Interview: Daniel Bernhardt

Daniel Bernhardt was born in Bern, Switzerland. He enjoyed success as a male model for top designers before making his acting debut in ‘Bloodsport 2’. The film garnered a cult following and Mr Bernhardt was hailed as the next rising star in the genera. Audiences around the world recognize him as Agent Johnson from his villainous role in ‘Matrix Reloaded’. Mr Bernhardt has starred in over 20 films during a career spanning 15yrs. He recently made his writing and directorial debut on the highly regarded short film ‘Fetch’.

Jason: How did you get your ‘break’ in the film industry?null

Daniel Bernhardt: I was 28yrs old; living in NY doing some modeling when I was cast to appear in a commercial for Versace. It was shot by the famous photographer Bruce Webber and stared Jean Claude Van Damme. They were looking for models that had a background in Martial Arts. So I was cast to do a fight scene with Van Damme. I was really excited because I had always been a big Jean-Claude fan. We shot the commercial in 1992 and I just fell in love with doing fight scenes on camera. I put together a demo reel highlighting myself going to the gym, hanging on the beach, and training with my friends. I sent it out and Mark Disalle, the producer of ‘Bloodsport’ and ‘Kickboxer’, called me and said ‘I want you to star in ‘Bloodsport 2’’. I actually thought it was a prank call and hung up the phone. Eventually I flew to LA and met Mark, he was very complimentary of my reel and he was adamant I star in the sequel to ‘Bloodsport’.In the end Mark wasn’t involved with the final film but that’s how I was cast to replace Van Damme in the sequel.

J: Was there a level of intimidation stepping into a role that had launched Van Damme into super-stardom?

DB: To be honest, I wasn’t intimidated. I saw it as a new challenge in life. At the time I really loved Van Damme’s films. He was becoming very big during this period so he wasn’t available for the sequel. I felt honored that people wanted me to replace him. I realized what an amazing opportunity this was and I started to prepare very hard for that role. I took the time to learn the craft of an actor. My preparation included voice lessons, acting classes and some very intense training.

J:Did you have to learn Martial Arts for your role as Alex Cardo in ‘Bloodsport 2’ ?

DB: null I started studying Martial Arts when I was 15yrs old. So when I was cast I had a history in Kickboxing, Kung-fu, and Tae Kwon Do. I was studying under Grand Master Hee Il Cho, who is a very dear friend and my Master to this day. I was always strong in kicking and people told me Master Cho, would take my kicks to the next level. My skills in the arts are ultimately what led me to being cast opposite Van Damme. So it has been very important to me and my career.

J: Do you look back fondly at your first experience starring in a film?

DB: ‘Bloodsport 2’ is very special because it gave me; my ‘break’ into the industry. When I first arrived in LA, I wasn’t an actor or a screen-fighter; I was an ex-model who wanted to be an actor. nullIt eventually took two years for ‘Bloodsport‘ to get made. During that time I worked out twice a day and took acting classes at night. So finally in 1995 we shot the movie in Bangkok, Thailand and I was extremely prepared. It was the most extraordinary experience. I have to tell you it was insane; imagine I was on a set in Thailand shooting ‘Bloodsport 2’ and saying ‘Master, send me to fight in the Kumite’. For me it was incredible, I was like a kid in a candy store. It was very tough shoot though. The producers and director were first-timers so it was little bit rough, but a lot of fun.

J: You returned for ‘Bloodsport 4’, however you seem to be playing an entirely different character than in the previous two installments. Can you comment on this?

DB: That was very odd. To be honest, I didn’t want to do ‘Bloodsport 4’. They changed the character and I didn’t like the story. They came up with a script that was very strange and the whole project was sort of bizarre. However I was contractually obligated to do the film. I do have to say the one positive out of it was; I met my wife, Lisa Stothard on that film. Everything happens for a reason in life. I was forced to do the movie and I tell people ‘Bloodsport 4’ is a little different, there is no other way to say it.

J: You take on Stefanos Miltsakakis during the climactic battle in ‘Bloodsport 4’. Stefanos is one of the most intimidating screen villains of all time. Is he as intense in person as he comes across on screen?

DB:null Stefanos has been a friend of mine for a long time. I’ve always loved his work and his specific ‘look’. So I asked him to do ‘Bloodsport 4’ with me. He’s a very tough guy. When we had finished filming our fight scene, both of us were injured. We shot that in one day over the course of 15hrs. I hurt his shoulder and he injured my knee. Even though everything is choreographed if you saw how we were throwing each other around it’s a wonder we survived, at one point he was on top of me punching and a couple shots got through. I got him with a few too. It’s just what happens on these types of films. We left the set like two warriors limping away from battle, but we both knew it was a great fight scene.

J: Have you ever suffered an injury during the making of these physically demanding films?

