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Ernie Reyes Jr. wins bragging rights for having the best back-to-back summer vacations ever. Back in 1989, the actor and martial artist spent the three months between his junior and senior year in high school inside a life-sized turtle suit — designed by the wizards at Jim Henson's Creature Shop — shooting the very first live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. “We were in North Carolina, where it was 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity,” Reyes tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “And I was in a giant latex turtle costume! It was kind of like what happens when you put a Nerf ball in water.”
After his graduation the following summer, he returned to the Tar Heel State to film the sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze… and this time, he didn’t have to suit up in latex. Released in theaters 30 years ago this month, The Secret of the Ooze featured Reyes as Keno — a pizza delivery teen whose high kicks and fast punches landed him a gig as the sidekick to the butt-kicking quartet of Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael. “I was just happy not to be back inside the suit,” he says, laughing. “The second movie was cooler… literally.”
Even though it was made for kids, The Secret of the Ooze represented Reyes’s first adult role after achieving childhood stardom as a martial arts phenom. Born in San Jose, Calif in 1972, he grew up under the tutelage of his father, Ernie Reyes, who found early success in the martial arts world. “I used to travel around with my dad when he did demonstrations in the late 1970s,” remembers Reyes, whose grandparents immigrated from the Philippines to the U.S. in the 1920s. “We did a lot of broad comedy mixed in with martial arts, like comic bits and skits.” Recognizing his son’s skill and charisma, the elder Reyes parlayed those demonstrations into a Hollywood career in the mid-1980s.
Beginning with the one-two punch of The Last Dragon and Red Sonja in 1985, Reyes Jr. became a child star at age 13 and kicked his career up another notch with the debut of the Walt Disney-produced TV series Sidekicks the following year. That series — and its feature-length pilot, The Last Electric Knight — paired him with former Buck Rogers star, Gil Gerard, as an L.A. cop who fights crime alongside Reyes’s youthful action hero. “I grew up scootering around the Disney lot when I was a kid,” Reyes remembers, adding that he was always well-aware that there was no one who looked like him starring on a major American television series in 1986. “There wasn’t anybody around,” he says of the lack of Asian American representation at the time. “And there I was, but I was always relegated to: ‘He’s the karate kid.’ That was why all of my stories were based around martial arts. I was definitely there at a time when it was difficult at best to have a career in film and television.”
After Sidekicks left the airwaves in 1987, Reyes continued to pursue different career opportunities, while also balancing the demands of high school. As it turned out, a childhood connection helped him land that summer job on the first TMNT movie, which was financed by the legendary Hong Kong action studio, Golden Harvest. “Anybody who is anybody in terms of martial arts — Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan — went through Golden Harvest,” he says. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was their first foray into American film production. The stunt coordinator was Pat Johnson, who I had known since I was a little kid competing in martial arts tournaments. They had four Hong Kong stunt guys come to America to work on the movie, and when one of them broke his back, they needed a quick replacement for Donatello. Pat called me up, and the next thing you know I was at the Jim Henson workshop getting a body cast.”
Reyes impressed the Golden Harvest higher-ups right away, adapting his martial arts style to the challenge of wearing giant latex turtle suit, complete with an oversized shell. “It weighed like 100 pounds,” he says, laughing at the memory. “It was really hard work, and we just hand to grind through it. I was the only guy on the stunt team that could speak English, so I talked with the producers a lot about Bruce Lee and the kinds of movies I wanted to make. At the end of the shoot, one of the producers told me, ‘We’re going to bring you back for the sequel, and you’re going to play a character.’ I took that with a grain of salt, but months later, my agent called me and said, ‘There’s a script for you.’ I read it, and my character, Keno, is in the opening sequence. I kept reading, and I realized ‘Oh man, I’m in this whole movie!’”
Unlike the core TMNT characters featured in The Secret of the Ooze, Keno didn’t originate in Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s comic book that launched the franchise or the animated series that made it a global phenomenon. He was tailored specifically for Reyes, who at that point had turned 19 and was well past his Sidekicks phase as the “karate kid.” “The bowl cut was gone,” he jokes. “I had a full-blown parted to the side mullet, and I'd grown a few inches. I had a whole other persona going on, and that role happened just when I was becoming an adult. It was like, ‘Yeah, I’m here.’”
But in between movies, the producers decided that The Secret of the Ooze needed to be kids’ stuff. Despite grossing over $200 million worldwide, the original film also inspired controversy over its high levels of violence. That meant that new rules were put in place for the sequel, most notably a restriction on the Turtles using their signature weapons during the fight sequences. As a result, the action set-pieces became closer in spirit to the comic skits that Reyes used to perform with his dad during their martial arts demos. “That’s something that happened a lot when I was younger with the stuff that was developed for me,” he says. “One of the things that always came up with Sidekicks and other projects was, ‘He’s a kid, but he’s also beating people up. What’s the messaging on that?’ Tone-wise, you’d try to play down the violence with comedy, and that’s what happened with TMNT after they got pushback the first time around.”
