Roger Yuan: Character Through Action
A well-choreographed action scene in a film is like watching an intrigue dance. These partners move as one, taking turns as the aggressor or defender, creating a symphony of poetic movements. Within the last decade we have seen action sequences fully embracing the complexity of character, which create innovative choreography.
No one understands this more than the incredibly talented actor/choreographer/trainer Roger Yuan, who’s spectacular credits, both in front and behind the camera, have influenced action in outstanding ways. His career has traversed over 3 decades and includes some influential films as an actor (Once Upon a Time in China, Shanghai Noon, Batman Begins, and CTHD: Sword of Destiny) and in the stunt world (Escape from LA, Blade, Black Dynamite, and Skyfall).
One of his most recent films, Blindsided, won Best Action Film at the first annual Iron Dragon TV Action Fest. In Blindsided, directed by Clayton J. Barber, Yuan plays Gordon, a neighborly convenient store owner and friend of the lead, a blind man named Walter (Eric Jacobus). This short not only features some great action sequences performed by Jacobus and who also was choreographer with Barber, the film has an extensive world built around these characters, which is what attracted Yuan to the role.
“Sometimes less is more. It’s important that you get the audience to buy into what your characters are going through, and have the action come second,” Yuan said. “You have to embrace the weakness of character as well as their potential strengths, balance it out. You can fine tune the emotions to calibrate between the two extremes.”
It’s important to note, though, that Yuan isn’t involved with the fighting in the short film. Instead, Gordon is a complimentary character to Walter, one with a dark history that’s briefly hinted at during the pinnacle of the film. I find this interesting because the film was full of incredibly talented stunt performance, and one of them quite literally sits back and watches the elegance of the combat unfold in front of him.
That’s not to say that Yuan wasn’t able to offer his expertise to Barber and Jacobus during the filming process. The set was one of collaboration, and they each feed off each other in brilliant ways.
“I don’t like doing anything in action unless the story calls for it. A human being can do fantastic things, but there has to be the reason for it and make sense,” Yuan said. “Action should fit that calling card because audiences are smarter than most productions will give them credit for. I think that any good story should challenge the audience. If the punches or strikes are purposeful and satisfying to the character, the audience will be appreciative for it, no matter the length of the sequence.”
All aspects blended fittingly for Yuan, where he could use his background as a choreographer to explore scenes with new collaborators, but also allowed him to wander into a new character with Gordon and his background with Walter. This was significant because it made the action meaningful, the action became tailor-made for the individual character(s).
“Acting is something I like, but something I feel challenged by and fearful of. How to just act and react, that was the most interesting thing about Blindsided,” Yuan added. “He (Barber) didn’t want to make a film to showcase the action that we can do, but to showcase a story. The camaraderie, the sense of humor, even the timing of the action as well, came across with the relationships in the story.”
Blindsided is a well put together film, one that also used the world of the blind in a respectful manner, and one that is the epitome of an esteemed collaboration. The men involved with the film are talented in their own right, which is the perfect breeding ground for egomania. However, respect for each other and their strengths ruled out, creating a synergetic environment.
Respect is paramount in the workYuan does in film, but it also bleeds into other professions he finds himself in. One of his recent roles was as Fight Trainer for Dylan O’Brien as he prepared for his role of Mitch Rapp in the film American Assassins.
American Assassins was O’Brien’s first role back after suffering an accident on the set of the third installment of the Mazer Runner films. The training sessions transformed from being strictly about getting film ready, to progressing the self. The character of Mitch in American Assassins and O’Brien’s recovery were similar, and Yuan used this as a healing experience for them.
“When I met with Dylan and started talking with him, I realized there was something here. Kind of like karma, that we were meant to go through this journey together,” Yuan added.
We all go through hardships at various points in our lives, and even though the degrees of situations are different, you can band together to help each other heal. Yuan was insistent on how hard O’Brien worked, acknowledging that this work lead to amazing stunts in the film, but ultimately the effect of training transcended physicality and bled into convalescence of the soul.
The projects he involves himself in are ones that will challenge him in interesting ways. Life is an enchanting adventure, and he wants to explore the complexity of character through action, be it personal training or stunt choreography. While all of his projects have had a significance in one way or another, the most important thing for Yuan is the soul behind the project.
He approaches fight choreography as an art, the way it can manipulate the human body in ways to reveal the true core of a person. It’s with this passion for life through one’s character that opens the mind to view action in a new way. That is why it’s easy to get lost in the sequences he either performs or organizes because it goes beyond the physical plane into the soul of what is being developed in front of the audience.
“My philosophy for life is that I want to be a little bit better than where I was yesterday,” Yuan said.
The strength one builds through physicality goes beyond the outward self, it’s about strengthening ourselves within. If we can all strive for betterment of our identity, we are all the more indomitable.
Written by Lisa Mejia
Images by Matt Biamonte, Tien Phan, and EJ Wojtowicz (respectfully)