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Ever since the era of silent films, many European actors have tried their luck in Hollywood Haven. Matthias Hues is one of them: starting in the late 1980s, this humongous and muscle-bound German guy became a fixture in mainly straight-to-video action flicks. In his own way, he has lived the American dream, spawning in the process a filmography pretty much to our liking.
Interview conducted on March 2008 by John Nada.
To start with, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? What was the chain of events that made you go to the USA and work in the movie industry?
Well, I always liked films like most young people in my age and town. Arnold was big, so was Stallone, it was an exciting time for us. These guys looked like real super heroes and we looked up to them and wanted to be like them. I guess I took it a bit more seriously back then, I trained hard knowing somehow my body would do the same thing for me one day. Not knowing it would lead me to do films but I was an athlete competing on a pretty high level in Germany in track and field, which led me to the weight room. And martial arts. But I kept my focus on the gym knowing that was how I could make money and be in the gym all day at the same time. So I opened a gym, great times, learned a lot about fitness and working out. One day I saw Rocky 4 and was so impressed with Dolph Lundgren. So was a girl I had a crush on, in fact she made me feel real little by putting this guy so way high up that I knew unless I went to Hollywood I would never be measured up to it. One week later I sold my gym and landed in Hollywood.
America is often described as the land of opportunity, and Hollywood is especially attracting to newcomers eager to success. Apparently, you arrived there with only 1400$ in your pocket and sometimes had to sleep in your car. What was your state of mind at that time? Have you always been convinced that acting was what you wanted to do, and determined to success no matter how?
There was at no time ever a doubt about me not going to make it in the business. I knew the stiff competition but I wasn't aware of it. I never thought about it, I was too busy doing it. I started on the ground floor, hit the streets every day looking how to break in. Learned while doing, adapted, grew into a bit more every day and kept my eye on the ball. I felt weak sometimes or not good enough at times, as everybody was so good looking and fit and could speak better English and so on, but I kept booking the jobs, even modelling as I thought "how could they even book me with all these other way better looking model type guys all over"... but I guess it was my free spirit and my excitement and my knowing I was at the right place at the right time... and I was German and looked so different, I mean it made me the bad guy right off the start. Of course I did had some hard times as well, not knowing where to spend the night, hungry and so on but when you're so young you do not think much about it. If I had to sleep in my car today I would crumble much faster. I used to sleep everywhere I could, in laundry rooms, garages, nice girl's place... or friends. If I lost my apartment I would just break in at night till it was rented again and sleep on the empty floor. Crazy now to even think of this. I took crazy jobs, collected money and protected sleazy characters and their business. Moved to Florida, danced for girls. And this is just the tip of the ice of what I did in between, I had so many amazing experiences I felt like true to most of the things I can portrait as an actor because I have seen or done it, except of course, crime, but having seen and dealt with others who are the real thing. Soon I was so known for being the bad guy that in every country in the world or the most dangerous places in LA, I was safe, by having fans right there. It was great to finally make a living with films and live a life of travel and see things while on different locations around the world.
After a small part in Big Top Pee-Wee, you got your first important role in No Retreat No Surrender 2: Raging Thunder, replacing Jean-Claude Van Damme and earning a 6000$ pay check. Because of JCVD not doing the film, fight choreographies had to be changed and, according to Roy Horan, you made your first steps in martial arts under the supervision of Korean super kicker Hwang-Jang Lee directly on the set. What memories do you keep of this experience with Hwang-Jang Lee and, more globally, of shooting in Thailand with Cynthia Rothrock, Max Thayer, Loren Avedon, and director Corey Yuen?
