In this downloadable age of action films, martial artist crossover hopefuls are fewer and far between than ever before. Martial artist Paul Mormando (who was once nicknamed “Mr. Karate USA”) has developed his own martial arts systems – Cha Ki Do and the “Real Life Self Defense System” – and he’s been working hard at developing his own feature film projects to star in, namely the forthcoming gritty martial arts action film Double Fist and a web series called American Sensei. Mormando isn’t just an accomplished martial artist with a prestigious background in the fighting arts, but one of the few independents worth watching out for.
Give me a little backstory on the Cha Ki Do system you created. What does that mean, and how would you compare it to other systems you’ve studied?
Well, to start with, Cha ki do is defined as the following: My background and foundation is in the traditional arts stemming from Tae Kwon Do. I studied Moo Duk Kwan, Ji Do Kwan, and ATF (American Tae Kwon Do Federation). In my younger years I was in love with the notion of being able to use the feet as a weapon, so I adapted the term CHA GI, which means to kick. “Do” means “way” or “art.” So originally it was Cha Gi Do. I didn’t want to leave out my strong spiritual side so I dropped the GI and made it KI which stands for Internal Strength. That’s the origin of the name of the system. I am a huge Bruce Lee fan like so many others. After I read the Tao of Jeet Kune Do it opened my eyes to what was out there in terms of martial arts. There was not just a Korean system of martial arts, but there was also Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and all these others. I began to explore all of these different styles. I then realized that learning one style of martial arts was the equivalent to having one tool in a tool box – it may be good for one situation, but you need different tools for different jobs, so I fused all of the styles together like Bruce did, the only difference being that Bruce wanted everyone to be individualized, everyone has their own physical attributes, and the practitioner must find that out through trial and error, on his or her own terms. My theory is that while we are all individualized, we need a systematic way of progressing in each range of combat from kicking range to boxing range to trapping range and, of course, grappling range. While a person’s self-expression is important, a proven road map to the general public is more beneficial. Hence, Cha ki do is a systematic method of progression in multiple styles, predicated on the needs of the individual at the moment of combat.
And you’ve also developed the “Real Life Self Defense System.” Talk about that a little bit.
After being involved in the martial arts for many years – especially in a traditional system of martial arts – I was involved in a street fight. I was already an intermediate level martial artist, so I felt that I should have had no trouble dealing with my opponent, and while I didn’t feel like I lost the fight, I was unable to use any of the moves I thought I had mastered in my training. This made me think: what was the point of training in the martial arts if it did not work in reality? What I realized was that even though I was a better trained fighter then my opponent, once my heart rate elevated and the adrenaline went to work, my motor skills went out the window; it was not like in kumite with the sensei watching, no, this was for real and we could possibly get hurt or even killed. I started to study what happens to the body when it is under duress, and so I evaluated some other systems such as Charles Nelson’s Self Defense system, and many of the reality-based martial arts guru’s and already put-together moves that were simple and easy to use and remember under stress. That was the birth of RLSD.
Talk a little more in depth about the origin of Double Fist. You’ve told the story about how Mark Wahlberg was once attached to star in Double Fist with you. How did Wahlberg become connected with you?
Well, once I had gotten the acting bug, I started to learn a lot from my first manager and publicist who taught me about starting a production company and putting movies together. I had written a script with a friend of mine for me to star in – it wasn’t a so-called typical 90’s action flick. It had a good plot twist, and it felt unique. The story is about these two brothers who are separated at birth – one was adopted by a wealthy family, and that was my role, and the other brother was put in an orphanage, and he becomes very street edgy. That brother would have been played by Wahlberg. I was at my dojo working out and the song “Good Vibration” by Marky Mark and the Funky bunch came on. In the music video of the song, Mark is in extraordinary shape and throwing some nice punches on the heavy bag, so I said “That’s it! I want that guy in the film – he’s a rap star and he hasn’t done any acting so he would probably be interested in making a crossover.” As luck would have it my publicist at the time was friends with (I believe) his road manager and he asked him and he was interested. Believe it or not my next move was to attach Mickey Rourke to the film, but unfortunately it never got that far. So it was like a few days after I broke a board-breaking record at Shea Stadium in Queens when I was attending a meeting with a potential investor, and on my way home I got into what could have been a career-ending automobile accident.
How long were you in rehab after the accident?
Kind of foggy about that. At least two years. I was inactive for a long time. I did acupuncture, chiropractic care … it took awhile.
Let’s talk about Double Fist. Not every martial artist is afforded the opportunity to star in their own film. It used to be a thing in the 80’s and early 90’s when a martial artist or athlete could get the opportunity to make the jump to movies, but you’re in your mid 40’s now. This is a late-in-the-game step. That’s what makes this film interesting to me. Tell me a little bit about why you think you would make a good leading action star.
I feel that I will bring my own brand of martial arts to the screen. I am definitely a martial artist first and foremost, not an actor who dabbles in film or who is trained just for the film: My life is all about the martial arts. Age is only a number. I feel like I have gotten better in my craft as far as acting goes, so I want to bring to the screen the total package. The story of Double Fist had to be revised from its original incarnation since twenty years have passed since we originally conceived it. What was great about this is that my wife wrote the script, and she knows my personality and wrote it accordingly. My character is Joe Deluca, a one-time top student on his way to law school who was to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father intervenes in a relationship between Joe and his girlfriend Michele, and so Joe leaves and joins the military. After he leaves the military and returns home he tries to pick up where he left off, but now his father is the mayor and even more ruthless. Joe runs into a teenage kid who is being bullied and it changes his life. The movie has several twists that will keep you on your feet. My character is complex, an ex military man who has trouble adjusting to his new life. The only thing he knows at this point is how to fight.
