Ray Park: The Force of Wushu

By Gene Ching

Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine - July + August 2016 It was the most anticipated relaunch of a film franchise ever. A new Star Wars movie. And for the most part, it was a disappointment. Not Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which premiered last December; this was back in 1999 when Episode I: The Phantom Menace hit the screens. It proved to be the weakest in the franchise, and fans found it full of flaws. Ani was too annoyingly cute, considering his ultimate dark-side fate. The midi-chlorians made the Force into a product of genetics instead of environment. And, of course, there was Jar Jar Binks. The film was so disdained that the Machete Order arose, the “proper” way to watch the Star Wars saga because, with the second trilogy being prequels, the order of release is at odds with the timeline of the story. Named after a fan blog called No Machete Juggling, the Machete Order completely omits The Phantom Menace.

Nevertheless, The Phantom Menace redeems itself with a single iconic villain – Darth Maul, played by Kung Fu and Wushu champion Ray Park. Although Maul only appears fleetingly in the first film, he eclipses all the other Star Wars villains except for Darth Vader and the Emperor, even with Episode VII. When Kylo Ren's cross-barred lightsaber was revealed, fans panned it because the guard was useless for parrying. But back when Darth Maul's double-ended lightsaber was revealed, it brought a whole new dimension to the signature weapon. Maul is so popular that fans are hoping for a stand-alone Maul film as the Star Wars universe expands. Last April Fool's Day, Netflix released a prank video teasing a “new” series titled, Fury of Maul; fans were sorely disappointed to find it was a hoax.

When Darth Maul busted out a signature Wushu Butterfly Twist, Wushu had arrived in a galaxy far far away. “I had to get that in there,” confesses Ray Park with a proud grin. “When I landed the part as Darth Maul, I wanted to show more Wushu and more Kung Fu. There were all these ideas I had. I wanted to do some bo staff moves and straight sword, but we had to keep it in the Star Wars world. And I was also scared about losing my job, because I was twenty-two, and I listened to the stunt coordinator. So I saw him as the master and George [Lucas] as the grandmaster.

“I found the best way of doing it was not to show off, but to 'accidentally' do a move in a way. And that's how I got the Butterfly Twist into that fight scene. He came at me and I just moved out of the way with a Butterfly Twist. I did it in eye shot; he knew I wasn't just showing off. When your involved in fight choreography, and you been watching it all your life, and you're doing it, your body just comes alive. Your body changes to what it would do in normal life, in training. And then you just suddenly have magic moments. You do a move and it's like, 'Ah, what about this move?' Your body just takes over and it goes. The Butterfly Twist – it just happened with that fire. It had to happen and I'm glad it happened.”

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Last March, Apple founder Steve Wozniak launched Silicon Valley Comic Con in San Jose, California, a new convention fusing fantasy and sci-fi fans with tech talks. The inaugural event was an overwhelming success, attracting over 60,000 attendees over the weekend, twice what was expected. Ray Park was among a large roster of celebrity guests. SVCC charged $40 for his autograph, $55 for a photo op. Ray's signing booth was tucked between Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nicols), and his eager fans queued up by the dozens. Despite his penchant for playing intimidating villains, Ray is disarmingly friendly in person, eagerly shaking hands with an earnest and enthusiastic smile. “The fans, they motivate me to get that positive vibe about martial arts. Because martial arts is positive. There's a really good karma about it.”

Ray enjoys attending Cons, especially when he gets to travel to new places. “If I'm not working, it keeps me focused and Zen. I like going out and doing shows.” At his SVCC autograph session, a young fan busts an aerial and Ray delightedly posts it on his Twitter @IAMRayPark, where he constantly tweets encouragement for his fans to practice. He relates to his fans because he was once one. “I started as a martial arts geeky nerd who was into Hong Kong cinema, anything to do with ninja movies, anything to do with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Donnie Yen, all of those guys, 36 Chambers, Shaolin, Jet Li – those were my movies. That was my education to martial arts. And I have my moments. A few weeks ago I went through my movies – and I used to have a lot more but they are on VHS – I could sit there all day and watch old Kung Fu movies.”

