Steven Seagal: Swapping guns for guitars

Steven Seagal in The Foreigner
Steven Seagal in The Foreigner
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The mountainous martial arts master swaps guns for blues guitar on his latest tour, which brings him to Leeds. He speaks exclusively to Tony Earnshaw.

It was Michael Parkinson who remarked that interviewing Robert Mitchum was among the trickiest moments of his career as a TV chat show host.

The drawling Yank with the barrel chest and laid-back manner answered most questions with a “Yup” or “Nope” that had Parky panicking. At the height of their interview – actually a series of Pinteresque cul-de-sacs punctuated by silence and a stony gaze from his star – Parkinson came to the question that signalled to his team that he was running out of steam: “Has anyone ever taken a swing at you in a bar?”

Mitchum answered the question with an anecdote that took Parky and his watching audience by surprise – then admitted he’d made it up. And at that point the interview seemed to crank into a new gear. Mitchum forgot he was giving monosyllabic answers and opened up to reveal himself as erudite, eloquent and self-deprecating.

Showbiz is littered with such tales of reluctant actors being cajoled into conversation – or not, as the case may be. Journalists learn to avoid certain personalities if they don’t wish to be skewered or, in the case of Brian Blessed, be caught in the full blast of a verbal tornado. (Mr Blessed, unlike Mr Mitchum, doesn’t stop talking. Once, over the course of a 90-minute interview, I managed two and a half questions. And that’s a lot.)

Of the new breed of movie stars Steven Seagal fits into the Mitchum bracket. Not that there is any comparison in the acting stakes but instead because Seagal, like Mitchum, gives a whole new meaning to laconic. A monk, sworn to a vow of silence, seems garrulous by comparison.

I am offered interview time with the 62-year-old not as part of the promotion of a new film – these days Seagal’s output goes straight to DVD – but due to a forthcoming European tour with his blues band.

Thus it is that Seagal answers the phone at his home in Scottsdale, an affluent suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. “It’s beautiful, you know? Beautiful desert. It’s just a lot more real than Hollywood for me.”

And it’s during the course of our conversation that a child’s voice interrupts the flow and Seagal is heard to whisper, “Ask Mommy. Go ask Mommy.” It’s not quite the image he projects on screen...

“I kinda hate tags in general but since I was a child martial artist and music is first. Everything else is after that, you know?” says Seagal in response to how he views himself. “I grew up in an all-black neighbourhood listening to blues. I was playing the drums when I was six or seven and learning guitar right after that. I don’t really recall what I was thinking [when I was young] other than I did it because I loved it. To me music is something I can’t live without. It’s like breathing, I love it that much.

“Musicians just like to play,” adds Seagal as he ruminates on a return visit to the north. “We really enjoy England; we especially enjoyed Yorkshire. I probably shouldn’t say that because I’m liking one part over the other but we did enjoy the north and Liverpool and all that stuff. I hope it’s gonna be just as much fun this time as it was last time. Unfortunately these guys book the heck out of me and so we don’t really get to see the country much.”

Are British audiences different to their Stateside equivalent?

“I think the oddest time we ever had was Llandudno. A very, very, very reserved, sort of unusual crowd. Probably the wildest, most amazing, electric time we ever had was in Liverpool.”

And Yorkshire audiences? “Very honest people, you know? Just a really good, honest, hard-working, sincere response. Really nice. That was my impression.”

So far, so good. I am reminded of my previous encounter with Seagal back in 1995. He was in London to plug Under Siege 2 and he was 45 minutes late for his press conference.

Back then Seagal projected an odd and contradictory persona that was part enigma, part braggart. The two seemingly conflicting elements bled into each other. There were mutterings of affiliations with the CIA, unlikely friendships with movie stars such as James Mason (who allegedly told him that ‘the secret to acting is to not act. Just be’. “Very Zen, you know?” says Seagal. “That really stuck”) and sessions with Japanese martial arts masters who may have actually died before Seagal began training.

There are lots of stories about Seagal. Some of them may even be true. One that has long done the rounds of Hollywood concerns his big break back in the late 80s. It was said that Warner Bros offered Seagal a movie that exploited his martial artistry as an exponent of aikido on the say-so of Michael Ovitz, then one of the most powerful agents in Tinseltown.

