How to break into the world of action movies

How to get into Martial Arts & Action movies
The Do’s & Don’ts of Casting
How to break into the world of martial arts movies by Mike Leeder

We often get contacted at Impact by people who are trying to break into the world of action and martial arts movie making, be it as Directors, Choreographers or most often stuntmen and actors. We’re happy to help if we can and offer advice or pointers, but sometimes the most frustrating thing is that you encounter people who sometimes have all the talent but completely the wrong mindset. Impact’s Far Eastern Editor Mike Leeder who also happens to be an accomplished casting director with such projects as Rush Hour 3, Fearless, True Legend and most recently The Man with the Iron Fist under his belt, thought it was time to put pen to paper about the do’s & don’t s of the casting process.

A few months ago I was in the midst of casting for two major projects and it was very interesting to see the way certain people dealt with the casting process and presented themselves in both positive & negative ways. Yes, casting can be a frustrating experience and sometimes they are aptly called ‘cattle calls’ when you realise that there can be so many people reading for/auditioning for a certain role but you know what, people do get hired this way. You can be the greatest actor or martial artist, or wanna-be stuntman with the highest skill level and all the talent in the world, but if you don’t present yourself in a professional way, you’re not doing yourself any favours.

Now a lot of people have probably seen the black & white footage of a young Bruce Lee casting for a proposed Number One Son series, which would have been an update of the Charlie Chan detective series. We see Lee introducing himself, showcasing his martial arts skills and discussing some of his philosophy and ideas and at times you can see his frustration with some of the questions he’s being asked but he does what’s required of him at the casting, that show never went into production but that footage did bring him to the attention of the producers of The Green Hornet which of course did lead him onto bigger and better things. The footage can be found on Bruce Lee The Legend or online at:

The young Jean-Claude Van Damme got his first major role in Ng See-yuen’s No Retreat No Surrender by attending an open casting that was advertised in Dramalog, he attended, demonstrated his skills, and got the role. He came to the attention of uber-producer Menahem Golan who would produce his big breakout in Bloodsport, by giving an impromptu martial arts demonstration.


Neither of those two people said ‘Oh I’m better than all this, why do I need to go to a casting. here’s my resume and my name, if you want anything else…go out and do the research yourself!’ And yet that’s often the attitude that I get from people, often the same people who have contacted me asking for help to break into the industry, yet they don’t seem willing to put the time and effort into pursuing the very thing they claim is their dream.

You need to present the best package representing your talent and abilities that you possibly can, including a straight forward neatly presented resume, good clear photographs not fuzzy frame grabs etc (or posters for unmade movies where you’re the star!) including a good headshot as well as perhaps action shots and a showreel that allows people to see what you can do on camera and what you can do.

When I first came to Hong Kong back in the days of VHS etc, it did take some effort to assemble a showreel, but even then it was a necessity. Now with the prevalence of home video cameras, even camera phones and the ease and availability of computers that can support video editing, it’s so much easier. Every PC or MAC comes complete with basic video editing software, windows movie maker or I-movie etc work fine, don’t tell me how you can’t cut a reel because you don’t have access to Final Cut Pro, an Avid Video Editing system or a DOP and Red One HD camera oh and a team of professional stuntmen! If you don’t have access to editing or camera equipment yourself, ask your friends, enquire at your local media centre, and shoot it on your mobile phone camera if necessary!

Mike Leeder

But shoot something, have an idea of how you look on camera, you can always reshoot, fine tune etc, but something is better than nothing. Same thing for photos, yes a pro headshot is a plus but get some friends to take enough pictures and you’ll be able to find one or two that are good…what I don’t want to see is overly photo-shopped pictures where you don’t look like yourself!

Things Not To Do

Do not make the comment ‘why should I cut a showreel? Can’t the director or action director watch my movies, go to my website and do some research’..or my all time favourite ‘well you know how much effort it takes to cut a showreel’…yes the amount of effort that might get you a job!

Do not contact me telling me how much you want the opportunity to cast for a particular project, and then after arranging a time and place, do not show up or even call me to let me know what’s happening. Getting back to me a few days later to tell me that you didn’t call me to let me know you weren’t coming as you didn’t want to upset me isn’t really a good answer, yes sitting around the office waiting for someone to not show up is a great way to spend my time!

Do not send me an e-mail telling me how great you are, and how there have been so many requests for you to star in Hong Kong martial arts movies & TV shows (while not attaching a resume, pics, showreel, link to a showreel etc)..then when I ask ‘a little confused, if you’ve been invited to do all these projects, what do you want my help with, contracts? Who invited you?’…and the answer comes back ‘well my fans of course!’

Do not tell me how you won’t attend a casting, unless the director or star is there (especially if you have no credits to your name)

Do not e-mail me with a resume that introduces you as ‘International Action Movie Star of the Year’ and lists no credits but has the website for your international fanclub.

Do not send me e-mails that say ‘Dear Leeder, you need to put us in touch with Yune Wo-bing as he would want to learn about choreography from us…” and then e-mail me the headshots of the incredibly skilled stuntmen/screenfighters you represent with i kid you not the following detailed information about their skill level…

Name: John Smith Martial Arts Skills: DEADLY!

Name: Howard Johnson Martial Arts Skills: DANGEROUS!!!

Do not send a resume that lists you as starring in movies that haven’t been made, especially when one of the movies listed is a project I was attached to! Then to make things worse, tell me that you were supposed to be in the film and it’s not your fault it wasn’t made and then continue to list other films on your resume that you’re supposedly in and when I ask the director how you were to work with, and they tell me ‘he never worked on the film!’ continue to make excuses and that you were supposed to be in the movie, thus you list the credit!

