With Snow White and the Huntsman out this week, we got the chance to speak to actor and stunt performer Joey Ansah.
One look at Ansah’s biography will leave you exhausted - the martial arts expert performs all his own stunts (appearing in Batman Begins), most famously opposite as Desh opposite Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum. He also directs, and we’ve got news on how Ansah’s following up his fan-favourite short film Street Fighter: Legacy (over 3 million views on YouTube).
Ansah will be seen opposite Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth in Snow White and the Huntsman, the gothic fairy tale adaptation that features Charlize Theron as an exceptionally evil queen. Upcoming roles include an adaptation of Elsa Lewin’s novel I, Anna (starring Charlotte Rampling, Gabriel Byrne and Hayley Atwell) and The Numbers Station (with Malin Akerman and John Cusack).
As we find out in our phoner, the script for a full-length Street Fighter: Legacy series has been Ansah’s full-time job since the short was released in 2010. We also chat about the brutal stunt work in the Bourne series, his admiration for Hemsworth and Thor, and find out what he thinks of The Raid.
How was the world premiere of Snow White and the Huntsman?
It was really cool. They went to a lot of effort, and re-opened Leicester Square so to speak, and themed it like the dark forest. Luckily it didn’t rain! It’s really nice. The last time I was at such a big premiere for a film I was playing a major part in was The Bourne Ultimatum, so it was nice to be back in that environment, if you know what I mean!
Can you tell us a bit about your character Aldan?
He’s a mysterious tracker/warrior from the East. He looks almost Saracen, like he’s come over from the Crusades. I guess he’s the only person of colour in the film actually, which is interesting. So he definitely stands out, because of his attire. His costume is quite elaborate and I’m sporting this mighty beard. I’m recruited by Finn, the evil queen’s brother, to hunt down Snow White and the Huntsman. Without giving too much away, I lead a group of mercenaries and I get into a few mighty scraps, as you can imagine!
You said that you were the only person of colour in the film - was it written that way?
No, I originally read for the part of Broch, who’s a rival huntsman to Chris Hemsworth’s character. Aldan was meant to be Yakut, from Outer Mongolia. Because I’m mixed race I can pass for a fair few things, so I think once Rupert saw me, he went for the Saracen look. I was going to have long, Eskimo style hair and clean-shaven, but he went, actually, I want you with short hair and a beard. The brief of the character changed once I was cast.
Sam Spruell is creepy, but did you get to see Charlize Theron in character at all?
She’s unfortunately the only member of the cast I never met! She spent most of her time in the castle, which was the set, whereas I’m out in the field. I spend time with Kristen and Chris, all of the dwarves, the prince - just about everyone else I’m on screen with.
How was Kristen Stewart to work with? She seems very unassuming, despite her fame.
I would say she’s actually quite shy, you know? You can see in interviews she’s quite shy, so it takes a while for her to warm up and trust you. You know how some people, not until you pass a certain level of trust and familiarity do they then relax and fully open up, and I’d say that’s it. The first time I met Kristen was during horse riding training. We had a period of four weeks before filming got underway, where we were all riding every day with the stunt co-ordinators. Since I’m playing this scary dude who’s trying to kill her, we kept our distance! We chatted again during the afterparty. I spent more time with Chris Hemsworth and Sam Claflin. They were great. Sam’s really nice, really cool, and I’m sure he’s got a bright career ahead of him. I guess both of us as up and comers, we had a lot to chat about. Hemsworth, I’m a big fan of - as a huge comic fan and I really dug his portrayal of Thor, so I was well excited just to meet him and chat to him. He’s super laid-back. He’s got oodles of charisma; Chris is one of those people who walks into a room and you know about it. There’s not a bad word you could say about these guys behind closed doors.
You mentioned going to riding school, but as a stunt performer was that something you were familiar with?
I lived in Ghana a long time ago, between the ages of nine and 14, and some of my friends were polo players, so I would try it. I had ridden for years, so I thought I’m going to have to get good pretty quickly. That’s the beauty of doing a film, where you get to learn a new skill, because physicality is my life. I trained as a stunt guy back in the day, and one of my hallmarks is that I’m an actor who can do all his own action scenes. I even practiced some horse archery, two new skills to be able to put together!
