IT’S NOT AN ACT, BAS RUTTEN’S LIFE PREPARED HIM FOR THIS ROLE
A scrawny, insecure boy growing up in a foreign country matures into an amazingly muscular world fighting champion, comes to Los Angeles, becomes an actor, and lands an important role in a major film.
That’s the tag line for the Bas Rutten story. There are some liberties taken in this, some of the poetic license that Hollywood allows in those inspired by a true story claims at the beginning of a movie. But it’s a fair encapsulation of the life of a larger-than-life persona.
This Friday Here Comes The Boom opened to a nationwide audience. The film about a school teacher who becomes an MMA fighter, played by Kevin James, also stars Henry Winkler and Salma Hayek. Oh yes, right there among these heavyweight actors is former UFC heavyweight king Rutten with a significant co-starring role, the largest of a still-growing film and TV career that counts over two dozen titles, as well of course as the co-host of Inside MMA.
To say sneaking into a French theater showing an R-rated movie at age 12 with his brother was the start of it all would be the perfect way to open his story, but not entirely correct. Seeing Bruce Lee’s classic Enter The Dragon for his first movie experience did introduce a young Sebastiaan to martial arts. There was something magical about watching Lee with his economy of motion and controlled force of fury that perhaps subconsciously was absorbed by a curious and instinctive young mind as a calling.
Two years later he signed up for Taekwondo class. “Within a short time I was beating up the brown belts in class,” he recalls with his famous laugh. “It helped my confidence. The biggest bully in our town said something to me one day when we were all out riding our bicycles. I said something back to him for the first time. I put my bike on a stand, he put his on a stand and came toward me. I knocked him out with one punch. The police even came over to check on it with my parents. They wouldn’t let me take any more classes.”
The development of one of the greatest MMA fighters ever was underway, not a plan for fighting then, more the emergence of self-assurance through the universally awkward period of teenagers. He had asthma and few friends in the boyhood days of Holland. Long before he became “El Guapo” though he did have two amigos who accompanied him to the second movie he had ever gone to, this one in the small theater of his hometown Valkenswaard, about thirty minutes from the Belgium border.
“It was Rocky,” he smiles broadly,” And my two friends and I came out of the movie and were pushing our bikes really fast, running along singing that theme song,’ Da-Da-Da, Da-Da-Da.’ We called ourselves “Champions” which we were not. One had a big head, way bigger than his body and the other was fat. But we started growing after that. One of my buddies, with the big head got bigger and stronger in his body where his head, though still big, wasn’t out of proportion. The fat buddy started boxing and got in shape and was a good boxer. And I started putting on muscles and my asthma got better. We all got stronger and everyone could see it. Those guys who used to pick on us, well let’s say that no one messed with us anymore.”
Bas was living out a real-life drama already, overcoming, surviving and all those ingredients we want to see in heroes. While his parents were still reluctant to allow their young Sebastiaan to pursue his interest in martial arts, when he left home at twenty-one he was ready to be on his own and on his way.
“I took Shin Tai karate. I realized they weren’t focusing on kicks and I wanted to do that. It made sense for self-defense. So I went into Thai boxing, I signed up for a fight, had my first match six weeks later and won it with a spinning back kick to the body. ”
As they would say in a movie, the rest was history. Bas became a huge star in Holland and throughout Europe, leading him to Japan and eventually the U.S. Though in those formative years the very first two movies he had ever seen featured iconic screen fighters, he hadn’t dwelled on them nor hoped to come to America and be on the silver screen.
“I did have a drawing of Nogi the bird when I was a boy. He went to America, I don’t know why I liked Nogi so much or why I still have the drawing, maybe that was in my mind about America. I also always liked those big, powerful American cars. I had a Buick and a Dodge when I was in Holland, others didn’t have cars so big.”
In 1997 not long after taking up residence in California he decided to take acting classes at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. He soon after moved in Los Angeles and “the drive was too much” to continue at the Playhouse. Not driven to acting just yet, plus there was that other thing, the one paying the bills and the one that had brought him here in the first place. In 1999 he won the UFC heavyweight title.
Still there was the unscripted but nonetheless gravitational pull toward acting. He retired from fighting to teach classes and open a gym. His charisma was infectious; people just couldn’t forget meeting him. He got some work with Comedy Central a few years after his initial acting classes through a contact he made there. That led to his first TV role playing a bank robber in a show called “18 Wheels of Justice.”
“My scene was on Thursday and there was a holiday coming up and everyone was off Friday. This was the last scene of the day so everybody was anxious to get home. I had to wear this wig and glasses and it was hot and I was nervous. I started sweating. I forgot my lines. After the third take I could hear the crew going “Aaahhh.” I told them to help me out here I’m nervous. That got their attention. The next scene was perfect. I got it out of my system. The scene called for me to look at the bank teller and smile. I couldn’t smile,” he forces a fake one to emphasize that moment. “I thought after that experience ‘man I need more acting classes.’ So that is what I did.”
It was also around this time in another fortuitous event that all seemed to lead to some kind of theatrical destiny that he met a young actor who was trying to make it: Kevin James.
