Michael Jai White is among the fittest actors in Hollywood—and has been for a few decades now. His breakthrough role was playing boxer Mike Tyson in the 1995 HBO film Tyson. Since then, many of his roles have taken place in a boxing ring, battlefield, prison yard, or tournament to the death. His powerful presence has been felt in many a successful film franchise, from Universal Soldier to Undisputed to Never Back Down to The Dark Knight Trilogy.
Playing a brawler on the big and small screen so many times is no accident: White is a legitimate martial artist now known for choreographing most of his own action sequences. The latest entry to that list is Outlaw Johnny Black (currently out in theaters), a classic Western revenge story he directed himself, featuring his trademark kicks.
Men’s Journal spoke with White about the new movie, balancing his filmmaking responsibilities with his fitness, casting UFC fighters, and how he’s maintained his incredible high-flying physique at 55 years old.
Michael Jai White Fast Facts
Michael Jai White Movies
- Blood and Bone
- Falcon Rising
- Triple Threat
- Universal Soldier
- Never Back Down
- The Dark Knight
- They Cloned Tyrone
- The Island
Michael Jai White Net Worth
- 5 million
Michael Jai White Martial Arts Specialty
- The Superfoot System
Men’s Journal: Being a director, a fight coordinator, and an actor in films, how do you make sure your body is working at full capacity?
Michael Jai White: I treat training for a film like I’m preparing for a prize fight. I take that physical preparation element very seriously, but I know how much it benefits me mentally and creatively. I’m lucky that I’ve always been able to put on muscle very easily, and I could probably be around 240 or 250 [pounds] if I didn’t train at all. I put on a lot of muscle during my earlier years, and now that I’m older, it’s become about cutting when I need to show off the abs a bit. Going into a movie, my ideal weight is around 215 or 220.
How do you train if you don’t have access to a gym?
Depending on where I am the weeks before a movie starts filming, I really rely on running and sprinting, combined with martial arts, of course, to stay lean. I usually get to the film location quite a bit earlier, especially when I’m directing. On those occasions, I’ll scout the area for a warehouse or parking garage where I can have a controlled environment to do sprints. I’ve found that if you’re in some sort of city, you can usually find a parking garage that isn’t too busy during the morning or midday.
I have to adapt the schedule depending on the weather, too. I remember when I was directing Never Back Down: No Surrender in Thailand, and it was one of the hottest months in the country. It was already 85 degrees at five in the morning, so going for a run any later was out of the question. I was waking up at four in the morning so I could get to the parking garage before it was too brutal.
I’ll bring or find some way to make markings in the garage—hopefully nothing too noticeable—and mark out a 100-meter distance. There’s also good and steady incline in parking garages, so I can do sprints uphill for a special finisher. I’ll work to max-out my 100-meter run. I wear a heart-rate monitor for this portion of the workout so I know where my heart rate is and how many calories I’m burning.
What style of martial arts are you partial to?
The day always includes lots of martial arts, especially when we’re filming or rehearsing a fight sequence. I’ll go back to all the old styles when I’m using them to train. I would say that wushu is the best one for me to do when I really want a workout. I was lucky enough to study wushu with Wu Bin, who was Jet Li’s coach back home. For a bigger guy like me, doing wushu is very intense. That’s the pinnacle of performance.
For wushu, you’re taking your weight all the way to the floor, holding and stretching, then leaping up into the air in the same flow. It’s like a martial art combined with Pilates. If I’m able to do wushu flows, then I know I’m in good shape. Strangely enough, even though it’s such a part of my regimen, I’ve never done wushu on camera. I guess I’m saving that for the next one.
How do you build an action sequence?
I’ve studied for so long and been a part of so many fight sequences that I create a lot of them on the spot. On occasion, I’ll make them up as I’m driving to the location. Because of that, I really need to be ready for anything when it comes to the physical side of things, and I require that from my fellow actors as well. I need to be able to hit all of my kicks and punches at any time. That’s why it’s best that I’m going into a filming date lean, quick, and mobile.
Directing the action for Outlaw Johnny Black was different, too, because those old Westerns didn’t hide behind a lot of fancy cuts or camera moves. There were a lot of long shots and stillness. They let the fights play out. Of course I had to raise the number of incidents, because of the attention span that people have today, but I wanted to at least have the feel of those older genre movies. I was lucky that I had [stuntman] Terry Leonard on set, who is Steven Spielberg’s guy, and has created amazing action in massive movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Inception.
You have a number of UFC fighters starring in Outlaw Johnny Black. Why did you cast these fighters to act in the movie?
Some of these guys been on sets before, but even more than that I wanted to cast people who had lived an actual life. Looking back at the classic Westerns that we love, the actors who starred in them were coming from a real life. They were veterans and blue collar workers. Think of Charles Bronson, and what his eyes held. There are a lot of actors working today who grew up around the shining lights. That’s fine, but I personally wanted guys who’d seen blood and violence for real.
For example, I also worked with [MMA fighter] Josh Barnett on Never Back Down: No Surrender, and while we were filming that he was also training for an upcoming fight. But it’s not like the filming we were doing was a walk in the park. We were in Thailand with 120-degree [heat], fighting with no air conditioning under bright movie lights. He was lifting me up to throw me, then I was doing the same to him. That’s not a task for a weak person, and Barnett is able to handle those kinds of situations. Same goes for Cowboy [Donald] Cerrone and Randy Couture. There’s a presence they bring to any interaction and that’s great to have on camera.
Is there anyone you’re looking at for your next film?
[MMA fighter] Sean Strickland is definitely someone I’ve got my eye on and have in my casting crosshairs. Not just because he’s a great fighter, but also he’s got a personality that’s begging to be on screen. I’ve known a lot of fighters in my day, all the way back to when I was 17 years old sparring with the great Bill “Superfoot” Wallace. But I’m also an acting coach, so I go into these situations knowing that if I see something raw, I can help bring that out. I think I could bring something great out of Sean in front of a camera.