Michael Jai White has a lot of s*** going on. He always has, in fact. Whether it was back when he was a high school teacher juggling a side hustle as a martial arts expert, or present day, working as a writer, director, producer and actor, he’s someone who likes to make unexpected choices. “I’m a very eclectic person and I’ve had this career that reflects my eclectic nature,” says White, speaking on the phone from Romania, where he’s currently shooting action movie The Hard Way with Luke Goss and Randy Couture. “There are groups that know me as an action guy, groups that know me as a comedian, groups that know me on television as a husband and a father. The variety of roles I’ve played are all different facets of my personality.”
And White has a lot of personality. On a mainstream level, he’s best known for playing the first major black comic book character in 1997 movie Spawn, and staying in the pop culture sphere with roles in Arrow as Bronze Tiger and The Dark Knight as Gambol. On a cult level, he’s iconic as the title character from Black Dynamite, a loving blaxploitation spoof so popular it spawned its own animated series. Then there’s his action work, with White’s expertise as a multifaceted martial artist seeing him pop up in everything from Universal Solider to two Toxic Avenger sequels as both a performer and stunt coordinator, not to mention acting in, and directing and writing the second and third Never Back Down films. For the duration of his 30-year career, White has been ducking Hollywood’s attempt to put him in a box just as Muhammed Ali ducked blows from Michael Dokes (bonus points: White played Ali in a Bruce Lee television series).
“It’s the marathon not the sprint,” says White, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday. “And I’m happy that I’ve never sold out who I truly am. A lot of times in this industry they want to keep you on a specific shelf. I took this advice from Denzel Washington, who [had it given to him by] a great actor named Sidney Poitier, and he said, ‘Sometimes your career is shaped by the roles that you refuse more than the roles you choose.’ I believe that to be true — there are roles I’ve turned down that would have pigeonholed me. Sometimes it can confuse an audience when you play a lot of different types of roles — they don’t know who you are — but I think that can be a good thing, too.”
One of White’s most memorable parts was that of Spawn aka Al Simmons, a Black Ops operative who is killed only to return to Earth with special abilities after making a deal to reluctantly lead Hell’s army. Based on Todd McFarlane’s cult comic book character, it grossed $87m globally on a budget of $40m and had a hit accompanying soundtrack. But it was considered only a moderate success, with a cancelled sequel and harsh reviews meaning that Blade was the only black hero to carry the cinematic mantle… at least until Black Panther became a global phenomenon this year, something White says was inevitable. “I really thought that would happen, [but] only if Hollywood gave it a chance,” he says. “I feel like it’s really about having a good movie. Black Panther just happened to be a good movie that had a rich culture along with it. It’s the oldest culture in the world, so how could it not work? Any company that would have taken the chance and invested in that would have seen these proceeds much earlier.”
The success of Marvel’s Wakandan King is something that will have far-reaching effects for the culture, according to White, “more than other movies” that have featured black heroes but come decades earlier. “With Spawn, the character happened to be black, and Blade, the character happened to be black,” he says. “The ethnicity really had nothing to do with the characters, other than they happened to be of darker skin tone.” But regardless of country borders, class or skin colour, there are certain things that translate regardless. “Action is universal,” says White. “There really hasn’t been a black action movie that hasn’t done well overseas — I’m living proof of that. That’s the reason I still have a career. I know probably better than most how action is global.”
With such an extensive body of work, White is going to get the opportunity to meet a portion of his worldwide fandom when he touches down in Australia for Supanova Pop Culture Expo this month. His first time Down Under, the Exit Wounds star says he’s “very excited” to arrive in Oz and experience the country. “I’ve always said it’s my number one place I want to visit because throughout my life there’s never been an Australian I didn’t like,” says White, who struck up a friendship with Heath Ledger on the set of The Dark Knight over 10 years ago. “They seem to be such warm, down-to-earth people and just have such a good deal of commonsense. I’ve always felt that I identified with them and that I would do well in Australia because they were people who think like me.”
Michael Jai White is in Australia for Supanova Pop Culture Expo in Melbourne (April 20-22) and Gold Coast (April 27-29).