THE INDOMITABLE SPIRIT OF ERNIE REYES, JR.
By John Corcoran
Ernie Reyes Jr. is the type of son every father would be proud of He was a national karate champion by the age of 8 and a film star at12. He’s hard-working and disciplined, articulate and intelligent. Despite his status and success, Reyes is surprisingly polite, down to earth and easy to work with. All of these qualities have, in fact, served him well in showbiz where he has earned the considerable respect of such power elite as Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Golden Harvest Studios President Tom Gray and David Chan. Superbly talented, Ernie Jr. shot to stardom very quickly. Since 1984, he’s held starring roles in the motion pictures Red Sonja and The Last Dragonand has had his own television series, Sidekicks. He’s also made guest appearances on MacGyver and Circus of the Stars. Most recently, he hit paydirt in the megahit, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Movie, in which he performed the martial arts for Donatello, one of the four lead characters. Now he’s set for a starring role in the Ninja Turtles II.
Our favorite “gi whiz kid” recently turned 18 and is by no means a kid anymore, a fact that becomes more and more apparent as he answers our questions. This is, in fact, his first magazine interview as an adult. As you’ll readily see, Ernie Reyes Jr. has a firm grip on reality, on who he is and where he’s going — a monumental asset in a business built on fantasy. Further, he cites some surprising personal role models —positive thinkers like Nick Cokinos, Tony Robbins and Zig Zigler — demonstrating a sophisitcated maturity belying his age. Ernie’s parents had separated while Ernie was very young. His father, pioneering martial arts performer Ernie Reyes Sr., filled the role of both mother and father. Ernie Jr. attributes his success to his martial arts training and the guiding-light philosophy contained in the creed ob-served at his father’s chain of eight West Coast Martial Arts Studios out of San Jose, California: “‘To develop yourself physically, mentally, spiritually, and to have a good character.” Ernie Reyes Sr. has had a profound impact on not just his son, but the entire American martial arts scene since 1980. His innovations have vastly improved the technical level of martial arts forms competition and public demonstrations in a way that no one else has in the history of the business. Like father…like son. Under his father’s expert tutelage, Ernie,Jr. has blossomed into an artist of consummate skill. Lately he’s been experimenting with the creation of new methods of executing martial arts techniques, much in the innovative manner of Bruce Lee and Joe Lewis, and he has already taken his art to new heights of technical perfection. In a recent demonstration, Reyes, who has a background in gymnastics, came off a back handspring and performed an unbelievable triple kick in midair.
Just when we thought we’d seen it all, along comes youth, in the inspirational form of Ernie Reyes Jr., to show us the future of martial arts is assured. Meet the man who is certain to play an instrumental part in that future.
FI: Let’s start with some basic questions of particular interest to your fans. What’s the status of Ninja Turtles II, the sequel?
Reyes: Golden Harvest is working on a script right now and they’re planning to start the sequel sometime in September. Everything is in a real primitive stage right now, and I really don’t want to say too much because I don’t know what I can say. I don’t want to reveal something that I’m not supposed to. But for the benefit of the fans out there, the sequel’s going to be just as good as the original. I hope everyone’s looking forward to seeing it.
Fl: Do you have any other projects that you’re signed for?
Reyes: I don’t like to talk about things before they really happen. There are a couple of things that look good, and there are even tentative starting dates, but I don’t want to say anything until I actually start working.
Fl: Are you still working on both TV and movies?
Reyes: Yes. I like doing feature films much more than television, but I’m not at the point where I’m doing movies exclusively.
Fl: How have the martial arts influenced you personally?
Reyes: They’ve influenced me in every way possible. Not only in the martial arts, by having developed myself physically, mentally and spiritually, but on the outside, in just my normal life.
Fl: Clearly, yours wouldn’t be called a “normal” lifestyle. Give us an example of how martial arts influences some of your day-to-day decisions.
