‘How can someone from drama school learn what you’ve learned?’: How Jason Statham rose from the streets to stardom

“We chose Jason because we wanted our model to look like a normal guy. His look is just right for now: very masculine and not too male-modelly.”

This is how the French Connection clothing brand defined its new face, Jason Statham, in 1997. At that time he was only known for having being part of the British national diving team; today he is the man who rescued action cinema after the semi-retirement of the heroes who reigned at the box office — and, most of all, at the video store — during the 1980s and 1990s.

Schwarzenegger and Stallone have taken refuge in television, Van Damme is nowhere to be seen, Bruce Willis retired due to health problems and Chuck Norris has been reduced to a meme. The Briton is a better embodiment of the old values of the genre than more recent action heroes like Liam Neeson, focused on his work as an avenger with family responsibilities, or Keanu Reeves’ melancholic John Wick. They kill for a greater good; Statham’s characters kill because that’s life. He didn’t set the rules.

Unlike other contemporary hunks (see The Rock, Mark Wahlberg or Vin Diesel), Statham does not diversify. His character is clearly defined: he hits, he hits again, he does not smile and he is not afraid of ridicule. Perhaps Crank (2006) and its sequel Crank: High Voltage (2009) are the films that best define him. In them, he plays a hitman who must keep his adrenaline pumping in order to stay alive, either because he was poisoned or because his heart has been replaced with a battery. To do this, he resorts to measures like snorting cocaine or having sex in public, in scenes so explicit that they can be found on pornographic websites. In his fight to stay alive he uses a machete to cut off the hand of a guy who was aiming at him, and then, with the amputated hand still holding the gun, he shoots another thug. Can you imagine anyone else doing that?

Dexter Fletcher, Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham at the Los Angeles premiere of ‘Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.’

Dexter Fletcher, Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham at the Los Angeles premiere of ‘Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.’ Steve Granitz (WireImage)

When we think of British actors, what comes to mind is an elegant, affected guy who was trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company, speaks of fame and Hollywood with disdain and collects awards thanks to the tormented characters he plays; never a guy who drives killer cars and fights 75-foot long prehistoric sharks. Still, right now, he is the highest-grossing actor in the UK. “Forget Daniel Craig,” The Times published a few days ago. “Britain’s biggest actor is Jason Statham.” He is the biggest moneymaker, solely responsible for the million-dollar figures his films gross. No one goes to Marvel blockbusters because they like a particular actor, states the newspaper; they go because they are already fans of a comic. On the other hand, Statham fans go to the theater simply because of Statham. “He is his own franchise.”

Soccer player, diver, karateka and seller of fake bags

Statham is the son of a dancer and a street vendor who ended up singing in bars in the Canary Islands. At the age of 14 he began to help his father with the “family business:” selling fake bags, jewelery and perfumes outside Harrods. In his free time he played sports, almost all of them. He is passionate about soccer, which he was introduced to by former player and actor Vinnie Jones, with whom he would end up working on Mean Machine (2001). He also practices Chinese martial arts, kickboxing and karate, although his main passion has always been diving. He was a member of the British National Swimming Team for 12 years and competed for England at the 1990 Commonwealth Games. After failing to qualify for the Barcelona Olympics he left the sport and considered becoming a specialist in film, where he knew some people.

Jason Statham, Brad Pitt and Stephen Graham during the filming of ‘Snatch’ (2000).

Jason Statham, Brad Pitt and Stephen Graham during the filming of ‘Snatch’ (2000). Daniel Smith (Getty Images)

One of those people was Guy Ritchie, who was preparing his first film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), about a group of low-level criminals. “Guy came at me ‘cause he was interested in what I used to do on the fucking street. He’d written a character that was the same as me,” he told Esquire. “I’m gonna get someone from fucking drama school to do this? How can they learn what you’ve learned?” he says Ritchie told him. That encounter marked his entry into cinema. He was 30 and had no previous acting experience, although it was not his first time in front of the cameras: apart from his background as a catalog model for some brands, he had flaunted his physique in a couple of music videos, such as Dream a Little Dream by The Beautiful South and Comin’ On by The Shamen, where he dances oiled up in leopard underwear.

Ritchie recruited him again for Snatch (2000), where he shared the screen with Brad Pitt and Benicio del Toro. Then came Ghosts of Mars (2001) directed by John Carpenter, and The One (2001) with Jet Li. In 2002 he had his first leading role in The Transporter by Luc Besson, which would also become his first franchise. After that we saw him in The Italian Job (2003) — which, being a fan of fast cars, was a gift for him — and Cellular (2004), where he played the bad guy. The films in which he participated were becoming increasingly relevant. By the time he arrived at Crank, he was already a star.

“And the rest is shite”

“The reason he has worked so consistently for so long is that his body is not freaky. He does not look like a wrestling star,” critic Charles Gant said of him in The Guardian. “Guys want to be him, and you can put him in a suit and girls and gay men like him, too.” (They probably like him even more without the suit.)

