Most of Hollywood’s action icons are most noted for their performances on screen, but every so often there is someone that makes the transition from real life action hero onto the big screen. While there have been some there have been few like that of Tony Schiena. This amazing martial artist is making his way to Hollywood with a new project, but that is just part of his story. Tony is a real life action hero that travels the world training others in counter terrorism to help them better defend themselves. I had the honor to sit down and speak with him about his career in martial arts, as a mercenary and his upcoming film project Darc.
Bobby: Before getting into the rest of your career, can you tell us how you got started in the martial arts?
Tony: I grew up in South Africa and we really only had Karate. We didn’t really have any other martial art at that time. Karate really was the only martial art and that is what everyone did. We didn’t have access to Jujitsu, Tae Kwon Do or Aikido etc, so if anyone was going to do martial arts it was karate. That’s why South Africa is probably one of the strongest Shotokan nations on the planet. A National Championships can be the culmination of over a hundred fights leading up to it. My father, brother and sister were in Karate and my brother and sister were older than I was, so they were black belts before I even started, so I grew up in a family of Karate.
Bobby: So how did you transition your traditional training into the competition world?
Tony: We were very Budo orientated in our training because I grew up in an era where our instructors would go directly to Japan and the Japanese instructors would come directly to us. Our style and training was Japanese focused so when you trained in your class you would end up bleeding where in competition it was actually a lot safer. The Budo training then, is still applicable to the work I do now in hostile environments and war zones.
Bobby: When you did transition into part of being part of the National Karate team, how did that play into the direction of your life from there?
Tony: Back then, there was no real money in martial arts or in competition, not anywhere close to what you see in MMA today. We all did it for the love of it. Karate was never something I would directly make a career out of, it was something that would stay with me throughout. It is a way of life and traditional budo training in Karate or another traditional art, not only creates lethal exponents but it instills good qualities in people. It didn’t predetermine my career choice, it was just something I continued doing.
Bobby: Eventually you shifted into that more MMA style and back in the early days of that it was always more about style versus style as opposed to the amalgam that it is today. Did you start training outside of the traditional Karate to move towards that direction to explore new things?
Tony: My transition was a forced change. I was world champion when I was 25, unfortunately I had a really bad accident in Africa and broke both of my ankles. I ended up getting wheel chaired onto a plane and flown to London for surgery and that was pretty much around the time when I was supposed to defend my title, but I was laid up in a hospital bed. During that time of being confined to a hospital bed I did a lot of research because I thought, hypothetically, that if I can’t walk properly again, what was I going to do and more importantly, how was I going to defend myself? I started asking myself questions. What if I was attacked by multiple opponents and could not move the way I used to? I focused on that ideology and would get nurses to bring me books on anatomy and physiology. I was examining the human body to determine where it was weakest so that I could develop how to most effectively disable an opponent with minimal effort. When I came out of the hospital and started training again I would kick the heavy bag but because impact points of a karate kick is ball, heel and edge of your foot, I would wake up the next morning and hardly be able to walk. From there I shifted to other arts, I looked at Muay Thai because the impact point were the shins. I brought my government type training into it, together with aspects of Aikido and other arts that enabled me to hone whats most effective in hostile environments.
Bobby: After training in one style for so long, how hard was it to adapt to the other styles when often times the fundamentals and theories are so different?
Tony: Yeah in Karate you keep your distance and close the gap really quickly, but now it was in a closer distance and moving in different ways. Your kicks are launched in a different manner or you change moving in a linear manner to a circular one. You just put what you know aside and t start from the beginning and be open to new ways. Then later on you go back and you amalgamate everything to what works for you. You eventually start developing this hybrid way of doing things, but your core is always there. My core will always be Karate and if I throw a punch, instinctively, it will be a karate punch over anything else I have learned along the way, Its an inherent part of me. Now, when I teach escape and evasion tactics in warzones such as Iraq and Afghanistan and I’m faced with special forces operators who need to be unforgiving as mistakes cost lives in those environments. If they feel, what I am teaching them doesn’t work, they aren’t going to pussy foot around when it comes to expressing it.
