EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: John Miller and Don Niam (stars of Undefeatable)

Ahead of our special screening of Undefeatable, we were lucky enough to talk to the cast! As well as talking to Cynthia Rothrock (read the interview here), we also  spoke to her co-stars John Miller (Nick DiMarco) and Don Niam (Stingray) about their experiences making the film.

Firstly, how often are you asked about Undefeatable? Is this a regular occurrence for you or are you surprised people want to talk about a film you made almost 25 years ago?

JM: Truthfully, I am always a bit surprised, but it still occurs fairly often. I think that is largely because of the continuing exposure on the internet. For some reason, people still seem drawn to it, and in these days of technology and instant access, it is just a click or two away.

DN: When I opened up my school, I started self-teaching myself web design and I would check my web stats and that’s when I started seeing these links about me and Undefeatable. That’s when I’m going “Really?” – and that was back in 2000!

Which came first for you – a love of acting or a love of martial arts?

JM: Definitely the martial arts, but of course, it was the very old kung fu movies that were my first exposure to the arts. When the t.v. show Kung Fu and the phenomenon of Bruce Lee both appeared on the scene, there was a real sense of excitement that built very quickly.

DN: I moved into acting because the martial arts films started getting really popular. I always wanted to do it. I was starting to get up there. I think I was 36 when I moved out to Hong Kong.

What types of martial arts did you initially train in and what prompted you to find work in the movies?

JM: Being one of eight kids living in a rural area, and with no local martial arts schools nearby, I had no way to get to a school, and even if I could get there, I wouldn’t have had the money to enroll, so I started training on my own as a young boy. In 1983, I had opened one of the first Gold’s Gyms under a licensing agreement, and it happened to be only a couple of miles from a traditional Hung Fut Kung Fu School operated by Eighth Generation Grandmaster Tai Yim who had located to the United States from Hong Kong in the late 70’s.

I feel blessed to say that I have had only GM Tai Yim as a teacher. There are clearly dozens of fantastic martial arts systems out there, but GM Tai Yim and his Hung Fut system are something truly special, and were the perfect fit for me. Because of my success in the 1992 North American Chinese Martial Arts Federation (NACMAF) tournament where I won the weapons grand champion title.

DN: I also taught Hung Fut, but I also taught basic stuff and self-defence. I think at the time I called it defensive fitness. I also started training with Grandmaster Tai Yim after my instructor in Ohio died.

I predominantly do Hung Fut, which is a southern kung fu style and I still keep it up.

In 1993, you made two films with notorious Hong Kong director Godfrey Ho – were you aware of his reputation as a ‘cut and paste’ director before you worked with him?

JM: When GM Tai Yim and Godfrey Ho discussed making a film, Godfrey expressed a strong interest in me playing a part. We did some demo film work that he took back to his investors in HK, and apparently they liked what they saw and agreed to fund the project.

It was a fun and exciting time!I wasn’t aware of his “cut and paste” tactics of making and marketing multiple films by splicing footage together of initially unrelated projects. It wasn’t until years later that I actually found out. Who knows what else is out there that he has done and that I should have known! I probably should have checked it out more upfront. Either way, he is certainly an operator and entrepreneur.

DN: No, I didn’t know. Cynthia did! I remember her telling me that he’s not allowed to shoot two movies here!

I was meant to be in Honor and Glory, but I had just started at this gym, and had all these high-end clients and couldn’t leave.

Then my instructor called me about Undefeatable. He said, “Can you come here and meet Godfrey? He wants to meet you.”

I went there and met Godfrey. He liked me. I did some martial arts for him and I was told that  he’d been foing to every tournament on the east coast trying to find somebody. So I wasn’t a shoe-in, and he was trying to see what else he could find, but that’s how I ended up in Maryland for three months.

Actors over the years have said mixed things about Godfrey Ho – one thing we’ve heard is that he always wants his actors to “act more!” – How did you find working with him?

JM: I think the challenge was in understanding just what he meant by “act more”. I had done some extra work in a few films and in acting, more is often exactly what you should not do.

Godfrey definitely wanted things overplayed with facial expressions, dialogue and fight moves. We basically choreographed the fight scenes as we went. The was little time to practice them and even less budget for multiple takes. When you couple that with the fact that there was no dialogue scripted for the fight scenes, it was a real challenge. Godfrey just told us to keep yelling loud during the fight. Don and I took some heat for the fight scenes and all the yelling, but we were basically making it up as we went, with no time to practice or do re-takes, so we did our best with what we had to work with.

John, before Undefeatable, you made Honour and Glory (also with Cynthia Rothrock and Donna Jason) where you were the villainous Jason Slade – how did that role come about?

