Maggie Q says mentor Jackie Chan was ‘like a father you couldn’t please,’ compares working with Bruce Willis vs. Tom Cruise

Getty Images

Getty Images

“When I was offered my first acting role, I didn’t want to do it,” Maggie Q admits now, 25 years after her screen debut. “I had no interest in it.”

Born Margaret Quigley in Honolulu to an American father and Vietnamese mother who had met during the war, Q fell in love with the arts — particularly Shakespeare — but never imagined she could do it for a living. She still felt that way even after some early successes. At 17, she relocated to Tokyo for modeling gigs, hoping to earn enough money as a model to pay for college. But then she was off to Hong Kong, where she was offered a role in House of the Dragon — a series that would become a massive success in Asia.

“In that moment, it was confirmed to me that being a creative was something that could possibly be an option in life. And that was so shocking to me,” she says. “And when I started, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I mean, I had people who just sort of looked at me like, ‘You call yourself a talent?’ Literally, people said that to me. And I couldn’t argue. I had no experience, and nothing to offer at the time. It was not one of those fortunate opportunities where you grow up and your parents are actors, or you’re born with this natural talent. I don’t think I had that. I had to learn everything.”

She found a prestigious teacher: screen legend Jackie Chan, who signed Q to his management group with the intention of turning her into a martial arts star. She was primarily trained by Chan’s core stunt team of 10-15 performers, but Q finally got Chan’s attention (for better or for worse) when he began casting her in tiny roles in his films like Rush Hour 2 (as “girl in car”) and Around the World in 80 Days (as “female agent”).

On the latter, “I would practice my sword work, and Jackie would come in during our training sessions and rehearsals and correct everything I was doing,” she says. “This is going to sound severe, but it’s not. He’s sort of like that father you couldn’t really please because he’s not impressed with anyone. Obviously. I mean, you’d have to be at his level or better for him to be impressed by you. So he was really just encouraging us to get there, but there was really no like, ‘Oh, you’re doing a great job.’ So that created a really intense work ethic during that time.”

And then her scene was cut from 80 Days.

But the hours of training under Chan ultimately paid dividends. Within two years of her 80 Days disappointment, she landed her breakout role as another female agent, the IMF’s Zhen Lei, opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III (2006). A year later she was cast in Bruce Willis’s fourth go-round as John McLane, Live Free or Die Hard (2007) — and at that point she didn’t even have to audition for the role of cyberterrorist Mai Linh.

One of Hollywood’s most exciting action stars was born.

Q, now 44, has continued to evolve as an actor and as a martial artist ever since, with notable parts in Balls of Fury (2007), Priest (2011), the Divergent trilogy (2014-16), and her most famous role of them all, as Nikita Mears — the assassin who must bring down the agency that once trained her and now wants her dead — in four seasons of The CW’s Nikita.

In her latest film, Fear the Night, Q stars as an Iraq war vet who must put her military skills to use when her sister’s bachelorette party is invaded by strangers. Always pushing the limits of her stunt work, Q requested all of her character’s guns be stripped from the film forcing her character to rely solely on hand-to-hand combat.

In a Role Recall with Yahoo Entertainment, Q talked about the stark difference between Cruise and Willis, bringing cinematic stunts to Nikita and navigating a career in Hollywood as a female action hero.

On the early Hong Kong role as a seductive assassin that set her career into motion:

“I did this this movie called Naked Weapon [2002] with this director called Ching Siu-tung [also known as Tony Ching]. And he’s really legendary in the Hong Kong film industry. … You know, there’s a lot of famous names that get thrown around in the West like Yuen Woo-ping, who did [martial arts choreography on] The Matrix and became very big because they [were] combined with American stunt teams and had a great result. But then there are other ones that are very localized who have had careers forever, who the West doesn’t know. ’Cause they weren’t involved with The Matrix [laughs].

“[Naked Weapon] really shaped me because first of all, I was a starring role. I was a kid. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And he believed so much in my ability, in my physical ability-slash-acting ability. And that combination of believability that it created. And I just didn’t understand where his belief came from. And he was really tough on me. The experience was one of the hardest I think I’ve ever had in my career, even that early, but I remember it shaped me in such a way where I was just tough as s**t. I don’t even know how else to put it. I went through what felt like a literal army training camp to make that movie possible. To get a product. And I only did it because, number one, his belief in me, and number two, his wisdom that he passed to me so wholeheartedly and so willingly, and told me at the time, ‘You are going to be huge in this genre because you’ve got it.’ And I’m like, ‘Why? Why do I have it? What does that mean?’ I said, ‘I’m not a martial artist.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no, we don’t want martial artists … there’s no soul. It’s all technical. … When you do action movies, you have to have a fire that a lot of people don’t have. … And that’s what it is that you have.’ And he was the first person to articulate that, which was very helpful to me because I fully didn’t understand it.”