You’ve had quite a busy, eventful life - what has been the experience that has shaped who you are today?
In terms of significance, being mixed race is a very interesting phenomenon, and if you’re not mixed race it’s hard to comprehend. I grew up in London, went to Dulwich College Prep, so I was in this very English, mainly Caucasian environment, and I had very few black influences or role models other than my dad. So when I moved to Ghana it was a complete culture shock, but it unlocked that other half of me, which had been somewhat dormant. Out of that side came my real expressive side. Like, I used to be scared stiff of dancing, and physically letting go. I remember in Ghana being told I had no rhythm - the irony being I ended up working as a professional dancer years later! That period in Ghana really helped balance who I am today.
As an acting stuntman, I was curious if you’ve seen The Raid?
I have, and I thought it was very, very good. The choreography was great, it was brutal, hard-hitting - I like to see choreography where the actors have really suffered. These guys took a beating. Having done that myself in The Bourne Ultimatum, one of the most brutal fights on film, so I know all about getting hit for real, and how long I was in pain for recovering from that. I make films as well, and action direct, so Gareth Evans did a phenomenal job - some of the fight scenes were so inventive. Cameras moving through holes in floors into new rooms in continuous shots - when you see it, you think, how did you pull that off? I know it would be a practical, ingenious way because this isn’t a $100 million movie, with motion control and comp shots. You’ve come up with a practical solution to get that shot real time, and it’s really cool to see that kind of filmmaking.
What’s great about the Bourne films is that they film fight scenes that are brutally real - do they really push you on set?
You know, the irony of the Bourne fight… I was working with a guy called Jeff Imada, and I was young, 23, when I shot that fight. There are very few fight choreographers that I really respect. First of all, there’s a lot of bad choreography in Hollywood, and action direction, but this guy Jeff Imada was one of the few I really loved. So when I heard he was doing the fights, it was a dream come true. What I added in, I said to Matt and the fight choreographer that I wanted to take a lot of real hits, because the audience can tell the difference between convincing hits and someone actually being smashed. When Matt gets the book and rams it into my throat, that scene that makes everyone wince, I ended up saying, ‘Matt, just do it for real.’ I lost my voice for a week! I took a full-on punch to the head… this is not stuff I would recommend people go out and try. But if you’ve done full martial arts for long enough you know your limits. You know what you can walk away from, and what’s going to do you damage. Any fight that does leap out at you does so because it’s got all the emotions of combat there. You’re walking down a high street and you see a pub brawl spill out into the road, you’ve got butterflies in your stomach even though there’s two lanes of traffic between you. There’s panic, fear, tension, people’s faces turning savage, primal - those are elements you receive when you’re involved in combat or watching it go down for real. And in a lot of films, you don’t get any of that. There’s a few punches, a few one-liners, a bit of swagger, and people getting hit endlessly in the face with seemingly no detrimental effect. That Bourne fight wasn’t rocket science - it wasn’t the most complex, balletic physicality, it was just emotionally real.
Your short film Street Fighter: Legacy is a huge hit on YouTube - fans will want to know the status of a follow-up.
Yes, I’ve stopped short of announcing anything on the Facebook fanpage we set up. People ask if there’s anything happening, and you don’t want to blow smoke up people’s rears! The good news is, myself and the rest of my team have been working away ever since the short came out. It’s been a full-time job for me. The script has been written now for a series, a live-action, feature-length series. I’ve been working day and night on getting the elements together to close a deal with Capcom to make this official. All I can say is - we’re very close. People should know the scripts are complete, and they would go beserk if they knew what was contained in them! That’s very much my plan. Yes, I will be directing - I’m very excited about that. I still find other YouTube channels hosting that short that have millions of hits. A lot of people have seen my little short and want to see more! I will die trying to get this thing green-lit and happening.
Watch Ansah’s Street Fighter: Legacy below:
Watch the trailer for Snow White and the Huntsman below: