Mykel Shannon Jenkins is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana. He has appeared in numerous television shows and soap operas during his career. Recently Mr. Jenkins made his motion picture debut in the heralded action film ‘Undisputed 3’. This film has catapulted him into the ranks of rising action stars and has given him international recognition for his performance and athleticism. We talked with Mr. Jenkins about his career and working with action icons Scott Adkins and Issac Florentine.
J: When did you know that you wanted to act professionally and how did you get involved with the industry?
Mykel Jenkins: My mother was an actress so I’ve been around it my whole life. When I decided to do it professionally my father objected strenuously. He said there were no benefits, money, or health insurance involved. In my mind I thought “Tom Cruise had health insurance”, though I would never tell him that. I was in New Orleans just hanging around the set of ‘Double Jeopardy’. I caught the director’s eye and he says, “Have you ever acted before?”. He told me I had a certain look. It was only a few lines.
I graduated and was bored I got a couple jobs. I just tried to press it and fortunately I found an agent who liked my aggressive style. A lot of them don’t. She said, “I’ll submit you for this one role and depending on how you perform, we may start a relationship”. I booked the job and from there we started rolling. It’s just a matter of really pushing yourself, I’ve been fortunate enough to find people who believe in persistence and my talent. I take it very seriously coming from an athletic background; hard work pays off for me.
J: Can you tell us about the casting process of ‘Undisputed 3’ and working with heralded director Isaac Florentine?
MJ: Isaac Florentine is a genius and quite a wonderful man. He knows what he’s doing as a director and you can trust him, which allows me to be free from an actor’s standpoint. Isaac has an amazing gift for understanding fighting. Everyone thinks they can fight, but he brought together some of the best fighters in the world. They were looking for the character of ‘Turbo’ for awhile. I almost didn’t get to read for him. I was brought in because they were having a special session for another guy. Isaac loved my take on the character, but he voiced his concerns telling me, “I don’t know if your hand/foot work will match-up with some of these other guys”. He didn’t want to put me in a situation I couldn’t handle. I respected that. I asked him for his card to keep in touch and then asked, “When do you start shooting?”. He told me nine weeks. I left and two hours later I was at the gym with an expert in nine different styles of combat. I called Isaac and said, “Guess where I am? At the gym, getting better”. He laughed. I did that for fourteen straight days and finally he said, “Can you put it on tape and send it to me?”. We got the camera out and now it’s been twenty straight days of training and calling him. By that time he said “forget about the tape, I know what I have in you and I’m willing to bet on it”.
J: What was production like on that project?
MJ: We shot In Bulgaria. Scott Adkins and I practically roomed together. The beauty of being on Isaac’s set is that he creates a certain environment. Normally when fighters get together there are egos and competitiveness, that wasn’t the case with us. We just wanted to see each other take the baton and raise the bar. It was a great but very painful experience. There was a lot of body contact. Isaac likes ‘Hong Kong style’ which means you’re going to get hit no matter what anybody tells you. They can say it’s choreographed and you’re going to dance around, but you’re going to get hit. These are world-class fighters and when you get hit with a leg it feels like a baseball bat.
J: Although you don’t have a background in Martial Arts, it appears that you do have a understanding of boxing and screen fighting. How did you prepare for your role as Turbo?
