Jackie Chan: I AM Green Hero
Legendary actor Jackie Chan is reinventing his image as an iconic action hero.
The beloved Academy Award winner has starred in over 200 films that earned a combined two billion dollars in the box office, broke almost every bone in his body to do it, and only last month—almost died on his latest film set.
But, as he sits down for an interview, in a surprisingly candid admission, he also expresses regret over the toxic alpha-male values within his earlier films, and wants his fans to heed this warning:
Chan’s current mission is to prevent unnecessary environmental waste, through his National Geographic documentary and sustainable art exhibition; a philosophical and urgent call for Hollywood and all people who are willing—to take action to respect our planet and each other.
This could all easily be mistaken as just another celebrity’s ploy for positive PR. Yet, as Chan effortlessly moves from one wide-eyed journalist to the next, it’s obvious that his legendary persona doesn’t need or crave it.
Instead, he seems to be looking for personal redemption; as he openly confesses to making mistakes at the start of his career. Lowering his tone, he admits:
“There’s a lot of pressure. Everybody looks at me as an idol. I know I’ve influenced a lot of young children around the world. So, this is why, even when you watch my movies; inside, they’ve got so many good messages, not like the old days, when I didn’t care about the children and I just cared about the box office.
If the action came through your butt, through your nose, through dirty movements, I used to think, ‘The audience is laughing. That’s good!’ But, now, I think that was wrong. I didn’t know anything. I just wanted to make money and make the movie for an audience, so they would like it.“
When I asked about why he now feels ready to be so open, he refers back to his earliest days as a young unknown actor - the son of Chinese refugees - which he has previously spoken about as his wild days when would get drunk and gamble, having become a millionaire by the age of 20.
As fearlessly as he approaches his stunts, he’s unflinchingly honest: ‘In the West, they don’t really know me so much. It’s only in the last 25 years, that I got famous in America. So, before those 25 years, they didn’t know what I was doing. Most people in Europe, in America, they would say, ‘Oh Jackie, you’re like Superman, so good!’ But nobody’s perfect. So, I wanted to show them how bad I was.”
He pauses thoughtfully for a while, before adding, “I want to teach young talents not to follow in my (previous) footsteps. I always tell them, ‘When you are young, go and learn as much as you can. By the time you get famous, there’s no time to learn.’”
When asked whether he sees part of his responsibility as a celebrity to set a good example, Chan muses, “I think every celebrity has to do that because (especially) young celebrities; they have so many fans. Whatever you do—you’ve got a tattoo, they follow you and get a tattoo. You buy this kind of lipstick—the fans go and buy the same lipstick.
If you are postive in the way that you teach your fans, they will follow you. If everybody does a little bit—not just the celebrities, but ordinary people—if everybody does a little bit, we’ll create a beautiful world.
If you see rubbish on the street, you pick it up. That’s the charity, that’s the thing that every person should do.”
Referring to his early films, he discussed how he has become more conscious in his approach to his fame, “When I was making a film, I just didn’t care about children and how I was talking to them. I was only talking to myself. Now, after I make my films, I show them to my children and I think, ‘If I can show my children, I can show the whole world.’”
Chan’s foray into Hollywood cinema not only lead to worldwide acclaim, but also made him increasingly aware of the large variety of trash wasted on his movie sets. After noticing tens of thousands of plastic water bottles were crowding his sets, shot in the world’s most remote areas, Chan began to seek a solution to turn waste into useful materials.
After participating in a panel discussion on environmental sustainability at The Leonardo Museum in Salt Lake City, he spoke about his lesser known sustainable movie practices:
“I’m an environmently (conscious) person. On a typical set, when you have a car crash, one car is gone - wasted - and you buy a new car. I try to use a seat-belt, do my best to stop waste, to reuse things on the movie set again, and not just destroy things.
If you go to a Jackie Chan movie set, I have my own rules. Everyone has to think about waste; they have to write their names on their paper cups. I even have a place for you to put your own cup. If I can bring this kind of thinking to Utah and educate even two people: it’s worth it.
It’s no exaggeration that Jackie Chan is the most uniquely recognised actor who connects both the Eastern and Western markets. So, it’s no suprrise that another passion Chan wants to discuss is the value of cross-cultural collaboration.
On the topic of co-productions with China in bringing different cultures together; he points to China’s growing theatrical market with 80,000+ theatres in the region:
“The whole world sees that, ‘Wow, China is the biggest market in the world in the future.’ So, there’s so many Americans, British, Russians, Indians, Singaporeans—so many people are going to China to make a co-production.
It’s like a big cake. Everybody is trying to share the cake and I think it’s a good thing. Why? For example, with Rush Hour. They were trying to figure out how to collaborate between the East and West. More people are learning each other’s languages. If everybody knows everybody’s culture, they respect each other’s culture.
Like Chris Tucker—when he was filming in China, he said, ‘Jackie, why does everybody say nigger on the set?’ And I would say, ‘Oh no, you misunderstand. Nahger means there, that thing, or that person in Chinese.’ So, there are so many of these misundertandings.