Reyes: For one, the martial arts have opened me up, I think, to a lot of things and people that changed my whole way of thinking. It has also meant having a positive state of mind. Everyone has a daily routine. Sometimes, for instance, you may want to put something off that’s important training-wise, because there’s so much to do. I like to lift weights, I like to do karate, I try to keep in good cardiovascular shape, and I go to acting classes, too. I also travel a lot, making appearances and so forth. There’s so many things that I have to do each day, and in order to keep on top of the game, I have to do those things. There are a lot of times when I don’t feel like doing it because it’s hard. But I know that the decisions I make today are going to shape my destiny. So a lot of times I ask myself, “If I choose not to do this, how is this going to affect me not only now, but, like, ten years from now?” It has to do with discipline and how I make personal decisions in life, because I believe that our decisions shape how we feel today and who we become tomorrow. So I ask myself, “How much farther am I going to go than if I stopped doing it?”
Fl: So you’re saying the martial arts are a positive motivating force you use to overcome obstacles, even if it came down to just being lazy on a certain day?
Reyes: Right. There have also been other obvious benefits. It’s given me the opportunity to pursue an entertainment career. In the beginning, when I was eight to ten years old, martial arts gave me the opportunity to travel around the United States, competing nationally, which, for a lot of eight-year-olds, is a big opportunity — to go all over the United States and compete with the best people in the world. And then it led to doing martial arts demonstrations, which led to meeting my talent manager, Sally Baker, who’s been really important to my career. After meeting Sally, it led to my doing movies and television. So, it’s very obvious that, without the martial arts, I “wouldn’t have had an opportunity to work in television or motion pictures. This is something I really love because I love to perform. Now it’s on a much larger scale than when I was eight and doing demos and competing; now I perform in front of millions of people.
Fl: What’s your daily schedule like?
Reyes: I wake up and go to school. Right now I’m in my last year of high school. After I get home from school I usually have lunch then I go work out and hit the weights. I do that for a while, then, in between the day and night, I have different appointments or auditions I have to go to. Each day is actually different. One Monday I may have two auditions; on another Monday I may have none, but I might have to have lunch with my manager or my agent. So it really varies all the time. But o n e thing that I always have to do is work out and make sure that I’m ready for any opportunity that comes to me.
Fl: What do you do at nights? Do you have any, time off?
Reyes: Time off? Not much. A lot of people are glad to come home from an eight-hour job, like at a restaurant or something. They’re happy to have time off. I think that’s because they don’t really love what they’re doing. For me, working out, going to auditions and meeting people is not something I have to force myself to do. Ninety percent of the time, for me, it’s all fun, so it’s really like having the whole time off. I’m just doing the things that I like to do, so it’s like a leisure activity. What I like about acting is that it gives me the freedom to do the things that I love to do, and it’s not a burden.
Fl: What are your aspirations in the acting world?
Reyes: Well, right now, I think the thing that puts me ahead of other people in Hollywood is my martial arts skill. And for right now, I’m concentrating on being able to use that skill to put myself more in the mainstream — so that whenever producers want an action person, they think of me. But I definitely want to continue to pursue my acting career so that I’m not stuck in the mode of doing just martial arts films. I really love acting, and I feel that I’ve developed my acting skills enough, through hard work, to be able to carry an acting role exclusively. And if one comes along I would love to do it. It’s just that, right now, I know the martial arts put my foot in the door, and that skill puts me ahead of many people in Los Angeles trying to make it in the entertainment business. I’ve been able to do a lot of acting projects in a short amount of time. I have an acting coach named Vincent Chase, but I think experience was also a good coach. Working on the Sidekicks television series for a year was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because I was still really shallow as far as my acting went, but it still went over very well in the series. I learned so much from that experience.
Fl: Before the interview, you mentioned that the “indomitable spirit” you acquired through the martial arts helped you in your entertainment career. How?
Reyes: Through the skills that we develop at the West Coast Studios, which is my father’s chain of martial arts schools in northern California, I’ve been brought up to have indomitable spirit. This means never giving up and giving one-hundred percent of yourself all the time. And, especially in this business of acting, I think without the martial arts, I probably would have stopped a while back; I think I might have given up acting.
Fl: Wait a minute, Ernie! Most people perceive you as having had nothing but successes since your Hollywood career started. You took the elevator and not the steps, so to speak. Were there hardships outsiders don’t know about?
