Jason Statham, the last action star, is telling a story about his first career. Once, he was a driver. "There was a guy years ago who used to come down to Crystal Palace, where I used to train. His name was Mad Harry, and he couldn't fucking dive to save his life. Every day at the same time, just before they'd close the pool to the public so we could train, Mad Harry would climb up to the top of the board, thirty-three feet, ten meters high, and he would do this almighty belly flop. Every day. Boom! We would look at each other and go, 'Fucking someone should teach that man how to dive.' "
The terrazzo on which Statham sits is a garden of high-end rattan furnishings. His house spreads the broad way along a downward pitch in the Hollywood Hills. It's wider rather than deeper, so that every room feels long from left to right and shallow from front to back. He is folded into a chair, shrinking downward, feet bare. He is not a big man—he is fit, light on those bare feet, and younger looking than his forty-seven years—and he doesn't stop talking. Not ever. Not really. Not once. He swears the way you wish everybody could, the way some people hope to use exclamation points, as an imprint of enthusiasm. And when Statham looks at an audience of one, really looks at you, it feels like you may be in a little trouble. Somehow he always looks pissed off, wrung out, put upon. World-weary. Black, black eyes. Sharp brow. Twitch of exasperation. He regards things sideways, incredulous at the very prospect of them, constantly asking: Who's this, then? Eyes screw in tighter, brows rise more with each sentence. A squint. It seems to amuse him that he intimidates. He doesn't scowl or use a tagline or fall into an eyebrow routine. He is himself. Tough guy. Drives hard. Even when talking about Mad Harry, the fuckup diver.
"I just don't think he knew what he was doing. Obviously. You have to take the right trajectory. You have to gauge the rotation. It's a lot of physics to put into play. You find a way that you're not gonna go over and do yourself a disservice. You figure it out a little bit. Because if you're landing on your nuts, as a bloke, believe me, it's no fun."
Statham talks like a man who knows things, who understands the physics at play. Drawn from instincts developed as a high-level athlete (twelve years spent on the British national diving team), lessons learned working the stony streets of London, axioms earned while living on thick and rubber-banded cold rolls of cash, everything Statham says stinks of truth. Not the truth. Not core truths, necessarily. A truth. Shit his father taught him. The college of You Gotta Get By. Inarguable, really. Everything declares: He wasn't made in the Hollywood Hills. He came from elsewhere, and it doesn't bother him all that much to remind people of that. It's a real past.
All this makes it easy to become a kind of hostage to his storytelling, like someone stuffed in the trunk while he drives, like some mook in a Jason Statham movie. As such, it would feature only a single word as its title: Snatch, Crank, Collateral, London, War, Redemption. Two words max. The Transporter. Action movies, car movies, chase movies, capers. Though just now the movie that's opening is Spy, Paul Feig's new comedy with Melissa McCarthy and Jude Law, in which Statham plays an absurdly funny comic construct of his own character type.
"Jason makes every movie better," Feig says of his decision to cast the Transporter in a Melissa McCarthy vehicle. "I hate comedy that's trying to be funny. Jason doesn't have to try. He gets it. In every movie, people pick up on his good-natured ways. And I've known that he was funny ever since that first Crank movie. Crank is ridiculous. He's so good in it."
Statham shrugs this off. "I've always been apprehensive about trying to do a fucking comedy, because they're either brilliant or they're fucking terrible. At least in making an action film, there's always going to be someone who wants to see a car chase. Even if a lot of the people don't like it, there will be a lot of people that do. But bad comedy is just garbage. But this works, and I give a lot of the credit—or all of the fucking credit—to Paul and the writing."
Be clear: Statham wasn't looking for a break from his action-movie set. He'd just finished Furious 7(opened in April, huge hit) and the chance to do Spy came his way. He took it, happily, because the guy needs to work. He makes movies one after another. He has his credos. "It's that peasant mentality," he explains. "Make hay while the sun shines. When you're kicking around and you ain't got no money, that don't feel too good. So when there's finally money coming in, it's hard to say, 'I'm too good for that.' It's finding a balance, really, and it's a difficult thing to manage." Then he answers a question he wasn't asked. "But have I taken on too many jobs? Probably. Look, you never intend for anything to go badly. There's so many fucking moving parts." Movies are like race cars, he says. A lot of different components. "You've got the chassis—that might be the director. The director of photography, he would be the wheels. From movie to movie, the components move around. The combinations change. Sometimes you've got a Ferrari and all the components are top-of-the-range. Sometimes you've got a fucking Fiat Panda that doesn't have, you know, certain elements."
It's a cloudy analogy. He drinks some water, sets his chin.
"When it comes to movies, I'm always trying to find the Ferrari," he says. "When you go to work with Scorsese or Chris Nolan or someone of that caliber, then I don't think you have to worry about what car you're gonna be racing in. You're in the race rather than fucking turning up on a donkey."
This time he is asked: Have you ever sat there at a premiere, watching the finished product, and said, "Oh, no . . ."?
Statham goes a little wide-eyed. "Yeah, I think I've said that more often than not. Yeah." He laughs like a hound.
"I really enjoyed working with Guy Ritchie. One, it gave me a career, and two, they're probably a couple of the best films I've ever done. I thought The Bank Job was a really quality movie. Even working with Luc Besson and doing The Transporter, one and two—pretty good. The Crank movie—I thought that was decent." Here he takes a little breath, then lets himself off the hook. "And the rest is shite."
A big laugh follows before he retreats. "No, no: I take that back. I mean, you do a lot of films. You're always aiming for something and trying to push yourself to do something good. A movie, it's like a very complicated timepiece. There's a lot of wheels in a watch. And some of those wheels, if they don't turn right, then, you know, the watch ain't gonna tell the time."
So now a movie is a wristwatch rather than a car. A watch that sometimes doesn't work. This brings us to his second career.
Once, Jason Statham sold cheap watches. Among other pieces of crap. "I was a 'fly pitcher' is what they call it," he says. He used the streets of London to make a living, starting when he was around fourteen, after his father, whom everyone called Nogger, gave him entry into the hustle. "As a boy, I was 'Nogger's Son.' So I could sit and watch them, masters at work, and everyone had good funny names: Peckhead Pete, Mickey Drippin, Colin the Dog. I'd sit down outside of Harrods and I'd pitch the jewelry. I'd do five chains, I'd do twenty-four-inch rope, the matching eighteen, a bracelet, a figaro chain, a matching bracelet, and either a pendant or a choice of a gent's or a lady's ring. And that would be the whole set. We'd display it in boxes and we'd wrap it up in tissue paper. We'd place it in their palms: 'Here you are, madam!' " He used the proceeds to fund his diving career, including an appearance at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in New Zealand. (He placed tenth out of eleven competitors in the high dive. His back three-and-a-half somersault with tuck, among other tricks is on YouTube.) "All the other divers were broke. I was the only one who had money. Plenty of money, loads of dough. Two, three grand in a weekend. Me and my mate Fish Fibbens, when we had enough money, we'd buy cars and we'd race the fuck out of each other, all through London. It was really dangerous; we're lucky we didn't get fucking killed or kill somebody." Surely this must have been a kind of training, some small hint of what was to come in The Transporter or a Fast & Furious movie. "I can't really say that that helps you for driving in film, but you know we had that reckless attitude. We had a bit of a You don't care, you're just having a bit of fun. You're just getting behind the wheel and you're game for it. Cars I've always loved. I fucking love cars."
He's sanguine about the vaguely criminal edge of this second career, running the gamut between caveat emptor and the lesser of two evils like any good con man. With a little urging, he'll describe the various pitches and players as a kind of interrelated performance art. Mock Auctions. Five-Pound Nailers. The Ram Shops. Money on Top. Pitch Pulling. Top Man. The Run Out. Punters. Statham learned them all and ran the cons for years. "How do you make money?" he replies to another question that wasn't asked. " 'Cause people are fucking greedy. Human nature says that you want a bargain, whether you want the goods or not. You think that something is a steal, you'll buy it. Ten pounds is not a fortune. And what I'm selling is costume jewelry, basically, that you can buy in Barneys or any of these other fucking trumped-up shops that have rates that are like extortionist. They've got to turn the lights on, they've got carpets and chandeliers. They've got all that to pay for, so they can't sell that chain for what I can sell it for. I'm getting it from the same fucking sources, but I'm selling it with a bit of street theater and having a bit of fun with it, making a living. People ain't getting ripped up. No one's saying it's gold."
This last point is important to Statham, and there's another credo of his, applicable to the selling of potentially shoddy goods as well as the making of potentially schlocky B-movies: "We never used to say it was gold. We never used to say it was gold-plated. We never used to say what it was. They're going, 'Is it stolen? Is it gold?' And to this we used to say things like 'You've heard of Cartier, madam?' And everyone has to answer 'Yes,' because who hasn't heard of Cartier? We got them going by making them say: Yes.Yes. Yes. Now, if you're an idiot and you think it's gold, that's your problem, not mine."
After missing his third Olympic team in 1992, with his third consecutive third-place finish at the Olympic trials (the team took only two divers per event), Statham gave up diving just as the street trade began winding down. "It all just faded away," he says. "There was no more money." He had a vague idea of becoming a stuntman. He started a kind of piecemeal training—a little judo, some boxing, jujitsu. "I didn't have a clue. I wasn't training for nothing particular," he says. "I wanted to break into the stunt business since I wasn't afraid of much. And I knew some people."