JM: I think the idea actually came from one of the students at the kung fu school, who came up with it based on events in the news at the time. With the break up of the Soviet Union, there was a lot of concern that nuclear devices might fall into the wrong hands, so Herb Borkland was hired to write a script around the idea and Honor and Glory was born.

We have to ask you about your infamous speech – “I have arrived at the top of the world. No man has control of more money. No man can fight me and live. No woman can share my bed and not be mine for life. I am like a god! I piss on you… from a great height” – what did you think of it when you first read it? Was it improvised at all? Who wrote it – Godfrey Ho or scripted writer Herb Borkland?

JM: It was definitely not improvised. Herb wrote it and truthfully, I felt pretty awkward about it, but it fit in with the “over the top” character and the “act more” Godfrey approach so I went with it.

If Jason Slade is so powerful – why does he need Chuck Jeffreys as a bodyguard?

JM: Great question! I guess Slade wanted to be able to “pick and choose” when he got his hands dirty, or maybe he like the status of having a bodyguard to order around!

There are a lot of characters in Honour and Glory (including Robin Shou’s Dragon Lee) and at the end, they all team up against you! How did you feel about this and what was it like filming that 4-on-1 fight scene?

JM: It was a lot of fun for me. Not sure how Robin and Cynthia felt about it. As you know, they are both phenomenal martial artists!

In Undefeatable, you’re now a good guy in the form of Nick DiMarco – after Honour and Glory, were you happy being the hero or is more fun to be the bad guy?

JM: It was easier and more fun being the bad guy. This probably fits in well with your last question. It is difficult to share the good guy role, because you can’t overshadow the other actors and need to provide a contrast with the villain, but I think we pulled it off okay.

Don, how about you? When you were cast as Stingray, did you have any concerns about the character of Stingray because he’s a serial rapist, and you have a very brutal rape scene in it. Did you have any concerns about that at all?

DN: No. When you watch it, it’s a little tough, and you start sweating, but I wasn’t that concerned because obviously in that industry you want to stand out.

The rape scene was kind of tough to do because it was only the second day I was there and all the stuntmen were standing around. I had to ask for them all to leave.

Undefeatable is probably best known for the infamous final showdown between yourself, Cynthia and Don Niam – are you aware the fight scene is widely shared online with over 11m views? Are you surprised the film is still finding an audience?

JM: I wasn’t aware that it had climbed to over 11m views. Initially I think a lot of people actually thought it was a decent fight scene for the times, but the attraction definitely morphed over time. I really don’t understand what continues to drive it!

DN: Within a couple of weeks of that Cracked article, I had half a dozen new messages from people that I didn’t know, but they were fans of the movie asking me if I was in the film!

I looked online for a copy of the film and it was $135 on Amazon.  I don’t know of any single DVD that we shot for probably half a million dollars that sells for $135. It’s such a cult following!

What are you thoughts on how the film is perceived today? Everyone says it’s a fantastic fight scene but the tearing off of the shirts and the war cries has made it a source of hilarity for others…

JM: I completely understand both positions and wouldn’t argue with either. It is what it is! If we could go back and spend more time, yes we would and could change it dramatically for the better, but that isn’t how life works You have to take your best shot, with what you have, and where you are in life. You can (and better) learn from the past, but you can’t re-live it. Take the lessons provided in life, use them to do better next time…and keep moving forward!

DN: The reviews on that movie were very bad, but they just kept getting better. I guess peoples’ perception of things change over years. That’s when I thought maybe I should just start doing a little more as people would always ask me, “Why don’t you ever post anything on the film?” That’s when I started on Twitter and just started posting more.

What was it like filming the final fight and how was it battling your co-stars?

JM: Everything about it was fun! As I shared previously, we made it up as we went along. If I remember correctly, the script called for Stingray to lose an eye on the nail and then we were going to fight our way up the stairs. At some point he was to go over the rail and fall into the large yellow bin onto the knife that we used in the scene. We were in the basement of an actual hospital filming the scene. I saw the laundry hook in the adjoining part of the room and actually was the one who came up with the idea for Stingray to lose his other eye on the hook and be hoisted away into movie history. It took some convincing, but I insisted and I am glad I did. In a spin off from the words of Slade “that is the scene that history remembers”

DN: People may think the fight scene is hilarious, but film it with six cameras, high quality film and tone it down a bit and it’ll fit in with today’s action scenes.

I’ve seen fight scenes in very big budget films that had similarities, where the knife would come across the chain-link fence and stuff like that. Plus, with 11 million hits, there’s plenty of people in the film industry that have now seen it!

John, is it true your final ‘kiss-off’ line – “See ya” was improvised? Were there any alternate versions of the line?

JM: It was absolutely improvised. Cynthia and I made up the lines and agreed to go with them. Godfrey got a quizzical look on his face, but didn’t challenge it. Again, it made for a fitting end to the scene and to Stingray!

