Jeff Speakman Interview

When Paramount’s The Perfect Weapon arrived in theaters in 1991, it heralded the arrival of the next big action star: Jeff Speakman. Unlike Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Speakman stood out for several reasons, but mainly because of his radically unique style in the martial arts. An 8th degree black belt in Kenpo Karate, Speakman had a once-in-a-lifetime shot at becoming the world’s next big action star, but after The Perfect Weapon, his next film Street Knight (1993, from Cannon) wouldn’t arrive for two more years, which is an eternity in Hollywood, and just like that, he began making films that went directly to video. With ten starring action films under his black belt, Speakman soldiered on, creating Kenpo 5.0 and founded American Kenpo Karate Systems.

When it was announced that he had throat cancer in 2013, the martial arts community rallied their support for him as he fought his battle. As of 2014, he is cancer free and ready to embark on his comeback to the big screen.

First of all, I wanted to ask you how you are. How’s your health? 

Well, thanks for asking. I’m doing very very well. I’m just finishing eleven weeks after treatment. So far, doing really great. I just had a big martial arts event last week, and had eleven countries represented. That was a big deal for me.

My first question for you about your career is what drew you to Kenpo? It’s an interesting martial art when it’s translated on screen. Where did your interest for this martial art originate? 

Great question. I’d been studying Japanese Goju Ryu with Lou Angel for five years prior and working my way through college in Joplin, Missouri, which is where I met Mr. Angel. When it came time for me to graduate, and very generously on his part, he said that if I wanted to study martial arts that I should study Kenpo from Ed Parker in Los Angeles, he’s the best in the world. So I said “Okay,” and I did that. I sold my car to pay for the U-Haul to move to L.A. and I had a letter of recommendation from Lou Angel. He’d known Ed Parker from the late 60’s, early 70’s.

I found Mr. Parker in Long Beach, and I bowed very deeply to him to show respect and I handed him this letter, and he was so pleased that his old friend Lou Angel thought to send him one of his black belts that he gave me his phone number and told me to call him in two weeks. That got me started in Kenpo. It was years later when I was thinking about that – the story I just told you – it really made me appreciate Lou Angel. As a master instructor in the martial arts, he was more concerned for my personal development and my personal growth, so he sent me who he thought was the best, as opposed to sending me to do more Goju Ryu.

You come from a traditional system like that, seldom do you have someone with the objectivity to send one of his black belts with whom he’s working with every day away from there – across country – and not only go to a different style of martial arts, but to a very non traditional style of martial arts. Very unusual. But it was really Lou Angel’s concern for me as a person that led him to do that.

How did you end up doing a bit part in the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Lionheart? 

Well, after studying acting for five years I started to go out on auditions, one of things you can do – some actors do … I did … you volunteer your services to do what’s called a reader. You’re the other actor in the audition room. You’re reading the lines to all the actors who come in and audition. You will be there for however many days and work all day free. They’ll buy you lunch, but that’s it. In exchange, they’ll give you a little bit part in a movie. That’s exactly what I did. No one knew that I knew karate when I did that movie. I was a complete unknown. I wanted to prove that I could get hired as an actor, that Karate would come second. That’s how I approached it.

Were you observant on the set of Lionheart? Were you paying attention to Sheldon Lettich or Van Damme? There was a lot of martial arts going on in that movie. 

Yes, but I had nothing to do with any of that. Never met Van Damme. We were not on the set on the same day. Yes, of course, when I was on the set, especially as a beginning actor, you’re paying attention to everything and trying to learn by watching working actors. Set etiquette and how movies are made is quite different than how it’s taught in school. So, the best thing – one of your best teachers – is just hanging around a movie set. Watching. Get a chair and get the hell out of the way and just sit there hour after hour and watch how everybody does their job and how actors act.

How directors relate to actors. If you ever get a chance as an actor, one of your jobs – in my opinion – is to make life easy for the director … because you’ll get hired again. Actors have an opposite approach. They want to know what their motivation for opening the door is. “My character wouldn’t do that.” Okay, that’s a question under some circumstances, but by and large, just shut up and open the door.

How did that segue into your major debut, The Perfect Weapon? How did that happen? 

As fate would have it, I was studying regularly at an acting workshop in Burbank called The Creative Actor’s Workshop. One of the instructors there was also a writer. We became friends. It turns out that he wrote Van Damme’s second movie, Kickboxer. Because we became friends and he wrote a martial arts movie, he wanted to come down and watch me teach at the West L.A. school one night, which he did, and that was his first time to see Kenpo. So, as soon he saw me, he went to the guy who was the director and the producer of Van Damme’s three movies, Bloodsport, Kickboxer, and Death Warrant and said, “You’ve got to see this guy Speakman and you’ve got to see this Kenpo stuff! I’ve never seen anything like it!” After pursuing him and pursuing him and pursuing him, Mark DiSalle came to the West L.A. dojo and watched this and that was it. When he saw Kenpo, he realized that this was the next thing for film.

And why were you chosen to be the star of the film? Why didn’t they go to a Van Damme or to an established star? How did you end up being the star? 

Well, it started with this three-picture deal I had with Mark DiSalle. Right after that, a connection he had with the guy who was the president of production at Paramount – Gary Lucchesi – got him in with Paramount because he was able to make Van Damme a star. So DiSalle went in and met Gary Lucchesi and said, “I’ve got the next action star and I’ve signed him to a three picture deal.” Then, Paramount bought that deal with Mark DiSalle attached, which he had every legal right because it was in my contract to sell my option, as it were. So Paramount came in and The Perfect Weapon was developed and written for me. So we took off. That’s just what DiSalle was in the business of, and Paramount wanted to do that, and circumstances were that they were ready to sign off and let DiSalle make it with the next guy.

So before we did that, Gary Lucchesi, President of Paramount, and two other executives came to the West L.A. school and watched me do a demo one night after we closed … with DiSalle, of course. After they saw the demo, they said, “Okay, we’re in.” Then they saw that I’d actually been studying acting for five years, I’d worked as an actor, I’d been hired on a T.V. series for one day called Hunter, and so they went, “Okay, wow.” Then we did a screen test at Paramount. After the screen test was done – it was actually a scene from the script for The Perfect Weapon – we went ahead and Paramount went ahead and bought all three options from DiSalle.

Well, how come Paramount didn’t continue making movies with you then? 

You just asked … the BIG QUESTION. As fortunate as everything I just laid out for you was – it was really unique – then the exact opposite of that happened. Working with DiSalle was a nightmare, and Paramount actually lost its CEO when I was there, and an interim CEO came in and that’s usually bad news for everybody who signed on a multiple picture deal because the studio won’t want to make another movie star out of somebody that the preceding group tried to make out of because that other group will always get the praise, if you will.

So you’re in an uphill battle from day one. Even though The Perfect Weapon was a huge success and made a lot of money and launched my career, the people who came in the interim were not action movie folks and they didn’t like DiSalle, and to get DiSalle out they had to pay him a lot of money just to walk away. So instead of doing that – we – actually read a script that Paramount sent to us, and it was a great, great script, and it would have been absolutely perfect for the second Speakman movie.

We were engaged in it – they hired a writer for a lot of money, and he was doing a lot of rewrites to make it a Speakman movie, and in the middle of that the interim head of the studio put that script in turnaround, which is when they take scripts and put them out there to other studios and say, “Hey, look, we’ve put two hundred thousand into this script and we don’t want it – if you pay two hundred thousand you can have it.” It sort of becomes available. The next day after this guy did that, all of us – my legal guys and my agents – jumped on the phone and called Paramount and said, “What the hell are you doing?! This is Speakman’s movie. We picked it! You picked it! You gave it to us and you’ve already spent $250,000 hiring a writer to make it a Jeff Speakman movie! What the hell are you doing?” The guy who was temporarily running the studio was like, “Oh, shit! Sorry! I fucked up, let me go get it back.” Fox bought it. He could not get it back. They would not sell it back to him. They made that movie, which was supposed to be my second movie at Paramount, and the name of that movie was Speed.

