Hollywood martial artist Tig Fong talks about stunts, tryst with Bollywood, fighting Akshay Kumar in Khiladiyon ka Khiladi & Sanjay Dutt’s largesse
I remember being highly fascinated when I first saw Akshay Kumar doing a straddle split to fight a bulked up villain in Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi. It was unlike anything I had seen in a Hindi action film while growing up in the 90s. Hero and villain balancing themselves perfectly and fighting each other while remaining stretched between two tables for a good two minutes. While Akshay’s prowess didn’t come as a surprise, the villain’s fighting skills made for a delightful viewing. He matched Akshay well enough to make for a greatly choreographed fight. That he had to lose was the destiny of the script but the fight remained etched in my mind for long and so did the quest to find more about the man who fought Akshay. 21 years later I finally got in touch with the man himself courtesy Facebook. Based out of Canada, Tig Fong is a highly skilled martial artist, stuntman and underwater photographer and has worked in movies like 300 (2006), Silent Hill (2006) and Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004). In this exclusive interview, Tig talks about his training, stunts and fighting Akshay Kumar in a Bollywood film.
How did you develop an interest in martial arts?
My interest in martial arts began as a young boy when I watched Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and lot of Hong Kong martial arts movies. I learnt two things then that i wanted to do martial arts and two I wanted to do them in films. So long before I knew what a stuntman was or a film fight person was I wanted to do that.
What are the different martial art forms that you have trained in?
The first martial art I ever had exposure to was Taekwondo. That’s because I grew up on the East Coast of Canada and a smaller city and there really wasn’t much in the way of options. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to learn but it was either that or Karate and I was more interested in the flash kicks the taekwondo offered. While still living on the East Coast, I did dabble in some Karate & kickboxing and also did Hung Gar kung fu for a couple years. My fascination however had always been in edged weapons and knife fighting and it wasn’t until I made the move to Toronto that I was able to start formally training in Filipino martial arts. I did also train in other forms of knife fighting and close quarter combat blade work from several other systems. It wasn’t until I realized that all these systems nearly without exception were derivative from the Filipino martial arts that I decided to put my focus in Kali/FMA. Kali has been my primary focus of martial arts training & study for over 20 years.
While Kali/FMA has extensive empty hand work, I was drawn to the power and brutality of Muay Thai so I also started training/fighting in that in 2001. In my work as a Fight Coordinator, I am required to build fight scenes with different styles & tones so therefore I am required to be familiar with as many fighting systems as possible. Ergo, as with life in general, I am a perpetual student of the Martial Arts. As a result, I have also trained in Pikiti Tersia, Capoeira, Muay Boran, BJJ, JKD, Yang Style Tai Chi Jianfa to name a few. Keep in mind that in no way do I claim to be expert in these additional system. I am a Kali/Knife Fighting specialist with Muay Thai as my go to for empty hand stand-up fighting (in fact often combining the two). It takes years to fully master any one system. I merely train long enough in these other systems to gain enough understanding to be able to add the movement vocabulary to my own. It is this depth of vocabulary that I draw upon each time I am called to create a unique fight piece.
Tell us about your journey into films. How did that happen?
The road to working in film was winding – the say the least. There were detours and long traffic delays along the way and I cannot say for certain that I have reached my destination. The first step was to leave the city I grew up in and head to Toronto which at that time was the film capital of Canada. In fact Toronto was often called “Hollywood North” though in recent years that title would more aptly describe Vancouver. “Road” is apropos because I actually drove to Toronto with myself and all my worldly possessions packed into a Classic Ford Thunderbird. Once reaching the bustling metropolis however, the next step was unclear. There were a couple of false starts with different agencies and then there was a period of a few years where I left martial arts and film/tv entirely to focus on competition bodybuilding. I was invited several times by a friend to come visit the set of the television series Kung Fu The Legend Continues but by that time I had lost interest in the business. Finally I decided to go visit just to stop him from bothering me with it. There I met the Stunt Coordinator and the Fight Coordinator. At that time I was 250lbs yet could still drop into a full straddle split and had fast and accurate head kicks. They told me that they had never seen anyone my size with that much flexibility and asked me about my martial arts experience. It was a nice visit and I thought no more of it once I left. The very next day I received a call with an offer to come and perform on the show! The hardest thing to do is to get that first union contract. From there I quickly got into the union and started racking up as many acting contracts as stunt contracts. Once getting in I realized that there were limited roles for someone of my size, ethnicity & look so I considered film work to be a “side gig”.
Over the years I have changed my look dramatically – first by dropping 60lbs of muscle once I stopped competing in bodybuilding. Then by cutting my hair. The change in look offered me opportunities at playing different roles than the ones I had been type cast into. Although the work opportunities increased a bit with the changes, it still seemed that there wasn’t much call for someone of mixed Asian ancestry in the North American market. I had always been interested in the engineering side of stunts and eventually found my way into Stunt/Aerial Rigging. Combining the work I did both in front of the camera and behind it which meant that there was no longer time for a “day job”. So Film and TV finally became my full time vocation.
