words Al Woods
Chuck Johnson, also known as Japan’s First Black Stuntman, has lived an interesting life, to say the least. We got a chance to sit down with this master of martial arts and discuss how he went from Taekwondo expert to innovative stuntman to visionary film producer. His Dojo, Quiet Flame in Japan, doubles as an action actor’s training facility. And his production company, Quiet Flame Films, is pushing boundaries in the world of film. Here is our interview with the amazing Chuck Johnson.
I heard you were a Taekwondo champion. Could you tell me a little bit more about how you got into Taekwondo?
Well, I’ve got a fairly large stature now, but when I was younger, I was pretty skinny. And growing up in Detroit, of course, I had run-ins with bullies. So, when I was 12 years old, I discovered Jackie Chan. And I was like, “Oh, my god, somebody systemized fighting. That’s incredible.” I was instantly obsessed. I asked my mother how I could kick high and do the splits like the guys in the movies, and she said “You have to stretch every day”, so I started stretching religiously. I would also record Jackie Chan movies from TV and watch them over and over again trying to copy the movements. I think I might have broken the rewind button on our VCR doing it so much, haha. By 15, after my family had moved out of Detroit and into a suburb, I already had full front and side splits and had been doing this for years. My Korean best friend took me and another friend for a trial at a Taekwondo school he had just started at, and I was instantly hooked. I was finally doing real martial arts; and already being really flexible, and having a sense of kicking from emulating movies, I took to it immediately. Out of the three of us who started Taekwondo that day, I was the only one who actually stuck with it. Within two and a half years I earned my black belt, and less than a week later, I was a Michigan State Junior Olympic champion. It was the first time in my life I was ever really good at something. The discipline that Taekwondo instilled in me early on also took me from a C-minus student in school, to straight A’s. Eventually, I wanted to try to go to the Olympics, so I went to Korea for training, which brought me to Asia for the first time. I found out about all the other Korean martial arts and went on from wanting to master Taekwondo to wanting to understand everything within the world of martial arts and fighting: even weapons, hoplology, the nature of human conflict, and negotiation, everything. I wanted to be able to understand all of it holistically, which is one of the things that ended up keeping me in Asia.
And how did you make that transition from Taekwondo champion to a stuntman?
I loved Taekwondo so much that I wanted to go to the Olympics. But I had no idea how hard it was. I just knew that Korea was the Mecca, so I had to go there if I wanted to really be good. I trained in Korea for about three years via university study abroad programs, but eventually, I took every single class that you can take, so the next closest place I would go was Hong Kong. I trained and competed there as well, and the more I traveled and saw the world, and all the different aspects of martial arts, the more I realized that I wanted more out of life than simply being a fighter. There was too much world to see and things to learn. In my mid-twenties, I decided to move on from the Olympic dream because there was just a lot more that I wanted out of life. That was a hard call to make; because I was so serious about it for so long…and it meant finding a new way for myself. So I moved to Japan. I figured I had lived in China and Korea, so intuitively, it was a natural step. Like a lot of people, I came via English teaching, but almost immediately after I arrived, I was hired as a bodyguard for visiting Hollywood celebrities because of my size, my build and the fact that I was a native English speaker. Nowadays you see a lot of westerners in Tokyo, but at the time, it wasn’t very common. Bodyguarding was good work, but I wasn’t doing it enough to really make a living, so a friend suggested that I get into modeling. I walked into an acting/modeling agency (in Japan for foreigners, most agencies do both), and they told me they were looking for martial arts actors for Godzilla: Final Wars. The casting had literally just closed an hour before, but the agent ran outside with me, I took off my shirt and we got one good flying kick picture. They submitted it, and I was asked to audition, and I got into the film.
I fell in love with it all the moment I stepped on set. I asked one of the stunt guys how I can keep doing this, and he introduced me to Yuji Shimomura. Now Yuji is one of the top action directors in Japan, but at the time, he was just up and coming. He invited me to train with his team, so I did. I trained with them for two years before I got another job. At the time, there were no other foreign stunt guys there, so I kept thinking that that meant that if I could make it, I would be the pioneer. That thought kept me going for a long time. Eventually, that’s what happened. People within the industry started realizing that there was a foreign guy who could do stunts and everyone wanted to use me because I was unique. Over time, I learned to speak Japanese, and how to operate in Japanese culture, and at that point, the work started rolling in.
