The last project Maggie Q wanted to do was another action film. In a career that's been built on her physicality – from years modeling in Japan to stunt-filled projects like "Nikita" and "Mission: Impossible" – she's lately shifted to more character-driven roles.
But she couldn't deny the draw of the action-thriller "The Protégé," which is helmed by "Casino Royale" director Martin Campbell and co-stars Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton. In the film, she plays the world's most skilled contract killer, taught by her mentor (Jackson). This, while facing off with the equally dangerous Rembrandt (Keaton).
Q appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss the film and going back into training, despite having major back surgery just two months prior.
"It was absolutely incredibly risky to go into this when your doctor is telling you to rest for five months and it's been two months," she said. "Everyone around me was terrified. Everyone around me didn't want me to get hurt."
Q also detailed how she starting out in modeling – "an industry that's so toxic and gross" – and shared her observations about the powerful men who abuse power in Hollywood. Whether it's #MeToo or migrant workers, Q also shared her passion for advocating for those whose voices aren't heard.
You can watch the "Salon Talks" interview here or read a full transcript of the conversation below.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
"The Protégé" is an exciting film, lots of fun. You play the world's most skilled contract killer who gets to avenge the death of her mentor, Sam Jackson, all while matching wits and emotions with the very equally dangerous Michael Keaton. Fans know you for action, thrilling stunts, and of course wit and wits. What drew you to the role of Anna?
This film is really all about these relationships and how they dovetail together, but Anna is a young girl who gets taken in by Sam Jackson's character and he raises her like a daughter, like an adopted father. And in her upbringing, she becomes an adult and they become partners. This man to her is not just her mentor, her best friend, her father figure, but really the only person in her life. Through their contract, she ends up meeting a rival assassin in Michael Keaton and really ends up being faced with a mirror that she never thought existed. And we go from there. The movie has two pivotal relationships in it, and it's really about her past, how she confronts it, what her relationships are with these men and where she goes from there.
What made you interested in playing Anna?
The script was awesome. It really was and I was not interested in doing an action film. I explicitly said that to my agents, "If anything comes in and it's action, I don't even want to look at it. I'm good." And because of the elements that were attached to the film, obviously my agent was like, "No, no, no, this is something you have to take a look at because . . . But, but, but Michael [Keaton], Martin [Campbell], Richard Wenk who wrote it." So I said, "All right, well let me read it." I was pleasantly surprised just five pages in that it didn't read it all like the action movies that are always sent over. This genre, it's not the best written genre in that there's not a lot of character development, the character arcs are not . . . The relationships don't matter. It's entertainment at the end of the day. It's very shoot 'em up and it's fun and the action's big and all that, but the movie in and of itself doesn't matter, matter to you, not anywhere in here.
We set out to make something that was very different and it wasn't until I got onto my first call with Martin about not only what he wanted to do, but more importantly, what he didn't want to do — the things that we saw in the genre that we just didn't like, like these movies that are just one-note and you're not invested in the people. When I heard his take on it, I was so thrilled and it wasn't just because he was someone I admired. He was a big director, but he could be all those things and still have the wrong take on the movie and it wouldn't have been a match. We ended up getting along really well and having really the same ideas. And obviously Michael was a huge draw as well, because again, not a genre Michael is present in and not something he would ever take if he didn't think we could do something special with it.
And it is surprising in that way, as you say. Yes, it has all the action and the killing, yet there's a warmth between you two that we really see, almost like a father-daughter. The film also has lots of martial arts and these terrifying stunts. You are always very invested in doing your own stunts and have training in multiple martial arts disciplines, but two and a half months before you had to be on set you had a major back surgery. I can't believe you went from that to launching yourself off stuff again so fast and doing almost all of your own stunts again. How did you manage that?
Managed is a very good word. I don't live with a ton of fear, which is great because I think that there is a powerful manifestation that can happen if you're always worried. It's making the thing happen that you don't want to happen, right? So I try to not spend time in that headspace. Coming on, I was like, "Well, if there's a boundary to be drawn, you have to draw it. But at the same time, I also know that there are lines that I jump over all the time." It's like, "Don't cross this line, Maggie," and then I jump over and go, "No, no, no. I'm fine."
But I think that it's funny because it's timing. You have this thing that you have to be mindful of, and then you have this opportunity that does not come along very often, and so you have to weigh the two. I know the risk, but I also know what the reward can be. Sometimes you do have to take risks in this space and it was absolutely incredibly risky to go into this when your doctor is telling you to rest for five months and it's been two months and you're like, "Well, I got to jump in and start learning stuff."
