He was a member of Britain’s Olympic diving squad – ranked number 12 in the world – and sold black market goods from a fit-up stall in London. Not movie star material.
Nowadays he owns a $10m beachfront pad in Malibu and another house in the Hollywood Hills. He’s the go-to guy when producers are seeking a mean, taciturn, gravelly-voiced anti-hero with a line in lethal martial arts.
London has given way to America. He earns millions, has a supermodel girlfriend, 30-plus films under his belt and is ambitious to do more. Some reviewers are snooty about fast-paced action films. Not me. I like movies to do what they advertise. In the case of 45-year-old Mr Statham, it’s energetic, violent and, just occasionally, funny.
The man himself resembles his on-screen character: shaved head, designer stubble, that low growl and just a hint of menace. There’s a reality to Statham that heavyweights like Stallone and Schwarzenegger always lacked. He’s 5ft 9ins, plausibly intimidating, and compact in a deadly kind of way. Don’t mess with The Stath...
In Safe he’s an ex-NYPD cop protecting a ten-year-old girl from three different pursuers. He takes on an army of bad guys, tears up New York and takes some serious punishment. Just like a classic action hero should.
Interviewing Statham is like an interrogation: he gives only the barest details. Asked to comment on the complexities of specific stunts, he smiles.
“That’s like a magician telling you how he does his tricks. The hand-to-hand stuff speaks for itself. It’s just choreography and you rehearse that. It gets polished into a place where weeks before they film it we know what we are doing.”
Asked if he picks up injuries Statham immediately answers “Always!” adding “not badly, but always someone gets hit or pulls a hamstring. You expect that. You put the pads on, cross your fingers and close your eyes.”
Statham’s debut came 14 years ago in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He landed the job via French Connection, for whom he was modelling. Back then Statham was cast as an East End wide boy who relied less on his fists than his wits. Yet his face, fitness and knack of turning minimalist dialogue into kinetic action obviously appealed to French auteur Luc Besson. Suddenly Statham went off like a rocket.
“There were no punch-ups or anything (in Lock, Stock... and Snatch),” he recalls. “I was quite a passive chap in those early films. I think that was just to do with the type of film that was. The first action film I made was The Transporter (in 2002) for Luc Besson. That was the first time I got to do an actual fight scene. It seems that paved the way, if you like, for others.”
Statham’s career has eclipsed those of his Lock, Stock... co-stars. Initially Vinnie Jones was the break-out star. Now Statham is rubbing shoulders with Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables and its sequel.
Action stars spend less time at the top by virtue of sheer wear and tear. Statham is already pushing 50...
“You want to work with better directors, better colleagues, better actors, better material, better script, have more time, more money,” he says without shame.
“Have all the luxuries that great movie-making has. That is the pursuit that keeps me going.”
Daley told to bring home the gold
Despite having gone from a member of the UK’s Olympic diving team to superstar action film hero, Statham remains committed to fitness.
He works out in a stuntmen’s gym, and he still swims.
Asked for his thoughts on the young Olympic hopeful, 17-year-old diver Tom Daley, he breaks into a wide grin.
“He is a very talented kid. I think he will do well. Bring home the gold, that’s what I say.”
The way Statham says it, the words sound like an order.
Safe (15) is on nationwide release from today.