Don “The Dragon” Wilson is a survivor. An icon of the golden age of DTV, the multiple kickboxing world champion has starred in dozens of films across several genres for filmmakers as diverse as Roger Corman and Joel Schumacher. Despite over three decades in Hollywood, Wilson still exudes an infectious enthusiasm for an industry that has crushed lesser mortals.
He’s currently headlining the upcoming action-comedy Paying Mr. McGetty as a hit man with a heart. The film, produced by his brother James Wilson, also stars R. Marcos Taylor (Luke Cage, Straight Outta Compton) as The Dragon’s target and features an appearance by fellow B-movie superstar Cynthia Rothrock.
The Brothers Wilson recently sat down to talk about their new movie, diversity in Hollywood, working together as siblings and the tantalizing possibility of a B-lister Expendables.
Congratulations on Paying Mr. McGetty. It’s a lot of fun.
James Wilson: Thank you very much. That’s exactly what we were hoping for. Until we had our first sold out audience at the AMC in Burbank we didn’t know. It wasn’t until the audience was laughing and clapping and congratulating us afterwards. We were sweating over having such an odd movie.
Well it has a lot of heart. I think that’s what it is.
Don Wilson: You know when I saw the first rough cut I realized it’s a love story. It’s about this guy and girl who love each other and they’re having trouble and money trouble and hit men are looking for him. And there’s a happy ending. Audiences have traditionally loved those kind of movies. Movies of struggle and relationships. Throw in some action and some comedy and that’s a lot of the entertainment value.
James, you produced the film. How did this story come to you? Was it something you guys developed from scratch or was it brought to you?
James: I had made The Martial Arts Kid and we were looking to do something a little different before we did the sequel. While we were filming we’d worked with Marcos Taylor and I saw how funny he was. So this particular idea occurred to me. But the truth is we anticipated that Marcos would be more like Jackie Chan. This is a guy who can do flips, back flips, double flips, all kinds of very athletic stuff. So our plan was that he would be on the run from Don and doing Jackie Chan type stuff and much more action. But he actually sustained a knee injury in his first scene on his first day. So we got together and quickly changed things. We increased Don’s role and that turned out to be a very good thing. And we made everything else more important. But it was actually going to be a fast moving action-comedy like a Jackie Chan movie. Marcos said he feels that since the acting is more important now it ended up being better this way. I kind of think so too.
Don, speaking of your character, Shota… he has a real redemptive arc. Our initial perception of him is that he’s some sort of Terminator-style hit man but he really evolves over the course of the film. Can you talk about how you approached the role?
Don: If you remember No Country For Old Men that guy was kind of like an evil hit man. But there was a hit man in film that I was thinking I could take a little from. Remember the guy Leon in The Professional? He did kill other bad guys – he was a hit man – but he said “No women, no children”. And you could tell he had a heart, right? Of course, I wanted my character to be lethal and kill but… I think it’s kind of a redeeming thing when you kill people that deserve killing if you know what I mean. The bad guy that I kill in our opening scene is obviously lying to me about his family and has ripped off some other guy. And he’s trying to scam his way out so I won’t kill him. And then later when Marcos tries the same thing the audience is not sure what I’m going to do. Maybe I’m just going to kill him. But my character knows that he does have a real girlfriend and that causes Shota to stop for a minute and check it out.
So it’s more of a code than a redemption.
Don: Yeah, that’s probably it. Like how Leon said “No women, children”. My character says they have to be guilty of what it is I’m killing them for. Shota doesn’t kill you if you didn’t do what he was hired to kill you for.
James: Then we made sure that Don’s character took the extra step of actually helping out. So that’s the big arc. That’s the big change in his character. He puts his own life at risk, not just by turning down the job but now he’s actually fighting against his interests.
Don: I think my character’s life was never at risk except when the guy pulled the gun. And I don’t think Shota was really expecting a fight at that time. He was giving the money back which was going to be a problem but he probably didn’t think the guy was going to pull a gun on him over something like this. Shota does not have any fear or respect for the guys that were coming after him. It was only the gun, he did risk his life at that point.
James: There’s something I can fill you in on that you don’t know because you didn’t see the theatrical version which came later after the screener. In the end crawl, there’s a scene of the mob boss in a casino playing slots. He gets the call about what’s happened and he’s mad and says he’s going to take care of it. And then you hear some ominous sound and right behind him is Don.
Don: But nothing happens. As an audience member it’s like those films where you come up with your own ending. You don’t really know.
It’s whatever you want it to be.
Don: Correct. Shota’s either gonna kill the mob boss or he’s gonna convince him that Marcos is innocent and did not mess with his daughter.
James: I say he kills him.
Don: He might have. I don’t know.
James, you’re the CEO of Traditionz Entertainment. Don, you’re heavily involved too so it seems like a real family affair. You have Cynthia Rothrock involved and Anita Clay who was also in the movie. Can you tell me a little bit about why the company was formed and the philosophy behind what kind of films you choose to make with it?
James: We’re hoping to always make martial arts-related films because all of us come from the martial arts world. And all of us have had our lives changed for the better through martial arts. So we always want to express the good image of martial arts. And we always want a positive message of some kind in our movies. Not just have it be pure action or comedy or anything else. We would still like to sneak in a message. In Paying Mr. McGetty we have a black lead at this particular time in our country. He has a woman he loves, he’s trying to work for a future and has started a risky business that he’s busting his butt for. He’s a good guy working hard and trying to get ahead. But one screw up, one night of gambling, and we kind of show where it could lead. But our message is that when shit really hits the fan and his woman is in danger that he stands up. When he goes to face off against a large group of guys the first guy he sees is Don. Now he’s already faced Don twice and got his butt beat twice. He knows he cannot win but he doesn’t back off a step. We wanted to make that very clear in this movie. He needs to get over his fears and stand up and be a man. Be responsible. We kind of tied that in with a little mysticism with the martial arts earlier. So we tried to slide the message in with all the entertainment and weirdness as well.