No way! 

It was the movie that made Keanu Reeves a star. We were rewriting it so that the bus would stop and Speakman would have to get off the bus and fight guys and get back on the bus – we were doing all that. We lost it. And consequently, there went my career.

Wow! I’ve never heard this story. 

It’s not pretty.

Let’s go back to The Perfect Weapon for a minute. You said that you had problems with Mark DiSalle. What were the issues there? 

It wasn’t with me. The problem was a business sort of a thing between Paramount and DiSalle, which I wasn’t a part of. The only thing when it became an issue with me is when DiSalle wouldn’t back off and Paramount wouldn’t pay him a million bucks to walk away. I went to DiSalle and said, “Look, it’s really none of my business what happened in there, but if you don’t knock this shit off, they’re not going to do anything.” Of course, he’s a businessman and so he continued to hold my contract as leverage and Paramount subsequently passed on doing the second Speakman movie, but they would not let me out of the contract because, again, if another studio picked me up and paid off DiSalle and made me a star, then that other studio would get the credit. So, Paramount just let me sit on the shelf and let me just dwindle.

Wow. Yeah, it was like two more years until Street Knight. 

And see, DiSalle had the options. So, he wouldn’t let go and let Paramount do it, so he had “X” number of months to exercise his option, which he did at the very last moment, and put together the second movie, Street Knight, so that’s why I went from Paramount to Cannon. It was released through Warner Brothers, but it wasn’t the direction we wanted to go, but here’s the truth: I was still doing movies. I’ve starred in ten films and now things have turned and I have my own reality martial arts T.V. show being developed, I have almost all the funding for my next movie – it already has Mickey Rourke and Willem Dafoe attached – which could be bigger than The Perfect Weapon, so here are ten movies later. Now we’re going to get another chance.

Talk about working with Mako and Tanaka on Perfect Weapon. 

Yeah, boy, wasn’t that incredible, huh? Toru Tanaka, that was his stage name. The truth is that he was a Hawaiian. His name was actually Charles Kalani and he grew up on the island with Mr. Parker. So when he was called upon by Paramount with this, he was hooking up with his old friend, Ed Parker. When they were together, it was Hawaiian home week. That was great to work with a legend like that. And Mako: A beautiful, well-trained actor, who was a gentleman. He was very kind. Mr. Parker was on the set with me every day. I would go over to his house every day when we were in development, and we’d do sketches of the choreography of the fight scenes. We would go over it and change this and that. He was on the set with me every moment. It was four o’clock in the morning and freezing outside and he was standing right at my side. It was all good. It was different shades of good and great.

Talk about Street Knight. This was the last movie Cannon released in theaters before it completely folded. 

Yeah, it had a tremendous amount of potential. It was directed by a phenomenal director, Albert Magnoli, who also did Prince’s Purple Rain. He had a great eye. He was classically trained, a brilliant director. I got along with him beautifully. We became very good friends. Street Knight turned out to be a disaster because in order for DiSalle to exercise his second option with Speakman and not lose me from the contract, he only had so much time, so Cannon was able to come up with a certain percentage of the budget for the movie and then the worst of all possible scenarios happened. You’re two weeks into filming, everything is going great, the scenes look phenomenal, it’s got a beautiful look to it, and then the suits start showing up on the set and the rest of the money isn’t coming, so you have to make these slashes, and then it was just a nightmare. So that’s why there are certain – like the opening scene of that movie – we shot the opening scene first, which seldom do you do, but in this case it so happened that the scheduling was that we did the opening scene of the movie. You watch that and it looks like a big movie. Really, really well done. Beautifully lit. And then you see things that are compromised like crazy. The movie went south because of that. The story I just told you is altogether too common. Money gets yanked or money doesn’t come through or whatever. Then the suits start showing up and pages get torn out and the movie’s compromised.

