Interview with Michel Qissi
Martial Arts magazine: March, 1998
by TMAN Freelance Writer Ben Smith
Michel Qissi may not be a household name yet but in martial arts circles it is one name that is certainly drawing attention. You may know Michel as "Tong Po" in the film "Kickboxer". As boyhood friends he and Jean-Claude Van Damme became intrigued with movies and martial arts. Quite an exciting combination.
It takes guts to travel to America to find that certain dream. But they did and despite the usual "Don't call us we'll call you" attitude they sometimes received, they did persevere and won the battle for themselves and what they believed in. Michel Qissi has much more to say about that battle here this month in TMAN's Martial Arts Magazine.
BS: Michel Qissi, it is an extreme pleasure to discuss your career. Can you first tell us when and where the Martial Arts entered your life? (At what age?)
MQ: I was about seven years old and doing English style boxing at the time when I met another boy with many of the same interests as me who was doing Shotokan Karate, we began to show each other the techniques from the other ones system. That's really when I started learning the martial arts.
BS: You were an action film lover...Any particular heroes that you tried to emulate?
MQ: I admired many heroes, but I have always felt that you have to be your own person and not try to be like anyone else. It is a good idea to learn from other great people, but don't try to be them. Everyone has their own special gifts which they must discover and nourish..
BS: You and friend Jean-Claude Van Damme had the same dreams. How did you meet?
MQ: He was the boy I mentioned who was doing the Shotokan Karate. We grew up together with the same love for action films and training in martial arts and boxing. We went to see the action movies together and trained for the goal of one day being great action film stars ourselves.
BS: What style of martial arts have you trained in?
MQ: I have trained mainly in Shotokan, but also Muay Thai boxing and kickboxing.
BS: Did you get most of your training in Europe?
MQ: Yes, most of the training has been in Europe. When I was 17, I was the amateur champion boxer in my weight class. I studied Muay Thai in Thailand and of course some training in the States.
BS: You have a great story about how you got into film work. Can you tell us how that adventure began?
MQ: Yes. Basically, in 1982 I came to Hollywood together with Jean-Claude Van Damme in search of a career as an action star. We endured some very hard times over the next four years. We worked many odd jobs, often slept on the beach, and still continued to trainand hung in there until 1986 when we got our first big roles in Bloodsport with Cannon pictures. After that we signed a contract for three more movies and it went on from there.
BS: What was your first film role? How did that come about?
MQ: Bloodsport was the first major film for us. We managed to obtain an interview with Mr. Golan from Cannon pictures. Once we got there, Jean-Claude did his famous splits between two chairs, but Golan was not impressed. After a while he had seen enough and told us he didn't think we were right. I told him he was making a big mistake because Jean-Claude was working on a big picture at the time with Arnold Schwartzenegger. This caught his attention and he had his secretary call over to 20th Century to confirm the story. Sure enough the agent at 20th Century said that there was a Jean-Claude Van Damme playing the role of the villain in the movie with Schwartzenegger. What the agent didn't say was that the villain was a monster and that Jean-Claude was in a costume which covered his face. Golan gave us chance after hearing that and that is really where everything began to happen for us.
BS: Bloodsport is where your first lead role came about, but it was almost shelved. How was it rekindled to the point of staggering success?
MQ: Yes, we were very disappointed at first. Our fist big movie and it was sitting in the drawer! So Jean-Claude and I decided to market the film ourselves. We met some Malaysian film producers at the Milan film festival who were interested in releasing the film in Malaysia. The movie was a huge success there and when Golan heard about it he decided to try a release on the west coast of the United States, which met with total success.
BS: Of course you were and still are known as Tong-Po from the movie Kickboxer. Since the make up was so well done, did any of your friends even recognize you?
MQ: Even my mother did not recognize me.(ha ha ha) Some people knew my body movements from when they had seen me box, but not the face.
BS:Tell us about the other movies you were in and do you consider yourself a martial artist first and actor second or just the opposite or both?
MQ: Well my first love goes back to the movies. I also love to train but my main ambition is the creative side, the directing, and the choreography. I have worked on the choreography for many of the fight scenes which I was in, as well as others and really enjoy the creative process and working with the fighters and directing.
BS: Do you feel more comfortable behind the camera as a fight choreographerproducer/director or are you more at home as an on screen actor?
MQ: .I feel at home on both sides of the camera. I am more interested in the more creative side now, directing and choreography but not so much producing. Of course I am involved in all aspects of making the films now. I am very interested in making a good quality film first so I have to make sure that everything from the casting to the editing is done right so that the final product comes out just right.
BS: What do you see in the future for martial arts? Do you think fans are getting tired of those violent revenge type films? Is there more that can be realized for the softer world of martial arts like the losophy/hope/dreams?
MQ: I like movies which send a strong message, like COMA, the one I am working on now, especially to the young people. I believe that the softer side of the martial arts, and the philosophy can help build the hopes and dreams and make young people realize that anything is possible. Movies have to show the social problems of today so that everyone can relate to them but they must also show a viable solution to the problems and give the people hope. They must show the positive side of things as well.
BS: What is in the future for Michel Qissi?
MQ: Only God Knows, I hope to do as many movies as possible, but it must be done right. I look for results. I am interested to send messages to the new generation, and also help the old understand the young. I think the old and the young have a lot to offer one another.
BS: Tell us more about WCCF.
MQ: The World Cinema Combat Federation is an organization which I have formed together with Grand Master Beom Jhoo Lee to teach people how we do fight scenes in the movies. The WCCF is training instructors to teach Cinema Combat(tm) to martial artists who are interested to be action movie stars. There are lots of people out there who know they can be great action stars but do not know where to start or how to get going. The WCCF is a great way to go. Movies have to show all kinds of people so that everybody can have someone to relate to on the screen, so there is room for every kind of face and body to be action stars as well.
BS: What would you tell someone really interested in a career in action films?
MQ: It is not impossible, but you must work, step by step. Take some acting classes, train in the martial arts find an organization like the WCCF that can help get you started in the right direction. Put together strong demo tape and give it out only when you feel it is really strong and you are ready. Contact directors to send the tape to because they are the ones who can help you.
BS: Michel, thank you again for the opportunity to interview you and best of luck with your future with WCCF and the film industry.
MQ:Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you.