Did you do the choreography on Double Fist? Who is the audience for this film? Not to compare you with anyone else, but are you hoping to reach the same kind of audience that would enjoy watching something like a Van Damme movie?
Yes, I did all of the fight choreography. I brought on some great martial artists like Larry Montanez to help me with the fight scene in the bar, as well as kickboxing and karate champion Mel Gutic, who is a great fighter and an awesome Tae Kwon Do practitioner. They were also able to help me make the scenes more believable as they both have a wealth of martial arts knowledge. I’m a huge Van Damme fan, so I definitely tried to emulate some of his earlier stuff in the choreography, but I also love Jason Statham’s style on film, so it was more like a fusion of their styles with some of my own attributes.
Are you hoping to break through into the movie business with this film? It’s harder than ever now to sell and distribute small action movies. I’m sure you’re aware of this.
It’s definitely a harder time to enter the action genre these days. People have gone away from the typical action film, but Double Fist is not typical in any sense of the word. The fight scenes are limited, and its more of an urban drama. The storyline is good and my co-stars in the film are really good actors. I wouldn’t compare this to a Don “The Dragon” Wilson or Olivier Gruner type film from the 90’s. I really just wanted to finish what I started all those years ago, and if I get more movie roles because of it then that’s great. I’m steering heavily into the motivational arena, and I want people to realize that if you set a goal – no matter what it is – don’t give up, even if it takes you twenty years.
You’ve been in some other film projects in the past, namely American Shaolin, which was made over 20 years ago. Did that experience or your other experiences on sets give you the acting bug? You’ve been trying to get Double Fist made and completed for a very long time, but what have you learned in the years since you first got the bug?
I really never had any intention on being in the in the movie business, but I was performing a demo at a school in New York years ago and I had a stunt where I would jump over a row of swords. The local paper put me on the cover, and at the time it was rare that martial artist received any publicity other than in the trades, so I caught the eye of a Hollywood manager, who at the time was in the area on business, and that’s when the idea had come about that this might not be a bad career move. One day I received a call from my manager soon after about a film they were doing called American Shaolin. The thing that really impressed me was the fact that the producer was Keith Strandberg, who’d produced one of my favorite films at the time called No Retreat, No Surrender. I had the opportunity to go in and audition for one of the fighters in this new movie, and got the role and my SAG card. What I learned about the film business was that it’s tough, but if you take your destiny into your own hands and produce your own projects, then it’s just a matter of being good and the fans loving it.
Talk a little bit about your inspirations. You’ve mentioned Bruce Lee and Van Damme. Anything specific about these guys or other action stars or martial artists that you’d point to in helping you stay inspired? Tell me some films you’ve really enjoyed over the years, and what sorts of films are you watching nowadays?
Bruce Lee was my martial arts inspiration and was hands-down the best martial arts film star of all time. With Bruce it’s not just his skill level that impressed me, it was his charisma and intensity that translated wonderfully on screen. Van Damme is a great inspiration – he is a story of talent and determination, and talk about defying the odds he definitely did that. I am not a big fan of action film as of late. I love the old school stuff like No Retreat, No Surrender, Kickboxer, Lionheart, Above the Law, Out For Justice. I love Jason Statham’s movies. I loved Wild Card – I thought the choreography was brilliant in that. The Raid was also very nicely done!
Have you noticed a shift in the movie market? Do you remember what it was like back when there were video stores all over the place renting out tapes of the latest Don “The Dragon” Wilson movies? Those places are gone now. Those movies are dying out. How do you think Double Fist or your other upcoming projects will fare in today’s market?
I grew up with the Roger Corman films, The Cannon Group, and PM Entertainment companies – the make a film a month mentality. The film market moves in trends. There was a time when horror was the genre, but then it died down and now it’s a hot genre again. The martial arts genre is similar. As long as they put out quality films, I think the shift in the action market will come back like the horror genre, but audiences are far more intelligent and want better quality than the days of the direct-to-video movies of the 90’s. Now with the advent of VOD you can make and distribute directly to your own fan base, which is what I’m aiming for: bypass the middleman, and have total creative control, and if you fail, you fail on your own terms.
Who coined your name “Mr. Karate USA?”
The late great Grandmaster Aaron Banks who, to me, was the PT Barnum of the martial arts. He was a legendary promoter. I wish it was just “Mr. Karate.” I think that suits me better.
Since you live in New York, is it more difficult for you to delve into the movie business? Would it be easier for you to be in Los Angeles, or is there no difference?
Los Angeles, I believe would have a lot more opportunity for me to make movies, but at this stage of the game I am just producing my own projects where I’m in New York, and as Frank Sinatra said, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
You’ve got some other projects in the works. Would you like to let us know about them?
I’m set to star in my first web series called The American Sensei. It’ll be a step away from my previous movie Double Fist. This is going to cater to my core fan audience and it’ll appeal to the family market. I’ll bring Eastern principles to the urban streets of New York. In the series, I’ll return from Japan to help my sister and her husband get their lives back in gear. I’ll use my martial arts and I’ll get into situations where I have to use them and get deadly with them.
I respect and honor men and women who’ve trained in the martial arts, and I always get excited when a martial artist makes a crossover to films. At this point in your life, are you seeing yourself slowing down or working harder than ever now that you’re trying to move into films?
I have to work harder, especially given my age, and the fact that I’m trying to resurrect a dying genre makes it even more of a challenge. I’m up for it!