Don 'The Dragon' Wilson has been a martial arts action star for over 25 years, headlining such fan favorites as BLOODFIST (1989), BLACKBELT (1992), OUT FOR BLOOD (1992), RED SUN RISING (1994) and NIGHT HUNTER (1996). On top of such accomplishments, he was also the world kickboxing champion a record eleven times, winning 47 matches by a knockout. Don is regarded as the greatest kickboxer that ever lived. Thirty years into his acting career, Don has played against type in his latest films. In the first part of a two-part interview about his career, we talked about his role as a hitman in PAYING MR McGETTY and as Uncle Glen, the dojo-owning mentor figure in THE MARTIAL ARTS KID.      

How are THE MARTIAL ARTS KID and PAYING MR. McGETTY new challenges for you? 
Both films are totally different from what I've done in the past. I'm more known for R-rated action movies, where there is violence and nudity and cussing, and these are family movies. I always wondered why actors like Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Rock want to do family movies and romantic movies. For thirty years, I did the same kind of movies, always being the good guy, with fights always around the corner. I never went to extremes with any of my characters. I was the the every day guy, the guy everybody is meant to identify with. Directors would try to get me to play it extreme but it wasn't what I wanted to do. In PAYING MR McGETTY I play a bad guy and a man of few words. Even though this is a martial arts action comedy, in the opening scene I kill a guy. It's really a black comedy, and I compare it to Scorsese's AFTER HOURS (1985). In THE MARTIAL ARTS KID, I am Uncle Glen, a family man who runs a dojo and wears Hawaaian shirts. Now I know why those other guys like to change things up. It was a blast.

Was it a conscious decision to make a change? 
My agent recommended I do different kinds of films, so I could show I was an actor and that I didn't have to take my shirt off in every film and fight the bad guys. I did a movie called THE LAST SENTINEL (2007), which was a sci-fi movie with no martial arts in it, and sure enough, I started getting offers to do other kinds of movies where I could just act. I found that I could do different kinds of movies and my fans would support them. I'm been acting for over thirty years now, and I am not just being hired now for my martial arts background, although I love making action movies and I will continue to make them.

Is it important for you to maintain creative control on your movies? 
Roger Corman started me in the business and he told me ''Don, you need to take control of your movies. '' I asked him how I would do that and he said ''You have two contracts. You have one as an actor, which your agent negotiates, and you have one as a producer, which your entertainment attorney negotiates. '' So from the early 80s onwards, I got certain mutual approvals over creative aspects of the films – the director, the cast, the script and even the poster. Roger wanted to have a long history with me so he didn't want me to burn myself out by making too many movies and letting the quality slip. I've starred in over sixty films and there's only one that I can say I'm embarassed and ashamed to have been a part of. I'm not going to say the title because if I do people will go out and rent it, and I don't want that!

Are THE MARTIAL ARTS KID and PAYING MR McGETTY the beginning of you wanting to have a positive message for audiences with your films? 
The writer/ director Michael Baumgarten and the producer, my brother James Wilson, are the real creative forces behind these films. Most of my movies, and movies in general, are rollercoaster rides and nothing more, but why not aspire to have some kind of positive message? We snook in some things within the context of a fun 90 minute movie. Both films are about characters wanting to better themselves. In THE MARTIAL ARTS KID, Robbie (Jansen Panettiere) is a teenager who wants to improve himself by learning martial arts, and he manages to learn confidence and skills that he can use in his everyday life. In PAYING MR McGETTY, Tyrell (played by R. Marcos Taylor) is working this dead-end job in order for his career as a music producer to take off. He also wants a stable relationship. He's really as good a guy as you can get. Tyrell finds himself in a situation with a beautiful woman and behaves honorably. All married men should aspire to be as good a man as Tyrell.

What did you like the most about the messages in THE MARTIAL ARTS KID? 
If you teach people how to fight, without the morals and ethics, you are going to create bullies. It is also best to learn as many different disciplines as you can. Bruce Lee really believed this, and he was the first ever mixed-martial artist. He was a philosopher above everything else. He also believed that martial arts are only for self defence or to defend others. These are the things both Cynthia Rothrock and I teach to our students.

The first thing you learn when you're a martial artist is how to bow, how to get your 'jion' right. You learn respect for the dojo. Take your shoes off. Have clean feet. You learn certain life lessons that translate to life outside of the dojo. You learn respect and honor, and openness and kindness. Before you learn martial arts skills, you have to have this core of integrity first. If you allow it, learning a martial art will transform you and become a way of life, like it has with me.

How did you start working with Michael Baumgarten? 
I first met him in Florida in the 90s, and he told me he wanted to get into the film business. I told him that I couldn't give him a career, but I would promise to give him his first job. He came out to L.A., and I gave him a job as a production assistant, which is the lowliest position on a set. Now, I'm lucky to work with the guy! He's a director, a producer and a writer, and very talented. There are so many B-movie comedies that are not funny, just stupid. It's difficult to make a funny movie. Michael's comedy sense is not slapstick, it's situational. He creates good characters and they hold your interest throughout the movie. I love the moment when Robbie is trying to impress the girl he likes in THE MARTIAL ARTS KID and Michael has me squeeze the bicycle horn. It's a heartwarming, funny moment, and it comes from strong characters, behaving in the moment.

How much of a fan are you of THE KARATE KID (1984), with which THE MARTIAL ARTS KID shares similarities? 
I love the film. That said though, it is unrealistic that Ralph Macchio would have become a champion by 'waxing on and off'! We poke a little fun at the film in THE MARTIAL ARTS KID when I tell Robbie ''You can wax on and off all you want but you're still not going to drive any of our cars. '' ROCKY (1976) is also unrealistic. I fought for twenty years as a professional kickboxer and chasing all the chickens in the world is not going to stop you from getting knocked out in the ring! I was adamant we had to be more realistic in THE MARTIAL ARTS KID, and all the stuff I teach in the movie is stuff I would teach in real life.

How much improvisation was there in THE MARTIAL ARTS KID? 
We weren't doing Shakespeare so if I forgot a line here or there, we wouldn't do another take. It was slightly improv, but we went from the script as much as possible. Hopefully the film has a feel of being in the moment.

How involved did you get in planning your one action scene in the film, when you fight the protagonist Kaine (T.J. Storm) in your traditional 'dragon' clothes? 
It was my idea to have the fight in a batting cage. Originally, it was meant to happen in the car park, but I thought a batting cage would be more interesting. I liked the fact that T.J.'s character gave me a bat. It showed he still had honor. He wasn't a real bad guy.

Will there be a sequel to THE MARTIAL ARTS KID? 
The script is being written now. It will be a buddy picture, and my character, Uncle Glen, will join forces with Kaine, and we will fight against Frank (Chuck Zito) and a character played by Sasha Mitchell, who was the star of KICKBOXER 2 (1991) and 3 (1992).

Did you look at any other films when preparing for your hitman role in PAYING MR McGETTY? 
I looked at two films I really like – Jean Reno in THE PROFESSIONAL (1994) and Javier Bardem in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007). I have a very simple wardrobe in the film, like those guys. I'm not Tom Cruise in COLLATERAL (2004).

Part two of the interview. 

You can read more about THE MARTIAL ARTS KID here. PAYING MR McGETTY will be released later this year. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.

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