One day before X-Men 2: X-Men United opened in theaters, I found myself on the phone with outrageously gorgeous X2 star Kelly Hu. She was really sweet and really funny. And she still has my phone number, but she never called me again. So I like to pretend that she lost it during a battle with ninjas or something, and one day she’s going to find it and give me a ring-a-ling.
INTERVIEW: KELLY HU
She fought alongside Sammo Hung on Martial Law, rocked The Rock in The Scorpion King and can currently be seen as Yuriko “Lady Deathstrike” Oyama in X2. Impact’s John Bierly caught up with Hawaiian-born Kelly Hu about her action hero roots.
“I didn’t actually start doing martial arts until about 10 years into my career,” Kelly explains. And she’s happy to blame her father. “My dad would always take me to the movie theaters in Chinatown and we’d watch the latest movies that came out of Hong Kong.” Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee made lasting impressions, and so did Kelly’s own brother. “I had a brother who did a little bit of Kung Fu when he was a kid. It’s always been in the back of my mind, thinking that it was a cool thing to learn one day. And I had a roommate who had just gotten her black belt, and she invited me to one of her classes. I took my first class and fell in love with it.”
Kelly earned a black belt in Kanzen Budo Kai, a form of Karate based on Shotokhan. It came in handy for her stint on Martial Law. “Fighting with Sammo is like butter,” Kelly says. “You don’t even have to be standing in the right place; he’ll make up for whatever mistakes you make. He’s absolutely amazing. And the guy can move so well! He’s really a legend in his field.”
The show was a stepping stone on Kelly’s path to action star status. “It was a really fun series to do, with all the action and stuff there was always a different thing going on every day. You never knew what was going to be coming up. It was always quite light on set. It was a lot of fun.”
And given her success in action roles, Kelly doesn’t mind the “action hero” label. “Do I have a choice?” she laughs. “It’s really the fun part of my career, to be able to do all of this stuff. I don’t see anything wrong with being labeled an action star at all.”
She’s also proud to be part of the genre. “It’s stuff that everybody can relate to worldwide. In a lot of comedies, oftentimes you have to understand the culture, like American culture if the film is being made in America, or there are a lot of references to American-type things. Action films do so great internationally because everyone likes to see the action and the fast cars and the fighting and things like that.”
Recent performances in Cradle 2 the Grave and X2 have given her insight into Hollywood’s fascination with female action heroes. “I think that women like them because they are the kind of women that they wish they could be. Very powerful, assertive, tough. Kicking guys’ asses, but still sexy and beautiful and feminine. And then men like them because they’re hot! Maybe men really like to get beat up secretly.”
X2 opened at number one and so did Cradle 2 the Grave, which was produced by Joel Silver (The Matrix and many, many more) and co-starred Jet Li, DMX, and Mark Dacascos. Kelly found it a fun movie to make.
“When you’ve got guys like Tom Arnold and Anthony Anderson to hang out with on set, it’s always some craziness going on,” she laughs. She was also excited about the fire-and-rain fight between Dacascos and Li. “I was really upset that I didn’t get to watch them do their filming because we were at the same location but at two separate sets. I was shooting my fight with Gabrielle Union while Mark was shooting his fight with Jet. But I would go in every so often during the breaks and see these guys soaked to the bone and I just thought, ‘I am so happy I am not in this shot!'”
She also has high praise for Union. “Gabrielle is awesome to work with. She is such a cool girl, and has such a great sense of humour. She did not know a lot about fighting because I don’t think she’s ever done it before, so it was really her first time going at this stuff and I think she did an amazing job. She was very committed to what she was doing and she has great coordination, so I think it worked out really well.”
Kelly enjoys doing her own stunts. “I really like to try to do as much as possible,” she says. “As much as they’ll allow me to do. But there’s often things that they just don’t let you do.”
Her fight with Hugh Jackman in X2 required lots of wirework. “It wasn’t very martial artsy, though,” Kelly explains. “It was mainly a fight between two mutants. I think they mainly wanted to stay away from the martial arts type of moves.”
She also says that the film is more than just action. “That’s the cool thing about Bryan Singer,” she notes. “He would not have done this film if that’s all it was. For him it’s all about the story and the characters. And I think that’s what makes this film so special, too, is that it’s not just an action film. It’s not just a comic book film. It’s really a great story with fully developed characters and amazing actors cast in the roles. All of the special effects and the action stuff is built around that.”
X2‘s universal themes also appeal to her. “It’s a movie that has a very strong element of prejudice and discrimination, and hopefully it’ll teach people about being tolerant and about accepting people for their differences. I think that’s why this comic book is so popular, because it has that underlying tone. There’s no one in the world who hasn’t experienced feeling like a mutant at some point in their life. Being left out of a group, or isolated, or just being different. So I think that’s why the X-Men comics are so popular with people.”
