SHOCK talks to martial arts star Taimak about his role in cult classic action flick THE LAST DRAGON.
(Okay…so it aint horror. But what horror and cult film fan doesn’t love THE LAST DRAGON? – Ed)
Every generation has its own touchstone, inspirational film, and THE LAST DRAGON (1985) is such a film for thousands of fans the worldwide over. Filled with exciting action, bizarre, mystical elements, an ultra hip Motown soundtrack full of pop songs, and a lead star who radiated from the screen, the film has garnered an incredible cult following and is more popular now than ever before. Taimak (last name: Guarriello) was chosen to play the lead character Leroy Green, who seeks the mystical power of “The Glow,” and the film becomes an adventure as his quest leads him on a path of honor and discovery through various trials and tribulations. Taimak’s background in martial arts includes studying Goju Karate, Goju-Ryu (his teacher was Ron Van Clief, the African American star of The Black Dragon), Jujitsu, and Tae Kwon Do, and he was a lauded kickboxing competitor in his younger years. Even though he was virtually a “one-hit wonder” action star, Taimak has maintained his strength, vitality, and positive outlook. Maybe he found The Glow.
SHOCK: THE LAST DRAGON has garnered an incredible cult following. This is a favorite movie for many, many people. Why do you think this movie has endured so strongly? Why do people love this movie so much?
TAIMAK: Well, I guess it’s similar to Rocky. It’s one of those characters that’s endearing. He succeeded after such a struggle. I think that appeals to everybody out there. That was the fundamental, basic concept of the film. Obviously, all the comedy and all the great actors, and all the people who were in charge of it – Michael Schultz and Barry Gordy – they were behind it, and with the music and with the originality, and all of us together as an ensemble is what made it last.
SHOCK: It’s a really unique movie. Finding “the glow”; it has a mystical element and that mystic action adventure was kind of in during the mid-80’s. I remember THE GOLDEN CHILD with Eddie Murphy and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA with Kurt Russell had similar themes. When you read the script for THE LAST DRAGON, what were some things that came to you. What were your thoughts when you read it?
TAIMAK: I was a kid. I wasn’t mature enough to go too deep. I’d won a kickboxing title and I was contemplating what I wanted to do with my life because there was no money in kickboxing, and I was contemplating on whether or not I should go back and continue my education in physical therapy. I wanted to start a business so that I could eventually get a school. Then, when this film came up everybody told me that I was perfect for it. That’s what happened. When I read the script … I saw that I would fight everybody. I was more serious about the fight scenes. (Laughing.) But I thought it was very funny and a great story.
SHOCK: What was your audition like? Did you have to show them that you could do martial arts?
TAIMAK: They already knew about me as a martial artist. They were just interested in my acting. They’d known that I’d only done a few school plays. Basically, they wanted to make sure that all of those scenes were going to be strong. At first, it was very challenging because I didn’t have a structure [of acting], but they worked with me.
SHOCK: After this movie, I would have assumed that you would have gone on to do more movies of this type and gone on to become a big action star. What happened? How come you didn’t continue?
TAIMAK: There are many reasons. Some of them I am accountable for. Some of them the industry is accountable for. If you think about – especially back in the 80’s – having a leading man of color to be a hero and a positive character wasn’t … you’d rarely find something like that. Hollywood didn’t put so much attention into that. That was partly the reason, and that’s still an issue in Hollywood. Also, I was very young. There was a dynamic in Hollywood that I wasn’t prepared for. I’m prepared now because of maturity.
SHOCK: Talk about your martial arts background a little bit. Did your interest in martial arts intensify after the film? It seems like you have a lifelong passion for martial arts.
