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Interview with Steve Tartalia : another gweilo bites the dust
A gweilo in HK 1/1 - Page 1
Info
Author(s) : Arnaud Lanuque
Date : 16/10/2005
Type(s) : Interview
 
 Intext Links  
People :
Jeff Falcon
Bruce Fontaine
Ken Goodman
Mark Houghton
Jonathan Isgar
Mark King
John Ladalski
Robin Shou Wan Bo
Robert Tai Chi Hsien
Steve Tartalia
Sharon Yeung Pan Pan
Movies :
Casino Raiders
Death Cage
Princess Madam
 
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The period between the late 1980s and the early 1990s was euphoric for the Hongkong movie industry. Films were chain-produced and supported by an enthusiastic audience. Within this specific context,a small number of actors/stuntmen/ martial artists from the West (gweilos) tried to develop their own career and be a part of this cinematic extravaganza. Their expectations were probably too high. Victims of the mid-1990s film industry crisis and of the lack of support from the industry and the audience, most of them left HK or even the cinema field. But they left behind a bunch of movies as proof of their competence. Steve Tartalia is one of them. Fighting his way in brilliant movies such as Once Upon A Time In China or Operation Condor, he's become a respected stuntman in Hollywood.

Background and coming in HK

HKCinemagic : We have contradictory information on your background, for some you've grown up in Los Angeles and for the others you come from New York . Can you clear it up for us, as well as this information that your grand father created “the Hollywood Reporter”.
Steve Tartalia : a) I swung from a lot of tree vines in the jungle swamps of Orlando Florida as an enfant terrible with some time in the Carolinas but for the most part I grew up in L.A. Later on out of school, I moved to New York for a good number of years where I worked in the music biz in many capacities co-running the ‘Kiss army fan club' for one and studied (as a hobby) acting with the Stella Adler conservatory, and as a line chef in a ‘nouvelle California' style restaurant.

b) Billy Wilkerson was the creator of the Hollywood reporter. Thomas Seward (my grandfather) was ‘co-publisher/general manager' and as such had a part ownership in the Hollywood reporter' as well as Wilkerson's partner & manager in a few famous restaurant/club ‘hotspots' i.e.; Tracadero's, Ciro's, and ‘The Flamingo' in Vegas (before Bugsy Siegel and his mafia forced them out).

 
HKCinemagic : You were very fond of sports. Did you study martial arts as well in the US ? Did this sport background help you to practice your own stunts (I noticed you are less doubled than the usual westerners when coming to falls in HK movies)?
S T : Yes, Tremendously. ‘Northern Shaolin Eagle Claw' with Shum Leung in Nyc for six years intensively and Larry Tans ‘Strange Dazzling Hands' which is an obscure vagabond art from Taiwan loosely based around Fukien version of 5 animal style. Before knowing master Tan, I would spy on his rooftop training/teaching in the next high rise building over from mine, and try surreptitiously to copy his moves undetected… Of course he caught me and we became friends and eventually, his student. This was real life imitating kung fu movies. Also the key for me was a background in gymnastics and ‘high dive' as a kid growing up. Air sense, and ability to hit the ground hard over and over come from those endeavours. In Hollywood Stunt lingo, I am what is called an ‘acrobatic ground-pounder'.
 
HKCinemagic : What lead you to HK and how did you find yourself involved in the local film industry?
S T : After a year of modelling in France , Italy , and Spain -(1988)- I ended up doing club security in LA wondering -‘what the hell am I doing?' when I get a call from NY… ‘How would you like to star in a Kung Fu Movie?'… The next day I was on a plane to Chaing Mai Thailand, to work on a Robert Tai film, ‘Death Cage' with Robin Shou, Joe Lewis, and master Sken. Among many others was ‘Kung Fu John' (Ladalski) who after filming was completed, and months of island hopping in the south Thai seas healing a broken hand said; ‘come to Hong Kong'- you will do well!'… I did go, found John, he gave me his flat for a month, a list of companies, advices… and I worked for the next three years. Thanks again kung fu John!!!

Being a "gweilo" in hk industry

HKCinemagic : In town and in movies, you often worked with several westerners, people like Mark Houghton, Jonathan Isgar, Bruce Fontaine, … How was it between all of you? Did you feel a real solidarity or, on the contrary, everyone was trying to compete with each other?
S T : It's like how I imagine the French Foreign Legion would be… a bunch of talented mercenary soldiers with healthy egos all vying for a few ‘plum' jobs. On set we may work well together but not go out for drinks later. When ‘kungfu John' first introduced me to Bruce he was like… ‘oh merde, another gweillo here to suck up my work' but then we became fast friends. My modus operandi was… If I get in something and see another opening, then I'll hook you up best that I can. In exchange, you might do the same for me…. Some were happy to get your tips/help and never return favour. You learn who your friends are. Jonathan, John L, Bruce, Ken Goodman, Mark King, Mark Houghton…we all were to varying degrees good friends. Though to be friends with Mark Houghton' over time, one had to get into a good ‘punch up' or two over something stupid (my kung fu is better than yours, and/or girls). Later he would go out of his way to look after you for picking a fight, out of remorse. ‘heh heh heh'… crazy guy/big heart!
 

Mark Houghton, Michiko Nishiwaki, Jeff Falcon, Steve Tartalia and Vincent Lynn in Outlaw Brothers
 
HKCinemagic : Was there any plan of taking more responsibility in the industry or were all of you just happy to be martial artists/actors?
S T : At the time it seemed enough to be just…'living the dream'. Also the realities at the time seemed to limit me to just that, i.e.: tourist visa status… I do regret not having paid closer attention to rigging and hk directorial technique as I had a lot to brush up on and relearn later in the usa .
 
HKCinemagic : Jeff Falcon said “For a Chinese producer, a westerner is a prop you must feed”. Did you feel like that too?
S T : Yes! Not always though. I'll never forget that on my first HK job as a henchman in Casino Raiders, the second assistant director shouted at me for using a tea cup from the ‘Chinese tea cup area'. She then screamed and pointed to a beat up chewed on Styrofoam cup and informed me that was for all of us ‘foreign devils' to share…
 
HKCinemagic : Were there differences in the way you were treated by the local stuntmen, local actors or technical crew?
S T : I found early on with Robert Tai in Thailand that to do your job well, don't waste film stock on lazy mistakes and you'll be treated well. The stuntmen would in general ignore you until you did something that earned their respect. The actors like anywhere, often think they're ‘gods gift' knowing a bit of their work and background flatters them and then they're nice. On ‘Princess Madam' Sharon Yeung Pan Pan would stop the camera rolling until she wiped the sweat away from my eyes. Maybe because I paid respects to her and a few well timed flirty compliments... Loved her.
 
HKCinemagic : Was it difficult to adapt to the speed of HK choreography?
S T : Thanks to kung fu training, not difficult. Eagle claw's vocabulary and rhythm in two man-training forms made me feel very familiar right away. The challenge for me was performing long takes with multiple back and forth reactions and to keep the appropriate rhythm and pace. In doing so, was the fun of it and pure Zen for me! Even though most choreographies for gweilos was not supposed to be like the ‘superior' kung of the hero, it almost always had a sort of ‘long fist' rhythm.
 
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