Ray Park’s kids have a lot to live up to. An established actor and a three-time European Wushu Champion, the British butt-kicker (who came to fame as Star Wars’ Darth Maul) is one of the few people on earth who can defeat a ninja both in film and in real life. Currently finishing up two major roles – one as Snake Eyes in the recently released GI Joe film and one as a circus knife-thrower on the upcoming season of Heroes – Park says throwing punches on screen is nothing compared to his role as Dad to four-year-old Fienna and two-year-old Rokko. Babble caught up with Park about transitioning from fighter to father. – Christina Couch
You’re pretty much the closest thing to a professional ninja the world has. That’s basically every kid’s dream.
I know! It’s been amazing. I always wanted to be a ninja as a kid. Every day I go into work and re-live my childhood.
Dreaming out becoming a ninja is kind of like aspiring to be a dragon slayer or unicorn-groomer. Did you ever think in a million years that it would really pan out?
Not like this. I still pinch myself. My parents always said that my head was always in the clouds as a child and that I was always in a fantasy world. I grew up in the ’80s and having He-Man and Thundercats and GI Joe and Star Wars, the universe was open to what you could imagine. As a kid I just wanted to have superpowers like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and Jet Li and the guys in kung-fu movies. That’s why I got into doing martial arts.
Most actors break into Hollywood then start training for a specific film, but you were a UK National Martial Arts Champion long before breaking into film. How did you get started?
I was seven years old when I went to my first class and from the very first day I went in and saw all the different animal fighting styles like crane and dragon, I thought this is something out of a kung-fu movie! I was always very energetic as a kid, always playing sports or practicing stunts on my BMX on ramps or jumping over cars. My buddies and I would take our bikes up to the woods and pretend like we were in the movies. When I was about thirteen or fourteen, I remember thinking I really want to get into movies. I was watching a bunch of Jackie Chan movies where he would have different weapons and I thought I could do that! I talked to my teacher about it and he said, “You’ve got to practice. Jackie only takes on world champions or guys that are good at what they do. If you want to be in his movies, that’s what you’ve got to do,” so I just kept practicing and hoped that one day I’d get the opportunity.
Are your kids athletes as well? Would you want them to study martial arts?
They’re very active. My daughter is very into dance and theater and shows. We do a lot of plays, a lot of role-play games, dressing up, telling stories at home. Ever since my daughter could speak, she always wanted us to tell her stories from the mouth, not from the book, so I got good at making up stories and re-living my childhood in that way. My wife is a gymnast and we don’t push them into doing what we do, but [my children] like running around and playing with Mommy and Daddy. The martial arts worked for myself and I enjoy it, but I wouldn’t want to push it on them. If they wanted to learn, I would send them to a school where they could have some friends. It’s supposed to be fun.
Now that you’re a parent, are you afraid that your kids are going to hurt themselves? Are you more protective?
No. We’ve never sort of coddled them. When my daughter was young, she would fall and we’d say “That’s a great stunt! Do that again! Come on, get up!” so she wasn’t scared of falling. We didn’t make a big deal about it. We’d make sure she was okay and reassure her, but we didn’t over-react. The same with my son; it’s just something we did because we didn’t want to overprotect them. My daughter did get hurt once. We were on the playground and someone left a stick at the bottom of the slide. She went down [head first] and screamed. It was the first time hearing a child scream and just knowing that she was in pain and she wasn’t pretending or faking it, the feeling I had, the anger and the pain. I ran over and grabbed her up and took her to the hospital. Her seeing me like that in such a panicked state just made it worse. I learned a little lesson myself that day. It wasn’t a nice one.
Every parent encounters situations where they think, “Ah, I could have handled that better.” Do you ever doubt yourself as a parent?
I’m still learning. I always ask my wife, “Am I a good dad? I feel like I’m not a good dad” and she says, “You’re a great dad.” I always feel like I can do better. I’m lucky because my wife is unreal. She’s unbelievable. She’s my world and I learn a lot from her. Sometimes when I’m training, I have to stop and say “You know what? Kids come first.” If have to get up at four in the morning to do my stuff, I will so that I can have some time with them and I’m learning how to share my work with them. In fact, last week, I had to practice throwing a knife for Heroes and they were my little helpers. I’d throw it and they would go get it and bring it back, then we went to the set and they saw me do it on camera, which was nice. It’s important to have them involved in what I do because when I leave [for work] everyday, my son doesn’t understand why. Bringing him down and showing him “This is what Daddy does and I’m going to come home right after” really reassures him.
Your two- and four-year-old helped you retrieve knives?
Prop knives, so they weren’t sharp or dangerous. My kids have never touched a real knife. They stood at least twenty feet behind me and I talked to them about the dangers of throwing real knives. They were way behind me and all they did was run and pick up the play knife and bring it back. I never do anything that’s violent like hitting the pads or hitting the bags in front of my kids. I only show them the creative side of martial arts.
It’s got to be weird to see some guy and his kids throwing knives behind his house. You must get some strange looks from the neighbors.
My neighbors know what I do. I practice my swords out in the garden too.
It blows my mind that you have swords and throwing knives in your house. Anything else?
Sure, Chinese broadsword, Bo staff, spear, nunchuks, rope dart, kwan do, straight sword, anything I might need at home in case I do a martial arts movie. I train with them every day so that if I get that kind of part, I won’t have to dust off the rusty old weapons and brush off the cobwebs.
Between the training and the films and the kids, how are you and your wife doing it all? How do you find time for yourselves?
We’re here in L.A. by ourselves. We don’t have family nearby. We don’t trust nannies and we don’t have babysitters, so it’s really tough. Right now, they’re usually in bed by seven, seven-thirty, so after that, it’s time to relax and spend time together. When my mom does come over from Ireland or my wife’s mom comes down from Canada to visit, then we go out and have dinner and see a movie. I’m very weird about who comes in to babysit the kids because of all the horror stories you hear. I always get worried that something bad will happen, a kidnapping, something terrible. Even taking them to gymnastics, I asked my wife, “We’re the only ones that can sign them in and out? We’re the only ones that can pick them up?” I just never want them to get hurt.
What’s your biggest hope for them as a parent?
That’s a good question. I don’t really have one. I never see myself getting old and I never see my kids getting older and it scares me to know that they’re going to be eighteen and twenty one day and they’re not going to be living at home. That frightens me, so I take every day and every magic moment as I get it. I just feel lucky to have my children and whatever they want to do, I’ll be there to support them and encourage them.