Jackie Chan
“my audience didn’t like special effects. so I had to go back to my traditional ways and risk my life to do the things I do.”

Jackie Chan

The legendary actor explains why he really does jump off buildings—and why he sometimes thinks he’s crazy.

Jackie Chan has a permanent hole in his head from a stunt accident and has been an emergency-room regular, but he continues to perform death-defying stunts to get the perfect shots for his action movies. A passionate advocate for realism in film, he insists that his fellow actors execute their own stunts, too—albeit while wearing plenty of padding. His later films include outtakes of his on-set accidents run under the closing credits. He cannot get insurance in the U.S.

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Born in Hong Kong in 1954, Chan emigrated with his family to Canberra, Australia, in early 1960. Since he was a reluctant student, his father sent him back to Hong Kong to attend the grueling China Drama Academy—one of the Peking Opera Schools—where he excelled. After being offered a tiny role as a stunt player in a film, Chan left the Opera and his career took a different direction.

At age 17, he worked as a stuntman in Bruce Lee films. By the 1980s, he had starred in action movies produced in Hong Kong and, by the early ’90s, he had achieved ­phenomenal success in Asia. U.S. acclaim followed with the comedy Rush Hour, where he acted alongside comedian Chris Tucker. Chan, who often produces and ­directs his own work, is also a major recording star in Asia.

Today he is a household name around the globe. His business ventures include everything from a brand of clothing and a chain of sushi restaurants to fitness gyms and a line of chocolates. He donates a percentage of the profits from all his businesses to charity. He is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and has campaigned against animal abuse and pollution. He has also given financial aid to schools and universities around the world and assisted with disaster-relief efforts.

In March of this year, Chan took delivery of the first Embraer Legacy 650 corporate jet to go to China. He intends to use the aircraft—which sports livery he designed—to promote both his artistic work and his charitable endeavors.

Why did you wait until recently to acquire a jet?
The aviation market in China was not mature enough for me to get involved until now. I first spoke about owning an aircraft with friends a decade ago. We discovered there were so many problems: maintenance, training, safety, registration, spare parts and customer support. Now, 10 years later, I can see the China market booming. Before, you could see lots of empty parking spaces at the airports, but now I’m counting 15 jets on the apron.

Why did you agree to be a brand ambassador for Embraer?
I have to be very careful about which products I endorse. I won’t do medicine, for example. When some big brands ask me to do a commercial for a car, for instance, I say no, because I’ve been promoting Mitsubishi for 30 years. How would it be if suddenly somebody gave me some money to say, “yes, this other car is best”? People would not trust me anymore. Money is important, but for me it is not that important. 

Now that you have a Legacy 650, are you looking at a Lineage next?
I am not looking at the next one now. I am enjoying this one. But I have seen the Lineage and it looks great. That’s my next goal, because I can get more people and more stuff onboard if something happens like the tsunami in Japan. I want to be the first one to get there.

Your stunts have made you famous worldwide, and you are known as the King of Action. How do you feel about computer-generated imagery? Is there a place for the work you do alongside computer graphics?
I think that’s the future for people who don’t know how to do real action. Many people use special effects with stunt doubles and look almost better than I do. However, my audience doesn’t like seeing me do those things. They want to see Jackie Chan doing real stunts. I prefer to do Kung Fu stunts. You see some actors who seem to jump from a thousand feet, but actually they are on the ground. They act as though they are scared, but they are not very high up.

Sometimes I look at myself and think I’m crazy—I really do jump from the building. That’s why my movies show so many outtakes. I like to show you what I am doing. Once I got some money, I bought some special-effects equipment, but I realized my audiences didn’t like that. So I had to go back to my traditional ways and risk my life to do the things I do.

What was the routine like at the Peking Opera School?
We had to get up at 4 a.m. when we were still really sleepy. Then we had to carry a pot of water that was totally full, and move around, with sort of Qigong movements where you bend your knee. When 100 people are running, it is not like ordinary running or walking. We had to move very carefully and not spill the water. The teacher stayed in the middle, and if you got wet he would [mimes punch]. That’s how we trained—with 500 kicks and 1,000 punches. Many times we wanted to stop.

It was a martial-arts school and sometimes we had to stand still for an hour—often with an object on our hands. [Here, Chan placed an ashtray on his hand and stopped dead still.] After one hour, we could move for 10 seconds, then we had to stop again for sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes 50—whatever the teacher felt like making us do. That would be the whole morning and onwards. Sometimes this would last until midnight, then we went to sleep and got up again.