A crueller version of the same tale has Ovitz telling cronies that he could make anyone a star, even the charisma-free, ponytail-wearing guy who taught him aikido. Step forward one Steven Frederick Seagal.

What is certain is that Seagal enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame as Nico Toscani in 1988’s Above the Law. After further low-budget B-thrillers, again playing a stone-faced, black-clad anti-hero, he was cast in Under Siege as a former Navy SEAL who singlehandedly foils a band of mercenaries, led by Tommy Lee Jones, from relieving the USS Missouri of its nuclear payload.

That was 1992 and American cinema was seeking a new action star. Seagal seemed to be the man of the moment. But reports of unpleasantness, boorishness and a rampant ego clouded his success. Two years later he wrote, directed and acted in On Deadly Ground, an action thriller with an overt (and clumsy) environmental message. It tanked at the box office. Seagal’s meteoric rise seemed to be at an end.

In 1996 he was the surprise guest star in Executive Decision, a vehicle for Kurt Russell in which Seagal landed a scene-stealing extended cameo as a no-nonsense special forces soldier. What’s more, his shock death scene created a high point the rest of the film couldn’t match.

“They were in trouble,” recalls Seagal. “They went over budget. Then they said that Kurt Russell could not sell the movie. So they asked me if I’d do a couple of days for a lot of money to help sell the movie. As a favour to Warner Bros I did it.”

These days his films are on a smaller scale but still reach a large market. Titles such as Pistol Whipped ensure Seagal’s name gets out there. And he’s prolific: there were four movies in 2009 alone. His official website describes him as “without doubt a Hollywood Legend and one of the greatest and most iconic film stars to grace the big screen in its entire history.”

Given his skills as a martial artist has he ever been damaged on any of his 40-plus movies? “Once they had me tied to a chair. Someone had me by the neck and my head was up against his chest. I had both of my hands tied down to this chair and they gave an actor a leaded glove, a real leaded glove. I kinda had faith as an actor that he wouldn’t hit me.”

So what happened?

“He swung and hit me and broke my nose.” Seagal pauses for effect. “They shouldn’t have been using a real leaded glove, anyway. At the same time it was an accident. They took me to the hospital to get my nose fixed and then later on that day started shooting again. Everybody gets cuts and bruises once in a while.”

He shrugs it off. I ask about another story, now famous, that he was tutoring Sean Connery on Never Say Never Again and managed to break the Scotsman’s wrist. The suggestion provokes the most emotional of Seagal’s answers during our chat.

“Four billion times people have asked me this! I did some training with him, yeah. He says it’s true but then again, you know, sometimes people hurt themselves, you know what I mean? I don’t think I’ve ever gone and hurt people by accident because I can’t control myself. Nothing like that has ever happened.”

Whatever anyone may think of Seagal, his acting, his public pronouncements (he’s been castigated for describing his friend Vladimir Putin as “one of the world’s great leaders”; he later issued an “urgent official worldwide press statement” on his website) or his musicianship it’s clear the soft-spoken Buddhist takes his proficiency as a martial artist seriously.

It was the fight sequences that proved to be the saving grace of True Justice, the TV show that Seagal created and headlined in 2010. Critics were unkind, focusing on the one-dimensional character played by Seagal and the anorexic scripting. Seagal himself sees as much value and relevance in starring in a television show as he does movies.

“Television is the most time-consuming job I’ve ever done. It reaches every household and lets different people see you. I’ll probably do TV again. I’ll do music again. I’ll record more albums, I’ll do more tours and I’ll make more movies.”

It’s a perfect cue to return to the music. How complex are the blues he plays?

“There are a lot of amazing famous guitar players that are great. I would say I’m not that good. I think I’m okay,” he laughs.

“I’m always hoping to get better, I’m always working. I play every day, I practice every day. It’s my view and my intention to get better and better. I hope some day I’ll be able to say to you or to anyone, ‘Hey, I’m not bad.’ I’m still learning.

“I enjoy the fans a lot. I try and interact with them. I respect them immensely and consider them a part of the experience of a concert. They’re a big part of it for me.”

Will the world ever see Steven Seagal in a musical? There is a long pause from the big man on the other end of the line.

“I sure hope not. I’ve never liked musicals. Not at all. I just like to play, you know?”

Steven Seagal’s Blues Band plays O2 Academy, Leeds, on July 19.