Jason Statham shoots down his tough image

The third instalment of The Expendables stars (from right) Antonio Banderas, Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes.
The third instalment of The Expendables stars (from right) Antonio Banderas, Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes.
While filming The Expendables 3, Jason Statham (left) almost died when the brakes on a truck he was riding failed and the vehicle fell into the Black Sea.
While filming The Expendables 3, Jason Statham (left) almost died when the brakes on a truck he was riding failed and the vehicle fell into the Black Sea.PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE, REUTERS, 20TH CENTURY FOX, SHAW

Action star Jason Statham denies being a tough guy, but his escape from a sinking truck impresses

Jason Statham swears he is not a tough guy - he just plays one on screen.

He tries to convince Life! of this while talking about his new film, The Expendables 3, in which he plays, well, a professional tough guy.

It is a bit hard to believe him, though. Before the interview at a Los Angeles hotel, a couple of reporters waiting to chat to the 47-year-old are whispering in the hallway: One of them heard that the actor got a little short-tempered with another journalist a few minutes ago.

But the trepidation vanishes as soon as he arrives. Yes, the muscles straining against his shirt and that East London- accented rumble suggest that he could probably snap your neck in two if he were so inclined.

The eyes, however, are full of mirth and mischief. Life! is only halfway through a question about whether the image he has cultivated on screen - whether it is playing a mercenary in all three Expendables films (2010-2014) or a gangster in Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998) - ever works against him when meeting people in real life, and the actor is already grinning from ear to ear.

"I don't know - what do they expect? What, that I'll just pull out one of my big knives?" he says, chuckling.

"You know the thing about the movies is, it's the theatre of the mind. We're not supposed to be those guys, you know? We can't do what The Expendables can do. We've got a few skills up our sleeves and I think we're physically capable, but there are a lot of things that happen on screen that we only wish we could do."

He praises his lesser-known co-stars on the film for having the real-world toughness that most actors lack.

"A lot of the people that are hired on this movie are very physical," he says, pointing to mixed martial arts champions Ronda Rousey, 27, and Randy Couture, 51, and champion boxer Victor Ortiz, 27, who play junior members of the elite group of mercenaries known as The Expendables.

"Ronda Rousey is an incredibly gifted athlete who is something of a phenomenon. There's never been anyone like her before - for someone to be so feminine and yet so incredibly tough, it's unique. And Randy Couture - he's won the World Ultimate Fighting Championship several times in different weights. Incredible.

"They have a physicality that's authentic. And you don't get to do what they did at drama school, you know? While someone's learning how to recite Shakespeare, these guys are banging themselves around."

Yet, as his co-stars - which include action-movie veterans Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford - tell it, Statham may be just as impressive.

Stallone and others have revealed that the actor had a near-death experience on set when the brakes on a three-tonne truck he was riding failed, causing it to careen off a dock and into the Black Sea.

Statham's insistence on doing an extra test-drive that day meant that several of his castmates, who were due to film a scene on the vehicle, were spared this fate - which Stallone believes would have killed a less capable swimmer.

Thankfully, the Englishman is an "Olympic-quality diver", says Stallone, referring to the fact that Statham was once on the British national diving team, representing England in the sport at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland and coming 12th in the World Championships two years later.

Asked about the incident, the actor delivers the gripping account matter-of-factly.

"When the brakes failed, it was literally a second before I hit two cameramen and thought I'd killed them.

"As soon as I could react, I was over the edge of the dock. And it's the Black Sea, which is the worst sort of diesel- infused ocean - you can't see a thing.

"As I hit the water, the truck was sinking immediately and I never had a chance to take a breath. I done scuba-diving hundreds of times all over the world, I've done free-diving with 'Pipin' Ferreras, the Cuban champion, so I'm good underwater, you know?

"But all of a sudden, you realise you're underwater and you have empty lungs and you're sinking fast. That's when the panic sets in. I'm trapped behind the wheel and I've got gun belts, boots, jackets and things that are getting in the way, and I'm just feeling around for where the gap is in the window to try and pull myself out and free myself from the truck."

He eventually freed himself, but describes the whole experience as "nightmarish".

"I was literally clawing at the water, opening my mouth and taking in gallons of this disgusting drink," he says, adding that his mind was "like a metronome", swinging between "You're going to die" and "No, no, no, get composure, I have to stay alive".

"Yeah, it was very bad, I wouldn't recommend that," he says with a wry smile.

Yet this was not nearly enough to make him think about giving up the pretend-action-man business, which he plans on being in for a very long time.

This despite racking up box-office flops such as last year's action thrillers Parker and Homefront, and the fact that his limited dramatic range has rarely wowed the critics.

The notable exceptions are his early work on the stylish crime capers Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch (2000) and Revolver (2005), all of which were directed by Guy Ritchie. The two met when Statham was modelling for fashion label French Connection after being spotted by an agency during his dive training.

Since the Ritchie collaborations, Statham has, in fact, become something of a franchise specialist, with fingers in many of the most lucrative ones around, including all The Expendables and The Transporter movies (2002-2008), in which he played a driver for hire.

He will soon reprise his hitman role in The Mechanic (2011) and appear in The Fast & The Furious 7 (he had an uncredited part in last year's Fast 6).

And there may be bigger things ahead. Last week, a major film producer in China announced plans to make an action movie with the star that would be tailored for Chinese audiences.

Statham himself says he has been gestating an idea for such a film ever since he worked with actress Shu Qi and director Corey Yuen on The Transporter in 2002, and bonded with them over "shared interests and tastes in films".

Looking at the recent slew of action films starring older men such as Stallone (The Expendables films and Grudge Match, 2013), Schwarzenegger (The Last Stand, 2013) and Liam Neeson (Taken, 2008; Taken 2, 2012), the actor says he feels heartened.

"I just think a man is a bit more worldly, a bit more grounded, a bit more experienced as he gets older. You get a few more wrinkles, you get a bit more of an attitude," says the actor, who has been dating English model Rosie Huntington- Whiteley, 27, for four years.

"I look at some of the movies Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood were in… for a lot of these guys, their best years were their later years.

"I think it's encouraging."


The Expendables 3 opens in Singapore tomorrow.