Andrew Koji is set for a major breakthrough with the release of the latest G.I. Joe movie, Snake Eyes. The path to genuine stardom was never clear cut, but the versatile actor, martial artist, and stuntman has been putting in the work for well over a decade and is more than capable of the task.
Born in the U.K., Koji spent his youth training as a competitive Tae Kwon Do practitioner, while also picking up Shaolin Kung Fu. He made the jump to acting in smaller roles as a stuntman, eventually landing a gig as the stunt double for Sung Kang in Fast & Furious 6. Despite that role, breaking into the mainstream as a featured actor remained elusive, a struggle that many actors of Asian descent continue to face. As Koji tells it, just before he planned on walking away from screenlife, he finally landed the role of a lifetime: Ah Sahm, the lead character in Cinemax’s Warrior. Based on the writings of Bruce Lee, the critically acclaimed series tells the story of Chinese immigrants in late-1800s San Francisco, practicing martial arts and surviving the harsh realities of American anti-Asian racism and violence that persists to this day. With two successful seasons — and a third now heading straight to HBO Max — Koji is on sturdier ground, and ready to take off.
In Snake Eyes, Koji costars as Tomisaburo “Tommy” Arashikage, aka Storm Shadow, a deadly ninja warrior and arch-nemesis to the titular masked ninja, played by Henry Golding. Being an origin story for a fated rivalry, a lot rides on Koji’s shoulders and his ability to showcase both dramatic weight and the martial prowess of the iconic character. As an avid martial arts fan familiar with his previous work, I knew that Koji was more than capable in both departments.
In advance of release, I spoke to the performer about his experience filming Snake Eyes with director Robert Schwentke (Red) and second unit/action director Kenji Tanigaki, and the process of embodying the character in this latest live-action iteration of G.I. Joe.
Famed action choreographer Kenji Tanigaki, known for his work on the Japanese live-action Ruroni Kenshin films, takes a unique approach to fight scenes that’s different than what you see in Hollywood blockbusters. What were the first things you discussed with him about the choreography?
Andrew Koji: We just wanted to make sure it was really good, to raise the quality as high as we could. Hollywood does shoot in a different style from Asian cinema, so there were a lot of discussions about how we could improve. To that end, I’m bringing my experience from Warrior, which is shot more like Hong Kong style as well.
But the main thing is always character, and I think we wanted to make sure of that regardless of anything else. The focus was on how to bring out the character within the choreography and the psychology, so not just “Tommy fights with swords,” but [asking] “how does he fight?” Obviously, he fights with grace and style, but there are other elements too, like his stillness and his ability to see through his target. He doesn’t look you in the eyes, because he is waiting for you to make a move, and I think that’s because he’s a master. And so, there were loads of discussions and lots of experimentation mainly in the rehearsal room, trying to find what feels right and find what I can do.
With your background in Taekwondo and your familiarity with Kung Fu, did you have anything specific you wanted to highlight in your performance and fighting style portraying a ninja and a swordsman?
With each role, you take what you’ve learned from the previous job, but you don’t want to take too much. There will always be some remnants of the particularly physical characters, like how I tried to throw in a few little cheeky bits of Ah Sahm for the Warrior fans out there during the opening fish plant fight scene in this movie. But the rest of it … I think we want to make Tommy as unique as possible. That would come through my main influences such as Miyamoto Musashi, the dual swordsman, and also with Kenji himself and his team. They were informing me about Japanese styles and things like how a master will never look you in the eye because he’s focusing on your body and any move that you make. That was the main thing: Once you have the psychology, it then informs the body.
Was there choreography that was even more challenging on set, during filming, that was starkly different than the standard fight scenes you’re used to because of the scale of Snake Eyes? For example, the motorcycle chase to the ensuing car hauler truck battle is a highlight of the film.
These sets and locations are so large, whereas in something like Warrior we’re in a small studio. It’s all about adapting. First, you must adapt to the terrain. So, with the car carrier: You can practice the fights over and over, but once you’re on the car carrier and the surface of the floor is rigid and there are things in the way, you’ve got to avoid danger. You can’t do that until you’re actually filming. Then you’ve got the wind blowing at you, you’ve got the lights going, then the camera and then the shouting — you’ve got to adapt to all that.
And then there’s the costume! Once you’re in costume, it changes how you move. The shoulders are a bit tight, so I couldn’t actually draw my sword out in one take. I’d have to set up, then the camera would cut, and then I’d take it out. They’ve done some clever graphical things with the sword; if you see me draw the sword in one motion in the film, it’s a little CGI trick. But the rest of it is real!
You’ve shared the screen with top tier martial artists such as Joe Taslim, and now you’re together with the great Iko Uwais. What was it like adapting to his particular fighting style and performing alongside him, particularly in one of the major set pieces?
Well, Iko has his own team, he does a lot of that himself. I think he’s genius level in terms of figuring out how he moves. Like with The Raid, they revolutionized martial arts cinema. With Iko, you just let him do his thing.
Do you mean that Iko’s full stunt team was on set as well under Keni’s supervision?
Ah, no, it’s more like it was simply Iko and one of his friends working with Kenji, but Kenji is overseeing everything. With the character Hard Master, he’s trained everywhere and is a master of all, while Tommy is specific to his style. So it’s really just about complementing each other, figuring out this sort of dance and each of us figuring out how the other moves.
We’ve touched on the confluence of Eastern martial arts and Hollywood blockbuster production; sometimes there is tension between the two styles. How have you reconciled those differences in order to get the best performances captured on camera?
There was a lot of blending of the two, and I think it was a very collaborative process, which was really good. Robert encouraged that, this open floor to discuss these things. When ego gets in the way, that’s when the art form starts to die, but Robert was very open to everything. That’s the only way collaboration can work, I think.
Would continuing in this franchise and truly making the character your own be a dream come true? What’s next for Storm Shadow? I think that people will find that even though the movie is titled Snake Eyes, you are very much a central character and an integral figure in the potential future of the franchise.
He’s gonna go to McDonald’s, and he’s gonna eat chocolate [laughs]. No, I’d personally love to explore the internal conflict. He is a very layered character and there’s a lot with him to explore, his descent. I think the main thing would be to consult Larry Hama and see where he might want to go with it, that would be the key. I’d love to see Storm Shadow with his bow and arrow, I’d love to see him in his old cobra uniform with the hooded look. That and the sleeveless outfit as well, some adaptation of that. I know I’d like to maintain the quality of his visuals and the quality of his character arc. But I’ll make sure whatever it is will be good, don’t worry mate!
Make sure he fights Quick Kick! Lastly, you mentioned Larry Hama, the creator of Snake Eyes and a writer instrumental to the development of the G.I. Joe mythology. Being a veteran of the Vietnam War deeply informs Larry’s work with the characters. I’m also an Army veteran, and that is a big part of my writing and analysis as well, so I’m curious if Larry had any personal advice or guidance for you in how he wanted you to interpret Storm Shadow, or did you have more freedom to experiment?
Thank you for your service. Robert was actually the person I spoke to the most, and I thought it was so amazing for me that he gave me freedom and really trusted me with it. I had a gut feeling of what I wanted to do with [Storm Shadow], how he’d feel about this and that. I listened to Robert, he came up with these ideas that came from Larry as well, but I think they wanted to see what I could do, that’s what was cool about it. So going forward, I would like to get more from Larry. Hopefully I’ve managed to prove myself.
Snake Eyes hits theaters on July 23.