One of them was an aspiring director named Guy Ritchie, whom he'd met through a modeling gig and who was casting his first feature, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, about a pack of lowlifes and criminals. "Guy came at me 'cause he was interested in what I used to do on the fucking street. He'd written a character that was the same as me. And he said, 'I love it. Give me some of the patter.' At the time, I had loads of it. Loads of it. And he was fascinated with that, and he just wanted someone who was authentic. He said, 'I'm gonna get someone from fucking drama school to do this? How can they learn what you've learned?' It's such an esoteric fucking subject, no one knows about it unless you're in it. You can't read it in textbooks." Ritchie cast Statham, then in his early thirties, in one of the lead roles, despite his not having a stitch of acting experience.
"I got £5,000 for doing Lock, Stock. And then, for Guy's next movie, Snatch, I got like 15,000," he said. "I would have done them for free just for the opportunity to do something different. I feel like I've had four careers. A career of a fucking street trader, the career of a sportsman, and now I've got a career of something different. Three, actually. I've had three careers."
Today, seventeen years since his movie debut, Jason Statham is an actor. More specifically, he is an action hero, the most singular of his generation, who relied on careers number one and two to ease the transition into career number three. "One of the great things about diving was that we would just do whatever we wanted to do. We used to go down to the gymnastic center and we'd do tumbling into a pit. We'd get a trampoline out and fuck about on that. I learned all these aerial skills that served me great and brought me all kinds of comfort in doing action films. While all these other actors are in drama school learning how to cry, I'm learning how to do aerial acrobatics." As for what Statham called the "street theater" of career number two, well—pitching was performance.
"I've always fucking loved movies," Statham says, and to understand Statham for what he is, a pure action hero, look at the universe of films he describes as his roots and at the men he selects as his icons. "My mom and dad used to show me films—Cool Hand Luke, The Great Escape, all the Burt Lancaster movies. Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson. Even musicals. My mom made sure I saw plenty of Gene Kelly." His strength from the start: physically adept men. Men under siege. Jumping motorcycles, side kicking, leaping, dancing, running, counterpunching, all of these men capable of imprinting on the audience with a single look. A look of fearful wonder in Snatch. A look of businesslike outrage in The Transporter. A look of wild panic in Crank. A look of sour consternation in the latest Fast & Furious.
Statham's notable role in Spy aside, he has no aspirations outside the action genre. "I've never had a fucking acting lesson; no one's telling me how to act," he says. "Would it be better for Daniel Day-Lewis to play Lincoln than me?" He laughs at the prospect. "I think so." And as he drifts off that next laugh, he adds: "But no one's asked me to play Lincoln, and I'm not too worried about not getting the offer."
Not that he minds trained actors. Not really. "It doesn't annoy me, but it can be a little pretentious. So people warming up their vocal chords before a take, going 'Meh, meh, meh'?" He tilts his nogger, raises an eyebrow, gives his patented leer, the one that tells a roomful of matineegoers that he knows what's what, you know what's what, and he's in it with you. An action hero. "Sometimes I want to remind them, at the end of the day, they're just pretending to be somebody else. I'm used to selling fucking jewelry on the street. There's no pretense there."
There is a kind of freedom in working the peasant way, the Statham way. His father, with five careers and counting (house painter, coal miner, fly pitcher, wholesaler, and now a song-and-dance man in the Canary Islands), is still a source of pride for Statham. "He's been good at everything he ever did," he says. "And when he wasn't, he fucking moved LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS(1998): BACON, hustler / SNATCH (2000):TURKISH, fight promoter, hustler / TURN IT UP (2000): MR. B, drug dealer / THE TRANSPORTER (2002): FRANK, driver / THE ITALIAN JOB (2003): HANDSOME ROB, thief /CELLULAR (2004): ETHAN, kidnapper / TRANSPORTER 2 (2005): See The Transporter /CRANK (2006): CHEV, hitman / DEATH RACE (2008): JENSEN, race-car driver, reluctant killer / TRANSPORTER 3 (2008): See The Transporter / CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE (2009): SeeCrank / THE EXPENDABLES (2010): LEE, mercenary / THE MECHANIC (2011): ARTHUR, hitman / GNOMEO & JULIET (2011): TYBALT, a lawn gnome who cheats to win a lawnmower race. Animated. / KILLER ELITE (2011): DANNY, mercenary / THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012): See The Expendables / PARKER (2013): PARKER, thief / THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014): See The Expendables / FURIOUS 7 (2015): DECKARD, assassin. /SPY (2015): RICK, bad spy