Although his films have grossed billions of dollars, he is fully aware that he does not make masterpieces. “I really enjoyed working with Guy Ritchie. One, it gave me a career, and two, they’re probably a couple of the best films I’ve ever done. I thought The Italian Job was a really quality movie. Even working with Luc Besson and doing The Transporter, one and two — pretty good. The Crank movie — I thought that was decent.” He confessed to Esquire. “And the rest is shite.”

His inclusion in the saga The Expendables, Stallone’s tribute to the punch-and-kick movies of the 1980s, where he shared the screen with Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke, validated him as a member of the action heroes club. The first installment (released in 2010) was an unexpected commercial success, and showed that interest in such a reviled genre had not waned.

Actor Jason Statham poses for a promotional portrait in London in the summer of 2001.

Actor Jason Statham poses for a promotional portrait in London in the summer of 2001. Daniel Smith (Getty Images)

After The Mechanic, where he portrays a character that had been previously played by Charles Bronson — another icon of the shoot-first-ask-questions-later style — The Daily Telegraph

surrendered to him. “He remains our best export to action movies in just about forever, a businesslike brute with gentlemanly soul,” the newspaper’s review stated. “He drowns and strangles his targets with respect. He even drops them off rooftops with a certain chagrin.”

The biggest twist of his career (apart from the time he wore long hair in Homefront) would come with his appearance in Spy (2015), alongside Melissa McCarthy, Jude Law and Rose Byrne. The movie´s director, Paul Feig (the man behind Bridesmaids), is a self-confessed fan of Statham and wanted him to act just like he does in the rest of his films, without trying to be funny. If one thinks about it, however, from a certain point of view all his films are comedies, but Spy is the only one that sells itself as such.

Fists, yes; tights, no

Like almost all action heroes — and practically all actors today — his name appears in several franchises (Fast & Furious, Meg and The Expendables). However, where he does not see himself is in superhero movies, the genre of the 21st century par excellence. “I don’t have a big appetite for a costume, with cape and tights. I like old-school 1980s movies,” he has declared. “I was inspired by people like Stallone and Arnold. And even before those guys, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Eastwood. I just couldn’t see any of those guys putting on a cape and a mask and going around on wires.” He adds: “They’re not doing anything! They’re just sitting in their trailer. It’s absolutely, 100% created by stunt doubles and green screen. How can I get excited about that?”

Jason Statham facing a prehistoric shark with the strength of his thighs in ‘Meg 2.’

Jason Statham facing a prehistoric shark with the strength of his thighs in ‘Meg 2.’ LILO/SIPA (LILO/SIPA / Cordon Press)

His real heroes are the specialists. He likes to do his own action scenes, although that has become increasingly complicated due to insurance issues. “Bruce Lee never had stunt doubles and fight doubles, or Jackie Chan or Jet Li. I’ve been in action movies where there is a face replacement and I’m fighting with a double, and it’s embarrassing. But if you really are an aficionado of action movies, you know who’s doing what and who ain’t. To me it’s a little bit sad.”

The lengths to which he is willing to go for a good scene became clear when, as Stallone revealed, he came close to dying during the filming of the third installment of The Expendables (2014): “He faced death. He was test-driving a three-ton truck and the brakes run out. It went down 60 feet into the Black Sea and became impaled,” he said. “If anyone else had been in that truck we would have been dead because we were all wearing heavy boots and gun belts. We would have drowned. But because Jason is an Olympic-quality diver he got out of it.”

At 58, Statham maintains a spectacular physique thanks to rigorous training and a strict diet, according to Men’s Health, of six meals a day, not exceeding 2,000 calories and avoiding sugar and high-glucose foods such as fruit juices, pasta, sweets, flour and alcohol, as well as trying not to eat after 7:00 p.m.

Jason Statham and his partner, actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, at the Vanity Fair post-Oscars party in 2012.

Jason Statham and his partner, actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, at the Vanity Fair post-Oscars party in 2012. Jon Kopaloff (FilmMagic)

He only rests at night; his motto is the British saying: “Make hay while the sun shines.” Fame came to him after he was 30, and he knows necessity. Perhaps that explains why he released four films last year: Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, by Guy Ritchie, Fast X, Meg 2: The Trench and Expend4ables. In addition, he has just released The Beekeeper, by David Ayer, in which he plays a man who tends bees in an old woman’s barn while trying to redeem himself from his past, until some scammers ruin the woman, forcing him to take matters into his own hands. And in a Jason Statham movie, we all know what that means.

Despite his Stakhanovism, he has a private life: for 14 years he has been in a relationship with the model, actress and former Victoria’s Secret Angel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, whom he met at the Coachella Music Festival. They got married in 2016, have two children and try to keep their relationship away from prying eyes. Only occasionally are they seen on social media, where we can enjoy Statham’s most surprising role: that of a tender, loving father.

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