It's way too early on a gray, rainy February morning in this nondescript industrial park along the railroad tracks two miles from LAX. Jason Statham is halfway through his day's work in 8711 Aviation Boulevard, the corner lot of a block of two-story hangar-like cubes, home to the gym-choreography studio 87Eleven Action Design. It seems an unlikely place to be meeting the reigning king of action films. Then again, at 44, with a thinning pate and a perpetual five-o'clock shadow clinging to his stone-cut jaw, Statham is an unlikely choice for Hollywood royalty.
Walking around the 5,000-square-foot space, you quickly see there's no place he belongs more: 87Eleven is the hidden engine driving Hollywood's action-movie machine. Posters of films that were choreographed here—various editions of the Matrix, Bourne, Rambo, X-Men, and Iron Man franchises among them—line the walls, their collective gross in the billions. Statham is a bona fide movie star with the trappings to prove it—homes in the Hollywood Hills and Malibu, a fleet of fast cars and motorcycles, and his Victoria's Secret supermodel-girlfriend Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, she who replaced Megan Fox in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. But the riches to be mined in gritty, out-of-the-way locales like this are what this former South London street hustler is all about. He came of age luring pedestrians to "mock auctions"—vacant storefronts rented out a few hours at a time to hawk fake luxury goods—that his lounge-singer father conducted, mastering the trade well enough to branch out on his own at 13. He eventually dropped out of school at 15.
A decade into his hard-won, if still ad-hoc-seeming, acting career, about a quarter of the posters on the walls are of his work: The Expendables, Transporter 2, The Mechanic, Death Race. And Safe, this spring's installment of what has become Statham's own franchise, the twice-yearly, mid-budget solid box-office performer, usually with a one-word title, in which our hero is compelled to outfight, outshoot, outdrive, and outthink international crime cartels and corrupt government officials. And forget any existential, metaphysical, or superhero reasons for violence—Statham is just a man going to work.
And this is where he reports, five days a week without fail, when not on location. Statham, in black shorts, a black tee, and white anklets, seems surprised at his poster ratio. "Hah," he grunts. "Must be doing something right."
Stuntmen are filing in, but this alpha bloke's been here since 7 a.m., working hard in the back half of the studio, which is devoted to stunts and weapons choreography. His trainer and 87Eleven's jujitsu expert are both away on location, and Statham is hell-bent on getting the most out of his daily dose of masochistic body maintenance, which typically runs at least two hours. The final 15 minutes are spent perfecting a single-punch-knee-kick combo, with 87Eleven's fight specialist catching the blows with protective pads. Over and over and over. The drill is designed to generate the greatest explosive power with both fist and knee, and Statham's challenge is to maintain his form and technique through and past the point of exhaustion: "When every cell's screaming for oxygen." Ergo the incessant reps.
Statham is an incessant man, relentless and goal-oriented, and talk is rarely the goal. Until he relaxes into full brogue—when his gravelly, halting patter can flow so freely and South London-specific you wish it came with subtitles—he often manifests that very English-working-class wariness of speaking in "society," a minding of p's and q's that can stop him from pursuing a thought you wish he would.
So, to be sure, talk isn't what's made Statham the first-ever Englishman elevated to the pantheon of action heroes. After he was anointed to join the likes of Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, and Mickey Rourke as Sylvester Stallone's right-hand man in 2010's The Expendables, Statham's status was reified when he earned top billing over Robert De Niro and Clive Owen in last year's Killer Elite. It will be further cemented when he appears opposite Jennifer Lopez this fall in Parker, re-creating the dime-store-novel anti-hero previously played by a rogue's gallery of stars—from Lee Marvin to Mel Gibson. It's one of three films Statham has coming out this year: Expendables 2 will arrive in multiplexes this summer. "I think Jason's persona is like Steve McQueen's," Parker's director, Taylor Hackford, says of Statham's ability to translate well, not only across the pond but also internationally. "That imminence of something awful going off if you push the wrong button. And when that does come, and we watch Jason Statham kick ass, it's like watching a ballet dancer expressing himself through violence. You're watching a real man who knows what a real fight is: quick, violent, decisive. That's a universal language."
In person, Statham is by no means his typical terse character. But he seems fully present only when the body's involved. And he's never more switched-on than when engaged in some precise delivery of violence. Guiding me on a tour of the weapon racks in the martial-arts section, he frequently involves my personal space to demonstrate the proper radius and delivery speed of a knife, an axe, a sword, or a club. Picking up a dummy gun, he's instantly disappointed—it's just a stick wrapped in tape—and reaches for an alarmingly authentic samurai sword I want no part of.
"Do you think of yourself as a brand?" I ask.
"Fahk no," he smirks. "Why should I?"
"People see a guaranteed $30 million a film as a brand in need of management."
"Fahk 'em. Kim Kardashian's a brand."
In the studio's front area—Pain Camp, Statham calls it—he passes over the antigravity apparatuses on which stuntmen are currently inflicting maximum ab pain upon themselves. Briefly patting a 400-pound tractor tire ("We bring this to the alley outside to flip end over end"), he reaches lovingly for a sledgehammer to demonstrate how a proper swing engages all the body's muscle groups from top to bottom.
"Old-school stuff's always the best. Explosive force comes from compound movements," he says with a smile: This seems to be his favorite "weapon" in the gym. "Isolation training," he says, striking a body-builder's pose and dismissing the nearby machines and free weights, "is really about aesthetics." He spits out the word like he's still talking about Kim Kardashian.