DN: After my death scene, I was sorry to have the experience over to be honest!

The fight scenes were a lot of work, but they were all fun. I love the fight in the parking garage, where I kick the stuntman and he lands on the car. That was a real stuntman!

If there is one similarity between Honour and Glory and Undefeatable, it’s that there are several extended scenes of you training and working out – were you happy to show off your skills for the camera?

JM: In the Kwon Dao training scene, it was freezing cold and very windy! The Kwon Dao I use is made of metal because I have broken so many made of wood. The metal makes it heavy, and it also made it very cold that day. I was outside in a tank top, spinning, throwing and catching a heavy piece of freezing metal in the wind with camera men lying on the ground all around my feet. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing!

Are you regularly recognised at all as being ‘the guy in Undefeatable‘? Where’s the strangest place someone has recognised you?

JM: It is very rare, especially these days. In the past, when I attended more tournaments, I would get autograph requests. Occasionally I still get approached, but it isn’t often.

DN: I got recognised in Best Buy here in Vegas. One of the salesmen came up to me and goes “Excuse me. Were you in the movie Undefeatable?” I looked at this guy who was in his early 20s, and said, “Yeah. I’m glad you can even recognize me. I know most of the people from high school I could barely recognize at this point.”

Those are the kind of things that make me ask how many people have seen this thing!

John, you’re no longer in the movies, but have had success in real estate, construction and mortgages – why did you leave the film industry and do you still keep up your martial arts? Is there any chance you might return to making movies?

JM: I wanted to focus on providing financially and spiritually for my wife and our five kids. Breaking into the film industry makes for a tough venue for both. It can be done, but not easily. I remain confident in my decision. As a Christian, I know God has lead me throughout my life and I am good with where I am. That said, I don’t put limits on others, so I would never put them on myself. If the right opportunity presented itself I would definitely consider it!

Don – any plans to return to the movies or would you continue as a personal trainer? 

DN: I missed opportunities in the film industry due to other people screwing it up.

Back in the 90s, I co-wrote script called The Insider about the 1997 conversions in Hong Kong when the British lost their lease. It was like a James Bond movie. It was a great script, but it didn’t get shopped around properly by my agent.

That’s why, at least from a professional standpoint, I let it go. You’re an insect in that town, struggling forever, unless you make the right connection.

What are you thoughts on today’s action films? Are there any martial arts stars today that you’re impressed by?

JM: Technology has changed everything and has made possible ever more sensational scenes that today’s audiences seem to want. Each one seems more explosive and dynamic than the last. I enjoy some of it, but truthfully, my favorite remains Jackie Chan. He and his films are something truly special. It would be a real honor to work with him someday. I give a lot of credit to those trying to break into the industry today. In a film industry with the greats like Jackie, Bruce Lee, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Donnie Yen…and yes, let us not forget the great female kung fu actresses like Cynthia, Michelle Yeoh and Lucy Liu, the newcomers sure have a lot to try to live up to!

DN: I like Jason Statham a lot and that actor who played in the remake of Mel Gibson’s Mad Max movie – Tom Hardy!

What’s next for you and where can people find you online?

JM: I continue my kung fu training on a daily basis. The unique internal and external components of the Hung Fut system provide a path for lifelong learning and development that I plan to pursue. I also have a couple of books in the works. One should be published in a few months and is on matters of Faith. I am on Facebook under my full name, John Ritz Miller and people can message me there.

And Don, as you’re a personal trainer, do you have any fitness tips or nutrition tips if we (mainly me) wanted to lose a bit of weight?  How do we get the Stingray body?

DN: Diet is number one. Cut out white sugar and bread. It’s very important. And no carbs at night. Eat protein and greens, vegetables. Eat hard boiled eggs or eggs in the morning.

As far as exercise, I’ve been very consistent my whole life. So consistency is huge. People always point to their belly and go “How do I get rid of this?” Well, you’ve got to quit drinking six, seven beers a night.

Damn… 

DN: Here’s a real simple statement. You cannot out train a bad diet. So no matter how much you work out, if your body isn’t being fueled properly, and you can only burn so many calories. Too many calories in and not enough out puts weight on.

John, Don – thank you so much for your time.

You can find John Miller on Facebook and Don Niam on Twitter and at his website – DonNiam.com

Special thanks to Mike Fury, author of Life of Action, for making this interview possible. If you’re a fan of martial arts cinema, check out Mike’s book (and website!) for some great interviews with the likes of Donnie Yen, Scott Adkins, Dolph Lundgren, David Leitch, Chad Stahelski and Cynthia Rothrock!

He’s also interviewed Don Niam and Jon Miller, so for more information on their martial arts backgrounds, check the below links:

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