Diana Lee Inosanto, on her Feature Film - "The Sensei," Breaking Barriers in Hollywood, & Martial Arts.
August 5, 2015
I am originally from the Torrance area of Los Angeles, but I now live in Ventura. Let’s see…my background in the entertainment industry came via my martial arts upbringing.
My father had appeared on a few film and TV projects, usually doing some sort of action on the screen. However, my father’s sister, my Aunt Lilia, was a professionally trained actress who taught acting to children on the side.
And of course, there was Uncle Bruce (Lee)—My godfather, whose image I kept seeing progress on the screen.
So, I've always been around Hollywood as a child and grew up seeing the "Who’s Who," of Hollywood and the Martial arts world.
First Job in Entertainment
My first paying job as an actress was on the TV show “Moonlighting,” with Cybil Shepard and Bruce Willis.
To learn the business better on the inside, I signed up to be a background actor. I was chosen to be one of the office regulars, and conveniently the director would throw me lines to say, and that helped me get my SAG union card.
From an Independent Filmmakers point of view, I love “indie” trailblazers like Kevin Smith,Melvin Van Peebles, Robert Rodriquez, and of course, Quentin Tarantino.
They taught people like me, that you don’t have to wait on a studio system to come knocking on your door to make a film.
Of course, there is my godfather, the Late Bruce Lee, who was an independent filmmaker, who decided to do films in Hong Kong when Hollywood rejected him and said the world will never accept an Asian Man on the screen.
These people have inspired me to venture the unknown terrain of filmmaking.
Why Acting & Stunts?
When I was younger, I started to search for work as an SAG actress. However, if you were ethnically ambiguous (as I was), it was hard to find work for my type.
However, because of my martial arts background, I found myself a back door into the entertainment world.
I started working as a stunt actress working on various projects in Hollywood. Buffy the Vampire was really the main starting point of my world into Action and Stunts.
Before I knew it, I was working on major movies, and watching the best of the best work. (John Woo, Ang Lee, Christopher Columbus, Clint Eastwood)
That’s how I got the knowledge to broaden my horizons and starting directing and producing my own films on an independent level.
This triggered me writing and directing "The Sensei"
However, the industry has changed quite a bit, and so now days you see people operating on different capacities. So, that’s why I am still involved in action projects, and find myself working as a Stunt Fight Choreographer and training to the stars in Hollywood.
It’s all quite interconnected.
For a lot of people, stunt work is the back door to acting and directing. Stunt people are in the same union as AFTRA-SAG Actors and yet, if they are asked to do what we call Second-Unit Directing, which means “Action” Director, it is also a back door into the Directors Guild.
Tell us about the film—“The Sensei"
"The Sensei" is about a bullied gay teen named McClain Evans (Michael O’ Laskey) growing up in a small town during the height of the AIDS epidemic in our country.
After a brutal beating by town bullies, his mother secretly recruits a martial artist named Karen (played by Inosanto) to privately teach her son. Long story, short the community finds out, and it triggers a hell storm of events.
This film is important because "The Sensei" shows the many symptoms of bullying and hatred weaved through the fabric of our society—from the school grounds to the arenas of our adult day-to-day life.
The 5-Year Anniversary of “The Sensei”
Well I am thrilled that Flixoffury.com, founded by Chicago Film Critic and Martial Artist, Kirk Haygood, is hosting this 5-year Anniversary Screening of "The Sensei," Saturday, August 8th, starting at 7pm, at the Logan Theater. There is will also a Q& A afterwards.
It’s timely, this celebration, because in the 5 years since the release of this film, we now have the passage of the Hate Crime Prevention Act (aka the Matthew Shepard & James Bryd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act) signed by President Obama and we have the most relevant and historic decision of the Supreme Court, ruling that same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
More important we having real discussions on the trauma that bullying can do to young people in our country and people are bravely speaking up about these issues.
"The Sensei," deals with intense subject matter, including hate crimes, how did you approach confronting such issues?
It wasn’t easy in the beginning. Most people, because of my martial arts family and legacy expected me to do a chop socky film.
I felt it was far more important to make a bigger statement about how martial arts philosophically and spiritually can impact people’s lives on a intimate level, giving them the strength to endure the hardships they may come across in their lives.
One on the most important lines for me, as a writer was when Karen tells McClain, after discovering that he had tried committing suicide, that “You have a right to defend yourself against Hatred, and Self-Hatred.”
After I heard about the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, it triggered me to research this topic further. I was stunned, statistically, when I heard about the high number of suicides among particularly gay teenagers who also found themselves the targets of bullies.
I was angrier that a number of martial arts school in the country were reluctant to accept gay students because they were in fear of the retaliation from the communities they lived in. I was stunned by this discovery.
So, my film really addresses the issue of tolerance.
This journey of making this film led us to the Matthew Shepard Foundation ironically. Talk about serendipity. MSF led us to people that were the original activists and authors form the Hate Crimes Bill Act that was championed by Senator Gordon Smith and the Late, Senator Ted Kennedy.
I was even introduced to House Representative John Lewis who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.
I knew the struggle was worth it, and today I am happy that "The Sensei," is a tool used to teach about bullying and tolerance in some schools and even martial arts schools across the country.
I get letters from around the world telling me that my film changed their lives. It’s an honor that I could be a part of something bigger than myself.
There is an interesting story behind your name, if you would, tell us about that.
Well, my father, renowned martial artist, Dan Inosanto was the close friend and leading student under the Late Bruce Lee. They were so close, that my father decided to honor Uncle Bruce when I was born, and named me “Diana Lee.”
My father tells me stories that when I was a baby, Uncle Bruce would joke and say “when she is old enough, free lessons from the Sifu (Uncle Bruce)."
He also nicknamed me on my birth card “America’s Future Wing Chun”….Wing Chun was a nun from 100’s of years ago who established a fighting system that my godfather practiced…so that’s quite an honor.
Awards & Recognition
Well, the greatest award I received was the “American Courage Award” out of Washington D.C., through the Asian American Justice Center (AAJC).
I couldn’t believe the people in attendance!
These were the movers and shakers of Washington D.C. When I was giving my speech, and looking into the audience, I think I had an out of body experience.
I was touched that I had been chosen for this award because it meant that they recognized the kinds of struggles we had endured to make this movie and get the film’s message across to whomever would listen.
I like to think of "The Sensei," like a pebble hitting a body of water, and slowly it has a ripple effect. That’s how it’s been these last 5 years.
How Have Improvements in Technology Impacted Your Field?
It’s a double edge sword. On one hand, piracy has been a difficult thing to combat as a filmmaker. It really has hurt our industry. I was stunned that a couple of films I was involved as Producer and Director found it’s way onto pirated sites.
On the hand, Technology is awesome! It has helped give creative people a voice and it helps the world find new talent and you really get an organic feeling to what people are gravitating to.
One of my heroes, Felicia Dey, who was an out of work actress decided to join forces with some creative people, and they created a webisode called “The GUILD."
I remember seeing her at Comic Con, but what people like her did, was show that there is opening for people to show their work and have a direct line to fans around the world.
I also love my dear friend Matt Page, who created his own successful webisode called “Enter the Dojo." He plays the marvelous Master Ken…and it’s hilarious!
People don’t have to necessarily wait for a studio to make it.
Working In Television
I’ve been lucky to have a pretty good career as a stuntwoman in Hollywood and I’ve worked a lot of great shows. However, there are some issues going on in Hollywood when it comes to women moving up the ladder.
When I directed "The Sensei," I was part of 5 percent of women directors in the Hollywood System. Those numbers are HORRIBLE!! And it’s 2015!!! And this is still going on.
Hollywood is not that liberal when if comes to opportunities for women to director, or be Stunt coordinators, or Producers.
When you cross compare that to the number of young women trying to go to film school, where the ratio is 50/50 men and women, that is a crying shame!
Despite my “action” background in stunts, my martial arts family legacy, and having a feature film under my belt, I still have to fight tooth and nail to be relevant.
I am not alone in this and I feel horrible that a lot of talented women are not having the opportunities they should in Hollywood. I hope that changes soon.
Don’t just quit your day job yet. It’s a tough field, and it can be like a roller coaster ride. If this is your passion, I wouldn’t quit pursuing your love of the arts, but find other ways to create cash flow...it can be stressful if things slow down.
Also, it depends on what a person’s goals are. Do you want to be a Filmmaker, an Actress, or a Writer? Outside of the training you should have (Improv classes, Stage plays, Film workshops, writing courses), you have to get along with people and forge professional friendships.
And talk about pitfalls; you still have to watch out for the sharks…especially young people that are just starting out. Lately, we have all seen the news coverage about Bill Cosby, but I can tell you from experience, I have heard these kinds of stories with other celebrities coming up the system for 20 years now.
The one thing that protected me was my father’s name in the business, but that didn’t bring me comfort for my fellow colleagues in the industry that sometimes had to deal with sexual harassment.
Hollywood is a tough industry.
However, there are great creative circles in the Entertainment field that you can find and build a network. As I said before the Internet and Technology is a game changer.
You have had many positions within the Entertainment Industry, in which one do you feel the most comfortable?
Oh, I feel like “Tris” in the movie Divergent. I feel they are all inter-connected. Most pressure is on you, I think, as a director, because you have to see the overall arc of a story, and if the movies fails somehow it all comes down on the director.
But when the movie is good, the rewards can be amazing.
However, I have enjoyed being a Fight choreographer and trainer to the stars, because you get to watch a little part of yourself threaded in that person.
I have worked with some fantastic people in Hollywood, and I love teaching them the martial arts and seeing them shine on the screen, like Melissa McCarthy in SPY.
It’s a tie between stunt choreography and directing, which is pretty much similar.
Working in Film
I love working on films but that depends if you are talking Independent vs Studio funded projects. Independent films you have less money, but you have more freedom to explore.
Studio is big budgeted and your plugged into a system, and a lot is on the line to deliver.
Now, to discuss Acting on film vs stage…well I love stage because you get that immediate response from the audience….you feel the energy, especially if the audience loves what you are doing.
Film, when you are acting can be fun, but it’s a little jarring if your character is shooting out of sequence of the storyline. So, you really have to know your character inside and out, and consistent with the choices you make within the timeline of the story that being told.
Positions within the Stunt World
A Stunt Coordinator is usually the key person that oversees the safety and well being of a set for both cast and crew. They may or may not take part in the action in front of the camera.
A stunt coordinator must see to the hiring of the stunt doubles, who are there to literally look like the actors they are doubling for.
The Stunt Double does the action when an actor cannot, or it’s not safe enough, due to insurance reasons, to do their own stunts.
The stunt coordinator, or the producers, usually bring in a fight choreographer to design a fight on screen.
They also prepare actors and sometimes their doubles, and other stunt players that may be participating in the combat scenes.
Fight Choreographers literally come up with the language of action that audiences love to watch.
A Stunt Player is usually someone that has a certain physical talent, or talents, that are needed to bring a certain realism to the screen.
That’s why, you may meet one stunt player whose expertise is cars, while another one can ride horses or another person has gymnastics.
These days, you must cross train, and gain as much experience to work from project to project.
Oh, and a stunt coordinator, depending on budget may have to do all roles too. I’ve seen it! It’s a lot of work.
I will also say that Stunt work is the back door to have a directing career, because a lot of times you are asked to do Second Unit Directing—which is basically being a second director on set, in charge of shooting action only—especially if your production is behind schedule, and they need someone to keep shooting scene that the director couldn’t get too.
Being a woman. Still trying to overcome but I’ve broken through the glass ceiling on few jobs that were supposed to go to a man, but thank God I had some open minded stunt coordinator or producer that saw that I had some talent that was credible.
Preparing for Roles
I trained with Broadway Legend Michael Shurtleff, who wrote the book “How to Audition." I love Michael and his words still influence me today.
But, like my martial arts training, I believe you should cross train in different methods that can help you in your path of being a working actor.
I studied Improv at Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB), which was founded by Amy Poehler and Matt Besser, and before that I studied with Margie Haber Cold Reading Classes under her people…and I love the Michael Chekhov method.
My teacher in Chekhov was Lisa Dalton and I found that her system helped me tremendously in film work, especially if you have to shoot scenes out of order.
Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, You Tube, Vimeo, etc…they’re game changers in our industry. People don’t even advertise anymore in the traditional sense.
I use it all the time! I love it!
If I have a film or project that’s coming out, I post away. It helps an audience find you and support you!
Top 5 Moments in Entertainment
-RENT (the movie)—I did nothing spectacular but I was working on my first and only Musical! Need I say more? I couldn’t believe I was doing a stunt fight in the riot sequence following Idina Menzel’s performance as Maureen Johnson singing “Over the Moon.” I watched her perform 20 times and never got bored. I thought to myself “I actually get paid for this?”
-STAR TREK: Enterprise---I worked on a few episodes of Star Trek Enterprise and I loved every moment of it. I’m a Star Trek geek and I was so excited to be working on one of Hollywood’s most iconic franchises. I was a kid all over again on those sets and my costumes were ten times better than the one I had as a kid. Need I say more about the awesome set designs and special effects makeup?
-Buffy the Vampire Slayer—I did some intense fights scenes doubling Sarah Michelle Gellar. I also got to work directly with Joss Whedon.
This was the beginning of my stunt career, and it was the beginning of Joss’s career as creator and director. Also, this was the time that Sarah’s career took off too. I had to double Sarah for the presentation for Paramount Pictures to “greenlight” the pilot and next few episodes.
Honestly, I didn’t see how a story about a teenage girl hunting vampires would make it on TV, but how wrong I was. It became a classic and I am glad that I was there during its take off point. It set my career in motion to work on other big shows. How fortunate I was!
-SPY—Training Melissa was one of the highlights of my life. SPY was such a terrific film and I am glad that I could be a part of it in my small way.
-THE SENSEI—There were times I wasn’t sure we could get this film done, but it’s so worth it when someone says thank you for “saving my life."
What is something about your career that you would like people know that they might not?
Great Question! We are living in a global economy which means a lot of work has left our country and making films is spread all over the world. Which means, you may have to hold another line of work.
I taught martial arts, so that was my other means of work.
I saw people that were hit from the Writers Strike, followed by the Crash, and a horrible recession. It’s a new world now, so I honestly tell people to have another source of income.
I know a lot of famous actors, producers, stunt people, and on the side, they are entrepreneurs, or they have other sources of income.
You have to be creative and you have to protect yourself financially and not go and spend all your money even if you did hit it big.
As I said, Hollywood can be a roller coaster ride. Many people in Hollywood operate on a hybrid level, so they specialize in more than one thing. A producer may also be a line producer, or a production manager. A stunt person (Like myself) may act and direct and choreograph.
That’s why I say there is a huge inter-connection between all these positions and roles.
And as I said earlier, watch out for the sharks. There are people who will try to promise you the world, but at the end of day, follow your instincts.
I studied with legitimate people in the industry, and with the internet, you can now check someone’s background very quickly. IMDB is a great resource for that.
Workshops are awesome! If you’re an actor, reach out to those indie filmmakers! Networking is going to be key for you!
You hear of cross training, cross connect with those future filmmakers an writers and maybe you may have a built in team to do something great on the internet like a webisode!
The internet is a fast track, sometimes, to a career in Hollywood.
I'd love to give a shout out to Steve Kaplan who is a comedy guru in Hollywood and he gives workshops all over the world!
I applied his stuff to "The Sensei," even though it was a drama. I also looked to my godfather as a role model because I know how tough it was for him, and he helped shaped the course of Action film in the Entertainment field.
What an example in perseverance!
There are some projects that I can’t speak about right now. Darn. But there is big project right now that I’m working on and it would be my first shot as a studio producer…so we’ll just wait and see.
Also, I don’t know if you have seen my Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, but I have been training (along with my hubby, Ron Balicki) the stars from Fox’s new up-coming TV show “Lucifer” based on the DC Comics.
Look for Tom Ellis,Lesley-Ann Brandt, and D.B. Woodside.
Audiences, I think, will be very happy! Fans looked in great anticipation at Comic Con 2015! If you go to IMDB.com you can see how the project is evolving. Great Producers! Great Stunt Team! Awesome Writers!
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I hope you all can support "The Sensei," and come and join us on Aug 8th!
Here’s the information:
5-year Anniversary Screening of "The Sensei," Saturday, August 8th, starting at 7pm, at the Logan Theater. There is will also a Q& A afterwards.
For tickets go to Flixoffury.com or call : 708-506-0585