Reyes: Yeah. It was especially hard because I had a lot of success right away, but then there were so many times that I was up and down. Like, right after Sidekicks, I was so up, and then nothing happened in my career for a while and I went down for a little bit. As far as actually working, I wasn’t filming anything. I’ve been lucky in another way, though. Everybody’s always trying to help my career go forward. The support of my family and friends means a whole lot at those times when things are down, but without my indomitable spirit that I’ve learned through the martial arts, I probably still would have quit. Sure, I’m not going to be working 365 days a year. I’m sure every star has faced this same problem, because you’re not going to be on top all the time. Because I’m a martial artist, I was thinking, “Okay, this is just a time for me to be training and improving so that when I come out next time, I’m going to be even better.” So, in that way, it really wasn’t a hardship; it was more of a learning experience. Now I’m glad that I didn’t give up because I know that I can really have a future in acting and, at the same time, give something back in return to the martial arts.
Fl: We discussed how the martial arts have influenced you. How have you tried to influence the martial arts?
Reyes: As I said earlier, the martial arts has given me a lot of opportunities. Without them, I don’t think I would have been anywhere near where I am right now. I love to give something back to the things — and people — that have helped me out. For one, through my acting career, I guess I’m a hero to a lot of younger kids. So I try to be a positive role model, first of all technique-wise, and then personally, like when I go out to tournaments and meet children. Just the way that I act, making sure that I always show respect, because I can see that, as the martial arts grow bigger and bigger, there have to be more positive role models. We can’t lose the respect or the strong foundation of values.
Fl: Let’s talk a moment about the Reyes technical influence. At the recent Battle of Atlanta, when they were holding the children’s semi-finals in black belt forms, your father and I were sitting together. Of the nine semi-finalists, seven of them had a conspicuous Ernie Reyes Sr. or Jr. influence in their forms. One was a direct student of your father’s, so, subtracting him, there were six of nine, or 66%, in whose performance you could very clearly see the Reyes influence. And these were the country’s best children competitors, kids who already have national ratings and reputations. That’s truly remarkable, don’t you think?
Reyes: I definitely think so, too. Even if those kids don’t know that they were influenced by my father, I think they really were. When my father came out into the national circuit with his demonstration team [in 1980], he had a certain unique way of doing forms and performing techniques. I think that maybe the kids competing right now were not affected directly, but maybe their instructors were. Then it all just filtered down to the younger people. Now it’s a generation removed, but I really can see it, too. It’s good to be a part of having positively affected those kids, and of bringing up the whole technical level of the art. I’ve seen the kids come up so much from five or ten years ago. It sounds kind of silly for me to say ten years ago, since I’m only eighteen years old, but when I was competing it was ten years ago. The quality of the kids’ technique today is just really amazing compared to the kids back in the 1970s. Back then there just really wasn’t that much talent out there like there is today.
FI: One of your philosophies is, “There isn’t a ceiling for young people?” What do you mean by that?
Reyes: It has to do with how young people have improved so much, technique-wise, in the last decade. But I also see a lot more young people running professional martial arts studios than they did ten years ago. I think younger people in general — and I don’t mean children — are held back a little because of their age. People tell them they can’t do this or that because they’re too young, and they believe it. But now, as we move into the nineties, many younger people are influencing the martial arts through running schools and competing. It shows there is no ceiling.
In Part II of our interview with Ernie Reyes, Jr., he is making final preparations for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, the movie to start shooting in North Carolina in September. Ernie will have a feature role in that movie. As in in Part I, Ernie’s discipline and intelligence are evident. With the expert guidance of his father, Ernie has already paved the way for a new generation of martial artists and he’s just getting started!
FI: You also have had an influence on youth as a high-profile star in the martial arts. Do you think martial arts films in general induce people to take up martial arts?
Reyes: I think so. I think that it stirs up interest among the audience and makes people say, “Hey, let’s go and try this in a school. It looks like fun.” And getting people into the martial arts is going to be better for everybody in that I think it’s a positive way of life. The more people who are practicing the martial arts, the better everybody’s going to be. There are people who like the kung-fu movies, and there are those who enjoy The Karate Kid, which really shows the traditional values of the martial arts. I think it all stirs up interest and it’s good for us. Movies can really affect people emotionally and inspires some of them to take action. Right now the martial arts are getting a lot of exposure, and there’s not just one person out there — like just Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris — but quite a few doing martial arts movies.
FI: Yes, and all of their films are making money. Do you think we’re going through a boom of some sort?
Reyes: Definitely. We have Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and the Ninja Turtles. Of course, we have to keep the quality up. We don’t want to make too many “Kung-Fu Theater” movies or audiences will get burned out. Just like all movies, everything goes through a trend, like the Vietnam War stories, then the baseball movies. I’m hoping that, with the quality of the martial arts and the quality of the plot lines, the current boom doesn’t die out quickly.
FI: Speaking of quality performances, I wanted to ask you about your form demonstration in Atlanta. I hadn’t seen you physically perform in about eight years so I didn’t know what to expect. You did something spectacular: coming off a gymnastic move, you leaped up and executed three kicks in midair before you landed. It looked like you defied gravity.
Reyes: That was something I came up with a little while ago. I’m always trying to work on new techniques. I ask myself, “Why are we just staying with the same kicks and not inventing new ones?” For example, you see a ballerina jump up and spin around four times in a pirouette. Why can’t we jump up, spin around three times and do a kick afterward?
FI: That’s a creative point of view very strongly advocated by Bruce Lee and Joe Lewis, two of our greatest technical innovators. What gives you your ideas?
Reyes: Lately, I’ve been looking closely at ballet to see how many times they jump and spin around. We in martial arts have a jump spinning kick where we jump and spin only one time before kicking. What’s to say that you can’t jump up and spin around two or even three times and then kick? I think it’s because we’ve been conditioned to think it’s only been done one way all this time.
FI: If you do a triple spin with a kick before landing, a lot of people will faint at ringside!
Reyes: Well, you never know. I’m working on it. I’m always trying to break old barriers and create new things. Nobody thought they could run a four-minute mile, then — boom! — it happened. Now everybody’s doing it. Five or ten years from now the spin before the kick might be around seven times!
FI: You yourself have some unusual — no, let’s say sophisticated — role models for someone your age. Nick Cokinos of the Educational Funding Co., who’s known as one of the premiere business authorities in the martial arts. And Tony Robbins and Zig Zigler, both very eminent motivational and positive lifestyle speakers.
Reyes: That goes back to my martial arts training, too. If I had been brought up in a normal lifestyle, without the martial arts, I probably wouldn’t have been able to open up to people like this. In my father’s West Coast Studios, he tries to develop versatile and complete martial artists. We know martial arts builds positive values and now we can learn from certain experts like Tony Robbins and Zig Zigler to help us become even better people.
FI: Do you attend their seminars?
Reyes: Oh, sure. We’ve become pretty good friends with Tony Robbins.
F1: Isn’t he a black belt?
Reyes: Yes, under Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee. We attend Tony’s seminars quite a few times a year and they’re really good. The things that he stresses you can parallel a lot to the martial arts. We knew what we were doing, but Mr. Robbins breaks it down for us and tells us why we were doing certain things and exactly what we can do to achieve maximum results all the time. I know one thing: If I’m around those people and I’m just stay listening to what they’re saying, then it’s all going the same to rub off: with these positive role models around me. It’s going to influence me in my new one life. As far as Nick Cokinos goes. I think that he Is helping everybody in the martial arts to learn how to effectively run a professional martial arts school. It’s great if we can stir up all this interest in the martial arts, but if we can’t run a school professionally then nobody’s going to stay in the schools. Mr. Cokinos has helped us to keep those students in our own West Coast schools. He’s affected quite a number of Instructors throughout the country. not only the school owners but the people who are training there too I think the quickest way to achieve ultimate success in something. to become’ the best that you can be, is to have role models and model them to a tee. If I model myself alter Tony Robbins — in both mind and body — then I’m going to have the exact same results that he has. For example. if I learn the same cake recipe used by a gourmet chef. I’m going to have the exact same cake. even though I’m not the expert gourmet chef that he is. So I try to emulate my role models as much as I can to achieve success. Everyone should do the same, whether their role models are someone in sports whom you never met or your own martial arts instructor.