MJ: It became clear that the quickest way to get my hands faster and feet quicker was to enhance those fast twitch muscle fibers. I have a heavy bag at my house. But it’s a different thing when you’re training to box and then get into the ring with dudes who are going to be spinning off ropes and Muay Thai experts. It’s not difficult to dodge but boxing can be cluttered. You have to remember the trick is with film my hands are quicker than the film will catch. So the choreographer will open you up, have you throw shots wider. Basically doing things a normal fighter wouldn’t do. The difficulty is then you have to be an expert in the understanding of what you’re doing because they’re about to forget all that when the cameras roll. The minute we got in the ring with Isaac all the choreography went out the window. I thought “Here we go, let’s roll with it”. The beauty of it though is by the time they got to my scene I had nineteen weeks to work on my technique. I would have rehearsal sessions with Isaac and the choreographer, outside of that I would meet with another trainer, and then I’d do my own thing. So I was doing four, five, six different styles of training, just doing it. Certain boxers, if you catch it in the off-season, they are out of shape by the time they get in the ring. They’ve got eight to twelve weeks of training to get in the best possible shape. I had almost doubled that. With that much time you can get real sharp, your eyes get real good, your hand speed gets fast and the mind gets real focused. Isaac actually said that my strength was in my use of the hands, “don’t worry about the rest of it just concentrate on having the best hands in the business”, he told me. So I got tapes of Roy Jones Junior, Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. I wanted to study the styles and become one with them. Until I could incorporate their styles and movements until those things became one with me like water. It wasn’t about showing up and blowing up. When you talk about something physical; people getting hit it’s only fun when it’s working. [Laughs] I continue to train and I’m getting more serious about it. Now that I’ve done one of these films, this is all I want do, it’s addicting.
J: Was there a level of intimidation stepping into a franchise that showcased such luminary actor/athletes as Wesley Snipes and Michael Jai White?
MJ: I was excited and honored, maybe I was too foolish to be intimidated. Whatever it was that Isaac had done with Michael Jai White, he made him look fantastic. I knew Isaac had a great vision and I showed him who I was. He didn’t want me to be Wesley Snipes or Michael Jai White, he wanted me to be Turbo. He wanted me to bring my energy to the role we were creating. Therefore it made me feel really comfortable. I couldn’t be Michael Jai White and he couldn’t be what I am. It’s the same thing with Wesley. He just wanted me to bring something to the surface that would make Turbo unique. It’s difficult to follow those two guys; they are legends. It’s similar to Aaron Rodgers’ situation, he can’t be Brett Favre but he can be the best Aaron Rodgers. Isaac kept telling me “do you, that’s why I brought you here to Bulgaria”. By the third or fourth day all the nerves went away and he gave me confidence and I just tried to run with as much as I could.
J: As far as physical preparation what did your regimen consist of? Is it difficult to maintain muscle mass over the course of a shooting schedule?
MJ: Yes it’s probably the most difficult thing. First of all you have to be in the best shape of your life. It’s eating discipline, that’s really it. Just like you are preparing for a fight, it’s two – three hours in the gym sometimes it was two-a-day workouts. Everything I was doing is geared toward getting my body in its best condition to be effective on-screen. Then you’re on set and you can’t just let that work go because you need that look to last the entire shoot. You’ve reached the pinnacle when you’ll actually need it the most, and these fight scenes they last three to four days. Sometimes we are throwing thousands of punches and kicks. Taking blows, trying to figure things out and that entails numerous hits to the floor. It was a lot of pounding and if you don’t train for it you’ll never get up. Continual motion is the only way to get soreness out of the body, I train through it. We would get into the weight room and try to outwork each other, it got to the point that the cast was taking over the gym. Nobody wanted to be the first to leave, the entire shoot everyone would try to be the first one to the gym in the morning. That kind of communal integrity will put you on point. Looking around at all the other physiques in there made it very clear what the pecking order was. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. During football season you don’t have to train through it, you just have to get through it. It’s nice to train a little bit and then get out of the weight room, but on ‘Undisputed 3’ we trained every day. When the film wrapped I took a couple weeks off, but it is was a highly painstaking and very intense regimen, unless you don’t care. Sometimes you’ll see an actor, I’m not going to mention names, when they just didn’t care. They’re paid, it’s too hard for them to get to the gym and they try to hide it by wearing long-sleeve shirts. So you’ll have to imagine from the last movie how they look underneath it.
J: Were you doing split body training and athletic workouts? Or did you concentrate on one body part per day?
MJ:It’s not like bodybuilding, doing one body part per workout, it’s a lot of compound movement, plyometric work, bands and surgical tubing. Also power pilates in order to make sure the muscles are fully loaded and firing. If you’re not preparing like that something will pull or tear and that can sideline you for weeks. The most remarkable thing is that anytime someone got injured, it was only a bruise, no major injuries, no hamstring pulls because everybody was staying on top of it.