Everyone around me was terrified. Everyone around me didn't want me to get hurt and wanted me to self-preserve. I think that I did find the balance. I think that I worked hard, but I think at the same time, I was able to internally go, "Maggie, listen to yourself and listen to your body." And for what it's worth, the body let me do things. I don't know why because I so mean to it for 20 years.
I know, yay body, who I've abused for 20 years in these movies, but at the same time, I mean, yay body is right. I mean, it really is a testament to eating the right things and doing things that you need to do for yourself.
What made you start training in martial arts? And did you have to recommit to your practice to make this film, aside from the training you just described?
I'm very concentrated on what's right in front of me. I'm blessed to have a skillset, obviously, a physicality where my muscles have memories and I can move in a certain way, which is great. But from when I started really heavy action on a weekly basis in "Nikita" for four years, it's been many years since then. It's not like I've been keeping that level up. I keep a level of physicality for sure just because I like to be healthy and strong, but the training for these kinds of things is very specific.
In the beginning, I had no idea. I actually asked a director once in Hong Kong. I said, "Why do people look for me to do action? I don't even understand this because I'm not a trained martial artist. I've never, you know." And I said, "Where are they getting this from?" And he said, "Maggie, there are a ton of trained martial artists in the world, as you know, and if all it took was that you were a good fighter, you could walk into any dojo in the world and pull someone and they'd be a movie star, and that's not at all what it is." There is an internal strength that needs to be recognized by filmmakers in you, which is why they're choosing you and the rest can be learned.
Honestly, I was a runner and a swimmer. I couldn't even touch my toes when I started in movies. I was not flexible, I didn't have any skills. Everything I had to learn from nothing. And as an adult – because when you're a kid, you learn stuff, it's very easy, languages, physicality, all that sort of stuff. Once you're an adult, it's sort of like, "How do I stretch my hamstrings to the point where I can actually reach my toes?" And so that's where I started from. It was incredibly tough to do that, but knowing that there was something that they saw in me, a strength internally that I could build on externally gave me a better understanding of why it was me.
The discipline that it takes for you to transition, that is amazing. Speaking of transitions, you and I share a history of modeling. What did the fashion industry teach you? I know it's a rough business in a lot of ways and I'm wondering how you applied those things to your transition years ago to acting.
I will say very specifically that starting that career in Tokyo taught me about timing. And I know that may sound really small and really nothing, but the Japanese are fanatical about time management. And if you are 30 seconds late to something, they won't see you. Certainly not at that time. And you're taking trains and this and that and looking at maps to get places and invariably there are going to be hiccups and this and that, and there was no excuse for that. I remember that being such a harsh reality. I thought it was cool that I could get something out of an industry that's so toxic and gross and one that I would never recommend anybody go into.
But I think you got to pull what it is that will make you better and stronger and leave the rest behind because the rest of it was . . . I remember the agency that I was with, they had a whiteboard on the wall and with all our names on it and they weighed you every Friday and they put your weight on the wall, but they kept all the previous weights for all the previous weeks on the wall. They kept it there so that people could see if you were yo-yoing, going up and down. It was like a wall of shame. If you gained a pound, everyone knew it and could see it. And it was literally, you walked in the door, it was right there after you walked in the door so that it was on for everyone.
It was intended to shame you into either never eating, having an eating disorder, or feeling really bad about yourself and it's disgusting. It's really gross. I'm sure there are experiences in it that are very positive. One of my best friends growing up in Hawaii is a modeling agent now, owns his own agency and he's a very healthy, honest guy. They're a gay couple who really care about his girls and he's very straight with them. He keeps them healthy. He keeps them sane. That did not exist when I was modeling. No, no, no. Awful people. Awful.
I had a friend's agent who used to take the girls to dinner and then they would watch what you ordered. And if you didn't order the plain salmon and the lettuce they'd be gone.
Oh, no, no, no. You can't. Eating was discouraged.
Yes, definitely discouraged.
