Ray Park certainly isn't the only kid who grew up dreaming about becoming a ninja, but he's one of the few whose dreams came true.
OK, technically Park isn't really a ninja, but he does play one on TV now that "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" has officially been released on Blu-ray/DVD. Park plays Snake Eyes, one of the sickest ninjas in pop culture history and one of the most beloved of all the "real American heroes."
Of course, Park is no stranger to kicking butt. He's a martial arts expert who parlayed those skills into Hollywood stunt work, which he then parlayed into two of the most coveted starring roles in the action universe: Snake Eyes and the double-lightsaber-wielding, sinisterly face-painted Darth Maul in "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace" (1999).
On the occasion of the "Retaliation" home vid dropping, we had a chance to speak with Park over the phone. Among other interesting tidbits, we found out how one trains to be a ninja, if co-star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is afraid of him, and what mind-blowing weapons he's been training with to prepare for a standalone Darth Maul film, should the need arise.
I'm a lifelong Snake Eyes fan. He's my guy. So how do you live up to that legacy of Hasbro and G.I. Joe and try to be Snake Eyes when he is a figment of many people's imagination?
Ray Park: When I knew they were looking for Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, someone to play these parts, I just knew I had to do it. I don't know. It's something inside of me.
When I played Darth Maul, it sort of came from inside. I'm not saying it was natural, but I really enjoyed it, and I think I was tapping into my childhood, growing up with "Star Wars." And I grew up with G.I. Joe as well. Same as "Thundercats" and "Transformers" and "He-Man." And so I think it was the inner kid in me just came out.
I liked Snake Eyes because he reminded me of an SAS Commando, like Special Forces, and he was unknown. And there was something about him. And I also loved Storm Shadow as well because he had the two swords.
And growing up as a kid, I wanted to be a ninja. In martial arts, even though I did Chinese kung fu, I always wanted to be this secret samurai or a ninja. There’s something about ninjas that was very appealing to me as a kid. So of course, I was climbing a lot of trees and other things and getting up to mischief – good mischief. I was trying to be a ninja. I was trying to be like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.
[Related: G.I. Joe Five Facts: The Evolution of Joe]
What is different between being a ninja and the martial arts that you grew up doing?
RP: The martial arts that I got into was because of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, because of all of the animal styles at the time. It was around about the time when Jackie was doing "Drunken Master," and like snake versus this and that.
So the animal styles were really appealing to me because they had gymnastics in it. And these martial arts guys were able to do martial arts and still have super powers and fly across buildings and do flips. But the ninja had it all. And so when the ninja movies came out, I was going to my local video store and getting anything that had a ninja on a front cover.
There’s something mysterious about ninjas because they're deadly and they're scary. If you ran into Snake Eyes, you'd be pretty scared at night. If you run into a ninja hiding in the trees, you'd be pretty freaked out. They were masters and they were good at what they did and had special powers.
But the style that I do is more a Chinese form of martial arts, and I think ninjas come from Japan. But it's all part of the same family really. Ninjutsu is a different style of martial arts. But growing up as a kid, I always used to copy ninjas, so it wasn't hard for me to make that transfer.
See Ray Park in our 'G.I. Joe Retaliation' 6-minute mountain-side ninja fight:
Did you train for the G.I, Joe films differently than the way trained for Darth Maul?
RP: Yeah, because I was just straight out off a competition when I played Darth Maul, so I was doing a lot of wushu. Wushu is more of an extension of Chinese kung fu, so it's more of a showy, elaborate, dynamic form of martial arts, more like gymnastics. And then for Snake Eyes, I got back into my traditional martial arts. I got back into looking at other styles and thinking about Snake Eyes. I got my comic books. Any convention I was at, I would get a stack of comic books about G.I. Joe and Snake Eyes. I went online on YouTube, getting back into my childhood again, and talked to my younger brother – he knows all about G.I. Joe, too, because we both are pretty similar in age. I just really got back into it, that mindset of Snake Eyes. As soon as I step into the costume, I feel like I'm Snake Eyes again. I'm very lucky, and I feel very blessed that I was able to play him.
What part of Snake Eyes as a character do you find most intriguing?
RP: Just the fact that everyone is expecting him to talk, but he doesn't. And I think he's a man of no words anyway. I get to use my body in a different way for Snake Eyes than I have for anything else.
And he's a good guy. I think in the back of my mind, secretly, he's the guy that I want to be on my side. Even though I play Snake Eyes, it would be awesome to be Snake Eyes for real, going out like every day and saving the world, going up there and jumping out of massive planes and landing in the country, getting people who are trapped and getting them out of there.
Roadblock (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) alluded to Snake Eyes as being quite the deadly force. Do you think that the Rock is afraid of you in real life?
RP: No, no way. I don't think so. Not at all. I'm a big cuddly teddy bear and he’s a big cuddly giant teddy bear. And he's such a nice guy. He was great. It was great to finally meet someone that I really look up to, and I've been following his career for many years; and just to be on the set with him. In my first day of shooting as Snake Eyes, I was working alongside Dwayne. I was nervous as well and excited at the same time. And it was really nice to work with him and I think he's such a great guy. He's super cool.
Did you guys trade any sort of training techniques? I know he's got his own regimen and certainly he could learn a thing or two from a master.
RP: I could learn so much from Dwayne. I kick myself because we were shooting, and we were getting up really early. And I had my training program that I was doing. I had to do certain things because of being in the suit. I had to keep fit and agile and keep my gymnastics up. But he invited me many times to go down to the gym when he was working out before he had to go on the set, and his call time was a lot earlier than mine.
And I just remember reading his tweets that he's in the gym at 4 a.m. We're in New Orleans, the moon is still up, and he's in the gym kicking backside and pumping it, and I'm still in bed. And my call time was a few hours later so I was waiting and then I was gonna get up at 5:30/6 and work out.
So I kick myself for not going into the gym when he said, "Hey! Come down to the gym. We're going to work out." And I didn't. I still kick myself for that. Because he would have put me through my paces and I could have learned a lot of things from him.
Is there any chance that we'll see a standalone Darth Maul flick?
RP: I would love for that to happen. I really would. No one has talked to me about it yet. But I always say that if I was going to do it, I would do the whole shirtless, whole body tattoo thing, and two double-bladed lightsabers thing. That would be great.
Two double-bladed lightsabers?
RP: Yeah. I've gotta throw it out there as a challenge. When they were filming "Episode 3," I was at home practicing with two double-bladed light-sabers, just hoping that maybe they'll call me to come in and do something. It's hard to do two double-bladed lightsabers but I could do it. With practice, I could do it.
See G.I. Joes then and now: