How Jackie Chan straddles East and West to stay at the top of his game

Hong Kong superstar talks, on the release of his autobiography, about making different films for American and Asian audiences and how, at 61, he doesn't intend to rest on his laurels

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 August, 2015, 1:12pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 August, 2015, 2:18pm


At 61, Jackie Chan has just published an autobiography in Chinese, Never Grow Up, Only Get Older, and the title is more than apropos. Even with more than 100 films under his belt, it’s clear the Hong Kong-born action star and comedian has yet to lose the childlike wonder that has endeared him to fans around the world. Nor is the martial arts master and multimillionaire sitting still.

Though he hasn’t had a Hollywood live-action hit since 2010’s The Karate Kid remake with Jaden Smith – and clearly pines for continued US popularity – his star is shining perhaps more brightly than ever, particularly in Asia.

Chan has earned US$50 million over the past 12 months, according to Forbes – not just from his films but also his myriad other businesses, which include everything from designer apparel and glasses to cinemas  to Segway scooter dealerships.  

That’s more than any actor worldwide aside from Robert Downey Jnr, putting him at No. 38 on the magazine’s 2015 list of 100 top-paid celebrities, ahead of Kobe Bryant, Tom Cruise and Dr. Dre.

A global survey this year by the British polling firm YouGov named Chan the fourth-most-admired man in the world, after Bill Gates, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

With such cachet, Chan should be ideally positioned to capitalise on the accelerating convergence between the Hollywood and Chinese entertainment industries. Yet, somehow his career seems caught up in an intractable bifurcation: his American comedies rarely play well on his home turf, while his home-grown smashes like Chinese Zodiac and Police Story tend to be duds or at best cult hits in the West.

“In America they don’t like to see Jackie doing a drama. They only like Jackie doing Rush Hour 1, 2, 3Shanghai Noon. These kinds of things,” says Chan, who says he’s trying to improve his English by watching CNN.

“I have to do two movies for Chinese, [then] one movie for Americans, or two movies for Americans, [then] one for Chinese. Poor me!” says Chan, only half-kidding. “Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks – so lucky! Whenever their movies come out, the whole world goes to see them.”

His latest action drama, Dragon Blade – a swords-and-sandals, East-meets-West period epic that features him fighting bloody battles with Roman soldiers played by John Cusack and  Adrien Brody – became a major blockbuster this year in China, earning more than US$120 million.

Although the movie is being released in the US in September, Chan is downbeat about its prospects: “But I’ve got to try.”

Chan may have better luck satisfying Americans with Skiptrace, a China-set action caper in which he plays a detective who must apprehend a gambler portrayed by Johnny Knoxville. The film, directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2), is due to arrive in  US cinemas around Christmas.

Knoxville, who like Chan draws inspiration from the physical comedy of Buster Keaton, says he was struck both by Chan’s outsized presence and his down-to-earth generosity during their months of filming.

“I saw him on the first day. Jackie Chan riding up onto set on his Segway, larger than life,” Knoxville recalls. “He had on this Chinese military jacket, with a beautiful collar on it. I say, ‘God, that’s such a beautiful coat.’ And he’s, like, ‘You like it? You can have it.’ He just gave me the coat off his back.

“He’s a very kind and generous man who’s like an eight-year-old kid who cannot sit still. I can’t imagine what he was like in school. He must have driven all the teachers crazy because he’s doing five things at once all the time.”

Chan has some classic attributes of a diva; for example, he has a 10-point list of bathroom manners for his staff and sports his own “JC” label trousers, socks, shoes and sunglasses.  

Yet actors and directors he’s worked with describe him as almost obsessively thoughtful and considerate. Rob Minkoff, who directed him in 2008’s The Forbidden Kingdom, recalls Chan taking it upon himself to haul back video gear from Hong Kong to make their desert shoot easier.

Philanthropy is part of the JC brand.  His charitable foundations  have built 27 schools in impoverished Chinese communities and support causes including youth sports activities in Hong Kong. In addition  he has obsessively purchased, dismantled, and restored historic Chinese homes that otherwise would have been demolished;  four of the structures now sit on a college campus in Singapore.

Chan says he’s been thinking more and more about his legacy in the last two years, following a momentous car ride with David Foster. The Canadian composer and producer asked Chan, who himself has a successful singing career in Chinese, how old he was. Fifty-nine, Chan said. Foster replied matter-of-factly that Chan had 21 summers left – anything past 80 years would be a bonus.

“I could retire, spend every day fooling around, but I want to do good things for 21 years. Help people, spend my money, just do good things. That’s the most important thing. I tell my son, when I die, my bank – zero. Whatever I have, I donate.”

His 32-year-old son, Jaycee Chan, an actor and singer, was arrested last year in Beijing on marijuana charges and spent six months behind bars – an awkward predicament for Chan, who was an official anti-drug ambassador for the Chinese government and a member of a political advisory committee.

Chan junior was released just as Dragon Blade was released. Chan says he didn’t try to pull any strings for his son and says the punishment was a “good thing” for him.

Busy pursuing his acting career, Chan acknowledges he was often away from home for long stretches during his son’s upbringing, leaving the parenting largely to his wife of 33 years, retired Taiwanese actress Lin Feng-jiao.

These days, he says, “we’re becoming more close because these things happened.”

His son, he acknowledges, is still “very ashamed” to see people, and wears a mask when he goes out in public. “I said, ‘Don’t do that. Be yourself. Everybody does wrong things. As long as he does not do it again. I forgive you once; not the second time.”

Soon, Chan says, he hopes he and his son can collaborate on musical recordings, maybe even appear in a film together. Jail, he said, has made him more productive. Such a break from everyday life, he tells  the press, might be good for today’s overstressed multitudes. “I think sometimes I should set up a ‘jail holiday’ force some rich people, even myself, to go to jail,” he says, apparently in jest.

Looking ahead, Chan is starting production on a film called Kung Fu Yoga. That will be followed by a second world war-era movie titled  Railroad Tigers that  centres on ordinary Chinese trying to sabotage Japan’s shipments of  materiel to Southeast Asia.

But the upcoming project he sounds most enthused about is The Foreigner, an English-language drama to be directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) and based on the Stephen Leather novel The Chinaman, about an Vietnamese ex-guerilla fighter turned London restaurateur who gets caught up in an IRA bombing and seeks revenge.

“That’s a serious thing. It’s suitable for my character and age,” says Chan, citing the roles taken on by Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood and Liam Neeson as examples of the kind of parts he now wants in Hollywood.

Jeff Yang, co-author of Chan’s 1998 biography, I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action, says Chan was “born too early” for the new chapter of cinema “with Chinese actors and Chinese money playing a lot larger role in Hollywood.”

Minkoff  says he doesn’t think Chan is done in Hollywood. “People said that about John Travolta before Pulp Fiction – ‘He’ll never work in this town again.’ Then suddenly he was in everything,” the director says. “Audiences still love Jackie.”

Tribune News Service