DB: I’ve never been badly injured on-set. Never broken a bone or anything like that. But I tell you, after every film it’s like submitting your body to a battle. I usually need a month or two of recovery after we wrap. For instance on ‘Bloodsport 2’ I was very badly injured when I overturned on a spinning kick and I ripped all my floating muscles by my ribcage. It wasn’t a pretty thing, once you rip those muscles it prohibits you from moving correctly. I couldn’t turn left or right, I could barely sit-up in a chair. The injury occurred right as we were starting to shoot my fight scenes. So we had to push production back for a week in order for me to heal a bit. My strong leg is my left one which is the side I injured. If you go back and re-watch the film, you’ll see I only use my right leg. I had to wear a body wrap to keep my ribs from separating. This is why I’m wearing a shirt in the fight sequences.

When I did ‘Matrix Reloaded’ I got a very bad hip-flexor injury during the fight with Keanu Reeves. I actually got hurt in rehearsal, three days before we filmed the scene. After the 50th take I ripped my flexor so badly I could barely lift my leg. I saw a chiropractor, taped the hell out of it, and iced it at night. There were a lot of pulled muscles and strains on that film. It usually requires loads of icing. But you can’t complain, we just suck it up and go. I consider them battle scars.

J: You’re always in fantastic shape in your films. Is it a challenge to maintain a muscular physique over the course of a shoot?

DB:null It is difficult, because you start to lose weight during a production. In the preparation stage I workout hard for a film. I follow a strict schedule that includes many spaced out meals and regiment training. So it’s fairly easy for me to get in good shape. Once I start shooting everything turns into chaos. It’s insane sometimes I’m on-set for 15-18hrs a day. It becomes very hard for me to keep on the weight. When I did ‘Bloodsport 2’ I had both of my brothers with me for support. They helped me out during training and bringing me food or protein shakes every three hours. They even appeared in the movie as fighters themselves. The trick is; before a shirtless scene I do some push-ups to get a ‘pump’ for the camera. I also followed a very strict diet that included chicken, rice and vegetables. For three months I eat the same thing every day.

J: Any influences or inspirations that drew you to the film business?

DB: I’ve always loved movies. My favorite thing as a kid was going to the movie theater and sitting in that dark room. When the screen opened and the movie came on, I was transported from my seat to a different world. I’ve been drawn to films my entire life. As a kid I grew up with the old Martial Arts movies, films like ‘The 18 chambers of Shalolin’ and all the Bruce Lee films. I was the biggest Bruce Lee fan; I must have seen his movies a hundred times. He was the reason I got involved with the Martial Arts. Then later on I really enjoyed the Van Damme and Seagal movies, those were fun when I was younger. I consider myself a ‘movie geek’, because I love the medium so much.

J: Who do you admire in terms of acting?

DB: I’ve always been drawn to the ‘older’ tough guy actors. Guys like Paul Newman, Montgomery Cliff, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. Those are the guys I really like. The actors from the 40’s/50’s/60’s were real ‘men’.

J: Are you inspired by anyone’s directorial style?

DB: Absolutely, I’m very inspired by guys like Tarantino, Rodriguez, Guy Ritchie, Ridley and Tony Scott. Those are the guys I look to for inspiration. A lot of people tell me my directorial debut ‘Fetch’ is very reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s work. I’m honored by that.

J: The short film ‘Fetch’ marks your directorial debut. You also wrote and produced the film. What can you tell us about this project?

DB: It’s an original piece of work. I came up with the characters; and also wrote, produced and directed it. Fetch is a private eye. He gets things, that’s what he does.null What you see in the film is exactly how I wrote it. The whole motif of the missing dog ties together everything together, that’s why I called it Fetch. I’ve been working on turning it into a feature or possibly a TV Show. The business is very tough right now. It’s very difficult to raise money, I’ve had a lot of interest on it but nothing has come through yet. At the moment I’m in talks with two companies and there is a very strong interest in getting ‘Fetch’ made. With just a little bit of luck, I have a strong feeling that we will be shooting the feature version by next year.

J: Have you completed work on a feature-length version of the screenplay?

DB: I’ve already written a full script for it and I think it’s important that we stay very true to the short film because people responded really well to it. All of the different possibilities with the character made it easy for me to expand from a 20min to 90min film.

J: Renowned Stuntman / Actor David Leitch portrayed the lead in ‘Fetch’. I thought he was excellent in the film. Do you plan to have Mr. Leitch reprise his role in the feature-length version?

nullDB: I couldn’t agree with you more. David is a very good friend and I loved him in this film. I’ve seen him act over the years and I always thought he was good. I think he killed that role, to the point that I can’t envision anybody else playing Fetch. If David is available I would love to have him reprise the character in a feature length film. He was extremely involved with creative input and I think it’s very important as a director to be inspired by the people around you. We had 18hr days and David was right next to me. He’s a great partner to have in battle.