Ray Park and a fan at the Silicon Valley Comic-Con

Ray was born in Glasgow, Scotland. When he was young, his father (an electrical engineer) relocated the family to London for work. There Ray saw his first movie on the big screen – Star Wars Episode V. “Empire Strikes Back was the reason why I went to gymnastics.” Ray remembers watching Yoda train Luke in the Dagobah swamp. “He has a master and the master is teaching him, and it was like the old Kung Fu movies I was watching, you know? The guy would go and find the drunken master. When he was flipping and doing handstands and stuff – that was it. I was like, 'I got to learn martial arts. I got to go to class and do gymnastics.' And then I found a school that was doing that kind of thing, like flips in their forms, somersaults. And then I was hooked.”

In London, Ray found Master Lee Yoke Wan, an expert in Nam Pan Chuan and Chin Woo Kung Fu from Malaysia. Ray was teaching himself basic acrobatics but Master Lee found a proper gymnastics club to supplement his training. At age 15, Ray followed his master to Malaysia to train under his grandmasters. From then on, Ray returned to Malaysia every year for more training. His first international competition was at the 1993 Chin Woo International Wushu Championship, held in Kuala Lumpur. Ray’s dedication to practice, along with his gymnastics, earned him a place on the British Wushu Team from 1991 to 1996, where he studied Modern Wushu under National British Wushu Team coach Kim Sen Han. He was earning some money from teaching gymnastics and martial arts. “At the time, I wanted to teach, not to make money, so I said, 'Just one dollar fifty, and half of that will go to the school and the other half will go to me to send me to China.' That's when I got to train in China.”

Ray’s parents supported him too, but only so much. “My dad wanted me to be a boxer. ‘There’s more money in boxing. There’s no money in Wushu.’ I said, ‘Dad, I’m not doing Wushu for money.” I like boxing as well but I’m never a boxer. I just like faking it, you know? Pretending to be Rocky. We used to spar and stuff. Of course, it’s my dad. He wanted me to be a fighter. He’s from old school. I said, ‘Dad, no one’s going to employ me in films if my nose is on the other side of my face. I want to box but I don’t think I’m going to make it in boxing films. I want to work with Jackie Chan.’ I remember having an argument with him when I was 14–15. I was so angry because he was supporting me in my Wushu, but he also felt like, ‘If someone’s representing their country, you have to buy your own tracksuit?’ He was the reason why I went into Kung Fu. But he just felt like if I’m representing my country for Wushu, there’s got to be more. It was a growing pain. I love my mum and dad to bits. They’re great.”

In the fall of 1996, Ray spent three months training in Malaysia. He was running out of money when one of his idols came to film. “I almost stayed in Malaysia when I was 20. Jackie was doing his latest Police Story. They filmed in Malaysia. There was a lot of buzz going on and some of the Chin Woo guys were being used as stunt guys. So I was like, ‘Okay, I need to stay in Asia. I’m going to get Jackie Chan to notice me. I can’t go back to England. I have to stay here.’ So I called up my dad. I had no money because the money came from my parents or whatever I made from gymnastics. And my dad says, ‘You know, come home. You have no money. I’m not having my son stay somewhere overseas with no money, trying to make a living. So come home. Save your money first, then go back out.’”

It was hard for Ray to return to England. “I wanted to be noticed by Jackie. I felt like if I stayed in England, I’m never going to be noticed.” Nevertheless, he committed to teaching kids gymnastics again. But fate came knocking on his door when a casting crew arrived at the gym scouting for talent for Mortal Kombat (1997). They were very interested in Ray, but he had promised his boss he’d teach the kids. Knowing his dreams, his boss let him go. “He said, ‘Ray, go and do it. See what happens. Get the job.’ Without Mortal Kombat, I wouldn’t have got noticed for Star Wars.”

Sith Happens

Ray was set to do utility stunts on Mortal Kombat for his first real job in the biz. Unfortunately, he was let go because, in England, you must be a stuntman to do stunts and Ray hadn't earned that yet. But the show's lead, Robin Shou, hired Ray back and put him directly on his team. “When I was able to go to Thailand and Jordan, I was allowed to do stunts, but I was only allowed to do martial arts stuff. I learned to do air rams and wirework. Because of that, Nick Gillard [stunt coordinator for the Star Wars prequels] had heard about me in Mortal Kombat and asked me to come in. At that time, I was 21. Even if I was scared, I wasn’t going to be scared. I was going to be positive – yeah, I can do this. So when we got to do air rams and wirework, because of my training and experience in Mortal Kombat, I was able to do it. I think that really helped with Nick, with the audition. I met with him a few hours and he introduced me to the producers. I met the casting director. I was like, 'Wait a minute, I’ve been here for a few hours.'

“He asked me to come back for a test fight to show George, so I worked with him for four days and on the fifth day they filmed it. I was dressed up as Darth Maul and, by then, I already had this character down. I already knew. But I didn’t think I was going to get it. I thought if anything, I would be lucky to be brought back. I was just happy to be part of it for that time. I never got my hopes up. I never took it for granted. Nick was really cool to me, and Rick McCallum, the producer. It was George’s call. Nick said, ‘If George doesn’t go with you, I’ll bring you on some way or another.’ Because I knew about the stunt rules, I knew I wasn’t coming on for stunts. George liked it and I got it. That’s the best Wushu day of my life.

“I was on my way to an exhibition and I invited my team down from all over Great Britain. A buddy of mine was opening up a school center and he says, ‘Ray, can you bring your guys down and we’ll pay you.’ I said ‘No, no, no, no. Just give us gas money. We don’t want to be paid. We want to perform.’ I was on my way and Rick McCallum calls me and tells me I got the job. He gave me my pep talk. That was the best ever performance I’ve done in my life. Thirty minutes after that, I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t gassing out. I was doing my forms. I was doing drunken sword. I was doing ditang, changquan. I was doing it all.”

For any up-and-coming actor, entering the Star Wars franchise is a huge break. Ray remains very humble about it; he knows he was lucky and grateful for the opportunity. The character came to him naturally. “Darth Maul was the first time I got to say, ‘Hey, you’re going to act in this.’ Just by looking at the storyboards and pictures, I felt like he was an old martial artist, like a master in the old Kung Fu movies that didn’t really need to look mean. When he caught you, you were very surely dead. Because he was a bad guy, he’s a little arrogant.”

Playing Maul made Ray stand out among stuntmen. It was a springboard for his career in film. “It was fun to do, because I had to be cool. All I could think of was my dad, my Kung Fu teacher and my Wushu teacher. More my Kung Fu teacher because I knew my Wushu teacher would say, ‘Raymond! Your toes weren’t pointed!’ or ‘Raymond! You didn’t kick straight!’ He would call me Jock. ‘Jock, your palm wasn’t straight!’ He would always find something to, you know, put me on the right path. Which is good. It’s endearing. So I wanted to say, ‘Thank you,’ like I did it. Thank you, thank you. This is for you, and Wushu.”

Time for You to Get Mauled, Boy

On the back of Ray's left bicep are four Chinese characters – wulin yi jia (武林一家) – a familiar saying to any Chinese martial arts aficionado: “The martial forest is one family.” He’s very devoted to his Chinese style roots, but martial stuntmen must study many different styles for different roles. Beyond double-ended lightsabers, Ray learned katana to play the ninja Snake Eyes in G.I. Joe. He learned double kukri for his knife-throwing character Edgar in the TV show Heroes. Now he's doing Ninja Warrior training just to keep his edge. But he remains fiercely loyal to the Chinese arts and constantly snuck Wushu moves into his work throughout his career. Snake Eyes does a Butterfly Twist variation in The Rise of Cobra. In the guest role of Brandon, a super soldier agent in the TV show Nikita, Ray busts what trickers call a “starfish kip up” and breakdancers call a “rising windmill.” But they got it from Wushu where it is known as “Black Dragon Twists around the Pole.”