Now you’ve got this title as “Japan’s first black stuntman”. How does it feel to be so well-known?
It’s interesting for a few reasons. One is that generally among entertainers, stunt guys usually don’t get famous because we always cover our faces to make the main actor look good (if we are doubling) or so we can come back and play a different person the next day. But in my case, people wanted to use me because I looked so different, so they wanted me to be seen. This meant that I usually ended up being a high-profile bad guy. Usually a “final boss” kind of character; so it meant I always had to act as well. That being the case, it meant I always had to act, and deliver dialog before the stunt work; which eventually lead to my getting as much acting work as stunt work. I’ve always been simply been both. Even now, if you look at my resume on my website or IMDB, I have just as much acting training and acting experience as I do in stunts. Different production companies hire me in either faculty or sometimes both. When I am doing Motion Capture, sometimes I will be a main actor, half of the background actors, and a stunt guy for the other actors all at the same time, haha. It’s also interesting because here in Japan, sometimes there are some people who just recognize my face immediately and ask for an autograph. But a lot of people will just know my face but not know from where. People will say “Have we met before?” and then when I tell them what I do, they will immediately remember me from some movie or TV show they saw the week before or something. Weirdly enough, I’ve gotten a lot more notoriety outside of Japan because what I did was so unusual. Especially in America. Kind of like how everyone in Japan knows Ichiro because he plays major league baseball in America, but the average American probably doesn’t know who he is. That kind of thing. But I love it because it means I get to keep a low profile in my daily life and take my son to school like any other Dad.
Quiet Flame. That’s your dojo, right? Could you tell me about that?
I started Quiet Flame because people kept asking me if I knew any other foreign stunt people who could work on their films. They felt like having American stunt people in their movie made it look like the movie’s in America, therefore making it cooler. So, I had some students come over to Japan from the International Stunt School where I taught. Eventually, as the demand grew, and I could offer more work, to sustain more people, I was able to build a team here in Japan. Plus, I had this long history with Taekwondo and martial arts that I wanted to share with others before I became too old to move well. When I first moved to Japan, I was training at a dojang that was operated by the Japanese national Taekwondo team coach, but after he started a university program, and got too busy with it, the dojang shrank to unsustainable numbers. They didn’t have a head coach anymore, and eventually, it sadly got down to just two guys. At the time, I only had one student myself, and they had a good space, so I asked if I could come in and operate it. In the beginning, it was just us 3, but over time, it grew to have 100 people, 3 kids programs across the city, and a stunt training facility. It all happened organically and I never even advertised it.
So how did you transition from having your own dojo and training stunt people to directing movies and starting Quiet Flame Films?
I had spent many years on YouTube, teaching martial arts and, eventually, I built a pretty decent following. At one point, my channel was growing my 1600% a year. This was when Youtube Japan was just starting, and internationally, they wanted to push for Youtube Red to show that they could do dramatic content the same way that Netflix or Amazon could. This was back when the other streaming services were just starting off, and they weren’t super well established. So YouTube wanted to compete in that arena. Well, I got into this program that partnered with Toei Studios. They took 10 scripts into the program and the top 3 were chosen and given access to the studio’s resources. My script was one of the three chosen. It was called “Fists of Absinthe.” It was about a samurai-obsessed black dude who goes to Japan, drinks absinthe, and hallucinates about having to defend his sneakers from ninjas and samurai. So, basically, I learned how to produce content via Youtube, and then leveraged that knowledge into being a film producer. Fists of Absinthe won a full awards at festivals, and that gave me the confidence that as long as I stayed disciplined, kept striving to improve, and kept learning, I could produce even better content.
What’s next for Chuck Johnson?
The next big thing is pushing forward with “Eastbound Traffic.” More than anything I want to raise awareness of the issue of sex trafficking. I want to let people know that sex trafficking is something that’s happening right now. It’s not just happening in Japan. It’s happening in my hometown of Detroit. It happens all over the world. And it’s not just happening to women. It happens to children, trans people, and men as well. And these people are scarred for life after going through this experience. So, I just want to raise awareness of this issue and let people know that it’s happening so we can know what steps need to be taken. This is the vision for Quiet Flame Films; to make movies that aren’t just entertaining, but can also have a positive social impact as well, and Eastbound Traffic will be the flagship film.