'The World Is My Oyster'
Hong Kong action hero Jet Li is set for stardom in his first big Hollywood role in Romeo Must Die
Director Andrzej Bartkowiak's star-crossed-killers melodrama earned a robust $4.1 million on opening day in the U.S. The movie opens on Asian screens this month. Li, who starred in Lethal Weapon 4 and does most of his own stunts, is also in talks for a role in the sequel to The Matrix. He spoke to TIME's Stephen Short.
TIME: Lethal Weapon 4 was your first U.S. movie. How do you feel about that now?
Li: It was good, but I wasn't sure about the character I played. That person was so mean, very tough, very rough and not my image. People came up to me afterwards and said, 'why are you so mean in this film' and I told them, 'I just played a character in a movie, the real Jet Li is really very nice.'
TIME: And how did audiences in the U.S. respond to Romeo Must Die?
Li: I was worried about this film.
TIME: But you play a very good guy here, yes?
Li: Yes, but I was concerned about the subject matter. It's an Asian and black film. I said to the studio, 'what about white people, what will they think, will they watch the film, what will the American audience think?' The studio kept telling me that wasn't a problem, so I thought, 'O.K.'
TIME: And what reaction did you get from those who saw it?
Li: Strange! Women loved the movie. Lots of them keep coming up to me on the street to tell me I'm a really nice guy.
Li: Yes, but I had older American ladies of 60 and 70 telling me that too.
TIME: That's because they all want you as a son.
Li: I'm not sure about that.
TIME: I am. And the black response?
Li: Amazing. I had blacks come up to me and say, 'hey man, you're the real thing, you really kicked some butt?'
TIME: Despite your worries then, it all sounds very positive.
Li: Yeah. I also chatted to people on the Internet about it?
TIME: Before or after the film?
TIME: How much time does a wushu martial arts star have for the Internet?
Li: Between one and three hours per day.
TIME: So what were you chatting about on the Net?
Li: I was asking university students what they thought of the subject matter.
TIME: And what did they tell you?
Li: That I shouldn't be too concerned.
TIME: I think they're right. I'd be more worried about how a Hong Kong audience will respond to a black/Asian theme. What do you think?
Li: Hong Kong film audiences are very quiet. It's their culture.
TIME: Well, hang on Jet, they're quiet when they're not on the phone, which is practically never.
Li: Yes. But that's a huge difference between Hong Kong and the U.S. Watching movies in the U.S. is great fun because they get every joke, they smile, they laugh so much, it's a great feeling.
TIME: And this doesn't happen in Hong Kong?
Li: Well, I guess a lot of it is because of the language problem. Personally, I don't think the subject matter is such a big deal anymore, but I don't know everyone will feel that way. I mean, in Japan, it's common to see Japanese girls with black people and that's no big problem.
TIME: Are you good friends now with Aaliyah [his co-star in Romeo Must Die]?
Li: Yeah. I saw her concerts in New York and she's great.
TIME: Were you disappointed the romance between the two of you wasn't pushed harder in the film?
Li: Not really. The script was not romantic to start with and the feeling was that with a Jet Li action film, you couldn't start putting in romance, that would be too slow. The producers wanted more energy.
TIME: What about a sequel, where you and Aaliyah get to get it on?
Li: I don't think so. I need to learn something new and not repeat myself at this point.
TIME: On that point, it must be tough rehearsing, then taping your action scenes day after day. Does someone have to drag you out of bed each day because you can't get up yourself?
Li: No. I never feel that way. I'll tell you what though.
TIME: What's that?
Li: Studying English is like that. I use sentences 100, 200, even 300 times and still can't get them right. I'm too old for this. I never want to study again. I'm 37 now and reckon I have about five years left to go in terms of language learning before my brain stops. I hate myself for that and hate myself for not being able to speak the language as fluently as you. Even when I use a word in the wrong order in a sentence I get mad. It's very stressful.
TIME: Will you go back to China and Hong Kong or stay in the States? It sounds like you love the U.S.?
Li: I do. And I don't see any reason to go back. Besides, the world feels so small now. Technology is changing that and I think being in the U.S. is my big opening. I don't want to give that up. Anyway, I can watch CNN on television or the Internet to find out what happened in Hong Kong ten minutes ago. After all, it doesn't matter where something is made, we're all part of the same big family now.
TIME: What's next for Jet Li?
Li: Warner and Joel Silver [Romeo Must Die producer] are talking about the possibility of me being in The Matrix 2 and 3, but I can't say anymore about that and they wouldn't want me to. There's also an idea that's been kicking around my head for 15 years, which could develop as a film. And Universal are talking to me about a movie called The Green Hornet.
TIME: Will there ever be a Jet Li on a cinema screen that doesn't fight?
Li: One day. I want people to look at me in a film and say, 'hey, he's just like my neighbor.'
(Romeo Must Die opens in Singapore and Hong Kong on April 20, in Thailand on April 28 and in Taiwan and the Philippines on April 22. It opens in Korea on April 29.)
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