Bobby: How did your life and career take that turn to where you are training these people in these warzone areas?
Tony: I started working in the intelligence world as a young man, fresh out of school. I was barely in college and I was recruited. As a young man, I was naive and didn’t really know what I was doing and it was kind of a sink or swim scenario where I had to learn pretty quickly and that is what I have now applied throughout. I always go back to the basics, the budo type training I grew up with, but always keep learning and improving. Depending on what is next on my agenda, I’ll train for that specifically and in training for something specific, I’ll investigate all options that could make me better. I keep training and am surrounded with tier 1 spec ops and with what’s happening in the world, with terrorism in the past decade or so, the demand for counter terrorism training in general is very high. It’s something that I find very fulfilling. For example I’ve trained an Afghan National Army unit in Northern Afghanistan, that suffered the loss of over 20 comrades to decapitations at the hands of the Taliban the week before. I was in Iraq on ISIS Kurdish front lines, training Kurdish Special Forces commanders in counter terrorism strategy including escape and evasion tactics. My security career keeps evolving and is now moving into the tech space, but there’s nothing more gratifying than being on-the-ground, in a war zone, teaching a group whose lives are really at stake and feel like you could be teaching them something that could keep them alive and bring them home.
Bobby: With you being on the frontlines working with these various groups has this put you in any situations where you are concerned for your own life?
Tony: It has. Sometimes it boils down to where your moral compass is. I have a private military company, a defense contracting company and often, the known word for that is mercenary, which has a derogatory connotation, but it is what it is. For example, with the Kurds, they were getting hit with mustard gas by ISIS so I immediately contacted the powers that be and they couldn’t react quick enough. I stuck my head out and got gas masks and got the Canadians and Jordanians involved and in the process I was very vocal about it and that ended up in the press and obviously by doing that I made friends, but I also made enemies. It made me persona non grata with the Iraqi’s and other groups. After exposing the chemical weapon usage, I had the strange experience of sitting back and observing how that information was manipulated and used. Rightfully so, it should’ve affected Obama’s red-line policy on the use of chemical warfare. The Russians also ended up descending into Syria and used as part of the argument presented to their people, ISIS used chemical weapons.
Bobby: I’m not sure you can tell us, but have you been in any situations where there were personal attacks on you that you can talk about?
Tony: Yes there are numerous but its when you are not in control thats the most frightening, like being shot at while in the Black Hawk helicopter, where you have no control, you’re just a passenger, or when I was a young kid, out of school, recruited into the murky intelligence world and didn’t realize the dangerous situations I was in, ignorance was bliss I guess. This last trip to Iraq, I was 20 miles from Mozul, an ISIS stronghold and about a mile from an ISIS forward operating base that had snipers hitting the base I was on, constantly. Within half an hour of me being there, a visiting advisory group consisting of US and German officials took sniper fire. Within half an hour, US Air Force jets bombed that ISIS frontline base, so you are in the thick of it and its happening around you. It can be very dangerous and for me, the most dangerous thing about Iraq, is not being stuck in the crossfire of bullets and missiles but the political crossfire. You have two superpowers on the ground, one supporting Assad, the other against him, a very dangerous situation, besides the other players in the region.
Bobby: Now you are taking these skills to Hollywood and normally I would ask how hard it was to transition, but I can’t imagine anything is hard for you at this point.
Tony: (laughs) Yeah it’s when people complain about not having a certain food and there are others that have none. It’s that extreme reality to extreme bullshit. I am very lucky that I can do that and have gotten to make a movie that I have always wanted to make and can live life with a solid foot in reality and the other one in an unreality. It’s a good balance and I am very lucky to be able to do that. I do see it for what it is and making movies is a very difficult thing business wise and we are fortunate that we made that happen. My work in the real world will never cease however, I feel its important and necessary and therefore, selfishly, its gratifying. This morning I was live on FOX news in New York with regards to the Russian spy that was poisoned by Putin, which was something I had intimate knowledge of as I aided Putin’s number one enemy at the time. A few days later I was live on CNN Head Line News due to an active shooter incident. Its good to know that your opinion on life-and-death situations, matter to the news media.