As Modern Wushu continues to struggle to be recognized as an international sport, Ray just keeps on representing the art in movies and on TV. He is undaunted by Wushu denigrators because he knows its power for performance. “We used to get a lot of slack back in the U.K. for Wushu. They'd go, 'Hey, you know that's not a real martial art, Wushu. You guys are jumping around in your silk pajamas.' We always used to win the local championships, all of the competitions – Wushu was always up there. And it was good because I didn't care. I didn't have to prove that I could fight or do anything. I just wanted to perform. Performing a routine – there's something – you come alive.”

In the wake of Star Wars, there's a new martial style on the rise – Jedi style. No joke. There are now several lightsaber training organizations worldwide like The Saber Guild, The Force Academy, LudoSport Lightsaber Training Academy, and California's own Golden Gate Knights, just to name a few. As the best trained martial artist to ever wield a lightsaber on screen, Ray is well positioned to take advantage of this burgeoning market. Teaching lightsaber workshops could be a lucrative side job. “I remember way back when Phantom Menace came out, just after X-Men as well, I had an old manager and he was always trying to see the money in everything. My mind wasn’t ready to be doing fitness videos (and that’s when I taught myself how to use Final Cut Pro). You listen to certain people and they’re telling me I should do it, but my heart is telling me I don’t want to do it. I’m the sort of person that if I’m teaching, and they say, ‘I want to train with Darth Maul; I’ll pay you this amount of money,’ by the end of the first session, if I like you, I’ll say, ‘Don’t worry,’ because I’m doing something I love. I could never do that for money.”

Ray sees his role as Darth Maul as an opportunity to get more people fired up about martial arts. Style doesn't matter. What matters is that people try it, people who might not have ordinarily tried martial arts. Ray's enthusiasm for martial arts training is downright contagious. “At conventions now, I just play with everyone. That’s me playing. That’s me wanting to do it. I like sitting at the table and I love meeting everyone. It can inspire people to go and train, go and learn something, go and learn a martial art. And because of Star Wars, anyone who picks up a lightsaber has that sort of inner power, that inner light. And they bring out their own little pose, spinning around, do-si-do [laughs]. And that’s the great thing about Star Wars and the martial arts. You don’t have to be a martial artist, but you can be inspired by it. So when the Saber Guild and the Jedi Academy come up, I think it’s great that people will go and do something like that. Dress up, get those Jedi robes and Sith, and go and practice and be in that moment. Because that’s what I was doing when I was a kid. I was pretending to be like Jackie Chan, a Shaolin monk, a ninja. These guys are getting to do that.” And while some stodgy traditionalist might disdain such fantasy, traditional Kung Fu is full of styles based on legends like the Monkey King, Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh. Who is to say a lightsaber is any less of a fantasy than the Monkey King’s magic staff?

I'm Your Father

Stalwart Star Wars fans know that Darth Maul's story did not end at the stroke of Obi-Wan's lightsaber. The character was reborn in Cartoon Network's Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which introduced Maul's mom, Talzin, and his brother, Savage Opress, and set up a climactic cliffhanger for the end of Season 3. Maul's tale was put on hold in the middle of Season 4, and then Cartoon Network let the show go at the end of that season. Netflix streamed Season 6, but the Darth Maul story was never quite resolved on screen, only in the comics. However, just last March, Disney's new Star Wars Rebels Season 2 finale ended with the reemergence of Maul, who, with some quick strokes of his double-ended lightsaber, took over as the top bad guy in the new series. Ray didn't voice Maul in any of the animated reincarnations, but is happy to know his character continues on. “Everyone always asks me what makes Darth Maul so cool and so popular; I really don’t know. I think it’s the action – the Wushu staff.”

