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Stunts Are Physical Storytelling: Maggie Q on The Protégé

For "The Protégé," Maggie Q drew on her own experience as a protégé of the legendary Jackie Chan to understand the relationship between her character, Anna, and her mentor, played by Samuel L. Jackson. In an interview, she talked about what she learned from Chan and how choreographing a fight scene is as much about acting as it is about action.

Is it possible to act while you're fighting somebody? Are you conveying character and plot as you as you consider each move?

Oh, 100 percent yes! Everything. If you could witness the discussions we had of, "Okay, this is where she came from. This is where she's going, this is how she feels through it. And herein lies the reason why we're designing the action scene this way." It's very purposeful. Really, what you're doing with stunts is physical storytelling. There's a lot of planning that goes into what that story is within the physicality that takes us to the next part of the film, carries them through. And so, the discussions are endless and the physicality changes all the time based on, "What's her history? What's her skill set?" All of it is factored in. "Was she special ops, was she not? Was she ever military? Was she ever this? Or that?" And all of that is factored in. "Nope, she can't do that. She didn't have that skill, blah, blah, blah." It's on and on.

One of the highlights of the film is an improbably flirtatious but very intense fight between Anna and the character played by Michael Keaton. That had to be a very tricky tone to navigate.

We were weaving in these moments as they're building their relationship before that scene. And that fight, them being in that close physical proximity, was the first time they've ever really gotten that intimately close. And that build in their relationship to the end of the fight—we carved out these moments for them to be able, especially for him, to be utterly confused fighting for his life, and yet not really knowing where he was going to come out on the other end. She's a dangerous person and that is part of the attraction. Like she said, if she wanted to kill him, she would have. 

It made me think of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the way in their first dance numbers in each film they each see that the other is the first person they've found who is at their level.

Yes! 100 percent. That's amazing. That's perfect. Yes, that's quite right. 

Your character is a paid assassin, but she also owns a beautiful bookstore. Why is that so important to her?

Because of the way she's lived, how she was brought up, what her experiences have been. On some fundamental level, she totally understands that everything is impermanent. There's that moment when she takes what she needs from the safe in the bookstore. She grabs all of her passports. She is ready to go all the time. And although that may hurt her, and that may be something that obviously offers a huge instability void in her life, I think for her it is just the fact of her life. And she never shows it, she never really talks about that store getting destroyed the way that it did, but that was a big deal for her. It was not just her cover. It really was her love and her inspiration. But I think that she expected on some level that one day it would be taken away from her like everything else has been. 

It was a very beautiful place that we built. It was heartbreaking to see it destroyed. 

Anna's sense of loss and isolation is clear but she does not talk about her feelings. So how do you convey that? 

She doesn't talk much about those things and neither did Sam's character. And when you see the man who raised her, you see them together and you get where it comes from. There's this real unspoken thing with them, and I think that sometimes when you don't say things it can speak volumes, and they do have that. They have that quiet understanding. I think that sometimes it's as important what you don't say and what you do. 

The movie is called "The Protégé," not "The Adopted Daughter." So we know that their relationship is affectionate but they are not really family.

That's right. It's to stand alone in that way. 

You were a protégé of superstar Jackie Chan. Did you draw on that in creating the character of Anna? 

I was around him for years. And he's the type of person who has earned everything that he has because he is one of the hardest-working men that I've ever been around. I took that example. Certainly, when I was really young, not even coming up in the business at that time, I wasn't really doing much in the business, I was just starting out. And so having that example, and that person who just never lived in that space of privilege, or expected that everything was going to be done for him, who was always hustling—it made a big impression on me. 

There was never a situation where he took anything for granted. The focus was constant. It was always there. There's no lazy, there's no expected, there's no "My job is just going to be done for me." And that's the biggest thing, that's the biggest takeaway. 

Anna has some very impressive costumes in the film. Let's start with the red dress.

Wardrobe is my favorite department! We actually had to build that dress pretty urgently. It's always funny to me when men fight over dresses. We had all these great options. And all the male producers couldn't agree on which dress it was going to be. I have no idea why, but they were like, "No, let's do this." "Let's do that." And some of them were like, "I love it." And the other ones were like, "What do you want?" And I'm like, "What do you guys want?" And so, in the 11th hour, the costume designer said, "Let's build something and make it an original that we can claim credit for and definitely not off the rack." So that's what we did. 

It really personified "dress to kill."

It really did.

What about that black leather number? How did you feel when you first saw yourself in that? 

She built that as well. And it was really cool because we had a bunch of options. These people send stuff and they go out and search for everything as you know. And so, we had all these options and it's not like you're ever going to be out of options for a leather jacket. Everybody makes that, no matter what season it is. And it just wasn't quite right. We didn't have that special, that thing. And so, we built it. 

And are we going to get a "Protégé 2"? 

If we get butts in seats!

Nell Minow

Nell Minow reviews movies and DVDs each week as The Movie Mom online and on radio stations across the US. She is the author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

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