top of page

Conflicting Duality: Why Good Martial Arts Actors are Hard to Come By

There are some incredible action stars that showcase amazing martial arts skills and display serious acting chops. Their fights are believable and technically impressive. On top of that, you believe what they’re saying and their emotions are genuine. I’m here today to tell you that achieving that combination of fighting on film proficiency and expression of emotional truth is much harder to master than many give these folks credit for.

Look, there are tons of well-known actors that you would likely agree are “believable.” When you see them on the screen, what they’re saying seems to be their thoughts, and the emotions that come with the dialog ring true. You can probably name dozens of actors and recognize over a hundred that you would even say are good. They may not be your favorite, but you can agree they are at least believable. Now, I want you to think of all the martial arts action stars you can. Although you love martial arts action movies, you probably have only a handful that comes to mind. You have Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Cynthia Rothrock, and Jean-Claude Van Damme to name a few. Of course, there are others, but it’s likely you won’t get past a dozen martial arts movie stars that arestrong at both acting and fighting on filmbefore you can’t think of anymore.

How many were you able to think of that are both proficient martial artists and strong actors? Why the mental exercise? My point is finding people that are both strong actors and incredible marital artists is a tall task. This could be due to a small pool of people that do both, but I believe there is more to it. There is a situation I refer to as “conflicting duality,” which makes being a good marital arts actor harder than most any other genre.

I use this term “conflicting duality” to express the idea of living through two diametrically opposed expressions simultaneously. You may wonder what this has to do with being in a “karate movie.” Well, in martial arts films, one of the main focuses is fighting. The fights should be exciting, believable, and often technically precise for those wishing to display their art on film. And when performing these fight scenes, one of the main focuses is necessarily the safety of all involved. This means that the actors must be in complete control of their physical actions. The slightest error or unplanned improvisation can lead to disaster.

You may have heard of the term “continuity” in the movie world. It’s easiest to explain by sharing what broken continuity looks like when watching a movie. Let’s say you watch a movie where a character is wearing a red ballcap and glasses, and then when they cut to the next angle, he’s wearing a cowboy hat and no glasses. In that moment, you have witnessed a continuity error. Now, if you take that lesson and know that movies are almost never shot in chronological order, a broken nose for an actor can ruin continuity in a flash and weeks of work can be destroyed. Just imagine if a character in a movie wakes up with a broken nose and in a scene later that night it’s unblemished.

As you can see, being in complete control of oneself is of the utmost importance for the safety of the actors and for the overall success of the movie. Now, on the flip side, actors frequently try to let go of all inhibitions and allow themselves complete freedom to react genuinely in any given moment. Different actors, of course, have different approaches, but letting the emotions run rampant and allowing one’s reactions to be genuine are imperative for a strong acting performance. In other words, the actor works to be completely out of control of his emotions and reactions, allowing them to be as real as possible.

Can you see how the out-of-control emotions fly directly in the face of the complete control needed for the physical aspect of the acting? At this moment, the actor is in a situation where he must completely let go of the emotional control and maintain complete mastery of the physical. Not everyone that can step up to this challenge…to this conflicting duality.

This is one of the main reasons it is hard to find actors that are both extremely proficient at their art and believable emotionally. Not only are they forced to live as someone else, but they’re also now tasked with being that person andsimultaneously performing two completely opposite actions. That said, there are some amazing martial arts actors out there. They amaze us with their technical skills, draw us in, and make us feel all that they experience in every moment of the movie. The take-home message today is simply to appreciate these amazing artists. They find a way to walk that line and do the near impossible all the while inspiring each and every one of us to give it our all both in and outside of the dojo.

Salute, Ian Lauer

bottom of page