You run a stunt school now. Are you a bit kinder with your students than your teachers were with you?
Today is not like the old days, although I rather like the old days in some respects because of some of the discipline and thrift we learned. I think once my generation has gone, we won’t see people who do this sort of work anymore. Now safety is very important and insurance is very expensive. Even when the actors want to do stunts, the studios and directors won’t let them. I control myself in China. When I’m making American films they control me, so this is why I directed my latest film myself. I want to show the audience that Jackie Chan is coming back.

As a child, did you imagine you would be living the life you live today?
Honestly, even today I sometimes look in the mirror and say, “Jackie, you’re a really lucky boy.” If there is a God he really looks after me.

Wherever I go in the whole world I have a huge audience. They never say,  “Jackie, I want to challenge you,” which happened regularly to Bruce Lee. They say, “Jackie, are you OK? Make sure you don’t hurt yourself.” Once after a 12-hour drive in the middle of an African village at nighttime when I went to the bathroom with a shotgun and a torch light, in case of tigers, children followed me out and did this [makes Kung Fu moves]. I’m really lucky.

Why do you think no one challenges you to a fight?
I have a very friendly image. That’s my personality. So many people have helped me that I want to help back. I think any human being, but especially celebrities, should do that. You teach people good things and they follow you. I have realized for a long time that as celebrities we have a responsibility to society—especially to children. Children look at you as an idol and whatever you do they will follow you. When you do charity work they will do charity work. When I say send something, they really do send me money. Even now, every day children send me money. I say to them, “You send me a dollar and I will give two dollars.”

If I teach bad things, children will follow me with bad things. This is why when I make a movie I’m very careful. There are no “F words,” and there’s no real violence. There is lots of action and lots of comedy, but no dirty comedy. I care about kids and I care about the world—and people care about me.

How has flying privately helped with your charity work?
A couple of years ago, China had a terrible earthquake. I was the first one to charter a private jet and go in. No planes were allowed to go in, but somehow because of the relationships I have I was able to get a plane. When I got there I could not help everyone, but I could give them confidence and tell them that people would take care of them. Even when they were suffering so badly I was able to cheer them up a little.

I then chartered a Boeing 737 and flew in 130 tons of food. I wanted to do more, since I am a UN ambassador but I had to stop [as the aircraft was no longer available]. I knew then if I had a private plane of my own it would be easier.

Aiding education and children seems to be particularly important to you. Why is that?
When I was young, my father did not have the money to send me to school. I know how important education is. Even though I read Chinese, it was difficult for me. I also taught myself English. I see so many children who want to go to school and don’t have the money. In China this can cost just 200 to 300 RMB a year [about $32 to $48]. I thought, “Why don’t I just have just one less meal [a day]? Then I can support 40 or 50 children.” Slowly I got used to it, and I always ask people to give me money to help.

I want everybody to do this together. I’m not that rich. There are many things I can do, but if you get everybody together to do it, this would be easy. We only have seven billion people in the world. If three and a half billion were to help the other half, there would be no more poor people.

Will you use your jet to help promote your new film?
Yes, that is why I have planned to release it on Dec. 12, 2012 at 12 o’clock—12, 12, 12. The first event will be in Beijing at midnight, then I will go to Taiwan for noon, then at 12 at night to Hong Kong. When you have a jet, you can do these things. The story is about 12 zodiac heads that went missing and I get hired to retrieve them from all around the world. There’s an enormous amount of locations from Paris to Asia, and amazing action. It’s a real Jackie Chan action movie.

You are a strong family man. How do you manage to keep your family going when you’re so busy?
Sadly, 20 years ago a young girl committed suicide when she discovered I was married, so my wife and son had to hide away. I’m now able to pay them back by spending time with them. Private jets give me the privacy to do that.

Fast Facts

NAME: Born Chan Kong-sang, he was dubbed “Little Jack” by coworkers on a construction site in 1976. The name was later shortened to “Jack,” the moniker he has used ever since.
BORN: April 7, 1954, in Hong Kong
PROFESSION: Actor, martial artist, stunt performer, film producer and director, screenwriter, choreographer, singer, businessman, philanthropist
TRANSPORTATION: Owns Embraer Legacy 650. Also charters.
PERSONAL: Married to Feng-Jiao Lin since 1982. Son Jaycee Chan is 29.