LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Rapper and music producer RZA is best known as the leader of the hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan which also includes such popular members as Method Man, Ghostface Killah and the late Ol' Dirty Bastard.
RZA branched out into film, taking on small acting roles and scoring music, including the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill: Vol. 1."
Now, nearly a decade later, 43-year-old RZA has combined his childhood love of martial arts movies to co-write with Eli Roth the feature film "The Man With the Iron Fists," which he also directs and acts in the title role.
Shot on location in China, and co-starring Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu, Iron Fists is set during the 19th century and sees several groups of warriors and assassins descend on a village in search of gold. The quiet and unassuming local blacksmith (RZA) ends up being the village defender.
RZA, whose real name is Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, sat down with Reuters in Hollywood to talk about the film and the future of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Q: You had to pull double duty, working simultaneously in front and behind the camera. How did you balance that?
A: "My spirit had to be extra strong to pull this off. It was difficult because in the morning (as the director) I'm worrying about everybody else, I'm talking fast. Then I have to get ready for the scene and I gotta sync my voice down to this guy. I gotta sync my spirit to him. He doesn't smile once in the film. I smile. I'm not this morbid dude. He's almost empty."
Q: This is your biggest acting role to date. What did you learn as an actor?
A: "The thing about playing him that I could attest to as an actor was that I was lonely in China. I was personally lonely. And I think that shows on screen (in the character)."
Q: You're in an exotic location with Russell Crowe and some of the biggest names in martial arts. How could you be lonely?
A: "I had no love, yo. You know what I mean? Going into a massage parlor is not gonna give you no love. I was yearning for it. For a brief minute there, I learned why actors fall in love with their co-stars."
Q: How's that?
A: "Because the only girl I had was (co-star/love interest) Jamie Chung. We all went out one night after shooting and Jamie had a guy friend with her. I looked over and I was so jealous. I felt weird. I told my buddy, 'I'm about to punch this guy in the face!' In that moment, I just felt that she was my woman. And the sad thing for me is, it would have been a one way street because she wasn't interested in me at all."
Q: Looking back on your first experience directing a studio movie, what do you think?
A: "It was hard work. It was 18 hour days. It was cold. The food was terrible sometimes and the language was an issue. But I kept it fun. I didn't let nothing deter me from this path. I'm grateful and happy I had a chance to learn this craft and express it. I feel that out of everything I do as an artist - I make music, I write lyrics, I'm into fashion and clothing - filmmaking is the perfect medium and accumulates it all. I found what I should be doing. I matured into being this kind of person."
Q: So many members of the Wu-Tang Clan are doing their own thing. Will you be assembling again soon for another album?
A: "Only time will tell. For now, I will say Iron Fists is Wu-Tang. We have all the members participating on the soundtrack. And if you look closely, you'll notice that when (Rick Yune's character) needs a second suit of knives, there are W's on that second suit. You gotta look closely though. So the Wu-Tang is there. I made it subtly into the film so fans can enjoy it and feel the energy."
Q: Some groups have their time in the spotlight and disappear. Others manage to evolve and stay relevant. Where is Wu-Tang at?
A: "To me, film is the medium that Wu-Tang needs to be at. I don't think Wu-Tang needs to be in clubs while we gettin' drunk and dancing. We need to be in theaters now where we sitting with our families and really appreciating our childhood in a different way. This is the reason why (movies like) 'Iron Man', 'Captain America', 'Thor', 'The Avengers' all work. Because we are adults who read comics and now we want our children to understand what we love."
Q: So Iron Fists is the beginning of that for Wu-Tang - having others understand and appreciate the martial arts you all love?
A: "If Iron Fists goes over well and people accept it, we got great ideas for part two already. We've got a great sequel for all the characters and back stories that are so remarkable."
Q: Sounds like you're creating your own Marvel universe in a sense.
A: "Essentially, yes."
(Reporting by Zorianna Kit, editing by Jill Serjeant)