Mike Leeder

Do not send me an e-mail introducing yourself as an excellent martial artist and actor, and that the team behind you may be willing to offer me possible financial rewards if I suitably help your career! I won’t recommend someone coz I’m getting a kickback, I recommend people because of what they can do, my reputation is on the line so a quick $$ isn’t going to make me violate my own personal code of ethics!

Do not send me showreels which feature stunts/martial arts action not being performed by you but you are trying to pass off as your own work. One British stuntman with legitimate credits to his name, sent me a showreel once that featured scenes from a Hong Kong movie he’d worked on but not just the scenes he appeared in, but various stunt and action sequences he had nothing to do with..when I asked him why, he said he was trying to show the scale of the movie…no he was trying to imply he’d been involved in the action as a choreographer or performer when he hadn’t.

DO NOT LIE! Do not claim to have starred in a number of movies that have never been made, yes you and your friends photoshopped some artwork, fantastic but that’s not a real credit, do not claim the BBC is making a documentary about you when it’s not, and then claim there is interest to turn it into a stage show! All you are doing is making yourself look dodgy, if you’re lying about this, then everything else you do starts to become questionable.

Do not send me your materials for consideration and then announce on the internet that you are about to be signed for a major role in the project!

Mike Leeder

Do not say that you will need to have final control over what does or doesn’t go into the choreography. Yes I have had people tell me that when submitting materials for projects with Yuen Woo-ping etc.

Do not tell me how you are unwilling to attend a casting, unless you get a private introduction to the director.

Do not send me press clippings where you talk about how your career began when you were offered a role on a movie in Hong Kong, one that while you added yourself to the credit list on you never actually worked on, because you didn’t show up!

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the wrong way of approaching the casting process. We had just begun the casting process for Ronny Yu’s Fearless with Jet Li, when I got a call from one young would be martial arts actor who had arrived in Hong Kong specifically with the intention of breaking into film. He called me up and the conversation went something like this:

Me: Well we’re looking for people to play champion fighters (originally we were looking at having 12 fighters face off during the finale) from different styles, probably in the age range 25-30 upwards.

Young Wanna-Be: Well I’m 18 ! (Beat) But I look like I’m 16!

Me: Might not be an issue, do you have a showreel and portfolio of pictures, resume etc? (Bear in mind that he’d come to Hong Kong with the intention of breaking into films as a martial arts actor/stuntman)

Young Wanna-Be: No!

Me: AH ok, well what’s your martial arts background?

Young Wanna-Be: I can do anything! I’m self taught!

Me: Hmm ok, why don’t you come in for a casting tomorrow?

I’m thinking that you never know, I might see what he can do and go to Ronny, action director Yuen Woo-ping & Jet Li and say ‘I know he might not be what we were originally looking for, but look what he can do’..casting concepts sometimes changes depending on the people you see. I also thought that it would be an opportunity to get him on tape, and that maybe if he wasn’t right for this project I’d be able to see what he could do and keep him in mind/recommend him for other projects and last but by no means least, I was giving him the opportunity to come in, try out, get some experience at casting and at least be able to tell people he auditioned.

Young Wanna-Be: Hmm who’s going to be at the casting? Will Jet Li or Yuen Woo-ping be there?

Me: No, it’ll be me, the other casting director and we’ll film what you can do, show it to them and if they like what they see we’ll get you to come back in for another casting.

Young Wanna-Be: Who are you to judge what I can do? If they’re not going to be there why should I bother to come in!

Needless to say the Young Wanna-be never came in to cast, never worked in a single Hong Kong project and soon returned to the UK where he was quick to talk about the lack of opportunities he was given by producers and directors who were unable to see the extent of his talent.

A few months later a friend of mine in the UK was prepping a short film and looking for locally based action/martial arts performers on the UKscreen website and came across his details and contacted him asking if he’d be interested in auditioning for a project and could he send his reel etc. The reply he got was ‘who are you asking me to audition?’ and that he didn’t have a showreel because he didn’t have access to a professional stunt team of the level of Yuen Woo-ping’s or Sammo Hung’s that could showcase his skills.

The world has changed since I first got involved in casting, the internet, YouTube, facebook etc have opened up the world in a fantastic way, allowing access to so much information, research materials, contacts for people in the industry and more. So make use of the web the right way in promoting and marketing yourself, take a look at the right way of doing things. Check out the website of Australian actor Conan Stevens as a perfect example of how to use the web to promote and market yourself, he’s worked his way up from walk on roles in films like Power Kids, through stunt & character roles in films like From Chandi Chowk to China & True Legend, to solid supporting roles as an actor and physical performer in Game of Thrones and is now working on The Hobbit.

Later we’ll take a look at the right way to approach casting and using the web to market and promote yourself as a performer. Now as we end I’d just like to say that the biggest frustration for me, is that often the people approaching the casting process the wrong way, are often people that with the right guidance or a slight change of attitude and approach could really go far. I’m not trying to knock people down, I’d like to see them succeed!


Mike Leeder’s casting credits include Jet Li’s Fearless, Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour 3, Blood: The Last Vampire, Yuen Woo-ping’s True Legend, Baz Luhrman’s Australia, Phoo Action, Johnny English 2 , Bodyguards & Assassins, Ip Man 2 & The RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists. Find him on alivenotdead, facebook and twitter – @bigmikeleeder.

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