Michael Angarano goes kick for kick with Jet Li and Jackie Chan

NEOPHYTE: Michael Angarano, who had never practiced martial arts, got a crash course.
NEOPHYTE: Michael Angarano, who had never practiced martial arts, got a crash course.
(Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For the last few years, Michael Angarano has been concentrating on independent films, so when he learned about the Jackie Chan- Jet Li martial arts adventure “The Forbidden Kingdom” at a basketball game with his agent, he wasn’t certain that would be the film for him.

“You never know what you could be doing next,” says the 20-year-old actor. “It was exciting, though it wasn’t something I obsessed over. I knew just as well that it could not be the next thing I would be doing. I wasn’t even thinking about it too much until I had to screen test with Jackie Chan.”

The period adventure, sort of a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” meets “The Wizard of Oz,” marks the first on-screen pairing of the martial arts masters. In the film, which opened Friday, Angarano, who began his career as a model at age 5, plays Jason, a nerdy Boston teenager who loves kung fu movies. While searching for some bootleg videos in a Chinatown pawnshop, Jason makes a discovery that hurls him back to ancient China, where he learns he must free the famous Monkey King (Li), who has been turned into a statue by the evil Jade War Lord (Collin Chou). Helping him in his quest -- and also teaching him how to fight -- are the wisecracking kung fu master Lu Yan (Chan) and the Silent Monk (also Li). It’s only when he completes his task that he can find his way home to Boston.

Exhaustive training

Angarano had never done martial arts but was in good physical shape because he’d just taken up running. Once in China, he spent eight hours a day for two weeks learning martial arts with renowned action choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen (“The Matrix” trilogy, “Crouching Tiger”) and squeezing in horseback riding lessons whenever possible. Over the seven-month shoot, his skills -- and confidence -- grew.

“It actually worked out really well that the last 35 days of filming was when we shot this huge climactic battle sequence, where I do the majority of my fighting in the movie,” Angarano says. “By that point, we had shot four months already. I remember the first 50 days we were shooting stuff in the Gobi Desert and all of these locations. It was really kind of tough to make sense of it all.”

Director Rob Minkoff knows he was asking a lot of Angarano, who’s been in “Almost Famous,” “Lords of Dogtown” and, more recently, “Snow Angels.”

“He had to do a lot of stuff in this movie,” Minkoff says. “He had to pretty much carry the movie with two of the biggest mega-superstars on the planet. He had to be able to do kung fu, and then he had to go live in China for seven months.”

Getting noticed

Minkoff says he’d kept his eyes on Angarano for several years.

“I think the performance that impressed me the most was ‘Lords of Dogtown,’ ” he says of his star’s poignant turn as Sid, the slightly built, hearing-impaired skateboarder, circa 1970. “I think he had a charm that lit up the screen.”

Angarano, who is now in Utah shooting “Gentlemen Broncos,” the latest comedy from Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”), says he’d have to be Shakespeare to fully describe what it was like working with Li and Chan. “They really took me under their wings in a non-overwhelming sense,” he says. “They didn’t put pressure on me. They made me feel the exact opposite and made me feel good about what I was doing.”