Health and wellness

Diet and fitness regimes of a Transformers stuntman: boxing, tae kwon do, weights, and hold the sugar

Hong Kong’s Jason Li, who has dodged speeding cars in Transformers: Age of Extinction and been a stunt double for Louis Koo, tells us about his martial arts training, gym work, stretching to stay in shape, and the importance of sleep

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 7:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 8:48pm

After only three years in the film business, Jason Li has punched up quite a résumé.

In director Michael Bay’s blockbuster Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) – one that grossed over US$1 billion worldwide – Li dodged high-speed cars and ran across explosives-laden Tamar Park during an alien robot attack.

Around the same time, he was part of the SWAT crew blown up in a tunnel for Michael Mann’s Blackhat , starring Chris Hemsworth.

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In several local productions, this 27-year-old has played a policeman, terrorist, cage fighter, good guy and villain. He also acts as a stunt double for leading Hong Kong stars, including Louis Koo for S Storm (2016) and Philip Ng for Undercover Punch and Gun (2015).

Li’s martial arts training comes in handy in fight sequences, while his airgun training helps him give authentic performances on screen, too.

“In Colour of the Game , starring Philip Ng, we were terrorists on a boat coming to shore, which was shot on Stanley Beach,” he says, adding that the actors then fired their AR-15 and AK-47 automatic assault rifles. “It was great fun, but risky,” he recalls.

Misheld, weapons could fly out of their hands, and even hurt someone nearby. These weapons, even with blank bullets, also have added explosives for effect.

Besides rehearsals, Li’s strategies to avert or reduce hardship on his body are many. “I take a good amount of time stretching. It’s important to stay limber,” he said. But he insists stunt work today is safer than in the Jackie Chan era decades ago, thanks to advanced film technologies and safer equipment and practices.

“In post-production we can edit out [wires harnessed on stuntmen while filming scenes] or we put mats on the floor, put green cloth over it, and do the stunts, then in post-production the mats would have been ‘wiped out’, so it’s safer,” he explains.

How do you prepare for a stunt?

In this line of work, you don’t know when you will need something [a particular skill] for scenes. So my philosophy is to train in everything that I might use on camera. I try to be multifaceted, and train in Brazilian ju-jitsu, Filipino kali, wushu, wing chun, boxing and tae kwon do.

Describe your nutrition and training regimen?

I’m not strict on any diet, although I stay away from sugary and non-good stuff, but I’m not a health nut. I’m adamant on my training, though. My area of expertise is aerial flips and flashy kicks. When falling down from these moves, I need to know where my body is in the air and react accordingly, and fall safely and convincingly. The moves also depend on the director – some want realistic fights and punches, but no two-spins as you hit the floor. In local gu zhong martial arts period dramas, there are tonnes of mid-air flips and fights with performers harnessed on wires.

Training requires practising falls on mats or something soft. On set, you can’t have mats if the camera captures the floor. In that case, we put the mats or pads on ourselves – motorcycle or bicycle pads on your elbow, knees or back, or wherever you will fall. These are lifesaving gear for stuntmen.

How did you learn to do those somersaults and flips?

When I was a kid, I watched a lot of Power Rangers. In my early teens I decided to start doing it and went to a park and [taught myself] those moves. YouTube was my master.

Describe your usual daily training?

This morning I hit the gym for weightlifting. I also did callisthenics. There are also martial arts training [for skills maintenance]. You can’t do everything at once, so I split my sessions across the week. If I am weightlifting today, tomorrow I will do martial arts training – some basic kicks, punches and so forth. The next day I’d do upper body weightlifting, then move on to aerial flips. It’s good to train everyday.

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How does callisthenics help?

It’s a bodyweight exercise that builds overall body strength. You don’t need a gym, but might need a bar for pull-ups. Push-ups are also a form of callisthenics.

At the gym, you can focus on one area of the body through bench presses. There are also push-ups that activate your core [strength]. I like it because it’s a whole body experience.

I do push-ups and pull-ups. Since I need explosive power [to do moves], I put an explosive twist on it. Sometimes I do them slowly or I add intensity. For a push-up, that could be hitting the floor then jumping up and adding a clap when I come back down. Or, I slow it down and do a one-minute long push-up.

What is your recovery regimen?

After stunts, you’re usually tired after having done falls in 10 takes in a row. That means certain parts of my body will be sore. To keep the blood flowing, I walk around a lot. I use a foam roller, which is great for loosening tight muscles; it’s a myofascial release, where you massage the muscles to release tension. I’d use that or even a golf ball to massage myself in tight areas.

Necks get really sore after fights, especially since you tend to whip your head left-right or up-down quickly. Also in any fall, you must avoid slapping your head on the ground. To tighten your neck, I become like a turtle and tighten those muscles. I do this in a fall to protect my neck and head. It also helps avoid letting your head go too far back during a fall.

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How important is sleep?

On a regular day I would try get eight hours of sleep. Since our shooting schedule isn’t fixed, we need to constantly switch sleep patterns to accommodate day and night shoots. I would often sleep as much as I can during the day before a night shoot, [if] I did not just come off a shoot that same day.

Mental clarity is very important when shooting stunts. If I didn’t get enough sleep, I will make an effort to stay hydrated, eat enough calories and have a caffeinated drink handy. I do not like to sleep on set – it looks unprofessional. But it isn’t uncommon, and might need to be done under certain circumstances.

One of the hardest sleepless runs I’ve had was at a long shoot from mid-day to 6am the next day where I had to fight and do flips non-stop, then rush over to another shoot for a TV commercial, and had to flip around in the sun in work wear all day. I had no sleep for almost 36 hours.