But nowadays, the man behind the Maul make-up is a father. The only thing he holds as dear as training is his family. As a Star Wars veteran, he was able to bring his family to the premiere of The Force Awakens. “I enjoyed it. It was great. My kids, they stayed awake. It was a long afternoon for us. I always put my kids first. When we were at the premiere and it was late, I’m like, ‘Let’s get them home.’ But then my daughter’s like, ‘I want to stay. It’s the Star Wars premiere! We’ll never get invited again. It’s once in a lifetime.’ I said, ‘Alright. We’ll stay up to 10 o’clock.’ They really enjoyed it and I enjoyed it because I was sitting there with them. And getting to see George over there, and seeing Harrison Ford on the screen again. To be part of it in some way reminded me of why I got into what I’m doing.”

As a loyal dad, Ray trains when his kids are at school, and then chauffeurs them around to their after-school classes. He's very proud that his kids are interested in martial arts. His son, at age eight, is already training four days a week, four hours a day. It makes Ray want to jump in and help coach, to show the kids some Wushu basics. But as any parent knows, your kids become your teachers. When kids become rebellious, martial arts can instill discipline, but that can be a two-edged sword. Once, when Ray's kids were acting up, he made them hold horse stance as a punishment. It sparked a strange epiphany. “I realized that I was punishing them because I wasn’t doing it for myself. That taught me a lesson. They were being little kids. They were acting up and being silly so I made them do horse stance. I swore never to make them do that again because it broke my heart. I want training to be fun. That was the lesson. I want them to enjoy it. They want to join in with me. They see me do it. A little game, a little challenge, I’ll embrace it. But I don’t want it to be punishment. I’ve seen it with masters before. Their kids hate it. You’d think the master’s son would be expert and he doesn’t want anything to do with it.” After G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), Ray took a break from major motion pictures to be with his family. He’s taken a few projects since, but no blockbuster film franchises lately, preferring to stay close to home as his kids grow. “My kids inspire me.”

Ray Park has lived every martial arts fanboy’s dream, no doubt due to his faith and dedication to his practice. “I always wanted to do stunt action, be like Van Damme and Jackie Chan. I didn't know how. I just knew that martial arts – Wushu – would get me there. Somehow I just knew. That was the golden carrot in my mind. If I just stuck at it, something would happen, something magical. It would just happen when it was supposed to happen.” As a lifelong martial artist, he’s still on the quest, that constant journey towards self-cultivation and enlightenment. And there are still many martial dreams he hopes to fulfill. He has yet to work with his idol Jackie Chan, along with many of the martial arts luminaries who inspired his path. When the right offer comes, he’s kept his training up and is ready to jump back in. “I still feel something else is going to happen. I don’t know what. I’m just enjoying the journey. Just train. Enjoy it. See what happens and go with the flow.”

Return of the Force of Wushu
Daisy Ridley, Rey from The Force Awakens, has been training Wushu for the next installment of Star Wars, Episode VIII. She is studying with Liang Yang, a Wushu-trained stuntman who played Stormtrooper FN-2199 in The Force Awakens – dubbed TR8R for his one line ‘Traitor’ as he wielded a Star Wars tonfa. Ridley posted a training vid of her busting some Wushu moves on her Instagram, which went viral in the end of April.

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine July + August 2016

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2016 .

About Gene Ching :

Ray Park has been featured in several exclusive interviews on KungFuMagazine.com.
Ray Park and Martial Arts: Part 1
by Dr. Craig D. Reid
Ray Park and Martial Arts: Part 2
by Dr. Craig D. Reid
Ray Park: Unmasked on HEROES
by Melissa Leon-Guerrero Do
Ray Park on Snake Eyes, Wushu and G.I. JOE: RETALIATION
by Gene Ching

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