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Jet Li: on-screen fighter, off-screen peacemaker

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  • "I can make many movies, but I cannot make many, many babies"
  • "I think China, Tibet, Taiwan should be unified together"
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Jet Li, the multi-talented star who counts martial arts, acting and extensive humanitarian work among his many accomplishments, joined CNN's Anjali Rao for a special edition of Talk Asia filmed in front of a live audience in Hong Kong.

Movie star Jet Li poses during a break from taping CNN's Talk Asia in Hong Kong.

Movie star Jet Li poses during a break from taping CNN's Talk Asia in Hong Kong.

Li reveals how martial arts led him to Hollywood fame, his thoughts on meeting the U.S. president, his relationship with the Dalai Lama, and how the 2004 tsunami changed his perspective on life.


AR: Hello, and welcome to a very special edition of Talk Asia, filmed before a live studio audience here in Hong Kong. My guest today is the martial arts hero and movie star Jet Li, who rose from poverty in Mao's China to become a kung fu champion and Hollywood leading man. This is Talk Asia.

AR: Jet, what a brilliant career you've had so far. "The Warlords" cost $40 million to make. It's truly an epic. What was it like to work on that movie? 'Cause it had a huge cast, and a really huge budget.

JL: So (the) director tells me he want to make war movie, not martial art. I really like it, this story. After "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," you see lot big Chinese films, the photographer, everything is very pretty, like "Hero," you see that. Then you can think about it -- even killing people is very beautiful. So people: "Wow, it's very cool." Nobody think about it -- nobody think about it -- the people who die, they're suffering. They have family, they have family. So I really enjoy working with this movie. I want to show a different way to think about it. When a knife, when putting in people's body, I always guilty about it, because I walking the street around the world, the teenager only say one words "Jet Li cool, kick, kick, kick somebody!" So look like Chinese people only know kick somebody. After there is nothing. So I say, maybe before in the 40 years, I show the physical part in the movies. So in the future I really want to share something in the mind, that people, why we need to fight? Because we want to stop. wu shu, you know the words, is "stop fighting." Yeah, you don't know that? It's "stop," "weapon" -- become one words -- wu shu's "wu."

AR: We're going to talk a little bit more about you and wu shu a bit later on in the program. But in the 2002 movie "Hero" in which you starred, at the time it was the highest-grossing, most expensive Chinese film ever made, and it also was Oscar-nominated. Tell us what it was like for you being part of something that was so huge and so successful.

JL: I learned a lot from making this film, with director Zhang Yimou, because usually in the past, action film will only talk about killing each other, revenge, because you can see some character come out, and daddy died by the bad guy killed, so he learned, he go to the mountain learn 10 years martial art then come back and say, "I am back, revenge, kill you." Only personal revenge. But this movie make our imagination, our heart is much, much larger and bigger. Because when the personal revenge, you put it in the big picture. If you kill the king, you cause maybe more million people got into trouble. So by that meaning, you got to think about different way. So this movie, I think it change the movie industry. This is a very good movie.

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AR: It was absolutely huge, no doubt about that. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, this year, "War," which was your movie with Jason Statham, opened at the box office, and it didn't do well. What do you feel when that happens, when audiences don't like what you've worked so hard for?

JL: We know the director never make movie before, we already start worry about. Then they calculate only this price, only 35 million to make this kind of film. Then we hope the genius director can make something happen, better. But in the middle we already know this movie bomb, just doesn't work. So you never see I'm come out to promote the movie, because I know it doesn't work. I already know. During shooting this movie, I already know this movie doesn't work. For sure, crap.

AR: One that really did work for you obviously, was your first Hollywood foray, that was "Lethal Weapon 4." Tell us what it was like to mash a huge star like Mel Gibson to a bloody pulp.

JL: At the time, it changed my life. I didn't speak a lot of English, only maybe a few words. So I went there, they gave me the script. Then they want to do testing, want to shoot some sequences with Mel. He's a very good man, have a wonderful heart, help me a lot. The language for sure, my English is this little, but I have my heart.

AR: You turned down leading roles in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "The Matrix." Are you kicking yourself now or what?

