JASON STATHAM insists he’s not an adrenaline junkie or a thrill seeker.
But his actions speak louder than his words.
In his new movie, “Crank,” which opens Friday, the wiry British actor performs the majority of his own stunts, including racing a motorcycle on the streets of Los Angeles wearing only a hospital gown, and going mano a mano with one of the bad guys while hanging out of a helicopter 3,000 feet above downtown L.A. with only one slim safety wire to keep him from falling.
“The stuntmen asked me a hundred times, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” recalls the 33-year-old actor, who, despite his tough-guy screen persona from such films as “The Transporter” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” is an absolute pussycat in person. “They couldn’t stress how important it was for me to realize they didn’t want me to do it. That this was really something I was asking to do.”
“Any actor who did ‘Crank’ was going to have to be as crazy as we are, basically,” says Brian Taylor, who wrote and directed the film with Mark Neveldine. “That was a requirement for the part. When we met Jason, we figured out he was perfect for it. This movie is amped up, and Brian and I and Jason were nut cases. We liked to take things to the limits. We scared the insurance company a couple of times.”
“It’s a weird thing,” Statham says in his distinctly working-class British accent. “People ask, ‘Did you have to train?’ How do you train for hanging out of a helicopter? You just go and do it.”
“Crank,” a hybrid of “D.O.A” and “Speed,” finds Statham playing a successful hit man named Chev Chelios who freelances for a major West Coast crime syndicate. But he makes his employers mad when he decides to let his latest target go in an effort to quit the business and begin life anew with his ditzy girlfriend, Eve (Amy Smart).
Waking up the next morning, Chev is groggy and barely able to move. He learns from a phone call that he’s been poisoned in his sleep and only has an hour to live. The only way he can keep alive is by moving.
So as he races through the streets of Los Angeles to find the man who poisoned him, Chev does everything to keep the adrenaline pumping, including racing cars, getting involved in fights, having sex with his girlfriend in the middle of Chinatown -- even having a medical technician use a defibrillator on him.
THOUGH Luc Besson wrote “The Transporter” for Statham, he didn’t come to mind as Neveldine and Taylor went about casting “Crank.” They were looking for an American actor.
“It was an L.A. story, so we never thought of him,” Neveldine says. “We couldn’t find any cool American guys. They were all too soft. So one of our producers mentioned Jason Statham and said we should take a look at this guy. We met Jason. He has an amazing presence and he’s an amazing athlete, so we said let’s give it a shot.”
Neveldine admits that Statham became a mentor on set. “He had ideas on how to set up a fight and where to set up the camera,” he says. “We fed off of each other’s energy.”
Statham’s insistence on doing stunt work has taken a physical toll.
“I have blown out all the tendons in my ankles. I have shoulder injuries. My wrists are screwed up.”
So why does he keep doing it?
“Because I’m stupid,” he says, laughing. “It’s funny. The pain goes away when you’re doing it.”
Statham has gotten a “great reward in sort of pushing my physicality” since he was young child.
A diver who placed third in the Olympic trials three separate times, eventually placing 12th in the world, Statham hung out with swimmers who are even bigger daredevils behind the wheel than he is.
“They are psychopathic. We would stupidly race from North London to the Crystal Palace [sports center], which was across London. We would set off every Friday and race down there, and we would weave in and out of traffic. It was the stupidest thing in the world.”
His prowess with gymnastics and martial arts was due to his father and brother.
“My dad was a boxer, so I could throw a punch at an early age,” Statham says. “He was a good gymnast himself so I could do gymnastics from an early age. It was all pretty much the genetics of my family. My brother was into martial arts. He had Bruce Lee posters all over his bedroom. He was always doing punches on me and bashing me up. So I got exposed to violence at a very young age.”
His acting training was not at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London but on the streets of London. Statham says he wasn’t actually a hustler but a “street trader.”
“That is also the family business,” he says.
“There’s a thing that sort of existed in the U.K. in the 1980s called market trade. People on a Sunday would go out and set up a stall [and sell goods]. It was a thriving industry.”
Statham worked with his father during the summers. “My father used to have mock auctions,” he explains. “What you are selling is retail goods at reduced prices. You are pulling people into the shop and enticing them to buy certain goods by giving them free gifts. It’s called a con. It’s a system of working and luring people into buying stuff they don’t necessarily need. But it’s a good price.”
Were these goods hot?
“We never used to tell them where we got it,” he says, laughing. “And we never asked them where they got their money from. We used to sell stereo systems, china, glass and cameras. It worked really well because I called the shots.”
Statham was later working as a model on a French Connection print ad when he met the founder of the clothing company, Stephen Marks, who just happened to be one of the executive producers of Guy Ritchie’s debut feature film, “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” a comedy noir about four working-class stiffs and the London mob. Marks suggested Statham to the director.
It wasn’t a traditional audition. Instead of reading a scene from the script, Statham had to sell Ritchie some goods.
“I took in a couple of chains and a ring,” Statham recalls. “We never used to sell an individual item; we used to put four or five bits together -- it seems like they are getting a lot for their money. I sold him a set of jewelry that we used to sell.”
Who would have predicted that his skill as a huckster would lead to a chance to hang out of an airborne helicopter?