There is obviously an increased focus on the lack of diversity in mainstream film and television these days. But Paying Mr. McGetty boasts a refreshingly diverse cast. It looks like the real world looks. Was this something you guys were consciously thinking about when you were casting?
James: Not much, to be honest with you. We knew it would be diverse because Marcos was going to be the lead and Don was going to be person hunting him. And then we had casting calls. And our girl who played the mob boss’ daughter got the spot out of like eighty people. And we got lucky with Anita Clay who we knew could act but her chemistry with Marcos, like that scene on the porch, that was the clincher for us. That was when Don convinced us all that we need to play up the romance angle more. And we actually added the scene in the beauty shop so she wouldn’t always be the harpy on Marcos’ tail. So that gave us a Latin woman, a white woman, an Asian male and a black male as the four leads. From there everything else flowed. We just put people in where they fit and we’re happy with that. And when we see the poster, even though that’s just a temp poster, it just kind of clicks.
Don: I think many times in Hollywood films – I’ve been in the film business now for over thirty years – that there’s not prejudice. In other words, producers don’t sit down and say “I don’t like black people. I don’t want black people in my movie”. What I felt when I first moved out here in ‘85 was that producers felt white America would not come and support an all black cast. But it wasn’t until black filmmakers started doing things like Boyz in the Hood and Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee and these filmmakers that were black would have all black casts and white American came. They could still support a film financially at the box office with white America. Because if you can’t get mainstream America to come then the movie’s not going to be a success. But what happens now though, and I think with this movie, is we just made a good movie and got the right people for the right roles. I don’t think James sat there and said “I’m gonna break down some Hollywood racist norms here”. It’s not like everyone is standing up for the NAACP in the movie or anything. It just turned out that it was the right cast for the movie.
James: When we worked with Marcos and I saw how funny he was, that was the original idea with him. Then I thought teaming up with Don, who was playing somebody unusual for Don, would also be good. The truth is Uncle Glen in The Martial Arts Kid is very much like Don in real life. But Don never got a role like Uncle Glen before. That was new and unusual for him as an actor. And playing a hit man after the lead is new and unusual for him. And I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at how good he can act.
You’re great in the movie, Don.
Don: Thank you. It’s kind of fun not being the everyday good guy, the John Wayne guy in every movie. It’s good to have a little evil part to your character.
Don, you’ve had a thirty-plus year career and I know you guys have worked together over those years. Does the fact that you’re brothers make it harder to work together or are there benefits?
Don: Basically I’m wiling to do whatever it takes to get the movie made but I don’t want to say I only do that because it’s my brother. If he was a producer that I didn’t even know and he came to me with the script, the idea, that character, I still would have said yes. I still liked it and I liked the director, Michael Baumgarten. To me it’s easier working with your brother. The communication is easier and it’s more comfortable. But the projects have to stand up on their own. In other words, if I thought it was a horrible script and The Martial Arts Kid was going to be a horrible movie, even if it was my brother, I don’t think I could have the same enthusiasm for everything. I probably still would have done it. My mother would have given me room restriction if I didn’t. But I don’t want to make it seem like I would not have done these projects had it not been James. Playing a bad is part of my career after starring in thirty movies as a good guy. Playing the bad guy’s not a bad thing for an actor.
James: For me, Don is just easy to work with. He got so much experience. And he’s always got advice, almost always good. But as his older brother I don’t have to take it. But I’ll definitely listen and it’s almost always good. In my opinion he’s just easy to work with for anything. Nobody should ever complain working with him. I personally feel there’s been people in the past who don’t know him as well as I do. So maybe they haven’t listened to him as much as I would.
Don: Well I’ll tell you one thing. Because of guys like Van Damme and Steven Seagal there are producers in this town – in fact all over the world – that are afraid of martial art actors. Because those two guys have done everything wrong you can possibly do in the business. Van Damme with his drug use and Seagal, I don’t know if you know much about him, but he’s kind of a kook. And so when I follow them they probably like working with me compared to Van Damme and Seagal.
Do you guys have any dream projects sitting on the shelf that you want to get to one of these days?
James: I actually have one but I haven’t mentioned it to my brother yet so I don’t want to bring it out right now.
Don: Well I’ve got a bunch of them but one of them is kind of a remake of Billy Jack. I don’t have the rights to it so it would not have that in the title. But it’s a character like that. If you remember, Billy Jack was a Vietnam veteran that stood up for the Indians. My character would be a Gulf War veteran. Clint Eastwood did a movie similar to it with no martial arts where he was standing up against some gangs for some kids. And he was a war veteran. But anyway, a remake of Billy Jack would be a dream project for me. I would love to play a character like that.
What’s next for you guys?
James: Well, we’re looking at The Martial Arts Kid II now. And Don has been working on a movie that we’re probably gonna pick up at Traditionz Entertainment and finish. It’s called Blood Raid and it’s a horror-action film.
Don: It’s gonna have kind of the same tone as The Expendables because it’s set up to have every B-movie action star of the 80’s and 90’s as a character in it. They’re either going to be bad guys or good guys and maybe even creatures of some kind. They did Expendables and got all the A-list guys in one movie. And I have contacts with all the B-movie guys and they’ve all verbally said they’re in. So this movie Blood Raid could be something similar in that regard.