Exclusive Interview: Rising Martial Arts/Action Star Ken Zheng Talks about His New Action-Thriller INSIGHT!

By: david j. moore

Born and raised in Jakarta, Ken Zheng spent his formative years in Beijing, and began a lifelong devotion to training in the martial arts. With skills in kendo, Sanchou kickboxing, Muay Thai, silat, and various other disciplines, Zheng eventually teamed up with his sister Livi, who would direct him in his first starring role in the feature film Brush With Danger (2015), and then they would team up again for their belated follow-up Insight, which is out on March 12th from Gravitas Ventures. 

In Insight, Zheng plays Jian, a young clairvoyant counter-terrorism agent whose special abilities make him a target for a high tech criminal mastermind (played by Sean Patrick Flannery), and in the process he makes an ally in an LAPD detective named Abby (played by Madeline Zima), who helps him along the way. 

Several summers back, freelance film journalist david j. moore was invited to the Los Angeles set to observe filming of Insight for a day, and over the course of the shooting he conducted interviews with several members of the cast and crew, including star Ken Zheng. Just before conducting this interview on the roof of a building in downtown L.A. with a helipad, david observed Ken in several interior scenes that had him and his co-star, played by Madeline Zima, being chased by a half a dozen goons in suits, which also involved some close-quarter fights. Ken appeared to be a formidable martial arts dynamo in the scenes, and he held nothing back with his skills and physicality.

1) Ken, tell me a little bit about your background in martial arts.

I was into Kendo when I was a kid. My whole family did it. It was a family thing to do on Sundays. That was when I was little, around seven years old. I started competing in kickboxing when I was 15. When I was 16, I became a champion in Sanshou kickboxing.

Zheng prepares for battle in a scene from the film

2) Are you into Silat at all? Silat is coming out a lot right now in films from Indonesia.

I’m into Silat a little, but I haven’t gotten into it very much. When I was seven, I moved to China, and I got into Sanshou kickboxing and competed for Indonesia.

3) Your sister has been with you every step of the way. Talk a little bit about working with her – personally and professionally.

We work very close together. When I was 10 or 11, I moved to Beijing. She was the one who took care of me. She had to get into that mother role. We got really close during our time in Beijing. She got into film before I did.

Ken with his sister and director Livi Zheng on set

4) It’s very rare to see something like what you and your sister have accomplished. You both have come such a long way, and now you’re here in Los Angeles making your second action film in a row with her. It’s amazing. It’s a one in a million.

I know! She started out as a producer first. She was in films and in a T.V. series. She did one big show called Legends of the East, which was about Admiral Zheng He. It was produced by a partnership of a Chinese, Thai, and an Indonesian company. She got to produce it. She had to work with 400 horses and soldiers in one scene in a big battle. There were stunt horse and stunt guys. I was there, looking at the whole scene. I was like, “Wow! I wanna do this!” From then on, I followed her closely and she guided me into the movie business.

5) You previously did another movie with your sister called Brush With Danger. Say something about that one.

That first film was the first film that Livi directed in the U.S. In Washington and Seattle. We learned a lot about making movies with that one. She liked making an action film, but she doesn’t necessarily like watching action films. Which is kind of funny. She wanted the story to come first. We try to improve every time. After this, she’s going to make a movie in Indonesia.

6) Was it an obvious step for you to begin starring in martial arts action movies?

We like action movies, actually. My whole family. My dad had always been into martial arts. We were very competitive. It’s a lot of fun doing action movies.

7) Talk about some of the action in the film. There’s a big fight in the film on a helipad. It’s a showstopper, I hear.

I fought Sean Patrick Flannery. He was really great. We had a helicopter pass by us in the scene, which was really cool. In the story, it’s the final fight scene. It was intense. Sean is also a martial artist, and he owns his own dojo. He’s really good with his ground game, with Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu. His style is really great in the film. Not only that, there’s one scene where the choreography was done by five or six of us, and we all have different backgrounds, and we all asked, What would be cool for this scene? One guy was Krav Maga, one guy was Wushu … and somehow we created this new fusion martial arts, which was really great. In martial arts, things tend to be one style, but in some of ours for this movie, we try to combine it all.

Zheng takes on Sean Patrick Flanery

8) You mentioned Muay Thai. Tony Jaa is really bringing that in a big way in movies these days. Have you followed him at all?

Oh, yeah! When I was young, he was one of the big reasons I got into it. Ong Bak, Tom yum goong … I think it’s called The Protector here.

9) Tell me about your character in Insight.

Jian is a clairvoyant. In the story, he is very introverted because he has this ability. He doesn’t have a lot of people he can share this ability with. If someone can read your mind, it’s kind of hard to interact with that person normally. He always keeps to himself, but the only person he can trust is his brother, who’s also clairvoyant, but when they were growing up they had an abusive father and they ran away together. They lived in the streets until they were recruited by this agency, but my brother Bao, played by Jonny Siew, left the agency and worked at another company, and so we grew apart. I find out that he committed suicide, and so I came to here to Los Angeles to find out what happened to him, but I’m the only person who thinks that he was murdered. There’s a conspiracy.

Zheng kicking it in a fight scene from the film

10) How does the leading lady in the film – Abby, played by Madeline Zima – relate to the story?

She is almost like Jian. She’s not clairvoyant, but she has a gut instinct. She’s very smart, and with her own instinct, we get along very well. She’s a detective and she baffles other detectives because of her instinct.

Madeline Zima with co-star Adam Huss

11) What’s different about your style of action than any other martial arts action star?

I guess the successful style is the style that doesn’t follow anyone else’s style. Bruce Lee created his own style. I saw a documentary about him, and everyone tried to be like him, but it was Jackie Chan who went in a completely opposite direction than him. He was the one who created a new style. So did Jet Li – he came from a Wushu background. He said, “That’s what I’m good at, and I’m going to use that.” Jackie Chan’s style evolved from his old Hong Kong movies, to the new more Hollywood action movies. Right now, I’m just going to bring what I have in my toolbox and I’m going to try to get better and better with every movie I do. Right now I do Muay Thai, Sanshou, boxing, and my preference is to be more gritty and dirty with my martial arts, but to be more technical with my fighting.

12) What are you shooting today?

We’re shooting a basement scene. After they come for Abby and me, we get chased down. These guys are following us. There’s a sequence where we’re being chased, and we get into some fights.

13) What are your hopes for the film? Who’s the audience for this film?

Of course, any martial arts lovers. I always wanted to do something like this. I wanted Livi to direct it, and she wanted a story that anyone could understand. Even if you’re a casual movie fan, you’ll enjoy it, not just a martial arts fan.

Insight hits select cinemas, Digital and VOD on March 12th from Gravitas Ventures! Watch the official trailer below!

About the author: david j. moore is the author of The Good, the Tough, and the Deadly: Action Movies and Stars” and a contributing writer to Action-Flix.com

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