Did you see it? Did you like it?
LG: Yeah, I did.
SS: Let me put it this way: I've been studying this subject for many years and I just thought that the casting was bad, from Pacino on down. And the story was really, really weak. It was an embarrassment. And the first two are my two favorite films of all time, the greatest films I've ever seen in my life.
LG: Well, that takes care of you and Coppola. What about Scorsese?
SS: He can be a talented director, but probably the worst movie ever made in the history of mankind was The Last Temptation of Christ.
SS: Why? Did you see it? Having Harvey Keitel with a Brooklyn accent playing an apostle...it was a joke. It didn't work. It was pitiful. And GoodFellas was also the worst picture I've ever seen in my life.
LG: We now know two major directors you won't have to worry about working with. Who are your favorite actors?
SS: Sir John Gielgud is one of my favorite living actors. And Al Pacino is just a fucking great actor. Even though I haven't liked some of the recent pieces he's done, Bobby De Niro has done some wonderful performances. I'm a big fan of Meryl Streep and Holly Hunter.
LG: Is there much competition you feel between yourself and guys like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Eastwood, Willis, and the other action heroes?
SS: I think there's room for all of us.
LG: But who's the toughest?
SS: If I had to get into a fistfight? I'd say probably Stallone could kick the shit out of any of the rest of us.
LG: Did I hear you correctly? Were you including yourself there?
SS: I don't want to sound braggadocio, but the difference between me and most of the actors is I don't give a fuck. I'm ready to die and I'm ready to do what I've got to do. I'm ready to go for it. And anybody that knows me knows that.
LG: Even with your family and all that lies ahead for you, you're still ready to die?
SS: That's the backbone of being a true warrior: not clinging to life. I don't want to die, but if I'm faced with it, I want to do what I've got to do, and that's a real man. You know what I'm thinking about these actors. But it would not be becoming of me to say I could kill any of them instantly. The only thing I could say is you don't know till you try.
Lawrence Grobel is the author of The Hustons, and he wrote about Steve Martin, and Marlon Brando, in our February issue.
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