Is that why there’s less fighting in that movie than in The Perfect Weapon? 

Exactly right. A lot of money goes into the fight scenes. With The Perfect Weapon, in that movie was the Tae Kwon Do fight scene. We had one full twelve-hour day and another half day. One and a half day. We had eighteen hours. Three cameras, three crews, every length and light that you can imagine for just that fight scene that turned out to be two minutes of film. And I had final edit and sound check, and I’ve had the same thing in all my movies since then. Then when you’re on a movie like Street Knight and the money gets yanked, you have to try for the same thing in six hours instead of eighteen. With one camera, instead of three. With very limited lens package and crew. Everything pays a terrible price. In the editing room you wind up with less because you had less to work with. That’s just the way the world works.

Both The Perfect Weapon and Street Knight were released theatrically, and you were announced as the next big action guy. What was that like, being hailed as an action star in this period when action guys like you and Van Damme and Chuck Norris were viable. You guys were the big guys making movies. Nowadays, these guys aren’t making theatrical releases anymore. This type of movie has been relegated to video. What was that like for you? 

It was a very surreal experience, to be honest with you. Not just to have the opportunity to do that, but to be picked up by Paramount, of all studios, which was not known for doing martial arts action movies. It was even more bizarre. Of course, it was an obvious opportunity that I was well aware of, and I did my very best to deliver on all levels, and I’m very very proud of the work I’ve done – both there and in every movie I’ve done. I’ve approached every movie with the same seriousness, if you will. But it was a tremendous event. I was devastated that before The Perfect Weapon was released, Ed Parker died. So, it was a very bittersweet time in my life because he wasn’t there to see it.

He saw edited fight scenes and loved it beyond compare, but he never saw the whole film. It was very tragic, but at the same time, it was tremendous. Two extremes. It was a very duplicitous time of my life. To go to all the theatrical releases of my movie, to see it develop and to watch it all go down, it was gratifying beyond measure, but it had this element to it where as a martial artist, my feeling was, Now what the hell am I going to do? Once you’ve been mentored and taught by someone of Ed Parker’s stature, one of the first questions that comes to your mind is, What the hell am I going to do now? Where do I go now? Who do I study from? As it turned out, there was really nobody for me to study from. So I wound up, in a sense, continuing studying from Mr. Parker by how he taught me.

I became what you might call “self taught,” which ultimately led to what I’ve been able to develop in these last few years this version of Kenpo, which is called Kenpo 5.0, where now we’ve taken Kenpo to the ground where there was zero ground stuff before. It took me years to figure it out. I came to the conclusion that … see, after Mr. Parker died, in December of 1990 – March of 1990 is when The Perfect Weapon came out – he had written an article about me that was to be published in Black Belt magazine, and the irony was that in March there was on the one side of the page a Jeff Speakman article written by Ed Parker, and the flipside of that page was his obituary. In that article, he wrote, “I never gave Jeff complete answers to his questions. I always gave him half answers and made him figure out the rest for himself.”

I thought to myself, That’s really incredible because for three and a half years, he’d been doing exactly that and I never saw it. I was so encumbered by trying to learn from him. When you get an opportunity to learn from a master instructor, you want to pay attention. You want to try the best you can. After reading that, in the published magazine, I realized that a true martial arts master isn’t someone who teaches, but a master is someone more of a guy who helps you to discover the art yourself. And then you own it. Ultimately, then you can perhaps contribute to advances in that art, which is exactly what we feel we have done here.

Well, you certainly made your mark in motion pictures. You put Kenpo on the screen like nobody else. I know that Thomas Ian Griffith and Jeff Wincott have done some Kenpo in movies, but when I think of Kenpo I think of Jeff Speakman. Do you think you’ve accomplished putting Kenpo on screen? 

