Any rapper can star in a movie, but starring, directing, co-writing and co-scoring a studio film? Even for a man who calls directors Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth friends, that’s almost unheard of within the hip-hop world. And yet, it’s no surprise RZA (real name: Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) would want to test that mostly uncharted territory.
The Wu-Tang Clan rapper and producer was ahead of the curve with his soul-sampling beats and Wu Wear clothing line in the 1990s. RZA could help pave the way again with his upcoming martial arts film, “The Man with the Iron Fists,” which revolves around a blacksmith, played by RZA, who fights to protect his small village in 19th century China.
Here, RZA discusses his movie — in theaters Friday and also starring Russell Crowe — and his plans to remake the 1985 cult classic “The Last Dragon” over lunch at vegetarian restaurant Native Foods in the Wicker Park neighborhood earlier this month.
(The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.)
Luis: When did you become a vegetarian?
RZA: I became a vegetarian in 1995. I had some fried chicken and my teeth hit the bone. My mind said, “Dead bird, dead bird.” It didn’t feel right, so I stopped. I kept eating fish until one day in 1997 the chef brought my ginger fried snapper with the head still on it. I looked in his eyes and he looked in my eyes and I said, “You know what, kid? I don’t need this in my life.”
Luis: I’m no expert on vegetarian restaurants, so I wasn’t sure if you’d like this one.
RZA: When I was doing the color corrections for “The Man with the Iron Fists,” at Sony (Pictures Studios) in Culver City (Calif.), I had lunch at the Native Foods there every day. I know the menu by heart. You hit the jackpot.
(Fellow Wu-Tang rapper U-God takes a seat in the booth and introduces himself simply as “U-God: Wu-Tang.” He proceeds to pick at the “Native Chicken Wings.”)
Luis: When did you start writing “Man with the Iron Fists”?
RZA: I first put pen to paper, so to speak, in 2005. I didn’t know how to write screenplays and went for it and got 90 pages myself. I told the story to Eli (Roth), who loved it but said, “Executives aren’t going to get this, so let’s fix this up.” He spent over a year fixing it with me.
Luis: What did Eli add to the script?
RZA: Proper character development, character introduction. He said it was in my head but I didn’t know how to put it on paper. He knew how to pull it out of me and put it on paper.
Luis: How did you meet Quentin Tarantino?
RZA: Miramax called me because they wanted me to help promote a film that Quentin had just bought, “Iron Monkey,” in New York. I’m a student of the USA Shaolin Temple. I told them to keep the money — I just want to meet (Miramax co-founder) Harvey Weinstein and shake his hand. I already had millions of dollars. (What am I) going to do with $60,000? Harvey and his brother remind me of me and my brother. They’re two guys from New York City, outside the system, who made a move for themselves and got into the system. I started outside the system and sold records out of the back of my car and made my own record company. On that press junket, I met Quentin. We clicked and started watching Kung Fu movies together.
Luis: Quentin seems like as a chatterbox. Do you have to shush him during movies?
RZA: We’re similar guys. You might have to tell both of us to shush. What I like about him the most is he’s the only person who laughs when I laugh. Nobody ever laughed when I laughed, but I found someone else who laughed at that moment. He gets it too.
Luis: You were friends with Russell Crowe after working with him on 2010’s “The Next Three Days.” Were you nervous about approaching him with “Iron Fists”?
RZA: Yeah, I was. But I believed in the script and the story. He had doubts, of course. He ain’t no comedian or Kung Fu fighter. He’s one of the best actors alive. Yeah, it took some convincing. But he trusted me as an artist. He said on an episode of “Charlie Rose” that (RZA) is a great artist. If I do this for him, others will recognize it. He’s right. He confirmed my talent to Hollywood.
(RZA reaches for the wings but doesn’t touch most of his other food, instead opting to take it to go — presumably so he can spend the interview talking rather than eating.)
Before we started doing it, he called me and said, “Bobby, I’m not trained. I’m not in shape to do Kung Fu. That’s not my thing. If you want to pick someone else, go ahead.” I said, “Listen, we have Dave Bautista, Cung Le, Rick Yune — we got all the Kung Fu and muscle we need. I need a great actor. I need that talent in this film to make all that stuff sell. I don’t need you doing kicks and punches — just your great acting skills.” And you know what he did? He elevated everybody, including me.
(We walk down the street to the Double Door, where RZA will perform later that night. A star-struck fan driving by notices RZA and stops his car to get out and shake his hand.)
Luis: Are you still planning on remaking “The Last Dragon”?
RZA: We’re talking about it. Right now, it depends on the next draft of the script, which is due in about two weeks. If the executives see the vision we feel, we can rekindle the franchise. Sam (Jackson) is still down. … We got a development (deal) for the first draft and a script, but it wasn’t proper. Everything went on hold for a minute. This is when Chris Brown and Rihanna were dating. I wanted to cast those two as my stars.
Luis: I don’t think you can cast both of them anymore …
RZA: Well, we’ll see what happens. But that’s my vision. My vision is to bring Chris in. His name is still at the top of the list. There are like four or five other people they’re talking about now, but my vote is still him. I think he’ll bring something unique to it.
Luis: Do you want to take a break from directing after you’re done promoting “Iron Fists”?
RZA: Directing is such a high. It’s the hardest job ever, but I really love doing it. Directing is like my new girl — and I’m in love.