Bobby: How did this film project come about?
Tony: I wrote DARC many years ago but it was a difficult process as I spent very little time in Los Angeles as I got so busy with my security endeavors, but I had an old friend who is now my business partner in a production company and he made a lot of great action movies. He is responsible for the Steven Seagal franchise and that is Julius Nasso and he approached me and said hey why don’t we try and do this? He used to say “ you have all the credentials and do it for real so why don’t you just do it on the screen”. To me, I thought if we can make this work it is easy money and I am all about easy money. (laughs) Compared to my “day job” that is…
Bobby: There is a real difference between training martial arts, movie martial arts and executing them in the real world and war situations which you now do all of. How hard was it to transition the martial arts onto the screen because it goes against every way you do it in your daily life?
Tony: Yes, from Karate and the other arts and security training I did, you try and throw it all together to determine what really works in these hostile environments. Then you end up in film and you go in a completely different direction to make your moves more cinematic. When I was confined to a hospital bed, I tried to decipher the most direct way to disable, maim or kill an opponent, with the least effort, moves that were basic, quick and simple, it was, of course, so uncinematic. Now you have to go the other direction and make it cinematic. You train Special Forces in foreign war zone and then you are training SWAT inside the U.S. for something else and then you are on a movie set and have to adapt to that. In the case of film, you just have to listen to your director and fight coordinator and if they tell you that it’s not going to look good on camera. I tell them I am not going to exaggerate my punch, that it is ridiculous and will look stupid. They tell me no, on camera it will look different and then you have to go with that and listen to the experts and sometimes just sit back and take some advice.
Bobby: I know you are not leaving the other world behind, but is this something you want to do more of or was it just something you wanted to try?
Tony: If this movie works and I can make good money out of it then terrific, its a creative outlet. I would keep my security company and try and balance both. One thing I know is that we made the movie that I want to see. I don’t have time to watch a lot of movies, but if I had seen the trailer to DARC, then I would want to know when this movie is coming out. It’s an edgy, hyper violent, action thriller. There are no cheesy lines or heavy clichés. It’s a fast paced action film about the Japanese mob. I made the movie I wanted to see and hope the public feels the same.
Bobby: I know you are not doing official publicity on the film yet, but can you tell us anything else about the movie like who is in it?
Tony: We will be moving quickly with locking in distribution as I’m confident we have a good movie. DARC is centered around the Japanese mob and therefore we shot in Japan as we wanted as much authenticity as possible. We have Japanese stars like Kippei Shiina, years ago he starred in an American movie called Rain with Gary Oldman. Tetsu Watanabe is another well-known Japanese star and he plays the godfather of the Yakuza.. In America we have Armand Assante who is a tremendous veteran actor who won the Golden Globe for playing John Gotti who is also a very close friend for many, many years. It’s not your average action movie. You being a Tae Kwon Do practitioner are familiar with Korea, I am a huge fan of Korean cinema and those are the movies I watch when I have the time. DARC is inspired by Korean filmmaking, its edgy, pushes the limits, it’s violent.
Bobby: I know they always have the fight choreographers on these films, but did you get to do a lot of work with them on this or just let them do it and play it towards your strengths?
Tony: We had a great fight choreographer, Brett Chan, who went on to work on the Netflix series Marco Polo. The director that we hired is probably one of the best action guys around. Nick Powell was responsible for the action on The Bourne Identity, Gladiator, The Last Samurai, and so much more.
Under Nick’s guise the fight choreographer would choreograph and then I would come in and would say let’s try it this way because it won’t work for the way I move so let’s change that or I just won’t do that move because it is too far out of what I believe. So we just came to this happy kind of medium and you just have to let those that really know, advise you.
Bobby: Being a martial artist and seeing what you do with it, it is inspiring to see someone take that training and do something for the world with it as opposed to keeping it to themselves. I think you are a true hero and inspiration.
Tony: Thanks I appreciate that.
Be on the lookout for Darc coming soon!!!