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‘You could be bigger than Tom Cruise. Too bad you’re black'

WITH AN acting career that spans over two decades, not to mention his status as a martial arts superstar, Michael Jai White has had quite some time to get used to fame.

But the Hollywood hero is remarkably laid back, revealing that he often forgets he’s famous.

Recently in the UK to promote the DVD release of his latest action movie Falcon Rising, the 47-year-old said he’s always taken aback to be recognised on the street.

“The reception here [in the UK] has always been really nice,” White told Life & Style, during his London stay. “But wherever I am, I'm always surprised to be noticed. Even at home, I don't tend to think about what I do for a living until someone else mentions it.

ACTION MAN: White in a scene from Falcon Rising

“So somebody could be looking at me and I'm thinking, 'What's that person's problem?' Eventually I might say to them, 'Excuse me, do we have an issue here?' Then they might say, 'Are you the guy from such and such movie?' And I'll be like, 'Oh, I’m sorry! Yeah, that's me.' I'm still not used to that [being recognised.]”

It sounds like an unbelievable statement. But what is, perhaps, more surprising is the fact that White doesn’t consider his profession one that is of huge importance in the grand scheme of life.

“Growing up, my heroes were never actors,” he explains. “I was never really impressed by all that. As actors, we're grown people playing make believe. It's cool and I love what I do, but I don't think it's something to brag about.

“I used to be a schoolteacher and in certain aspects, I think that's more important. I guess because I don't view being an actor as a really big deal, it's hard for me to accept that others do.”

An introvert as a child, Brooklyn-born White chose to express himself through his burgeoning passion for martial arts. By the age of 14, he began earning money by teaching karate at the local YMCA and fighting in tournaments.

After graduating from high school and attending college, White – inspired by “great teachers” he had – went on to become a teacher himself. But eventually, he changed vocation to pursue his acting passion.

“I taught for three, four years. I taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade in middle school. On my vacations, I would apply for acting roles. I got to a point where I decided I needed to get it out of my system and find out if I sucked or if I had what it took to continue as an actor. Luckily, I guess I didn't suck.

“Then I decided I needed to find out if I could make a living as an actor. So I stopped teaching and moved to California and the rest is history.”

Clearly, the decision paid off. White’s first major starring role and breakout performance was in the 1995 HBO film Tyson, in which he played heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson. Two years later, he made history, becoming the first black US actor to portray a major comic book superhero in a major motion picture, starring as Al Simmons in the 1997 film Spawn.

“At the time, there weren't many superhero movies, period. So to have two black superheroes at the time – one in Spawn and one in Blade [the 1998 film starring Wesley Snipes] – it was a pretty big deal. Now that things have gone superhero crazy, I think there's room for more [black superheroes], but I think things are looking up.”

White, who is also a world-renowned martial artist – who holds seven different black belts – went on to star opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier: The Return and in 2001, he starred opposite Steven Seagal in Exit Wounds.

TRUE LOVE: White with his wife Gillian Waters

But his cult status was truly established in 2009, when he starred in the Blaxploitation parody, Black Dynamite.

“I really enjoyed what I did with Black Dynamite,” says White, who also wrote the screenplay. “It's a project that I dreamed up then just went ahead and got it done. For that to translate over so many borders and unite people in humour, that’s something I’m very proud of.”

Despite his successes, White is all too aware of the much-talked-about prejudices in Hollywood, which often prevent black actors from earning the same opportunities as their non-black counterparts.

“There is a prejudice that exists that's part of the common thread of Hollywood,” White confirms. “I was once told by a studio head: 'You have what it takes to be bigger than Tom Cruise – too bad you're black.’ He said that to me as if it was an acceptable thing and as if there was no room for debate. And that wasn't the only studio head who thought that way.

“The thing is, because he's a studio head, he creates the truth. So if he thinks it's beyond reason to hire me as the lead in an action movie, then he makes it so. That’s been an attitude that exists in Hollywood for a long time.”

“Another thing you hear a lot is that black movies don't do well overseas,” continues White, who also starred in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? (2007) and its 2010 sequel, Why Did I Get Married Too? “But I've proven that to be very wrong. I've found that any black movie that has action in it translates very well in many countries.”

Big screen success aside, White is happily married to actress Gillian Waters, as he documented in a Facebook post he made last month.

Tilted ‘Apologies To All My Ex’s’, the honest open letter saw White admitting that he had previously failed to understand the capacity of love women required in a relationship, instead believing that “all women were crazy and the only choice a man had was to decide exactly how much crazy he’s willing to deal with to sustain a relationship.”

CONTROVERSIAL: The Facebook post in which he said of his spouse, ‘I’m in love with my best friend’

In the letter, he went on to explain: “I am now in a relationship that I never knew was even possible. I’m in love with my best friend… I now understand what the women of my past desired from me… I can say that I am now the very best version of myself and that’s due entirely to my relationship.”

The post caused a social media frenzy, gaining over 70,000 likes, over 44,000 shares, and earning White the attention of a host of media outlets who wanted to speak to him about his heartfelt post.
“I wrote that then went to have breakfast with a friend of mine,” White recalled. “When I came back, it had blown up. I had no idea that was going to happen. Media outlets wanted to interview me because of it – I couldn’t believe it.

“And when I got back and saw how many people had shared it, I had to re-read it to see what I’d said that was so impacting, because I didn’t think it was all that deep!”

He continues: “I just wrote that as a man sharing his thoughts with his Facebook friends. I didn’t have a whole lot of role models or people sharing significant things with me. I think there’s a lot of bul**** out there – people saying trivial stuff. So if I’m gonna say something, I want it to have a point.

“I was just saying that I had no idea I could love in this capacity. I thought that maybe women were unreasonable for desiring that kind of affection from a man.

“My wife, largely, was the reason for me discovering that [I could love in this way]. It wasn’t some big change that just came about in me. She was the major part of it.”

Suffice to say, White is pretty happy in life and love.

“I continue to be the happiest guy I know,” he laughs. “I believe in that saying, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ I’m blessed to do something that I love and I plan on continuing to do that to the best of my ability.”

Falcon Rising is released on DVD and VOD on May 18 through Spirit Entertainment and The Movie Partnership

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