Yes, very much so. I certainly think I did that with The Perfect Weapon, and I continued to do that with my subsequent movies. The one I’m doing soon, which is called Lido, which will be all Kenpo 5.0 specifically. So, I will continue to do that. Additionally, I’ve franchised martial arts schools in 15 countries. We’re the largest Kenpo organization in the world. Because of this Kenpo 5.0, many people are coming in because now it’s the ultimate mix off the standoff art. Now we know how to do Kenpo on our backs, which is something we could never do before.

You worked with director Rick Avery a few times on the films Deadly Outbreak and The Expert. Talk about working with him. 

Yes, Rick is a very accomplished martial artist. He received a fifth degree black belt many years ago. He had his own school in Santa Barbara, California. He and his family are one of the premier stunt performer and stunt coordinator families in the history of film. He’s a phenomenal athlete and so accomplished in the film business. All my movies, Rick has done the coordinating for me. He’s done second unit on my movies too. He also directed the one I did in Israel, Deadly Outbreak. There was another film I did, The Expert, where we unfortunately had to fire the director about three quarters of the way into it, and I went to the producer and said, you’ve got your solution right in front of you. Rick went from second unit director to the director, and he finished the film, and he did a phenomenal job. Because he did such a great job, I had him come do my next movie, which was Deadly Outbreak.

That was a Nu Image / Millennium movie. Avi Lerner, Boaz Davidson, all those guys. 

Yup. That’s exactly right. That was a wonderful experience. I had never been to Israel before. I was there for almost three months. Rick did, once again, a fantastic job. He and I are very close friends. I just can’t say enough about him.

This was the period when your movies were going directly to video. What was that like for you? 

I just swallowed the jagged pill. It was how things were being one. I focused on If I keep delivering my martial arts in these lesser movies – if you will – then eventually someone will see that and figure it out that they should give me another shot. Which is exactly what we believe is happening here with my next movie Lido, which we’re hoping will be my return to the big screen.


Is there anything else you want to say about any of your other pictures like Running Red or any of the other ones? 

You know, I’ve never ever taken anything – any of the movies or my opportunity to study with Ed Parker or the opportunity to travel around the world or having schools around the world – I’ve never taken anything for granted. I’ve lived every day as though I were alive, and I appreciated everything. I’ve been grateful. I’ve done my absolute very best to deliver on all fronts. Certainly, with that kind of energy and perseverance, it will pay off. I’ll get a chance to get back out there in a big way again because I feel like I should be. I feel like I should be out there contributing in that way. I will be.

Is there anything you would like to say to your fans? 

Yes, something very important. As you know, I’ve gone through cancer. I’ve come out the other end of it, survived it. I took radiation and chemo treatments. I’m about eleven weeks out from treatment, and so far they say that the cancer is gone and there’s no sign of it. To speak directly to my fans: The extraordinary thing that transcends the horribleness of the cancer and what I went through, the fact that I learned that there are so many people out there throughout the world who care and who are my fans and who are my friends … my students and other martial artists whom I’ve never met … all came together to help me get through this with their support – whether it was a donation to my medical fund or whether it was well wishes and just letting me know that they’re there. It was that extraordinary bit of strength that I was able to glean from that experience that allowed me to walk down the hallway every day to go to my radiation treatment, which was no fun and no day at the beach.

It’s what I learned from. It was something great and beautiful. I’ve been able to take from that horrible experience. Metaphorically, that’s how I’ve always approached life. One day, this will end for all of us. The question that’s in front of you is “What are you going to do with these heartbeats that you have? Are your contributions to the common good?” I really feel like I’ve made tremendous contributions because those people would never have come to my aide if they didn’t feel something very positive from the movies I’ve done and the way I’ve led my life. That’s my gratitude to everyone who taught me that lesson. The cancer wasn’t the most important thing. The cancer was an opportunity for me to learn about the connectedness that we all have. The work I have done truly has been appreciated around the world. That, I am very grateful for.