Fast forward to the present and my role in the Industry has changed again with most of my contracts being Fight Coordinator/Fight Director or Stunt Coordinator. In these capacities I get to draw on my practical knowledge of stunts, my love of photography/cinematography as well as a lifetime in martial arts in creating fight/action scenes for the film/tv viewing audience. Most recently however I have turned my attention towards writing and directing so the road still stretches out before me and the final destination, for all I know, may change again.
You are popular in India for your role ‘Dan’ in Hindi film Khiladiyon ka Khiladi? You acted opposite Akshay Kumar who is a superstar today in Bollywood. How was the experience of shooting with him?
When I first met Akshay, I had no idea who he was. He was very personable and an absolute joy to work with. I also didn’t know that it was customary for Bollywood action stars to do their own stunts and I was impressed with how physical he was when performing action scenes for camera. We talked about the differences between how action is done in Western Films and in Bollywood Films.
I distinctly remember the movie for your fight sequence with Akshay where both of you are stretched out between two tables. How was it shot? Could you recollect any interesting anecdotes from the scene and movie?
Akshay told me that he had already worked out the choreography for the pool table fight and that his inspiration for the fight came from a Tom & Jerry cartoon episode! In the cartoon, both Tom & Jerry perform a suspended splits in front of each other and proceed to fight. Akshay thought this to be hilariously entertaining and wanted to perform a live action version of his own. Fortunately, I could easily do straddle splits so they shot a wide of us getting into position. Once in position, we were going to be there for a while and it was impractical and dangerous for both us to hold a straddle split for that long. So we had supports placed under us and camera shot just above it. Once done, Askshay was very pleased with how it came out.
You also had scenes with Rekha who is another legendary figure here. How the experience of working with her?
Rekha was lovely to work on and I had great conversations with Gulshan Grover when we were both off camera and waiting around. Really everyone I have ever met of Bollywood fame have been wonderfully warm people. I once met Sanjay Dutt in a shopping mall while working on a film in Mumbai. We talked about bodybuilding and weight training and when I complained of not being able to find a properly equipped gym in the city he graciously offered unlimited access to his private gym at his home.
Did you get any more offers from Hindi cinema. If yes, why didn’t you pursue it. We would have loved to see you more?
Yes, there were a couple more offers from Bollywood but they never came to anything unfortunately because I would have loved to have gone back.
Action wise which has been the most challenging stunt you have executed till date?
My specialty when working in front of camera as a performer is Martial Arts/Fight Stunts. They can be gruelling and difficult and may need to be repeated multiple times. Creature Stunts however hold a special place in as they can be the most difficult things you’ll ever asked to do. The creature suits always come with a host of challenges; everything from vision impairments, breathing and movement restriction as well as thermal regulation in either condition too hot or too cold. I would say that the Creature stunts that I have done have been by far the most mentally and physically challenging.
In my recent interview with Vin Diesel, he told me that major award ceremonies like Oscars hold a prejudice against action stars. Would you agree? You think stunt artists don’t get due recognition?
It’s a matter of historical tradition that Stunt Performers have been ignored at film & tv awards ceremonies because since the early years of Hollywood, producers didn’t want to compromise the illusion that their stars were doing their own stunts. The modern viewer, however, is much more sophisticated that those of years past. The illusion is long gone and the practice of denying the work of thousand of dedicated stunt professionals who put life and limb on the line in order to help create exciting action scenes is not only no longer necessary but offensive. Thankfully, some film stars like Ryan Reynolds and Tom Cruise, happily give credit to and thank their stunt doubles for elevating the action of their projects.
Given your good looks, why havent you taken a major leap into mainstream acting?
Like I said, in regard to making one’s mark in front of the camera, no one gets to choose to get a break out role, no one gets to choose to be discovered. No amount of hard work can guarantee advancement in an acting career. It just doesn’t work like that. While I still love performing, I much prefer to put my work into creating from behind the camera. Though there can be challenges and setbacks here as well, there is a direct correlation between the amount of hard work and dedication one puts in and advancement within career.
Your forthcoming projects?
Most recently I created all the fight scenes for the new tv series Taken as well as for a couple of other television series. This summer I will be directing several short films and have a documentary in the works so keep and eye out.
Tell us a little about your passion for underwater photography?
I always knew that I would love diving long before I ever tried it. Once I started I was instantly hooked. I had a love for photography since my teens but had lost my spark for it for a few years. Once underwater I knew I had to capture this world and share it. Turns out that producing quality underwater images was much more challenging than shooting on land and I had a lot to learn! That was 10 years ago and I am still striving to capture and share underwater images from around the world.