J: It seems the obvious choice; however you chose not to appear in the film. Why?

DB: Initially I was toying with the idea of starring in the lead. But I realized this is crazy! I’ll be directing my first film and starring as well. I met with a friend and he suggested David. In the end I’m glad it was David, directing duties were tough enough. I barely slept over the four day shoot I was so hyper and amped up. The little sleep I did get was interrupted by thoughts of things I had forgotten to do or new ideas for the story. It was an insane time.

J: You do give yourself a cameo in the picture as an assailant charging our hero. Was that an in-joke?

DB: The only reason I did that was because my extras were so bored they weren’t animated enough. I told them ‘Guys c’mon its like ‘Brave Heart’.

J: nullThere is an action sequence near the end of ‘Fetch’, in which the main character takes on a female fighter. This woman is amazing. Who played this role?

DB: Her name is Bridget Riley and she is incredible. She’s a kickboxing world champion and we thought it would be funny to have her kick the hell out of Fetch.

J: Chad Stahelski served as fight choreographer on your film. You’ve collaborated many times with Mr. Stahelski. Can you describe your professional relationship?

DB: I met Chad Stahelski on ‘Bloodsport 2’. He was a stunt man on that film. We had a fight scene together and he asked me if he could choreograph the sequence. I was so impressed with him that we hired him to choreograph all the fights in ‘BloodSport 3’. I did four movies with Chad and then we met again on ‘Matrix Reloaded’. Chad doubled Keanu Reeves so he and I worked together for many hours under Yuen Wo-Ping. Now Chad is a very well known and respected 2nd Unit Director and Fight Coordinator, it’s absolutely amazing. 87Eleven is the hottest stunt company around; they did all the stunts on ‘Fetch’.

J: In 2003 you starred as Agent Johnson in ‘Matrix Reloaded’ and ‘Matrix Revolutions’. How did you get involved with the franchise?

DB:null Chad told me they were casting guys for new agents in ‘Matrix 2’. A week later I went in and read for the casting director. There were literally hundreds of guys in line. The Wachowski brothers saw every guy that had a certain ‘look’ with martial arts experience and a background in stunt fight. There were so many people auditioning that I was amazed when I got a ‘call-back’. So I read for the Wachowski Brothers and we did the first scene where the agents confront Neo. In the film I, Matt McColm and David Kilde played three agents. However in my readings with the directors they made you play each guy once. They would give you a lot of direction, things like “do nothing, be like steal”. It was extremely cool but very nerve racking to realize your reading for the ‘Matrix’. Then I had a 3rd call-back with Wu-Ping which was basically a martial arts audition. In early 2001 I was cast in the role of ‘Agent Johnson’. I was the first guy to get booked out of the new agents.

J: How long after being cast did you begin training for the role?

DB: Right away I began training with Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss and Hugo Weaving in a large hanger located in Culver City. This went on for a month before production began in Oakland. That was an incredible experience working with Keanu and Laurence.

J: Your fight sequence with Laurence Fishburne atop a moving semi-truck is one of the high-points of the film. How was this amazing sequence done?
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DB: The fight scene on the truck was done through a mix of being on set, Blue screen and a lot of motion capture. It was all three technologies and techniques thrown together, and I think it’s an unbelievable sequence.

J: Did you pick up anything from the Wachowski’s directing style that you incorporated on your own film?

DB: The Wachowski Brothers are extremely detail oriented and they had a vision. I really appreciated that and I remembered it. I had a vision for ‘Fetch’ and I really wanted to put it on film. It took me a long time. We went through different editors and there were obstacles. In the end though, I stuck with my vision.

J: After years of playing the hero you portrayed a villainous character in 2005’s ‘The Cutter’. Your new film ‘Ultimate Champion’ has you cast once again as the antagonist. Is it more enjoyable acting wise?

DB: When I started out, I studied as hard as I could to be as prepared as possible. In time I’ve developed a love for acting and playing the ‘villain’ is fun from an actor’s standpoint. Ted Boggs the producer of ‘Ultimate Champion’ is a buddy of mine. He asked me if I was interested in playing the bad guy. They envisioned him as a suave businessman; it sounded like fun. So in this film I’m playing a sophisticated, European fight promoter. It was a new character and I look at it as a great experience as well as an opportunity to learn my craft better.

J: In 2005 you starred with Martial Arts Icon Chuck Norris on ‘The Cutter’. There is a fantastic fight sequence, in which you two really go at it. How was it working with Mr. Norris?
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DB: That was absolutely out of control. I met Chuck on the set and we hit it off right away. I got to tell you, Chuck Norris is the nicest guy. When it came time to do our first fight scene, he had his double stand-in. Chuck and I hadn’t worked together before so he wanted to be careful. Once he saw I was safe he jumped in and we went through the entire sequence. Here I am fighting a legend in the business, an ex- world champion karate master and a world famous martial arts actor. He would tell me stories how he and Bruce Lee would spend hours in the hallway of their hotel rooms just talking about the arts and training. Think about it; you meet a guy whose worked with Bruce Lee and fought him in a movie. It was an invaluable experience.