J: After the overwhelming success of ‘Undisputed 3’, has there been any movement on a fourth Installment of the series?
MJ: Scott, Lateefe, Isaac and I are talking about it. We think we found something, it found us really. So we are trying to get in the position to do at least one more film. New Line knows how we feel about that. We all enjoy working with one another and will give them whatever they want when they want it; hopefully that will happen soon. Scott Adkins and I stay in continual conversation about that possible opportunity.
J: You’ve worked in film and television doing action and comedy. Are you interested in one genre over another?
MJ: I like drama and comedy. I was on ‘Ugly Betty’ for awhile, and I shot a pilot with Shaquille O’Neal during All-Star weekend. His people are putting together a show called ‘Ballers’. It’s like a black ‘Entourage’. I play Mike, his ace, the comic relief on the show. I love comedy when it’s honest. I like laughing at situation comedy. I don’t think it’s funny to laugh at a character. I enjoy smart comedians like Vince Vaughn and Seth Rogen. Some stuff we did in ‘Undisputed 3’ had a comedic element to it. We weren’t cracking jokes per se but the comedic moments came from a place of truth. I’m from the south where a lot of dramatic things have happened. I’ve witnessed a lot and there are stories I’d like to tell. ‘Undisputed 3’ was one of those stories. People think that everyone in prison is a monster or harbors murderous tendencies, sometimes people are put in places they don’t belong. They become what they have to in order to survive. I saw it as an opportunity to tell that story, because not everybody in prison is guilty. I know everybody says they’re innocent, but some of them actually are and the character of Turbo is, so I tried to incorporate that into the role. I have been bitten by the action bug mainly because of the ability to express myself physically. I’m excited about the action genre a little bit more now that I’ve been immersed in it.
J: You’ve also directed a short titled ‘Fire Cell‘. Is that something you’re looking to get into as well?
MJ: During the course of writing and directing that film I realized that I love acting too much. I have another level of respect for directors because the vision has to stay consistent with the camerawork. As a director there is no room for one second of jealousy toward the actors. I can’t stand watching people on the dance floor if I can’t dance. So in the end I cast myself in a small role, the problem is that no one was directing me then. I prefer being directed by someone else. Directing is something that takes full commitment. You can’t get caught up in thinking, “Man I wish I had the opportunity to play that character”. I think I’m too caught up in being an actor at this point in my career to fully give all as a director. That doesn’t mean I won’t direct again at some point in the future though.
J: Do you have any inspirations career wise?
MJ: I was motivated by Sidney Poiter, because he was the first African American actor that I saw stand up and be recognized as a man. He didn’t speak with a drawl, he was an equal and if you disrespected him, he’d do the same to you. It was powerful to see someone like that on an equal playing field. This was a time when literally your life was at risk if you gazed at a woman of a different color. Here he was on film doing just that and producing these wonderful moments. I remember seeing that and thinking, “The world is changing”. That was powerful stuff to me, I thought of it as a teaching instrument. Every role that I saw him in from then on, he was just regal. He’d find humanity and dignity in the characters he chose to portray.
J: What can fans expect next from Mykel Shannon Jenkins?
MJ: ‘Ballers’ will be premiering on Hulu.com real soon. I have this crazy aspiration to be the first black James Bond. I know Sean Combs has said he wants to do that role and they have all the money to get it done. But at some point if they don’t watch themselves I’ll be close enough to it to grab the role. I have the physicality to pull it off and I believe I have the range to fully embody that role. We are actually shooting a short titled ‘Quarter of an Inch’ about an assassin, who fits my concept of a black James Bond. I’m working on the script myself and I hope to get someone excited about the possibility. At some point in my career I’ll be in position to green light a project and this is the concept I’d love to get on film. Even if I have to do it myself. Once again I have to thank Isaac for giving me the chance to showcase my qualities and I hope to make the most out of the opportunities coming my way.