Jackie Chan is a martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and philanthropist. He has appeared in over 150 films, including Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon, Kung Fu Panda, and The Foreigner.
In this special selection from his autobiography Never Grow Up, Jackie Chan (written with co-author Zhu Mo and translated by Jeremy Tiang) recalls the experience of filming his first two Hollywood movies. Never Grow Up, published by CBS sister company Simon & Schuster, is available now.
Jackie Chan Revisits First Hollywood Films in New Autobiography Never Grow Up
I quickly learned that an American film shoot was completely different from what I was used to in Hong Kong. The American way was very rigid. The director, Robert Clouse, who’d worked with Bruce Lee on Enter the Dragon, stuck strictly to the shot list for every scene, and had fixed ideas about where the camera should go and how the actors should be positioned. There was nothing wrong with this way of doing things, but it didn’t suit me.
In Hong Kong, we fooled around on set to try out different approaches. We would change the dialogue on the spot. That was not allowed in America. My English was so bad anyway that I had to focus all my attention on getting my lines right and forgot to make facial expressions. I would stammer through my speeches, looking wooden.
With action sequences, I was used to creating my own complex, beautiful movements, but this director insisted on sticking to the script and wouldn’t give me room to improvise. Repeatedly, I tried to suggest different sequences to him, but he replied, “No, we’ll shoot it as written” every time.
Scenes that should have been filled with breathtaking action just had me walking back and forth. “No one’s going to pay money to watch Jackie Chan taking a stroll,” I told him, to no avail. …
The Big Brawl, released in 1980, was a flop. I bought a ticket and watched it in the theater. I didn’t have to worry about being recognized because no one was there. A few Chinese showed up, but Americans simply weren’t interested. Although I knew the shoot had been lackluster, it was still painful to see the empty auditorium.
The studio wanted me to do publicity to support the film, and they lined up lots of interviews for me. My colleagues had warned me that you needed to be psychologically prepared to face American reporters, but I thought they were making a big deal out of nothing. After everything I’d suffered when I was younger, and everything I’d been through, how bad could a press conference be?
“How is your name pronounced?”
“Are you Bruce Lee’s disciple?”
“Can you break a brick with your bare hands?”
“Can you show us some karate?”
“Let’s see some kung fu!”
When all these questions came flying at me, I didn’t know how to cope with them. I was famous all over Asia, and people treated me with respect. But here, I was supposed to be a performing monkey? For one TV interview, I flew all the way to New York. The host’s questions were terrible, and my English was worse, so I hardly said a word. In the end, they just cut my segment.
That night, I lay on my hotel room bed and cried. This was much worse than I’d expected. Why did I give up a perfectly good Asian market to come to this place where no one liked me?
I spoke to a few experts about what went wrong with The Big Brawl (apart from the script, the direction, and my acting), and they told me that American audiences didn’t believe there was any force in my kicks and fists.
“You were fighting with the same guy for ten minutes,” one said. “You kicked him eight or nine times and he’s still standing. In Bruce Lee movies, his leg shot out, and the guy went flying!”
That would have been much easier to film, a punch here, a kick there, but that is not how a Jackie Chan film works. I couldn’t make something like that, nor would I want to.
The Cannonball Run was released in 1981. My name and the name of Michael Hui, my Chinese costar, were both prominently featured in the Asian posters to ensure sales. In America, Burt Reynolds got top billing. The film did well in Japan and America but did badly in Hong Kong. My fans did not want to see me playing a Japanese character, nor were they happy that I’d been relegated to comic relief, the butt of jokes for a bunch of Americans.
After my first venture in Hollywood, I returned to Hong Kong with my tail between my legs. But as you know by now, I don’t take defeat lightly. After a few years, I was ready to try again.
Excerpted from Never Grow Up by Jackie Chan, with Zhu Mo, translated by Jeremy Tiang. Copyright © 2018 by the author. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.