On her Tom Cruise experience doing Mission: Impossible III (2006):

“My audition was with [director J.J. Abrams]. Tom, I think, was there for certain auditions for people who had to audition. But he was on tour promoting War of the Worlds at the time. So he wasn’t there that day that I came in to read for J.J. And J.J. really offered me the movie pretty much immediately at the audition. ’Cause I think he had been looking for a long time. And the rumor was he had read a hundred people, 200 people at that point. And J.J.’s very specific about his casting. … And so when we read, I think ’cause he’d been searching for so long, he was like, ‘OK, this is my girl.’

“And then after that, maybe three or four days later, I had my camera test and Tom shows up to the camera test. I didn’t know he’s showing up to the camera test and they’re sort of fixing the lighting, trying to figure out my face. The [cinematographer] is there, part of the crew is there. And from the darkness comes this very familiar face. And he’s so excited and he gives me a big hug and he’s like, ‘I’m so happy you’re here. J.J. told me all about [the audition] and I wish I could’ve been here for that.’ And I remember thinking like, ‘I have seen this face so many times. I’ve heard this voice, I’ve indulged in the experience of this person, but it was never directed back at me.’ So it was the oddest thing to be in a conversation with him when I grew up watching him.

“People can say what they want based on their experience, it’s their right to. But for me, I have only ever had positive experiences with Tom [from the get-go] was warm. It was inclusive. Mind you, on that movie, I was at the bottom of the call sheet. So we had [Billy Crudup, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laurence Fishburne]. Keri [Russell] and Michelle [Monaghan] were newer, but they were still doing stuff, so I was really like the lowest. And Tom, I’ll never forget, went out of his way to make sure that I never felt that way. And that to me was so huge because it is the opposite with [most] people at his level. They don’t want you to feel special or included. It’s like that little bit of intimidation, maybe it feeds them somewhere and they’re okay with that and it’s worked for them and that’s fine, but that’s not the way he worked.”

And then there was her experience with Bruce Willis on Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Well, it’s just different. I mean, Tom has an enthusiasm that is second to none. And what’s interesting about that enthusiasm is that it is genuine. He loves the work, and there’s no way you get to his level and perform at the level that he does without loving it. There just isn’t. And so with Bruce, I think by the time I worked with Bruce, you’re talking about a franchise star. You’re talking about someone who has already been there and done it a million times, and he didn’t have the same enthusiasm as Tom. You know, he’s more of the laid-back kind-of-cool guy. And it’s a great experience and it’s a different experience, but it’s less like, ‘I’m going to sing from the mountaintops how great this experience is.’ And it’s more like, ‘Yeah, come on, guys, let’s get the work done.’ So just the vibe is completely different.”

On the difficulties and joys of headlining Nikita from 2010 to 2014:

“It was hardest thing I’ve ever done since coming to the States. I’d never done TV before this, so I really didn’t understand how to pace myself. And I remember that one of our producers in the first season, he had done Buffy [the Vampire Slayer] for seven years. He [invited me to lunch] and he just said, ‘Maggie, I just want you to know I was on Buffy for many years. [Sarah Michelle Gellar] was the star of that show, which you are too, in name. And I want you to understand that that was the hardest thing she’s ever done. And to watch her struggle through and try to just make every episode, and have the energy and the wellness to get through what she was doing, it took an enormous amount of effort.’ But he said, because that show was about magic and different things, they could play with the storylines to give her some breaks sometimes, when she really needed it or was struggling.

And he said, ‘With this show, we’re not going to be able to do that for you. It’s all you.’ And he’s like, ‘And this is not a movie. This is 10 months of your year. … So you have to pace yourself, Maggie. And I said, ‘Uh, OK. But I’m used to working hard.’ He goes, ‘You’re not used to working this hard, trust me.’ And I swear to God, after the first season, I’ll never forget that. What a gift, by the way, that he was able to do that. Even though I wasn’t able to absorb it in the way that I could have. … After the first season, I was a shell of a person. I had nothing left. I had no adrenals, I had no endocrine system. … I was working six days a week, 15 to 17 hours a day. And it was a huge lesson for me, not just about leadership and what it takes to lead a show, which is by the way, its own animal, because you’re dealing with personalities, it’s your own survival. So you’re trying to balance those two things. And I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been a lead can truly understand how hard it is to find that balance and still be sane [laughs].

“Because I’d come from movies and I’d worked with the best of the best, [stunt coordinators like] Vic Armstrong and the Brian Smrz, I had a standard where I was like, ‘I will not deviate from this standard. I’m going to bring movie-level action to television.’ And everyone’s like, ‘Oh, dear God. So in the first season we had a stunt coordinator for five episodes. He got fired right away. I was like, ‘No, not good enough. I need my people. I need to bring in the right people.’ And I did. And, man, what we accomplished action-wise was spectacular. It was awesome on that show, I have to say. And I don’t think there’d been action like it on TV at the time. No way, man. Not with the people [we had]. I was stealing people from major motion pictures to come over and work with me. And they did because they were kind and loyal and we were friends and stuff. But there’s no way that show would’ve gotten those people without me pulling them in.”

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to the start of the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Fear the Night is now in theaters and on demand. Watch the trailer:

Leave a Comment