This is another interview i did for my website. Sharing it with you all here.
Keith Hirabayashi (Cooke) was born in Seattle, Washington on September 17, 1959. He grew up in the Seattle area and attended the University of Washington. He has trained in wushu, Tae Kwon Do and karate. His career in action movies has taken him around the world. He currently lives in Los Angeles, California with his wife Suzanne and their son Jake.
Keith began his martial arts career after becoming intrigued with Wushu during the performance of a wushu form. He sought out a Wushu instructor Roger Tung in 1973 and began his life long journey in Chinese martial arts. The Japanese-American’s enthusiasm for the art lead him to train Wushu in China in 1980 and he returned in 1982 to compete in China. In 1983 he joined the karate competition circuit and in 1985 he was inducted into the Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame as the Competitor of the Year. Keith Hirabayashi has been five time Grand Champion at the US World and US Open Karate Tournaments.
Mr. Cooke’s martial skill lead him to several roles in movies including China O’Brien and China O’Brien II (starring Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton), and Albert Pyun’s “Heatseeker” (starring Gary Daniels). Cooke has portrayed Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, and even Native American characters and his long list of movie credits reflects the strength of his screen charisma and his ability to diversity as an actor. His better known roles include Reptile in the infamous computer game adaptation “Mortal Kombat”, Sub-Zero in “Mortal Kombat 2″ and Nobu in “Beverly Hills Ninja.”
Nowadays, Cooke is mostly busy with his martial arts teachings. He is a talented instructor dedicated to sharing health and fitness with his students. His Ultimate Body-shaping Course includes to ten weeks of fitness training, nutritional counseling, and motivational support ending with a gala banquet and an award for the participant who shows the greatest improvement in his or her physical fitness. Mr. Hirabayashi holds several of these courses each year. His “Little Dragons” classes include students who begin to study the arts at the age of four years old.
Below is an exclusive interview with Mr. Cooke, as he talks about the martial arts legends he trained with, how he got into the movies, playboy bunnies, and his martial arts teachings.
Mr. Cooke, according to some online sources, you yourself are half-Japanese, and yet you went for Wushu training in the early 1970’s. Since wushu is a chinese style, it seemed strange that you decide to learn that style. Please tell us how you first got into martial arts, and why you chose Wushu?
I was a huge Bruce Lee fan and also loved the things he taught about the martial arts and philosophy. I began with Kung-Fu and taekwondo , got into wushu later when I saw videos of a wushu team from china that Jet Li was on. Later got into boxing and kickboxing. I was on the same team as Billy blanks and “nasty” Anderson. I was also lucky to train with Bill Wallace, Joe Louis and Mike Stone on numerous occasions.
You later on started taking parts in numerous martial arts tournaments in the mid 80’s, and, reportedly was called a “Martial Artist of the Year” in 1985. Say, what was a competition to you back then? Was it just for the victory, titles and medals, or you just liked participating and competing?
I really enjoyed the intensity of competition. I learned a lot about myself especially through a lot of solo training. I would train by myself each morning and then train with teachers or friends in the evening. I never wanted to lose because the other guy trained stronger than I did! So I was very diligent. I did not even keep my medals and trophies. It was all about the challenge of training and competing with the best and being at my best.
Many martial artists went into movies by the end of the 80’s, and some of them even became “B-movie stars”. Your career, started in 1988 with “Picasso Trigger”…how did you first get into movies? Did you ever want to become an actor before that?
I moved to Los Angeles in 1985 with the intention of becoming a martial arts movie star. The first job I got was a Gatorade commercial with Ernie Reyes Sr. I didn’t know how to get movie roles so I studied acting at the Vincent chase workshop in Hollywood. One of my class mates new the producer of “Picasso Trigger” and told him about me. They asked if I could do a back flip, I said yes and they gave me the part. Working with playboy bunnies in Hawaii on my first movie!! I thought wow! This is fun! After that, one day Fred Weintraub called me out of the blue. I thought it was a joke! The producer of “Enter the Dragon” is calling me on the phone?!!! I couldn’t believe it! He wanted to meet me for “China O’Brien”. I went to his office immediately. After several meetings he gave me the part of Dakota.
Among all the movies you made, still the one that stands out is computer game based “Mortal Kombat”, where you played Reptile. What memories do you have on working on this picture? How did you get the part of Reptile in the first place?
I had tried out for the part of Liu Kang, but did not get it. Robin Shou got the part instead. He is a very good friend of mine. When they finished filming they felt they needed more action sequences. The “Lui Kang – Reptile” fight was one of the additional fights along with the “Scorpion – Johnny Cage” fight that we shot on sets built in hangers at the Van Nuys airport in Los Angeles. The memories I have were that I was very impressed with the director Paul Anderson, and I loved working with my great friend Robin. It was the first time I had worked on a movie of that kind budget. We worked for six days choreographing and shooting. I love that fight. Robin got his ribs broken and he kept going strong! I got that part because of Robin. That’s it!
Please name 2 films that you worked on, one that was most enjoyable to do, and the one that you wish you never did, in terms of difficulties…
That’s a difficult question because I have enjoyed all of them! I really enjoyed “King of the Kickboxers”, I got to work with Corey Yuen, and he was amazing! A true master! And I loved Thailand. I have had the pleasure of working with people from the Jackie Chan stunt team as well. It’s been awesome. I have worked with producer Fred Weintraub several times now and it is always a huge pleasure as he is another master of movie making!
You are also a teacher at your own martial ats studio. Is that the reason why you stepped away from acting for some years now?
Yes. That is true. I am a martial artist in my heart! I had to do it and it took me on a ride. I started in 1994 and have worked less in the industry since then. But I will continue to work on movies.
Any other plans for Keith Cooke in the future? Or you plan to stick to teaching martial arts?
I am working on a script for an action movie. It is a father-son story. I plan to shoot it this summer with Tyler Weaver jr. playing my son. He is an awesome martial artist. I can’t wait, hope it all turns out well.