Professional fighters turned actors Krzysztof Soszynski and Cody Hackman love talking to film people. It’s a nice change of pace from talking to sports people all the time. It even gives the chance for Hackman to think back on the first ever job he had:
“My first job ever was at a video game store called Playmania, and I used to clean Nintendo games all day.” Hackman said during a press day in a local Toronto Muay Thai gym for his first major starring role in the MMA drama Tapped Out (now available on Blu-Ray and On Demand). “That was like a dream come true for me, being able to play video games all day while I was there. It was barely working. It’s up there with being in a record store or a video store back in the day. But now I’ve moved on! I played a lot of Mortal Kombat.”
A native of London, Ontario, Hackman is a five time karate world champion turned writer, actor, and film producer. For his first major starring role (which he gets a story credit for), Hackman stars as Michael Shaw, a young karate instructor still plagued by the murder of his parents. When he sees the hulking behemoth that killed them (played by the imposing, but actually really nice in real life Soszynski) entering an underground MMA tournament, Michael trains and prepares for revenge in a sort of Rocky meets Karate Kid type scenario. It’s a classical fighting flick, and one that sticks nicely to everyone’s strengths.
Cody’s reminiscing about his first job also reminds Soszynski – a now retired Strikeforce and UFC veteran who moved to Winnipeg from Poland when he was ten – about how he actually got a chance to be in one of the UFC video games.
“I have been in a game!” Soszynski says. “But actually since I retired last year, I’m not so sure how many more I’ll be in.”
“I’ve played your character, actually.” Hackman says in response. “He’s got a lot of power to him. If he hits someone he knocks ‘em out. (pauses) He also gets tired really quickly in the game, too.”
The good natured ribbing between the two continues throughout the interview as they discuss what’s important to them as professionals when they watch a film about fighting, why film and sports fans love fighting movies, an unfortunate accident that made Cody think Krzysztof was going to hate him, and why working with Kevin James on Here Comes the Boom helped Krzysztof want to get into acting more.
Dork Shelf: When it comes to making a movie about fighting as opposed to actual fighting the audience is still going to see these movies for the same reason they watch fights. People love to see the drama and they love to see a story played out in front of them, and that applies to sports, but for fighting films that can be a little harder to do and make it still seem real. For you guys as fighters, what’s the most important thing for you when you see a fighting movie that can make it feel real to you and your experience?
Krzysztof Soszynski: Number one for me is just making sure it looks and feels authentic. When you watch a movie like Warrior, that’s a film where I love the acting and I think all that stuff is great and spot on, but I couldn’t stand the fighting and the rest of it. They’re just going at each other with power move after power move…
Cody Hackman: And a lot of powerbombs…
KS: (laughs) Yeah, the powerbombs. You just don’t ever see any of that in an actual fight. Making it feel real means going back to the basics because that’s what you draw the most from: the jab, the cross, the hook, punches, kicking, holds that knock out people. That’s what we did here. It’s all basic stuff and never all that fancy. If you’re authentic enough, you really don’t need to manufacture anything with that fancy stuff. You should just keep it that way. Obviously the acting part is important in any of these kinds of stories, but when I watch a film like this as a fighter, those basics still stick out. You just have to make sure it has that authenticity and a real MMA feel. But that and the acting goes hand in hand.
CH: I think that kind of attention to authenticity really helped us to make a film that would gain the attention of some of the biggest fighters in the world to be in it. And Krysztof was someone who after a shot would always come back to the director’s monitor, and if it wasn’t looking right he would say something and we would work together to fix it. We had the privilege to do that here because we had all this experience around us.
I remember there was one specific scene where you looked at what we did and you were just beside yourself. “Nope! Nope! We gotta do it again!”
KS: (laughs) Sometimes I would almost take on kind of a stunt coordinator role just to make sure that a punch can hit its mark. There would be a few times where we were clearly off by a few inches and we were missing things, and those are the kinds of things even the audience will notice and you never want that. Especially in a film where you have people like me and Cody and someone like Lyoto Machida, people who the audience knows can take more than a shot on the chin. People wouldn’t believe that these fights were real if we didn’t go for it in the moment.
DS: And that sort of dedication to the basics is why I think fans keep coming back to MMA because they will happily sit through fights that aren’t all high spots of the variety you see in something like Warrior. Some fights never get off the ground and sometimes no one even throw a punch.
CH: Exactly! And that’s the thing about Tapped that we knew going in. When you watch something like Rocky, that’s a film that works because it’s a very story driven movie with a real heart behind it, and the boxing was a bonus. It’s like that here with us. We need to have something that will happen between these fights that have an authentic feel that MMA fans will recognize and to make them care about the outcomes. It’s not like taking a look at the poster for the films and just seeing all these MMA names and immediately being able to draw on their pasts as fighters. It’s not really like how Lionsgate is kind of selling it, but I can see why they would do that. We really want people to know that this is more story driven and that the MMA is just a nice bonus.
I think a lot of other MMA movies try to play up the more sensational and incredibly rare aspects of it because it’s this big and relatively still new sport. We kind of went back to the basics.
KS: And if you just put in all the high points, you might as well not have the movie. Fans who want that can watch televised wrestling for that. If you can show a jab, cross, and a kick in quick succession and do it right, it’s going to look more amazing than picking someone up and just tossing them around for ten minutes at a time. The thing about MMA is that anything you do can look amazing on camera if you do it right, and we have so many people here with so much experience. I’m here. Cody knows tons about karate. We had a black belt in jujitsu. We had wrestlers. We had all these people that we could pull from to represent all of MMA and bring that authentic feel to the film.
CH: I went through so much abuse from him. (laughs) There were a few scenes where we weren’t getting it quite right. There was one scene where he has to kind of throw me over his head, and it was shot from an angle where it looked fine, but it didn’t look fine enough. Then we did it again and that hurt a lot. (laughs) There was another scene where we did about 15 body kicks to him, and some of them were controlled and some of them…
Okay, truthfully, this is what happened… (laughs) I deserved this, and I’ll tell you why. I punched him really, really hard in the face. I’m a little guy, but for a little guy, I can hit. I punched him in the face as hard as I could on accident, but it was the actual FIRST take that we did for all of our fighting. It was the first time I was going to be able to hit you. And he’s just telling me to punch him in the face because he can take it. I don’t know what happened, and I lost control. And Michael Biehn, who’s playing my coach in the film, comes running over to me and he’s supposed to be hyping me up and getting ready to fight. The second I hit him in the face and he goes over to the corner to shake it off, Biehn says, “I am so, so sorry. You have two days left to shoot this fight scene with this guy.” (laughs) So from that point on I felt like I deserved to get hit a few times, myself.
KS: (laughs) But we did have a really good chemistry together and we got to play around with a bunch of stuff, and we weren’t really afraid because we could handle it together.
DS: Now that you aren’t fighting anymore, what’s it like being able to sit back and observe everyone else from outside.
KS: Well, I mean it is nice being on the outside. Not getting punched in the face is a lot better than getting punched in the face. (laughs) And being on the set of a film, getting punched in the face and missed by inches is better, too. I like being able to observe and think about things. You get to observe a lot more and you can put a lot more things together in your head.
When I came into this sport, I was a fan and I had a background, so I had an appreciation going in, and when I first got asked to do movies I had something similar going on. I didn’t know as much about movies, but I knew enough to be able to pick up on what was going on. In either case, I just love having the time now to flesh things out a lot more and find out what works and doesn’t work. You train a lot for a fight, then the fight happens and you remember some of it and the rest is instinct. I think being in a movie is the same way in a lot of respects.
DS: We’re you ever approached with similar film projects in the past that you thought wouldn’t be as authentic or that you wouldn’t be able to do?
KS: Not really. For me it started off with a really small role in C.S.I., and that was just a really, really small part that they just needed an MMA fighter for, so that was a good way to start. From there I went onto Ultimate Fighter, which meant I would be in front of the camera a lot more often. It progressed from there.
The first time I almost thought that would have happened was when I heard from Garrett Warren, who’s a friend and a stunt coordinator who worked on Avatar, and he told me he was working on Here Comes the Boom. He was using a friend’s gym and they were blocking out the stunts there and he asked me if I wanted to help, and I did some stunt work for him before and on other things, so I said yeah. Then I auditioned for a role in that one because I really liked what they were doing and how attentive they were to what we were talking about.
On Here Comes the Boom, Kevin James and I hit each other A LOT. He trained with all of us. He dropped 80 pounds for the movie and he was so committed. He already had a wrestling background from back in the day, but he was learning jujitsu, and striking, and takedowns, and that’s when it really hit me what acting could really be. Here was a guy who was willing to go the extra mile to make something that I know very well feel authentic. I didn’t expect much from it, but it turned out to be a lot of fun and I think we did a pretty good job.
Then Cody gives me a call and that was a great feeling because I’ve only ever been expressly approached a few times for anything and that’s an awesome feeling. Hopefully when people see this and directors see it, this might open up a lot more doors for me. I want to have that chance because I really want to proceed with this. It’s just nice to be somewhere different. I actually just got to play a creature in this last movie that I just finished doing. It was kind of like a zombie role, but that was so cool. I’ve never played a zombie and it sounded awesome to me, so let’s try it out! It’s crazy that I get paid for this, but I love it.
CH: Krzysztof’s modest, though. He does a very, very good job as an actor, and for him that’s important because people are going to expect something from him. People are going to see him as they saw him on TV with a promo video backing him – “One man, one desire”, and all that kind of shit – but he really puts a lot of work into the role. He just came in and he was always real and always himself and always learning. All of our chemistries really came together.
We actually just did another movie together that’s just the polar opposite of this called Hidden in the Woods, with William Forsythe and Michael Biehn, who we got to work with again after this, and we’ll see how that turns out because I think that’s something very different for the both of us.
KS: There’s something so nice about being able to and having the opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone and pretend to be someone else. You can just turn something on in your head and get really creative about things, and you can feel it in your body. It’s something you aren’t used to, but you work at trying to make those feelings feel real. It’s such a great challenge, and it can be fun to figure that out. I mean, here I killed this guys parents, so that’s not a fun thing in and of itself (laughs), but I still have to find a way to show that, and that’s a challenge that I have a lot of fun with; putting this guy through a lot of abuse. (laughs)