JL: No, because Ang Lee is a friend of mine. In 1997 he write a story for me, especially for me. And then two years later they want to shoot a movie. But I say, sorry, I promise my wife 10 years ago, if we are loving each other, on a day, you know, very exciting, but if 10 years later, we still love each other like the first date, we're going to marry. If married, she have baby, I will stop all the work. So I say, sorry, we will marry and we will have a baby. So I turned down the movie. He understood. Ang Lee say ok. I say movie, I can make many movies, but I cannot make many, many babies.

AR: That's a great story. Jet, we're going to take a very short break here. Hang out with us. We'll return with Talk Asia in a couple of minutes, and when we do, we'll look at the makings of a wu shu champion. We'll examine the martial art which has driven Jet Li and made him into a household name. Stay tuned.


AR: What amazing images, they must bring back some really, really fantastic memories for you. But let's just go back before that. You came from a very poor mainland Chinese family. What was the country like at that time, as you remember it?

JL: I grew up in a very poor family. When I was 2 years old, my daddy passed away. Because of his work... because the work he passed away, the government gave me 10 RMB yuan for each children. And my mom bring five children grow up, so when I was little I already knew how to work, how to work, make money, make money, make money, because I really want to help my mom. I tried my best do everything for her, in the beginning. And before that, Chinese is a closed country, it didn't open the door to the world.

AR: So you were 8 years old when you started doing wu shu. How did it come about?

JL: My coach Wu Bin, very famous guy, he just started having talent. He just started learning martial arts. Then after six months, I slightly know martial arts have something, then I liked it, then I worked. Because if you know martial arts better, then you don't need to go to the farmer to become the... in that time.

AR: Because you did, after that, move to the wu shu school and you lived there, and you only saw your mom on the weekends. Tell us what your daily training was like.

JL: I wake up every morning 5:30 or 6 o'clock, running for 400 meters, 20 rounds. And then some little bit training and then go to have breakfast. Then take up an hour, 8:30 start training until 12. And then go to have lunch and then sleep. Sleep, wake up, read the newspaper, and after that, you have a little bit break and in the evening, and you need 7 o'clock, go to training again, until 10. After 10, you need to go to bed, every day.

AR: It sounds really, really tough.

JL: Rough, tough -- tougher than army.

AR: We saw a little bit of you at the beginning of this section on the White House lawn and meeting President Richard Nixon when you did wu shu for him at 11 years old. What was that day like for you?

JL: I remember when I was 10 years old, and the coach everybody tell me, ok you need to represent China, billion people, prepare. I have six months prepare. Everybody learn how to eat, use the knife, use something, because in China only chopsticks. So we learn everything -- how to say good morning, how to open this, you need to be polite, because every movement, billion people behind you, remember that. Wow it's very -- learning everything, everything!

And the teacher is from British training, a British teacher, teach you this, do this, it's very polite. Then I go to American, everybody nervous, then went there, then American people "Hey! Morning!" This, eat it, use their hand. Everybody wait... "So what are we going to do?" So it's very funny, because British and American is two different culture.

Then we went to the White House to see President Nixon, it's good move. Then after that every year different president comes, like President Ford, President Carter, where everybody go to China. I sleep in the school, suddenly open the door and say go, go to the airport. What? Go to the airport that night. And I realize that leader of China, Deng Xiaoping there, and sometimes Zhou Enlai, prime minister, there. The flower, put it, wait, and then the president come, I say "Welcome to China!" and then go back to sleep. I did it many times when I was children. Many times, even the president in Japan, big things, always do this kind of thing.

AR: Your first film when you came to Hong Kong from the mainland was "Shaolin Temple." You were 17 years old. What goes through your mind when you see that movie today, when you look at your first work?

JL: I still very happy. Because when I was little, just in front of the camera all the time, but I don't know how to make a movie. The director tell me to do it, I just do it. And I think movie is very important in my life, change everything, also change a lot of Chinese people. I think now still a lot of people in their memory in that when Chinese just open the door, have big action movie.

AR: You have been through some tough times during your film career. Your personal manager was murdered by the triads. That must have been absolutely horrific for you, I can't even imagine what was going through your mind at that time.