FI: I noticed at the tournament that you’re finally getting recognized for having played Donatello, the Ninja Turtles character, even though all the actors were purposely played down because the producers, understandably, were selling fantasy.
Reyes: Yeah. In the beginning I think nobody really knew it was me. Then, through you guys at Fighter International and Kicks magazines, and my manager’s promoting of me, many people found out. Now I’m getting recognized everywhere for playing Donatello.
FI: It’s more like you’re getting mobbed [laughter]. It seems just as many girls as guys mobbed you. Do you have a current romantic interest?
Reyes: Uh…not really, especially with my busy training and traveling schedule. To have one steady girlfriend would really be — how would I say? — “high maintenance” for me right now.
FI: High maintenance?
Reyes: Yeah. It means I’m going to have to put a lot of time into it. It’s not that I don’t like relationships, but right now I’m so busy it would be impossible. Right now my goals are too much of a priority for me, and I haven’t met anybody yet that I really fell head over heels for. But who knows, I might meet someone and fall in love a week after this conversation [laughter].
FI: What are some of your favorite hobbies?
Reyes: The martial arts. I mean, I love working out and lifting weights. Other than that, I like hanging out with some friends and girls. And playing golf.
Reyes: Yeah. I just started playing golf. I tried it twice in the last couple of weeks and I really like it. I know it sounds funny. If somebody would have said golf to me a couple of years ago, I would have said, “That’s, like, for old men.” But I really do like it a lot. I also like doing all kinds of sports, like basketball and football.
FI: Are you actually living in Los Angeles now, or do you still commute up to San Jose to help your father with his business?
Reyes: I live in Burbank because of [the close proximity to] auditions and meetings and so forth. But I still go up to San Jose quite a bit. I love to see all the kids and visit all the schools and help teach. The West Coast organization is getting bigger and bigger. Right now, we have eight schools in the San Francisco Bay area.
FI: Do you have an ultimate success formula, Ernie?
Reyes: Yes. The first thing I do is, I make sure I know my outcome; the first key to success is to know your outcome. You have to know exactly where you’re going, and that, basically, means setting a goal. The outcome is like a magnet; it attracts people and the things that you have to do to provide you with opportunities to achieve your outcome. A lot of people know their outcome and they have a goal, like, say, “I want to be a black belt in three years.” But then they never take action. They don’t attend class enough. So the second key is to take action. People who take action on a regular basis always achieve their goals. The next thing is to have what is called sensory acuity. We have to know whether we are getting closer to our goal or farther away. A lot of people take action, say, they’re training, but they’re training the wrong way and are not moving closer to their goal. So you have to have that sensory acuity to know when you’re doing the right stuff to achieve your goal. The last thing is to be flexible and to change your approach if necessary. Successful people learn that some of the actions aren’t the ones that they should be doing to achieve their goals. So they change their approach to get closer to their outcome. That’s the success formula I’ve learned from Tony Robbins.
FI: What are your short-term and long-term goals?
Reyes: Short-term goals for me are that I’m going to be filming Ninja Turtles II and to stay in the best physical condition that I can. Training is the most important. When I have an opportunity, as with the Turtles sequel, it’s time for me to perform and I’m going to be so ready — in tip-top condition and giving 100% all the time. My longterm goal is to direct and produce my own movies. When you’re directing, you really decide what the movie’s going to turn out to be, with the collective help of the cast and crew. But you really have commanding power and you’re able to create a certain look for a movie. Another goal is to help my father’s West Coast Association become one of the biggest martial arts associations in America. We teach a very good curriculum and we have very good instructors. I want to help in all ways possible to make our organization grow, and, in fact, help all martial arts schools become really big. A lot of people in the martial arts are competing against the karate school three miles away from them. I think the things that we have to compete against are not other martial arts schools, but the football, tennis and baseball activities going on down the street from us. My final long-term goal is to help the martial arts grow as much as I can.