If he didn’t ask me, then—because he’s just by himself and there’s so many Chinese on the set that he didn’t want to say anything— he would have been very unhappy. After I explained, he would say ‘Oh, now I understand!’”
Chan takes it a step further, “Sometimes, I see these directors who make these kinds of movies that are so violent; with eyes coming out etc. and they say, ‘Oh, the audience, they like it.’ And when I ask them, ‘Will you show your family?’ and they say ‘Oh no!’ I would say to them, ‘Why? Why do you make these kinds of movies, when there’s so many ways to make a movie?’
Like in Drunken Master, I would say, ‘Drunk. Drink. Fight!’ And then, I would see children in Africa walk on the street who recognised me saying that, and I realised, I really influence so many children, so, I really have to be careful.
So, immediately, when I made Drunken Master II the message changed to, ‘Don’t drink. Don’t fight. Respect your opponent. Respect the world. Respect everybody.’ In all those years, you can see how my movies changed. Even how I would teach the Karate Kid. I teach in the movie: ‘Turn on, Turn off. Turn On. Turn off’ the hot water.
If you slowly watch my movies, there’s so many messages, even in Rumble in the Bronx. In Rumble in the Bronx, the casting director brought me all black people. I said ‘No, what about the browns?’ They said, ‘In the Bronx, it’s all black people.’ I said ‘No, two is enough. The rest of the gang (should be) French, Italian, Chinese.’ They said ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I want to show the world good people, bad people are from everywhere.’
And when my uncle got married to a black person (in the film) - I wrote it in the dialogue on purpose - my character says, ‘Why did you marry a black person?’ and the character answers ‘What does it mean? Black people, white people, red people? In the future, there is only one people: Earth people.’
For a long, long time, in my movies, I tried to communicate so many messages like these. In First Strike, my character was wanted by the police and I chose to do a purposeful shot of the mother with the child walking around the park who see me on the (front) of a newspaper as ‘Wanted’. She drops the newspaper and runs away. I’m just passing by, I pick up the newspaper, and I throw it in the garbage can.
See, it’s not like you make rubbish in Utah and are clean in Hong Kong. No. The whole world belongs to humans. The whole world belongs to us, that’s my philosophy. Wherever I go, I just tell people we have to take care of it. Wherever I go, that belongs to me. That’s my philosophy.”
As our interview came to a close, Chan was lead to a Q & A with some local children keen to show off their Kung Fu moves. As I watched, I sensed his exhaustion at the expectation that he be the Jackie Chan action hero persona, he’s renown for.
Beyond the act, was a human being - who despite his singular and iconic success story - just wanted the freedom to express who he really is without limitation and to be at peace with his soul: “As an actor, I want to do everything like Robert de Niro, Dustin Hoffman - that’s my goal.”
Perhaps, this new evolution of Jackie Chan as a conscious ‘Green hero’ is a good example of what’s possible for influencers, in this age of authenticity that we find ourselves in.
Jackie Chan’s Green Heroes aired as a documentary episode on National Geographic. Chan’s exhibition at The Leonardo Museum continues until April 28th.
Special thanks to Daisy Hamilton at TriCoast Worldwide for making this piece possible.
About the filmmaker
Actor, Producer, Activist
In the early 1970s Chan began in very minor roles in two films starring then rising martial arts superstar Bruce Lee: Fist of Fury (1972), and the Warner Bros. production Enter the Dragon (1973). Chan went on to appear in many successful martial arts films. He starred in Shaolin Wooden Men (1976), To Kill with Intrigue (1977), Half a Loaf of Kung Fu (1978) and Magnificent Bodyguards (1978). After scoring a major hit Drunken Master (1978), Chan made his directorial debut with The Young Master (1980). Chan caught the attention of the US market in Police Story (1985) (aka "Police Story") and starred in the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)-influenced Armour of God (1986), Project A 2 (1987), Police Story 2 (1988), Mr. Canton and Lady Rose (1989), Armour of God 2: Operation Condor (1991) and Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992), which were all sizable hits, escalating his status to phenomenal heights in Asia. His first US hit Rumble in the Bronx (1995) was quickly followed by Police Story 4: First Strike (1996), Mr. Nice Guy (1997), Who Am I? (1998), which were international box office successes. Chan then starred in his biggest-budget US production, alongside comedian Chris Tucker in the action / comedy Rush Hour (1998). He went on to be paired with Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon (2000) and its sequel, Shanghai Knights (2003), and re-teamed with Tucker in Rush Hour 2 (2001), as well as starring in The Tuxedo (2002), The Medallion (2003) and Around the World in 80 Days (2004). Chan finally received an honourary Oscar in 2016 for his legendary career starring in over 200 films. Offscreen, Chan is a UNICEF GoodWill Ambassador, and he has campaigned against animal abuse and pollution and assisted with disaster relief efforts to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami victims. Today, Chan champions environmental causes around the world.