She’s even become a fan herself. “I read comic books as a kid, but I was more like an Archie and Ritchie Rich type of girl, Josie and the Pussycats, stuff like that. Not a real action comic book fan. I never even knew the X-Men existed until the first movie came out. And then of course after getting hired I got slipped a couple of comic books and it’s easy to see why people get hooked. They’re awesome.”
Though Yuriko Oyama fights Wolverine, Kelly points out that she’s under the control of military madman William Stryker (Brian Cox). “She doesn’t really know what she’s doing when she’s under his power,” Kelly explains. “She’s a mutant who’s fighting other mutants, but she’s not necessarily a bad character. She’s just not in control of who she is.”
She particularly enjoyed working with Cox. “Brilliant!” Kelly exclaims. “This entire cast is full of brilliant actors. He’s a stage actor at heart, and you can hear it in his voice. He and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen have done theater in England many years back, and to be able to work with such an impressive cast was such an honor.”
Though Kelly is a major player in X2, she has only one line of dialogue. That left her to find different ways of creating her character. “It uses entirely different acting muscles. It’s all physical,” she says. “It’s all about the way you walk, the way you stand, the way you hold your head. And the fact that I’m drugged — so I can’t use facial expressions, either — made it very, very difficult!”
Kelly discusses other performers who have inspired her. “As an actor, it’s a whole different list than as a martial artist. People like Meryl Streep just blow me away. I can so appreciate actors like that who are not out there for the publicity. She’s really there for the craft, and it’s so brilliant. This woman is like a chameleon. If I could have a fraction of the talent that she has, I would be happy,” she says.
“As for martial artists,” Kelly continues, “I really admire guys like Jackie [Chan]. Not just because they do their own stunts and all that kind of stuff, but because he has not just the martial arts talent but the talent to do comedy, which is, to me, even harder. To combine the two into one is phenomenal.”
Kelly was only 18 when she arrived in Los Angeles, and has been living her dream since day one. “I had wide eyes and I was just so eager to be working as an actress that it wasn’t really a shock for me at all. I was introduced to a lot of different things like bagels, for instance,” she laughs. “It seemed like everyone here knew what a bagel was, and I remember being on the set for the first time and seeing a bagel on the cart and saying, ‘Is that a bagel?’ I guess it’s little things like that that kind of make you feel foreign. All in all it was a great experience. I started working right away and I was very lucky. I always knew that I was going to be doing this for my life’s work. I think it’s just in my stars. It’s that kind of job, that’s just sort of in your bones.”
Her positive attitude has roots in advice given to her by character actor William Hootkins, who was shot by Jack Nicholson in Batman and blown up by TIE Fighters as Porkins in Star Wars. “He’s an amazing stage actor who lived in London for a number of years,” Kelly fondly recalls. “I was fortunate enough to meet him very early on, and he gave me this quote that I pondered for years. It’s a quote by Kipling: ‘Treat both failure and success as equal impostors.’ And I could never figure out what that meant for the longest time. For some reason it just stuck to me. I think what it means is to not believe all the hype that goes on and not get conceited because people are talking all this great stuff about you, because eventually some of it’s going to turn bad. If you’re going to be believing that stuff, you’re going to have to start believing the bad stuff, too. So just take it for what it is, and do with it what you want, but don’t take it too seriously.”
In the meantime, Kelly is having the time of her life. “I have a project that I’m hopefully going to be doing with Gale Anne Hurd soon, who’s also doing The Hulk, called Jade. We’re still in the process of shopping it out and writing it. It looks like Ronny Yu (The 51st State, Freddy vs. Jason) is set to direct.” Comic books fans will remember Jade as an ancient vampire sorceress who uses martial arts to conquer her foes.
It’s also likely that she’ll meet Yuriko Oyama again in the inevitable X3. “I am signed on officially to do the third, but I think it’s a little too early for them to be discussing those details. I think that they’re talking about doing the third movie. Whether or not they put me in is really their option.”
Basking in the success of what’s already one of the year’s biggest movies, Kelly is looking forward to seeing the Matrix sequels and Hulk. Her own future in Hollywood is guaranteed. “I’m playing such great roles, like these roles in comic books and stuff like that. If I could do that on a larger scale, that would be just as cool. I really love doing the action stuff. I would love to be able to sink my teeth into another drama. I don’t have just one dream role. There’s a lot of good stuff out there that I hope to be able to choose from.”
Before I go, I thank Kelly for her time and for all the kick-ass performances. “Hopefully there will be many more,” she says, “and we’ll be talking again.” That works for me, Kelly.