Yes, this was like a movie in a movie, I was the karate kid, I mean the outsider, the underdog, the guy everybody didn't want on that set...! I did leave it all behind and went on a mental and physical journey with Hwang-Jang Lee, trained every day, listened, learned, gathered wisdom and looked up to him like he is the messiah, I knew I had to make it out alive without losing my face. I would have rather eaten dirt all day than not raise to the occasion. The shooting went great, first I felt a lot of resentment but it turned into mutual respect as I gave my life to it. Everybody was a blast, the director, all the stunt guys who had to suffer under my brutal not controlling force at first but in the end all were happy, loved to fight with Cynthia and of course Loren who is a total pro.
A lot of good action films have been made in Asia in the 80's and 90's. After your experience with Corey Yuen on No Retreat No Surrender 2, have you ever been tempted to make films in Hong Kong?
To be honest, not really, I leave that to Gary Daniels and the others who live for the art of the martial arts, I am a fighter ok but not as good as they are. I am the bigger guy, it is harder for me. But I would say it is my favourite to watch, admire the art behind it. In real life I like fighting, I am good with my power and my height, and know how to use it. I mean sparing in the ring. If I could go back in time I would go for it professionally. I would be training for UFC. [Nanarland: Ultimate Fighting Championship]
No Retreat No Surrender 2 was released in 1400 theaters around the US and launched your career in cinema. After that, you began to appear in a lot of films as the rough, brawny bad guy. Did you enjoy those kinds of roles? In fact, all the people we have interviewed that worked with you insisted on how you were a very gentle and amicable person. Did you ever have any problem playing evil or sadistic characters?
Well, at that time it was fun, but I got a bit down at times, I received so many letters from people all around the world who wanted me being the good guy, since the image of the pretty boy hero changed a bit to the real tough looking guys like Vin Diesel and so on. I had a great deal with a film company for three films being the hero, all kick ass productions like Transporter, but the money fell through the last minute. But I am ok with it all, as I prepare for some new stuff and am ready to come out soon with different roles, some more dramatic and interesting than the good old bruiser type.
We read you put a lot of effort into losing weight for some parts, losing your native German accent and generally working hard to improve your skills as an actor, yet most of the time you were just asked to yell and grunt on the set as the regular hulking brute. How did you cope with that paradox? If you could go back to the early 90's, would you make different choices of films in your career?
I learned one thing: you can never look back and go back, all you can do is learn and move forward and make it better and more interesting. You grow in life, so will your roles. Look back at some actors how they looked ten years ago and what they do now, there are worlds in between and it is a natural development. Back then I did what I was told and what worked then might look stupid today, right! All films shot in the 80's and 90's are now almost comic to watch at times, they look so way over.
You did a lot of fighting roles in your career and, in our opinion, you are one of the very few action film actors to be both impressively muscular and nevertheless fast and supple enough to remain credible when doing martial arts fighting scenes. What is your martial arts background? Do you have any specific model or inspiration in this matter?
I was blessed enough to had good trainers from all sorts of backgrounds, I was taking it all in, tried to learn and take the best from each martial art. Even took a liking to boxing and kickboxing, Kempo I liked a lot. But the best fighting style for me is kickboxing.
Your name appears in the credits of the movie "Cage", starring Reb Brown and Lou Ferrigno, but it seems your fight against the latter has not been kept in the final cut. Do you know if this scene appears anywhere, maybe on a DVD release? Any memories of Reb Brown and Lou Ferrigno?
Oh I didn't know that, hmmmmm sorry I cannot help there... too bad.
You happened to work with producers Joseph Merhi & Richard Pepin (PM Entertainment), on a movie called "Executive Target". From our point of view, they look like a pair of lucid businessmen as well as a tandem of industrious, fast-working movie makers, shooting quite interchangeable scenarios without really caring about the artistic aspect of their films. What impression did they make on you? According to the IMDB, Joseph Merhi directed 32 films and produced 110 within 20 years, which seems a lot. Do you know if he has directed 100% of "Executive Target", or was he more or less relying on "yes-men" and 2nd unit directors, just crediting his name in the end?
