In the lead up to the screening of cult classic THE LAST DRAGON at Rio Cinema (11 MAY 2019), Ranjit S. Ruprai got in touch with lead actor Taimak who graciously agreed to an interview. We sent New York based writer and comic Jourdain Searles to meet and chat with the man himself.
By Jourdain Searles
In 1985, director Michael Schultz, writer Louis Venosta and super producer Berry Gordy bridged the gap between blaxploitation and martial arts cinema with THE LAST DRAGON. First-time actor Taimak, pop star Vanity and character actor Julius Carry anchored the experimental film with humor, charm and just the right amount of camp. THE LAST DRAGON changed what was possible for black characters onscreen and opened up an entire world of genre-bending action comedy for black audiences. You can trace it’s lineage through films like UNDERCOVER BROTHER and BLACK DYNAMITE.
Recently, I was granted the pleasure of sitting down with the man who started it all, Taimak, to see how he feels about his cult classic starring turn over 30 years later.
What is your relationship to THE LAST DRAGON?
It’s grown over time. Years ago I kind of wanted to ostracize myself from THE LAST DRAGON. I wanted to move on. But the movie has got such a strong connection with people… it’s almost like I became their family member. So, I said to myself: “You know what? Let me reexamine my relationship to THE LAST DRAGON and all the people that love it so much.” Anywhere I go, I get so much love. So, it turned into a very wonderful thing.
Every boyfriend I’ve ever had has asked me to watch THE LAST DRAGON with them. That’s your impact. So, I had a thought. And keep in mind, I was born in 1992 so I’m not sure what it was like before. But, I think it’s fair to say that the relationship between black people and martial arts and anime can partially be attributed to the influence of THE LAST DRAGON. Have you thought much about that?
It definitely was the first film to kinda mix things up in that way. It also had a comic book way about it, and it was campy. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA did that, but it wasn’t made by black artists. THE LAST DRAGON was the first one to really do that, and plus all the music with Motown…
I would say that an entire generation of black men who are into anime are also into THE LAST DRAGON. Do you watch any anime?
Honestly, I missed out on anime. I was so focused on becoming a serious actor after THE LAST DRAGON. Being a martial artist and jumping into a craft that I didn’t know anything about… I said to myself: “This Hollywood thing I can’t figure out, but crafts I can figure out.” Learning how to cook I can figure out. Learning how to dress I can figure out. So, let me figure out acting. Studying, that was what my intention was on for many years. So, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t turn on an anime now. It’s just that, I’m so busy. But I do love anime, I’m just not a frequent fan of it.
Leroy Green is a big role. You’re the hero, you have the love interest, and you’re having to carry the film. In terms of exemplifying bravado, I think you do well. Especially considering this was your first role. I think your naiveté to acting lends to your performance, and I can really get a sense of your character arc by the end of the film. But, I wanted to know, what was it like filming the romantic scenes? You were playing a romantic lead, which a lot of male action stars tend to struggle with.
I feel I have a natural way with women onscreen. Well, in real life as well as on film. You can’t fake that kind of thing. I had great chemistry with Vanity and I also had great chemistry with Janet Jackson in the “Let’s Wait a While” video. I think you have to have a certain level of sensitivity as well as being masculine. You have to be able to have both qualities. It was great working on those scenes.
What was it like working with Vanity?
It was amazing. She was very… obviously beautiful, but she had a spirit about her. She was very… kind of like alpha, but at the same time she was playful. She was great, you know. Really wonderful person.
Did you ever hang out outside of the film?
In the beginning, we did. We actually went on some dates. But, what happened was, when we started shooting she kinda… Well, I was very young. I didn’t know how to respond to her behavior. We butt heads for a while but we made up.
Do you have a favorite memory of working with Vanity?
There’s obviously the kiss but, we also had fun in the car. It wasn’t our car. And we were driving around in a Mercedes convertible on Park Avenue and just enjoying that moment.
What kind of presence was she?
Obviously when she walked into a room guys were like puppy dogs. That’s what she didn’t like about me. I didn’t act that way. She gave me a hard time. She was very electric, dynamic and you could appreciate her charisma. It wasn’t just her beauty, she had a way about her that was… vibrating. Yeah… she was a sweetheart. It’s just that she was in over her head. So was I, I think.
Would you say that you have any similarities with Leroy Green?
The only similarity I can think of is that I had no idea about anything as far as the business was concerned. Working with snakes, and people that are out to con you. I was trained to defend myself. But as far as dealing with high-level con artists, I didn’t know how to do that.
Are there any other roles that you’ve done that are close to your heart?
Well, I wrote a few projects in the past few years. I did a short film called I’VE SEEN THINGS. It’s a drama. There’s no martial arts in it and it’s 5 minutes long. You can watch it on YouTube. And currently, I’m working on a graphic novel with the publisher of my autobiography. We’re in development.
This may be a bit out of left field but… what was it like playing Garth Parks on A DIFFERENT WORLD?
Well, Debbie Allen was following my career and she had me cast in that role. It was, to a lot of people, a turn off because they wanted to freeze me in the ice tank as Bruce Leroy. I was focusing on my craft as an actor and I did a role that was a bad guy. But a lot of fans didn’t want that.
I think it was a really great episode. A lot of people I know who are black and grew up with A DIFFERENT WORLD said it was the one episode that taught them about consent.
Well, one reason they cast me is that there were problems in the colleges… and they still deal with these problems, unfortunately. I thought the episode was a good way to call attention to that.
Would you ever revisit the role of Leroy Green if someone asked you?
I guess everything is contingent on the quality of the project. Everybody likes money, but I think quality is something we should strive for.
THE LAST DRAGON screens at MIDNIGHT EXCESS #2: VANITY Double Bill presented by SUPAKINO & The Celluloid Sorceress at Rio Cinema (11 MAY 23:00+).
Writer & comic with bylines at Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer & MTV News, & cohost of Bad Romance Podcast.
Ranjit S. Ruprai is an independent programmer & supporter of indie cinemas, film festivals & film clubs in London.
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