Back in the 1970s and ’80s, America’s youth signed up in droves for traditional martial arts training — often at the urging of their parents, who hoped karate, taekwondo and kung fu would teach their kids respect, discipline, hard work, sacrifice, humility and avoidance. Today’s generation is getting into it at an even younger age in large part because their parents have trained in the arts and know those claims are true. Two prime examples of this trend are Booboo and Fivel Stewart, teens who are singing, dancing and kicking their way into the entertainment industry because of their martial artist/stuntman father, Nils Allen Stewart.
As soon as the interview begins, I ask Booboo, 18 (at the time of the interview), about the origin of his odd name, and he replies in a controlled, succinct manner that befits a martial artist: “My parents gave me the name, and it just stuck.” It has nothing to do with the cartoon bear known as Boo Boo, sidekick of the mischievous Yogi, he adds. (Psst! His real name is Nils Allen Stewart Jr.)
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Chances are, few of his fans would think to ask him that question, however, because they’re not old enough to remember the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon. To them, Booboo is the name of the actor who played a werewolf called Seth Clearwater in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010). The character figured more prominently in the second film, Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (2011), and he resumed the role in 2012's Breaking Dawn: Part 2.
And in 2014, of course, Booboo Stewart assumes the role of James Proudstar, or "Warpath," in the comic-book-franchise blockbuster X-Men: Days of Future Past. In fact, his character is featured as part of Empire magazine's special 25 limited edition collector's covers celebrating what it calls "the biggest-ever superhero movie."
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Yet I’m not talking with Booboo to learn about his films; my interest is the martial arts. I find out he’s taken lessons since he was 3 and was a Tournament Promoters Association world champion in 2002 and 2003. “It’s just been so much fun — I got all these trophies down at the house,” he admits.
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Booboo's current martial endeavor is fut sau kune do, or Buddhist fist way, a form of wing chun. Not surprisingly, he’s a fan of the Ip Man films, which had Black Belt Hall of Fame member Donnie Yen portraying the title character in his early years, before he started teaching 13-year-old Bruce Lee in 1954. If all goes according to plan, Booboo will follow in Yen’s footsteps and showcase some of his kung fu skills in the next project, Jake Stevens: The Last Protector, which also involves his sister.
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Booboo Stewart's Sister, Fivel Stewart
Although only 15 (at the time of the interview), Fivel speaks with fluidity and smoothness — two more traits martial artists tend to pick up while training. She also exhibits a maturity beyond her years. Protective and matriarchal, her voice chimes with confidence. Case in point: She jokingly warns me that if I ever call her by her given name, Trent Heaven, she probably won’t respond.
In contrast to her brother, Trent’s nickname is related to a cartoon. “When I was a baby, my mom and dad gave me this little mouse toy from the film An American Tail: Fievel Goes West,” she says. “I kind of looked like it — the three eye lashes and whatnot — so my mom was like, ‘OMG! She looks like Fievel.’ The name stuck.”
“I also love cheese,” she adds with a snicker.
At age 5, Fivel was bitten by the martial arts bug. “When I watched my brother practice, I thought it was really cool,” she says. She immediately started training and discovered that she was a natural — which explains why in 2002 and 2003 she, too, was a TPA world champ.
Intrigued, I ask about her and her brother’s training. “Dad practices jiu-jitsu and Hawaiian kenpo, and we started with shotokan and Hawaiian kenpo,” says Fivel, who played Lucinda in 2005’s Pit Fighter.
The shotokan reference seems like a non sequitur until I remember the origins of the Hawaiian system: Bill Ryusaki founded it in 1962 after he combined his knowledge of kenpo and judo with shotokan, in which his father had trained extensively. Booboo and Fivel’s dad trained with Bill Ryusaki, hence the shotokan connection.
For Booboo Stewart and Fivel Stewart, Martial Arts Came First
Fivel and Booboo tell me that they love the martial arts and that the furthest things from their minds was to use the arts as a path to get into film, and I believe them. “Karate at that moment was our lives,” Fivel recalls. “We had school during the week and competitions every weekend. We saw my dad on movie sets and thought that was cool. Then we did singing and dancing — and slowly everything came together and it all fell into place.”
Father Nils says he never pushed them to act; instead, he waited for them to express an interest. “That happened when Booboo was 9 or 10 and Fivel was probably 7,” he says.
Taking Bruce Lee Philosophy to Heart
Bruce Lee once said that everything he was and everything he accomplished could be attributed to the martial arts and that the greatest gift a martial artist can give the world is to help others. Booboo and Fivel have taken those words to heart. Booboo devotes his time to raising awareness of muscular dystrophy — in 2010 he was named a celebrity ambassador by the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
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And he and Fivel donate time to Free Concerts to End Child Abuse, organized by the nonprofit Childhelp. “With these concerts, we’re trying to help these abused children get back on their feet,” Booboo says. “Childhelp has been going on for about 50 years — they’re amazing and have saved millions of lives. We are proud to be part of such a great thing.”
Fivel adds: “We actually went to a village a couple of months ago to see the children being helped. It was really awesome to see how they were doing — 83 children in one village [now] have a petting zoo and a school.”
Martial Arts Philosophy and Its Affect on Booboo Stewart and Fivel Stewart's Lives
I ask if the martial arts have influenced their lives in other ways. “It’s taught me about discipline,” Booboo says. “It’s also just a cool thing to be a part of, especially on set where it helps me clear my mind and think about what I’m doing — because there are so many things that are going on around you.”
Fivel’s answer is short and sweet: “It’s the discipline and confidence — plus, it’s really cool for a girl to learn how to protect herself.”
Thinking the interview is over, I thank them for their time. That’s when Fivel suddenly asks about my martial arts training. In 20 years of interviewing kids and teens who were involved in the martial arts and filmmaking, this is the first time one of them has fired back a question. I smile as it occurs to me that if the next generation of martial artists is anything like Booboo and Fivel, the arts are in good hands. They’re not just interested in sharing their own experiences; they’re interested in the experiences of others.
About the Author:
Dr. Craid D. Reid is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors.