‘The Protégé’ Star Maggie Q on Kicking Michael Keaton’s Ass and Playing a Vietnamese Action Hero [Interview]

‘The Protégé’ Star Maggie Q on Kicking Michael Keaton’s Ass and Playing a Vietnamese Action Hero [Interview]

Maggie Q started her career as a protégé of sorts: while modeling in Hong Kong, she was handpicked by Jackie Chan as the next martial arts action star. She wowed the international superstar in Hong Kong action films like Gen-Y Cops, landing her roles in Rush Hour 2 and Mission: Impossible III. But apart from a leading role in the CW TV series Nikita, Maggie Q never got the shine that Chan may have thought she deserved.

It’s only in 2021, more than two decades after she began her acting career, that Maggie Q has gotten her starring action movie vehicle. But taking on the lead role in The Protégé, directed by Martin Campbell and co-starring Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton, was not an immediate “yes” for Q.

“It was daunting because I was like, ‘Am I young enough to do this?’” Q said.

Until recently, action movies had been exclusive to the young, AKA the under 30s. At 42 years old, Q isn’t exactly elderly, but in Hollywood — and especially in a Hollywood that’s already limiting to Asian actresses — that’s basically ancient. And Q herself was already several years removed from the action genre. She had wrapped Nikita in 2013 and has since been working in supporting roles in films like The Divergent series and Fantasy Island, or in political thriller shows like Designated Survivor. Nothing that required her to strap on a catsuit and do some high kicks.

But “five minutes” into rehearsal, and “it was like, ‘Oh yeah, muscles have memories!’” Q said. “It was like riding a bicycle; I was back just right away and that was very surprising to me.”

I spoke to Q over the phone about returning to the action genre in The Protégé, getting to finally play a character that shares her Vietnamese ethnicity, and what it was like to kick Michael Keaton’s ass. Read our full conversation below.

How did you get involved with The Protégé?

I got a call from my agent about a film called The Asset, which it was formerly known as, and I immediately knew that it was action, based on the title. It was something that I said that I didn’t want to do, I wasn’t looking to do an action film, and then when they told me who wrote it and who was directing it and that Michael [Keaton]had attached himself, it all became not an action film, it became something so much more and that’s when I was like, “Oh, my interest is piqued, What’s happening here?”

And then I ended up connecting with Martin on the phone about the script and what he wanted to do with it, and after that I was completely sold. And at that time, he wasn’t exactly sold on me either, he wanted to kind of talk to me and see who I was. He didn’t know who I was going into this film, so he kind of had to do some research on me and I obviously know who he is and then we got on the phone, we had a lot of chemistry and we obviously very clearly wanted to make the same film and I think that sealed the deal.

So I know Gong Li was originally cast as lead in this film. How much did the script or the story change after you had boarded the movie and it changed from being The Asset to The Protégé?

I don’t know anything about its previous incarnations, I just know that it was around for a bit and that they had ideas about how to make it. They changed the name very recently, but I think the bones were still there as far as when I got it.

The thing about Richard Wenk, who is arguably one of the best writers out there, he was so easy to work with and just such a true professional. The best writers will also always be very open to feedback and you always know if you’re working with a writer that you’re going to have a good experience with, that you’re going to get to another level with when they are able to have an open dialogue with you and aren’t protective of the written word and protecting their ego and Richard was the polar opposite.

So Martin had done a bunch of rewrites, I don’t think at that time, when you talk about [Gong Li] being attached, I don’t think Martin Campbell was involved at that time. So when Martin did get the script, he did a lot of rewrites himself as well with Richard, and so it did evolve nicely from right before I got it and then when I did get it, we worked on it even more and it changed more and then it kind of flowered into the script that it is today.

It has been a while since you’ve done an action project in general, I think you mentioned just earlier that you were hesitant to return to action. So what was it like returning to your action roots, so to speak, with The Protégé?

It was daunting because I was like, “Am I young enough to do this?” The thought crossed my mind and then I got into rehearsals, and the nice thing is that our stunt coordinator, the guy who headed up all the action, is somebody I knew and have known for 15 years. He worked for people that I did movies with before, so we were familiar and I already respected him and the people who raised him in action were people that I know and respect very well, so there was trust. Because if you don’t have trust, you’re done from go.

So we started in rehearsals and it was like… you always have that doubt moment of, “Am I still at the level? Because this is going to be a big one.” And I went into rehearsal and in five minutes, it was like, “Oh yeah, muscles have memories!” It was like riding a bicycle; I was back just right away and that was very surprising to me.

Do you think that coming back to action right now with The Protégé, there is more of an openness in Hollywood right now for these kinds of not only female-led action movies, but action movies for women who are above 40? For example, Charlize Theron with Atomic Blonde and now this, there’s more of this willingness for that kind of film now?

Oh that’s cool, I never really thought about that. I won’t judge myself, but I will speak for people as an audience member, with Charlize and people like that. When I think about a woman in a power role/position in a film, like those films, in my opinion, you’re portraying a really strong character obviously and a lot of these characters have pasts they have to overcome and they’re going through certain things and you have to have years on you to be able to, you know what I’m saying? To make it interesting?

Yeah.

I just feel like if you’re too young, I don’t even know what you’d have to offer. I guess it would be a lot of skill and it would be pretty or fun to watch, but I don’t know. For me, I want to watch a woman who I know has experience because I’m watching something that I feel is believable like, “Oh okay, this one has been through it.” And now she’s coming through on the other end. For me, with the believability factor, you have to have the age to do that and thank God we have good examples of women in Hollywood who, at these ages, can still pull off everything that they’re doing in a believable and sexy and strong and fun way and it doesn’t have to be someone who’s 20, it can be whatever it’s written for.

Yeah exactly. And this film, too, largely takes place in Vietnam and a lot of the plot has to do with it’s setting in Vietnam too. Does that shared connection, because you also are part Vietnamese, add another layer to this film that would set it apart perhaps from other action films of its ilk?

I mean, I hope so, just because typically we’ve always seen Vietnam in a negative light, in a war-torn light, right? Some light, it’s always a certain era that is interesting on film for people to make movies about and this is not that. This is her roots, this is where she comes from, things have happened, but she goes back and she faces that in a place that she never thought that she would return to. I think that confronting those things, which I see my family go through in my own personal life, having the strength and the courage to go back to face the hand that was dealt to you that was pretty bad or things that were unpleasant in your life, I think takes a very unique strength.

And I will say, tying it back to being Vietnamese, if there’s any race on the planet that has a unique strength, it’s the Vietnamese. And so, for me, I really liked bringing that to the screen because that’s my people, our people. I want to show that strength because I’ve seen that strength in real time as an example in my own life and I know that it’s very real with the Vietnamese and that meant a ton to me.

So you’ve played so many characters of varying ethnicities throughout your career. Was it exciting to finally play to your ethnicity and explore that part of your past?

Exactly! Yeah, thanks for saying that. Yes, totally, because all the comedians always joke that if someone’s Asian, they’re Chinese, right? That’s kind of the way white people view the average Asian person as Chinese, which is hysterical because there’s just a lot of them, way more of them than anyone else, so it’s understandable. But yeah, I mean, there’s a huge differentiator in Asia and it’s really nice, as an individual, being able to spotlight something that’s not maybe what you’ve seen typically before, but also too, maybe not something that’s been explored outside of your time as I was saying.

Yeah, and I think too, there’s other films coming out outside of Hollywood that are more open to showing those different parts of Vietnam. Have you ever seen the Vietnamese film Furie? It’s an action film, starring Veronica Ngo.

Of course, yes.

Do you think that The Protégé is, in any way, in conversation with those kinds of films that are emerging outside of Hollywood, like these Asian-led action films?

Well, I will tell you this; I hope it lends itself to some credit for the region and that people want to see more of that. One of the things that we were excited to show in the film, in terms of Vietnam, was the beauty and the majesty and all of the things that Vietnam encompasses, so I hope it creates an appetite for that.

Like my friend Dustin Nguyen, he’s up in Vietnam now doing a lot for the Vietnamese film community and kind of getting it kick-started and I’m so proud of him because he went back and he decided that he wanted to help his community and create an actual film community on that side of the world. And so it’s always nice to showcase Vietnam on a movie that’s this big on the level that it’s going to get seen, it’s always a great showcase for that region and I hope that it creates even more of an appetite.

You’ve been working in Hollywood for many years before the doors only recently started to open for Asian American representation on the screen. Now we have our first Asian Marvel hero on the way, we have Asian led blockbusters, what is it like preceding that wave of representation, and now being able to be a part of it as an Asian female lead in an assassin movie?

First of all, it’s great. I mean, change is awesome, it was coming. I’m really excited about the opportunities for minority representation in Hollywood now especially because there are so many platforms now, there are more things getting made, literally there are more opportunities for work and so because of that, we’re able to open up.

Diversity has now become something that is a must because we live in a global marketplace obviously and people need to be represented. It makes no sense that people are in one of the most diverse countries in the world weren’t represented for this long, but the fact that it becomes a global commerce thing, it’s now going to be at the forefront. I mean, at the end of the day, Hollywood is all about making money. I can sit back and pretend that they’re doing us [a favor] and they’re like, “Oh, they’re finally recognizing…” No. They basically know that they can make money if they put butts in seats and how do they put butts in seats?

They’re finally waking up to representation, diverse representation does put butts in seats, it does do that now. They’re convinced of that, even though it would have happened before. They weren’t brave enough, they had no courage to do it. Now they’re doing it because the dollar amounts are there. Great! Because no matter why it’s happening, it gives, especially Asian-Americans, opportunities to show their talent and show that they’re worth being leads and they’re worth being out there in a real way.

It makes me really happy because 20 years ago, it was that I couldn’t get representation in the US and I had half the world who knew who I was. I had every agency tell me they did not understand me whatsoever. They were like, “You’re American and you’re known on one side of the world, it’s weird.” Literally I had them say it was weird, it doesn’t make any sense, we just don’t really get it, we don’t have any Asian roles available for you, Maggie. I cannot believe how derogatory and negative, it was insane the things people would get away with saying 20 or so years ago, which they can’t anymore.

Even Asians that they were including in big movies, they were doing it for commerce reasons, so they were including Asians from Asia in little roles in movies, but they didn’t say a word. But that’s not Asian representation, right? Because that makes no sense, right? And so Asian-Americans weren’t given those opportunities because they were like, “Well, we’re going to put the famous Korean guy in, because we’ll get butts in seats in Korea.” So it was all led by dollar signs, but it didn’t make sense for representation because Asian-Americans weren’t represented, and so now you’re seeing Asian-Americans represented, and that is why it’s exciting.

It is exciting. Well, diving back into the movie, I know that you said that you were nervous going into it, about taking on some of those action choreography a little bit older now, but you are fighting opposite Michael Keaton and Samuel Jackson, who are both a bit on the older side as well. So what was the action choreography like with them now that you’re squaring off against mostly older men in this film?

Really, truly. I have Michael, I have Robert Patrick and I had Sam Jackson. I worked with one other boy in a couple of teams who was a really young man, really funny, but that’s it. I had this older contingent of men that were her mentors and friends and rivals in different ways and it was a really interesting dynamic because they had so much to offer me, for sure, in terms of their talent and what I was witnessing and how I was able to collaborate with them.

I’ve never had that type of dynamic, there really aren’t a lot of movies that are set up in this way where there’s one woman of a certain age and then three guys that are older. But they bring so much talent and wisdom to the table and humor. It made my experience so much easier and there was nothing else but a learning curve for me to observe and absorb. And that was a huge gift.

And now that you’ve dipped your toes back into the action pool, would you consider returning to the genre, especially now that there’s hopefully more Asian representation in Hollywood?

Two things: One, I think if it’s in the action genre and it’s different than anything I’ve done, then it would be a consideration. But also too, there’s got to be people coming up who are going to want this, so I leave it to them to lead the charge for young people and I will hold my end of the bargain] and kind of just sit through projects that are interesting and that I feel represent us well in Hollywood.

***

The Protégé opens in theaters on August 20, 2021.

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