J: Throughout your career you’ve costarred with many talented and famous actors. Men like Keanu Reeves, Brian Thompson, Robert England and Pat Morita. Did you learn anything from these screen veterans?

DB:Those guys were really cool guys. Robert England said something to me once on the set of ‘Perfect Target’. He said “Daniel, read every script twice”. That’s something that has stuck with me. Working with Pat Morita and James Hong was like a dream for a guy who loved Martial Arts films. Those guys are legends in the genera. I also have to say that you can’t image how nice Kean Reeves, Laurence and Hugo are. There were no egos on the set of ‘Matrix Reloaded’, everybody was working very hard as well as training for hours a day.

J: ‘Perfect Target’ was directed by Sheldon Lettich., The man behind some of Van Damme’s early films. After appearing in ‘BloodSport 2’ and now working with Mr. Lettich,null some say you were actively looking to work with the team that set Van Damme up to the studio level?

DB: No it was a coincidence. My good friend George Hernandez was a co-producer. I was offered the film by Christain and Lee Soloman, and at the time Sheldon was attached as director. The company producing the picture sent me the script and I like it so I did the project. It was also another opportunity to work with my friend Chad Stahelski who was fight choreographer. I think it turned out to be a cool movie.

J: To many of your fans you’re most famous for portraying SIRO in the T.V. adaption of the popular Mortal Kombat video games. How did you feel playing this iconic character?

nullDB: I very much enjoyed doing ‘Mortal Kombat: Conquest’. That was one of the funniest times in my life. I love working and being on-set. We shot that in Florida at the Disney Studio and it called for me to be there for nine months, five days-a–week, which I was ecstatic about. I thought it was a cool show and I enjoyed playing ‘Siro’. The show was doing quite well with its audience; however we didn’t get picked up for a second season. It was a letdown because it would have been so much fun to go back for another run. There was such a wonderful comradery amongst the actors. I was very fond of Paolo Montalban and Kristanna Loken; we were all living in Orlando making this show together.

J: You’ve worked in the action and sci-fi genre’s for the majority of your career. Are you interested in other genre’s that may stretch you as an actor?

DB: Absolutely, I got my break in the business as a martial arts guy who acted. Now I’m an actor with a background in Martial Arts. I’ve been in this business For 15yrs. I’m not the young hot guy coming up any longer. I work very hard on my craft and I’d love to do roles in other genre’s. Specifically comedies or a romance picture, however action films are my first love. I feel very comfortable doing action pictures and I’m good at it.

J: Are you interested in directing more films?

DB: nullTotally, I feel in love with directing. I come from the acting background and the Martial Arts world. A lot of directors when doing an action film concentrate on the dialogue too much. It shows that they don’t care about the action. I’ve done so many films where they say, “Yeah we’ll get to the action”, and you shoot dialogue for hours. By the time you get to film the action sequences, there is only 30 minutes left. So, I feel that I know the balance, both action and good dialogue are equally important. As a director I’m very conscious of giving each element enough screen-time. I’ve been studying acting now for 15yrs, I feel very comfortable handling actors on-set. It’s easy for me to communicate what I need from them because of a ‘common language’ through acting.
My acting coach always said to me, “Creative output is important, do everything. Directing will make you a better actor, producing will make you a better director, it’s all the same world”. He was right; one will make you better in the other. Obviously I love being an actor and I’ll do it for as long as they let me.[laughs].

J: What can we expect next from Daniel Bernhardt?

DB: I just finished a film titled ‘Lockjaw’ that I’m really excited about. It’s a horror/monster film. I had the opportunity for the first time in my career to play a monster. He’s a man who has slowly turned into this creature. I met with the director Freddy Andrews and he pitched me the idea. Freddy had a real clear vision of what he wanted and it got me excited to be a part of the project. They designed a special suit for me to wear; it’s like playing an animal. Imagine playing King Kong or the Predator, it was like that for me. The film should be released early 2011.
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I also produced my first film this year titled ‘Elephant White’. I was given a script by Kevin Bernhardt and I really liked it. I showed it to my friend Dijmon Hounsou, whom is a two-time Academy Award Nominee. He was excited about it and I in turn became involved on the producing end. The script also attracted Kevin Bacon to the cast and we got the director of ‘Ong Bak’, Prachya Pinkaew behind the camera. It was shot earlier this year in Bangkok, Thailand. We haven’t set a release date yet, but I’m sure it will be a very cool action picture.

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