JL: In the movie, lot of story tell about. But in life, also it's like a movie. And until today, I didn't find the truth. Maybe I cannot say the truth now, maybe I'm 60 years old I will tell more detail, more story.

AR: Jet, I appreciate you sharing that with us. We're going to take another short break right here. But when we come back on this special edition of Talk Asia: Surviving the tsunami. We'll speak with Jet Li about his brush with death, and how it influenced his life off camera. Stay with us.


AR: Jet, when you were caught up in the tsunami, just recall for us what happened to you that day.

JL: 2004, almost this kind of time, yeah, which is my two daughter, one is 4, one is 2-and-a-half, they just want to go to the beach. I bring them to go to the beach, and I see the water come, I didn't realize something, you know, just water comes, and we played. Very fast, you cannot see... Not like a movie, movie always see "woo" [big wave gesture], just... [flat gesture]. The first move is here, and I thought, hmm, a lot of water, I brought my daughter, hold them and let my babysitter, the other daughter, turn back to the hotel. The second move, the water is here. Then, you already start couldn't walk... So third, already here, and then I look back, no beach, nothing, swimming pool, everything. I'm standing in the ocean.

And then I turn back, my next step, the water already here [points to mouth], and I need to hold my daughter upstairs. And I saw my babysitter already drunk water. And the next, the water took my baby and my babysitter run away. Then I yelling, "Help, help!" And the hotel is Four Seasons, a lot of people know me, so they run, a few men come out swimming, take my younger daughter. And then I walked with my daughter back. So very close, just here. I know one more, and that's it. One more and that's it.

And after that, the whole people, around 200 people there, without asking what's your country, where you're from, what's your religion, they just help each other, And I say, if I survive this time, I will change my life, because Jet Li already dead. Next move, Jet Li will show the love to the world, do everything I can to help people in the future, then I started One Foundation.

AR: It seems to really fit in perfectly with your personal faith, Tibetan Buddhism. How easy was that to do in China, given China's relations with Tibet?

JL: A lot of Tibetan famous people is my teacher. Maybe we don't want to say their name, they're my teacher but doesn't mean I agree with their politics. I think major... I don't have an opinion, but I think China, Tibet, Taiwan should be unified together. If you have a good imagination, even the world is one family. So what about Taiwan, what about Tibet? I say, I don't need to give you an opinion. Ask the U.N. How many countries agree Taiwan is part of China, how many countries agree Tibet is a part of China? Jet Li say nothing. You don't need me say, they already say it in the U.N.

AR: You've met with the Dalai Lama, what do you think about him?

JL: In 2000, I met him. I really respect, from the religion point of view, he is the master. Then I got a call, from his people, the Dalai Lama really wants to know your opinion about the 2008 Olympics. In 2000. This first time I tell you the story. I said, think about it. They just want to show the wonderful party, Olympics, to the world. Why are you against? You don't want to give them opportunity? That, I said, is my opinion. If you tell the world you want to show the love, you're really reincarnation, you know what you're doing. So after a few months, I remember, I heard, he tell all... Dalai Lama tell all his friends, stop, don't against it. I say, you don't need against, you need to support Beijing Olympics. He did, he stopped, he did.

AR: Jet, you're China's highest-paid film star, as we discussed, you're incredibly accomplished in so many...

JL: I pay a lot of taxes.

AR: Yeah, right, I know you do.

JL: A lot of people have [sic]...

AR: You've done so much in your life, but what would you say is the one true key to your success?

JL: I always say today, maybe in three words. Three... First of all, I very appreciated my mom, my dad. If no them, make me, I'm not here. The second, I really truly appreciate the country -- teach me marital arts, give me opportunity to represent China to around the world. I learned everything, built up my career. I appreciate the government. Third, I really appreciate all the human being, in the world. See, movie showing in the Middle East, Africa, everybody like Jet Li. I want to show my love. Show everything I learned, to give them back to the world.

AR: Jet, thank you so much, we're going to have to leave it there, but I really really appreciate you spending time with us today.


JL: My honor, my honor.

AR: Many thanks indeed. And thank you to our live studio audience for helping to make this such a special edition of Talk Asia. I'm Anjali Rao in Hong Kong. I'll see you again soon. Goodbye.

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