Well, as I remember this film, he did it all, was there every day and it was his pet project. I was quite nervous about all the names he had and was busy to keep everybody happy as the cast was a not so easy one to work with. All actors who are pros and have their own strong opinion. I remember having talked to him to kill me off the film, as I was not happy being just the bad guy without having anything to do in the film. He did grant me the favor and killed me.
You also worked with David A. Prior (on the film "Hostile Environment" a.k.a. "Watership Warrior", co-starring Brigitte Nielsen), a movie maker which has made many films since the beginning of the 80's, always with very low budgets but (reportedly) highly devoted crew members. Would you confirm? What are your memories of the man and of the shooting?
Hmmmmmm well, do not remember too much of it, I saw it was too low budget but liked him a lot as a man of his words and how he got everybody to work so hard, yes I liked him. I like Daren Shelavi being on it, we had so many ideas of how we wanted to do things but it was not meant to be. This film was a great attempt but something went wrong. Hmmmmmmmmm!! You are just not in control as an actor, you find out later when you see it and sometimes you go... AUTSCH!!! Then again I turned down some very good films because of the money they offered not being enough and later said... Autsch! Why was I so stupid! "Cyborg", one of them, "Highway to Hell" another, and some others I do not remember now of hand.
You also did a big film for TV, "Age of Treason", shot by a director we appreciate, Kevin Connor, and in which you played a gladiator in the Roman antiquity. Was it a pleasant change for you to do something different from your usual roles as a cyborg, a henchman or a soldier of fortune?
Oh yes, I LOVED this film, this is what I love to play, but here again they slaughtered the film, cut all the fun and exciting things out, we had so much gladiator fight scenes and Coliseum stuff. It would have been the perfect combination for ones, acting and action, but it ended up just being like a play or so. We had such high hopes for it as being picked up as a series regular for CBS, but it was before its time I guess. Today, with shows like "Rome", we would have a better chance to get this liked by the viewers... this was so much fun and Kevin is a great director, this is what acting is all about.
Would you have any special memories or anecdotes about Mexican actor Jorge Rivero ("Fist Fighter 1&2", "Death Match") and Jalal Merhi ("Talons of the Eagle", "TC2000")?
"Fist Fighter" was great, Jorge was so famous at the time in Mexico it was a trip to be around him. I mean we went out and it was like being with Stallone. I met so many cool people, all the right ones I must say, the top of the top in Mexico, richer than most Americans, but also the poor and normal. It was a great shoot, we worked hard, he punched me out for real and I felt good about it, ha ha! Made it all much more real. We were trained by Jimmy Nickersen, he is the one who did the fight scenes in Rocky one or two, I do not remember, a Veteran stunt man and great fight guy, he worked us out hard every day, kicked my ass many times, split my lips and just before it healed I split it again to remind me of my guard. I got him for this after the shoot and wrestled him to the ground in front of them all. Jorge was cool at all times, in great shape and a real guy to have fun with.
As for Jalal in Toronto, yes so many good times there too, great fighting and he had a good nose to find good fighters and actors to come up. He was a cool guy, honest and hard working, I liked him a lot.
You acted in a lot of B-movies, which we know have often very tight budgets. Furthermore, most of them were action films, that is to say films in which you may sometimes have put your life, or at least your health, in danger. Do you have memories of some especially trying, difficult shootings? Have you ever been hurt on a set? Are there stunts you once did on a film that you would refuse to do now?
Actually "Dark Angel" a.k.a. "I Come in Peace" was the most dangerous one from all. Many times I heard the explosion guy saying, no this is going to blow Matthias right up and the director said, well he just has to jump higher or run faster so it won't get. Well, I have done some of my fastest runs and best jumps on this film, just to save my ass! The worst is I always knew before hand that if I was not fast enough it would be getting me. So my heart rate was always way up every day.
All other things were all in good fun. I have been an athlete all my life, so it means nothing to me to get forced to the limit.
