Interview de Nathan Chukueke
To start with, could you tell us a bit about you and your life before you went to Asia?
I worked doing construction with a friend, Carden Taft, in New York City. I had also just finished paralegal school and was doing a little temp work. My practiced in 7 star mantis with my kung fu brothers took up a lot of my free time. My mother was a social worker. I stayed at her apartment when I did not have my own. My life was in general in flux, but good overall. In addition to my Gung fu practice, I also went to some acting and dance class (Jo Jo Smith) on a regular basis in Manhattan.
What led you to move to Hong Kong, and how did you then entered the movie world?
I went to Hong Kong to see it. But to also learn a particular weapons form, the Gan: it's like a cone shaped sword. I learned it from Lee Kam Wing who was my main teacher's younger classmate. My Chiu Leun did not like the idea of me learning from his younger classmate, but later forgave me for that transgression. Chiu Leun even went on to try and make the communications stronger between the various sects under our grandmaster Chiu Chi Man.
After doing that type of work as an extra, I let it be known I did martial arts, but most of the roles I got consisted in shooting guns in some war, gang, or bodyguard scene. You have to understand I was in Hong Kong in and on over five times in maybe seven years.
During the 80's, it seems there were good opportunities for White or Black Westerners to appear in movies in HK and in other Asian countries, which film industries were then flourishing. How many films have you been working on?
I don't even remember how many movies I was in, actually. As an extra maybe eight. Then as a so called action actor perhaps I was in five. All of these movies were done over a span of seven years at least. There was a lot of work at first, it was easy to get, but each time I came back to Hong Kong it got harder and required more searching around.
At one time I got an agent who was a Hung Gar teacher and movie actor himself. Good gung fu but so so agent. His name was Chiu Chi Ling, he was that actor in the funny parody kung fu movie where the guy gets hit into the sky then hit the toad style guy with a big hand print strike from the sky. While my agent was the Hung gar who played his role a little gay I think, funny stuff.
Anyway, as work got harder to get in Hong Kong, I decided to train more over the next few trips and not hang out so much, so I joined Eddie Maher's gym. That gym was popular with a lot of us action actors, from both the East and the West. Bolo Yeung from "Enter the Dragon" went there, he is not a friendly guy at first, but serious about his training. Donnie Yen from Boston went there also, and some guys from Jacky Chan's stunt team sometimes. Eddy was one really cool guy for the record. That gym had a workout area where some friendly sparing went on at times, but mostly stunt practice. The gym was also on Kowloon side, so it was easy to get to practice. I also found work by training and hanging out afterward with those guys.
My best conversations there at the gym were with Jeffrey Falcon, an interesting action actor who knows a lot about Northern Mantis, outside of his vast modern Wu Shu knowledge (in fact he was a very dynamic gung fu player, with LOTS of skills beyond the Wu Shu that he was known for doing). He spoke Chinese mandarin very well, and was one of the few that got accepted by the film companies directly. Some people did not get along with him, but I thought he was OK. He was out of my league in terms of getting movie roles, so I never got to work with him on any productions. I guess Jeff, Donnie, Anthony and Bruce Fontaine were in the A league and I was in the minors in terms of movie martial performance skills.
You notably worked with director Godfrey Ho and producer Joseph Lai (IFD) on at least one film, entitled "Hitman the Cobra". What are your memories of this movie and of Godfrey Ho? Would you have any anecdotes from the shooting, about the working methods for instance? How much did you got paid on that film?
I don't really remember much about Godfrey Ho to think of it. He seemed like a nice enough guy. In fact I don't remember much about that movie other than it was a hell of a lot of fun. I think they took us out in an area known as the New Territories, which is sort of like going to some hot country back woods area in New York state. It was like playing soldiers, but serious. All I had to do to get into character was remember my days in the old neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Heck shooting gun and not getting in trouble.
On those IFD & Filmark productions, Westerners were usually employed to make the film look like an American made production. Most of the Western faces you see in these films were tourists, students or backpackers from Chungking Mansion with no experience in acting or fighting. It seems you, at least, had some genuine experience in martial arts...
I have been doing Southern then Northern styles of gung fu off and on, since maybe 1974. I started in karate with notable Claude Battle and William Oliver in a community centre on my block in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.