TAIMAK: Yeah, sure. Honestly, when I was very, very young, I was like five years old, I was reading a lot of comic books and I got fascinated with being big and all the muscles and stuff. I asked my aunt, “I want to have big muscles like this guy.” What happened was, when I turned six, my father let me study Karate with his friend in New York. That was my first taste of martial arts. I didn’t get started until after we moved to Europe – my parents moved to Europe – and I started again when I was about 12. I saw a Bruce Lee commercial, actually, and that was what put the passion in me. It got me really curious about martial arts. At first I was doing Aikido, but I wanted to kick like Bruce Lee, so I started Tae Kwon Do. And I competed in Tae Kwon Do tournaments and I really got interested. When I was about 15, I saw a movie that Ron Van Clief was in called The Black Dragon, and I’d never seen a man of color star in a martial arts film before. I’d only seen an Asian guy. I said, “Wow, I’d like to meet that guy one day.” Then my father said, “Oh, I know Ronnie!” So before you know it, I ended up training with Ron Van Clief. I’d got my black belt with him, and I ended up training with him for many years. During that time I was kickboxing at one of the only kickboxing academies in New York. It was a really interesting time. After the film, I pulled away from a lot of that and I wanted to learn some more stuff about film, and I started focusing on a lot of different things. I ran marathons, I biked all the way up to Bear Mountain in New York, and I just fell more into the fitness side of training. I started studying Shaolin because I’d always been interested in Shaolin Kung Fu. I did some of that. I then met a Japanese master and studied Jujitsu, and that focused on your chi manipulation. For the past couple of years I’m been interested in Brazilian Jujitsu, and I find it really fulfilling physically and mentally.
SHOCK: Talk a little bit about your character in THE LAST DRAGON, Leroy Green. You just mentioned to me that you developed an interest in martial arts because of Bruce Lee, which parallels your character in the film.
TAIMAK: Yeah, he was a dragon. And so am I. The year of the dragon. He was the first one to really captivate on screen. Before him there were a lot of Asian martial arts stars, but they were kind of caricatures, and the only one who ever came close to Bruce Lee was Sonny Chiba in his Street Fighter series. These were charismatic guys who showed martial arts skills. They showed high advanced martial arts skill. It was just a natural thing. He showed a spiritual side. He blended a lot of his training with his philosophical ideas. I’d been studying a lot of that too. Trying to make the connection between your life, your training, and how philosophy connects the whole thing. Even though I grew up in New York around all these tough guys, I did still retain a lot of naiveté. I guess that in a way was how I was similar to the character in the movie. I wasn’t as streetwise and knowledgeable. It’s hard to explain. I don’t know. That’s the only way I saw myself similar.
SHOCK: Would you like to say anything in particular about THE LAST DRAGON?
TAIMAK: I want to send my blessings to Julius Carry and Leo O’Brien, who played my little brother. It was very sad when they both died. Julius’s mother called me an hour after he died. It was a shock. The real shock was Leo O’Brien. He was only 41. He was great. You never know when you’re going to be taken off this planet. It just reminds me to make the best of what you have while you’re alive, to get over all the minutiae. They touched my heart and contributed so much to that film. Everybody involved in the movie was fantastic. Little kids come up to me wanting autographs at conventions. Their parents have showed it to them. It’s transcended time. It’s like the movie came out yesterday.
SHOCK: Is there anything you would like to say to the fans of this movie and to people who have always wanted to know what became of you?
TAIMAK: Yeah, sure. The fans are human beings, they are people. They see me doing something that touched their heart, and I made them chuckle … for me as a person and as a martial artist and as an actor, that is my goal, is to make somebody’s day a little better. I want them to know that I’ve always been training since THE LAST DRAGON, and I’ve also been improving myself as an actor. I’ve got a short film right now with Rob Howard’s company, Imagine, and that is where I’m at right now. You can like my fan page on Facebook. I think what I’d like to give my fans is that for me, life has been a lot of ups and downs. I was so young when I got in this business, and I went through that struggle, but I’ve come to a place now where I have embraced everything – every part of it. That’s been the biggest growth for me, to really transcend whatever obstacles I’ve had, and to find harmony within it. That’s what’s been my biggest prize is to give myself that freedom. Thank you for the support. It’s not over. There will be a lot more coming.