Oh, one day I was shooting "Digital Man" in the desert, the day of the big explosion where I blow up a house with my gun alone. The house was rigged over a week with explosives that would send the entire desert to hell. The day comes, I am all set to pull the trigger staying only a hundred yards from the house. I am in my gear, look around, I cannot see one person, I mean all I saw were people hiding about 500 yards away in man made ditches. The firemen where hiding behind some other walls of the set, right next to it. I suddenly got ill to my stomach and thought, wait a minute, even the fire truck is parked so far out of the way, what the hell is going on here. I stopped the take in time, had the director called up and said to him, do you notice anything funny, or odd about this scene, he looked around, Phil Ross is his name. He got it right away, ok he said, I will be right here with you facing hell, how about that. He wanted that shot so bad he was willing to go down with me if needed. So he moved out of the frame but on the same line of fire as me. KABOOOOOOOM. The house explodes, comes at us, I mean everything from wood to doors and so on. It was like facing hell on open day. Nothing happened to either of us, luck had it... But for the future you must be nuts facing a wooden house that explodes into the sky only a few hundred yards away. NO THANKS!
Nowadays, in cinema, there are far more computer generated images and digital special effects than when you started in the business. Do you mind shooting in front of a blue or a green screen? Do you find it more difficult or less funny to work this way than to do "real, live fights" with other actors?
HMMMMM, yes it's a bit stupid but sometimes it is the only way if there must be monsters or dangerous animals, and they make it look so real and as an actor you need to raise to every occasion, you are used to it. I mean you need to learn to adapt real fast, even if you cannot do a thing, you say yes I can do it and learn while doing. Often I had to ride horses, I hate it, everybody asks, are you good with horses, and I say sure I am, but in the end all I do is just get on it and ride into the sunset and have only a prayer to get through it. But while you are doing it you are the guy in the film being the horse rider and it goes fine automatically, no time to think, just act.
Looking back on all your past experiences on the sets, what are your very best and your very worst memories as an actor?
Best, "Dark Angel" a.k.a. "I Come in Peace", by beating the odds of getting blown up. Worst, having a small role as a bruiser and just sitting around most of the time. I am a work horse, I need action and excitement, I feed on it.
You once said "What Bloodsport was for Van Damme and Rocky for Stallone or Terminator for Arnold: it takes a huge box office hit to make big time regardless how good you and your talents are, so you have to keep at it till you happen to be in a film that does just that...". Even though you never reached the popularity of your fellow German speaking muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger, you managed to make a name for yourself and work enough as an actor to make a good living. With the hindsight, what look do you take at your career in the movie industry, not just professionally but as a human/life experience?
Well, I say I am just really get going and now, with all that I know and learned, I can be a better man and actor and concentrate on what is the key to make it to the next level. I would have done things differently many times if I could now, I am too shy to play the Hollywood game, but it is a must, you need to sell out and go out and pretend to be more than you are and make people love you all the time, I did it for a while but got burned out, but for some reason I am now more up for it than ever, I have more energy than when I was 26. I take more classes, work on my techniques. I love films so much I would do everything for it, with good taste of course.
Lately, you did a film called "Goy", a German/USA co-production also starring Christopher Mitchum. It seems you also co-produced the film, and created your own company, "Matthias Hues Entertainment". Could you tell us a bit more about it? What are your plans for the future, both as an actor and a producer?
Yes, "Goy", I was only the co producer on it, meaning I helped in LA putting some touches to the film in a way of finding a casting director and some other elements that would help to speed up the production. But it is not my film nor do I have rights or ownership what so ever on it. "Matthias Hues Entertainment" is not active as of yet, as I am too busy to work on the acting in the moment. This will come to play later in my life. I love filming, am busy to get better roles all the time, I have some work cut out to move into better, bigger budget films, been close so many times to make the leap but still am trying hard to make this happen. Currently I am up for some bigger studio production, well let's see how this all turns out. I am happy and grateful to be in this biz and being part of this wonderful industry.