“I’ve known Kevin for 15 years. I knew him when he lived in a one-bedroom apartment he shared with his brother. Now of course it is an entirely different story. But he’s the same dude I knew then. He hasn’t changed. So many of the crew on this film, makeup people and others, worked with him on King of Queens (the TV series that made him a star).”
James had trained with Bas over their years of friendship. He also saw something special in the imposing figure of the fighting legend. Not what people would first think of, but what a skilled comedy talent knew almost immediately. It led to working with James in smaller roles in the films Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Zookeeper, plus a couple of appearances in The King of Queens.
Of Bas being chosen for a larger role in his latest film, James summed up his belief from the start about his friend’s ability. “I just thought he was very funny and had a unique perspective. He understands comedy very well for someone who never really worked in that world. He masters anything he does whether its martial arts, acting, or shaving his head.”
He may not have known the story of the undersized kid in Holland watching movies and slowly getting into fighting both on the streets and in the cage, but he probably knew that Bas doesn’t ever take anything for granted and his assessment of a person who masters what he goes after is spot-on. Upon landing this role, Bas was immediately working with an acting coach, delving into a character that is borderline over the top from his 1990’s fighting days. He took nothing for granted and relied on everything he had learned from training for a fight, always be prepared for anything.
“The first scene I shot in the movie is the singing scene. Right after the director (Frank Coraci) saw it, he said he knows what Kevin saw in me. Those are cool moments,” Bas says. “I had gone to an acting coach three-four times a week so I knew the movie when I went there. The director said he could see that was the athlete in me being prepared.”
That comedy timing? The thing most actors say is hardest to master in their craft. Bas again can go back to his boyhood and the physical ailments that made him into the late-blooming specimen the world came to know.
“The other actors would come by and tell me ‘You have comedic timing, it’s hard to explain but it’s good to have.’ And that goes back to how I dealt with my stress as a kid. I was the class clown, wanted to be liked. I was so hyper and went to four different schools growing up. One day the mothers were together and one said to my mom ‘Imagine if that one is yours’ and point to me. My mom said ‘It is!’ I was so energetic and that led to a whole lot of good things later on but back then it was another story.”
Hard work. There is no escaping the importance of it to succeed. After that first TV role with the wig and sweat and the pressure, “I knew fighting had come naturally for me but acting was harder than I thought,” Bas explains. “People who treat work seriously you respect no matter what you do. I think it is insulting to half-ass anything when you are around professionals. I couldn’t imagine not taking acting classes, running lines, knowing the script and characters. As a fighter, to come into the acting world with no training would be so disrespectful. My fighting background probably helps me this way. I would break down my opponents’ game plan, know how to react to what they would bring at me.”
“Being in front of the camera certainly helped me. I remember how nervous I would be doing an interview even in Japan and certainly more when I came to America, those leading up to and after the fight. I was still working on my English and wanted to speak the right way. Doing those live fighting shows as a commentator with Pride and then the International Fight League was incredibly beneficial.”
From personal experience of working those IFL shows with Bas, I know the hours of preparation he put into each telecast, as much as if he were training a fighter or being in the ring himself. He has a tremendous sense of people, of picking up subtleties in a fighter that is an asset to understanding a movie role or scene
“(my wife) Karin gets sick of it but when I am watching a movie at home and I see those little moments I rewind it to see how great it was. This won’t give anything away, but there is a closeup late in the movie. The camera goes in on Henry, goes in on me and then there is a close up of Salma where she says so much with just that look. Those moments, what were they thinking, how they can say so much with an expression. Wow. You really have to be in the moment.”
As the pro athlete he also appreciated what the star James was going through daily after a year of training for the physicality involved for the role. While he had worked in the past with James in training, Bas focused on his own performance while Mark DellaGrotte and Ryan Parsons among others worked with getting James movie fighting ready. “Those guys did a great job, wait until you see how good Kevin looks, his arms. He told me ‘I want to do exactly what you do for a fight.’ He had great discipline. We would be sitting at catering eating what we wanted and Kevin would be drinking these vegetable shakes, training like a real fighter.”
During the filming, which mostly took place in Boston, DellaGrotte and his wife Maria had the actors over to their home for an authentic Italian meal. Maybe the best example of James’ dedication to his character.
“The food was out of this world and even Henry was asking for one more night, it was really incredible. They worked really hard to make it, all fresh pastas, the whole shebang. But Kevin ate a salad. When you see the movie it pays off. His training scenes, his action in the cage are totally believable.”
The same can be said for this movie, one that received the UFC’s blessings after a review of the script. It is painting with too broad of a stroke to classify it as a fight movie or a comedy or like most anything you’ve seen in past James’ movies. There is a heart that beats throughout with some “played for laughs” fights leading to the more serious training and fighting scenes. There are layers to it with appeal for fight fans and general moviegoers.
For full disclosure, I cannot be anything but biased about my great friend Bas’ performance. There are those sides of him I have been fortunate to see that are revealed in his role. That he more than holds his own with accomplished actors is not surprising. His life has been building up to this moment, even when maybe he didn’t realize it, since he sneaked into that theater decades ago.
Watch Kenny Rice along with Bas Rutten LIVE every Monday night on Inside MMA, and check out Kenny’s new book “Not Hit Yet” an insider look at the MMA world in 2012, available at Amazon now
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