Aesthetics do fade quickly in Statham's company. He displays some standard-issue Hollywood accessories: His black Audi S8 sits in the 87Eleven lot, today's rain relegating the BMW R 1200 GS he favors to his garage; and he has a weakness for vintage Rolex sports watches. That dates back, Statham says, to his years as a diver on the British Olympic team (he once ranked 12th in the world) and to the nearly two decades he spent hawking the ersatz jewelry on the streets: "Sold some real hokey watches in my day." When he's not in action, however, there's little that isolates Statham from the crowd. Particularly today, during a rare monthlong shooting lull, when the signature facial stubble is barely perceptible.
"Jason's just a bloke, a guy you really just want to go have a beer with," Hackford says. "I felt it the moment we met, and again when we shot our opening at the Ohio State Fair, with 50,000 'extras.' It was odd, watching Jason meld in. The real fair, real crowd gives you instant authenticity. Jason didn't gain any."
To Hackford, to others who've worked with Statham, and perhaps most important to Statham himself, that lack of being anything but himself is key to his ascension to action hero. "Statham's genius lies in repetition," is how one article in the British press put it. Whenever possible, Statham does his stunts, fights his fights, drives his cars. Don't get him started on special effects: "Fahkin' hate green screen. Pay significant amounts of money never to do it again. You cannot fake adrenaline."
Statham's defining on-set moment came at the end of what may be his defining film, Crank, playing a lethally poisoned L.A. assassin able to remain alive only by keeping himself in full adrenaline rush. Statham begged to do the final stunt: hurling himself and his enemy out of an airborne helicopter, killing the man, then chatting up his girlfriend on his cell until he hits the ground. Pure deadpan violence, but the shot relied on only a single 2,000-pound cable to support the leapers. The movie's insurers wanted no part of it. He relented, filming the cell-phone banter against a green screen, but made the jumps anyway.
"On the last day," codirector Mark Neveldine says, "when every scene was wrapped, he got to do the drop: 220 feet, pure acceleration until the final 24 feet, when it gradually slowed, and he still landed hard. He, of course, did it 16 times, and with each take he got more confident, and the funnier the scene played out. That's Jason. He has a rep for being uncontrolled crazy, but he doesn't do anything reckless. He goes over every detail with a stunt coordinator—and if he doesn't feel confident in his safety, he just won't do it."
Boaz Yakin, Safe's writer-director, noticed a corollary during the film's fight scenes: "They're choreographed with stuntmen who make your jaw drop. Then Jason steps into the frame and pow, you get it—it's like having a stand-in for lighting. Then the actor steps in. Jason physicalizes that exact difference. There's a charisma to his movements, he throws a punch that has personality, and he's always 100 percent there. That's inspiring, because there's an unspoken feeling of slumming it in this genre. Jason loves this stuff, and that's a double-edge sword, because he's capable of a lot more."
That's been Statham's M.O. from the start, however, and will likely always be. When he'd watch Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films, he'd go out and learn whatever martial-arts style he could and, like Chan before him, honed his skills through gymnastics and judo and jujitsu. As a kid he'd particularly loved the action of the Bond flicks, and when he'd made himself into an accomplished diver, anchoring the national team for a dozen years, he'd meet stuntmen from the 007 films in a gym on Algernon Road in Hendon. That job, not acting, became his fantasy. His debut in front of a camera came in 1998, when a modeling agent noticed the 31-year-old in diving training and Statham became a model for French Connection UK. As fate would have it, the jeans company was a financier of Guy Ritchie's East End crime caper Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and the rookie filmmaker was looking for the real thing. He may have bitten off more than he could chew with Statham, who was utterly raw.
"Guy really went above the call for me," Statham recalls. "Had me up to the house before I met the producers to read through dialogue. 'No, you're doing way too much! The camera picks up more than you think.' Pointers like that." It was the only acting training Statham would ever need. His loosely scripted monologue, selling jewelry on the street, opened the film, which became a cult hit. Statham got an agent—"Fahkin' useless that was"—and thought about drama school: "Not for me."
His physicality helped him land small roles in a Jet Li film, then a John Carpenter flop. "Other than that, the phone just didn't ring," Statham says. He went back to selling jewelry. His billing was higher in Ritchie's next film, Snatch—many thought he stole the film from Brad Pitt. "Then the phone stopped ringing again for 18 months." Statham wasn't an actor, and, well, Brits just don't make good action stars, do they? Then Luc Besson called.
The god of "Cinema du Look," a highly visual style emphasizing spectacle, liked the look of Statham. "I took the next boat-train to Paris and asked Luc if I could do all my own stunts," Statham says. "I'd been training years and years and wanted to give it a go: all that aerial awareness, timing. Truth be told, I would've done anything he said, been a hairdresser. Instead, he told me, 'I'm going to write a movie for you. I will send you a script in three weeks.' It came, to the day, and I literally jumped for joy."
Besson's vision for Statham, The Transporter, uncorked him as an action hero and set the Statham mold, still firm 20 films later: ex-special ops, happy if solitary life—except for all those bad guys. A $25 million domestic gross, $45 million internationally (made for about $20 million). The film came just in time to land Statham in the ensemble cast of 2003's The Italian Job, cracking the door open just a bit more for him. It was all he needed.
Jason Statham is a perplexing superstar. Each film, each new rung up the ladder, seems to only underscore the question of why we love this guy so much. Halfway through a two-hour chat in 87Eleven's reception area, I'm still scratching my head. Statham is very frank, in both what he will and won't talk about (personal life, his finances). His success is a mystery to him as well, as is his place in what he calls "the tunnel" of action films. He wants to branch out but is ever-mindful of his origins and so wary of stepping outside the very successful comfort zone of the action film. A product of the South London hamlet of Sydenham, and a man whose favorite night spot is still a pub in nearby Dulwich, he has simpler concerns: "Don't want to look like a turnip, do we?"