Because of his years of experience, Reyes was given the latitude to design his own battles in The Secret of the Ooze. “I got to choreograph everything, including that opening scene in the mall with all those kicks and sweeps and the scene where I’m auditioning to be part of the Foot Clan. It was an amazing experience.” Unfortunately, Keno does take a bit of a backseat in the final battle, which pits the Turtles against a bevy of villains that includes their longtime nemesis, Shredder, and a pair of mutated monsters created by the titular ooze: Tokka and Rahza. (Those characters famously took the place of Bebop and Rocksteady, Shredder’s sidekicks from the animated series, who Eastman and Laird didn’t want included in the film. Reyes recalls those discussions on set, but doesn’t remember seeing any concept art for what the live action versions of Bebop and Rocksteady might have looked like.)
Keno’s main contribution to defeating Shredder is high-kicking a vial of Ooze out of the villain’s hand — a move that was added to the sequence at the end of a long day. “It was one of those ‘We’re running out of time’ things,” he remembers. “It was the last shot of the day, so I got one take and then we moved on. I was like ‘This is the finale guys. Don’t you think we should cover it?’ And they were like, ’No, we don’t have time.’” But Reyes did have the time to meet Secret of the Ooze’s big guest star, Vanilla Ice, who makes a memorable cameo in the final set-piece performing the oh-so-‘90s track “Ninja Rap” while the Turtles do their thing. “That was cool, man. I had grown up listening to hip-hop, and he was so popular at the time. I actually ran into him three years ago, and it was so trippy to think about how much time had passed since we were on The Secret of the Ooze set.”
Hitting theaters on March 22, 1991, The Secret of the Ooze didn’t match the box office receipts of its predecessor, but performed well enough to greenlight a third installment that opened in 1993 and sent the Turtles back in time to feudal Japan. Keno didn’t go along for the ride, though. “I was like, ‘You’re going to travel in time? I don’t think I can make that one,’” Reyes says, chuckling. Instead, he was developing his own potential franchise with the cult 1993 action comedy, Surf Ninjas, which re-teamed him with his father. “I had been growing out of my mullet, so I was going from the mullet dude to the long hair dude. We were in the Pearl Jam time period, so I was playing a whole different song by that point!”
Unfortunately, Surf Ninjas didn’t become a chart-topper like “Alive,” grossing less than $5 million during its theatrical run. But Reyes has continued to score big-screen opportunities in the ensuing three decades, working in front of or behind the camera on such movies as Rush Hour 2, The Rundown and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He also embarked on a professional martial arts career, and recently opened Kick Punch Club in Los Angeles. One of his students is his daughter, Lotus Blossom, who recently co-starred in Robert Rodriguez’s Netflix hit, We Can Be Heroes. “I was just saying to somebody the other day, I spent a lot of time with my dad on the set of Sidekicks, and now I’m the dad and my daughter’s on set! It’s come full circle.”
And unlike her father, Lotus Blossom isn’t growing up on sets where she’s the only Asian American performer on camera. Reyes recognizes the way that his experience helped pave the way for a more diverse generation of action heroes, even though living through it was difficult. “I’m an Asian who grew up in America all through the ‘70s and ‘80s, so of course I experienced prejudice,” he says. “You couldn’t not experience it. I always tried to overcome that with my martial arts, but you’re not doing that 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You still have to go to school where people don’t know you even do martial arts — you’re just a short Asian kid, and that’s a prime target for everything.”
Over the past year, the Asian American community has faced renewed violence, most recently in an Atlanta shooting that claimed the lives of eight people, six of whom were Asian women. “What violence like that does is put in the forefront of my mind the purpose of why we do what we do,” Reyes says of that horrific crime. “I don’t like to drown in the darkness of things, because that’s very easy to do. Instead, I think, ‘How can you shine light into moments like this and create change?’ Because there’s a tremendous amount of changed needed, and so we need heroes: We need people that step up and communicate a message of positivity and light, and represent our culture well.”
That’s the kind of heroism that Reyes says he tried to bring to his roles in Sidekicks (which, sadly, remains unavailable to stream on Disney+) and The Secret of the Ooze, at a time when he was the only Asian American action hero kids saw on the big and small screen. “A lot of people I’ve met over the years have said, ‘Hey, I watched you on Sidekicks and you were the only person on TV that looked like me,’” he says. “‘You were out there kicking butt — it was really inspiring.’"
"I’m grateful and proud to have been a part of that, especially with a company like Disney," Reyes continues. "To think that thirty years ago, I was making Sidekicks and now Disney is doing Raya and the Last Dragon and Shang-Chi! I know that we played an instrumental part to get to this place, and I've developed things, too, that hopefully fit into that world. We work hard to when we get the opportunities to represent our culture well so that people understand. It's an important time, and I definitely know that the story's not over; my mindset is always that the best is yet to come. I'm just very grateful to be alive and to be here.”
TMNT 2: The Secret of the Ooze is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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