Well you know what was really funny was that I was their model model because I was always so slim. Two reasons. One, I was an athlete and the second reason was I couldn't afford food. I remember that, yeah. I was so poor that I actually couldn't afford food. And I would save up to the end of the week to buy fruit because I loved fruit. I'm from Hawaii. It's a part of my . . . And if I could afford fruit at the end of the week, if I could skip train rides and skip certain meals and afford four apples at the end of that week, I was winning. But I stayed really slim because I really couldn't have three meals a day because I couldn't afford them. And they were like, "Look at Maggie. She's so awesome because she's always so skinny." And I'm like, "Don't say that to people when I can't afford food."
My experience is stone soup. Like, "What can we eat today? Because it has food in it." Anyway, that resonates a lot and for sure. So you've been in the film industry more importantly for a long time now and you've become a go-to action star on multiple continents and this means that you've lived through lots of eras and changes in the industry, and especially the #MeToo movement. I'm curious, what's your perspective on the equity and boundary shifts in Hollywood over the past few years have been – if you've seen any and I hope that you've seen some in the positive?
I mean, pretty remarkable actually. I mean, the fact that there are certain people who can't get away with things now is just . . . I mean, I remember the days when being in those dinners where the big guy walked into the room and everybody had to kiss his a** in a way that was just really demeaning and awful, and those people are now sitting in jail and it's really awesome because the abuse was just so rampant and blatant. No one was hiding anything. There are more severe things that were being hidden obviously, but overtly these are not nice people. It's not like anybody was like, "Oh, what a great guy. What a shock that these abuses were happening that we didn't know about because . . ." But really in those moments and in that time of these powerhouses that we gave so much power to, individual power to, there was really not much anyone could do.
It wasn't until people started speaking up in numbers that it became something that was a threat to these people. Because as individuals, you don't really get that done because they can discredit you or not listen to you or disregard you or whatever it is they want to do. But the more and more and more people have confidence and courage to come forward, it becomes really, truly undeniable. And then what are you going to do? But I just think accountability is awesome. It's amazing. It needs to happen. There are varying degrees of things that were happening. And although I truly believe in people being held accountable in whatever way they need to for whatever they've done, I'm also a very big believer in forgiveness and redemption and I don't think that everything has to be punitive.
I think that we have to move into the transformative because at the end of the day, unless you've literally committed a crime you have to go to jail for, there are people who need to make amends and we need to allow people to do that because people do make mistakes. And so I think there's two sides of what's going on and I think that whatever it is that you would want for yourself, you should want for other people as well. And I know that I make mistakes and I want to be forgiven for them. And there are people where things are unforgivable and there are people where it's like, you know what? Show us you're different and we'll welcome you back kind of thing. And so I believe in both. I really do. I think it depends on the case. I think we have to start somewhere and I think we have.
You have spoken out about gender pay equity or the lack thereof. Have there been improvements on that front for women actors in the recent past, and especially in the action genre that's a front and center issue?
Funnily enough, I have colleagues in the industry who have been much more vocal than I have about that specifically. Where I am vocal about pay equity is for migrant workers and that's something I've been working on a lot. I have a bill right now in the California State Legislator for a garment workers in California. And so for me, okay, yes, those things need to happen. And yes, I'm a big believer and supporter of all those things, and I'll be vocal about it. I'll fight for it. At least we have a voice.
For me, my focus has always been on the women who have none, who no one is paying attention to, who can scream into the wind all day long and no one's going to hear them. So COVID has truly affected and devastated the lives of many, many immigrant women in California. Forty thousand workers we have in downtown LA and they are being screwed in the worst way. And the trickle down has affected them and no one else, of course, because they're the poorest people. I think that whatever end you fight on, do it. I just want to lend my voice to people who don't have one.
Activism is really important to you. How do you define activism to that point in your own day-to-day life?
I think there are many forms now, obviously. I think some of my heroes in the human rights world have been people who have been pounding the pavement for many, many years before activism or topics as they were these days are popular. There are things that are popular. People can voice them and jump on the bandwagon because everyone's supporting it. So it's totally fine, but the people who have been my mentors and the people that I've learned from in my years of activism have been the people who have been fighting way before anything was popular, way before people cared about anything that they were talking about. And so that's kind of where I get the root of what I do.
For me, it's less armchair and it's more about, where can I affect, where the residual effect for the community and for the people at large or animals or the environment, whatever it is, is going to be either regulated or put into law so that on a much bigger scale, we are making that type of difference? I'm on the board of an organization called Social Compassion in Legislation. We did so much work up in Sacramento and some of the laws that we've gotten passed, this is not sexy stuff.
When I'm in Sacramento and I'm lobbying politicians, that's not what I want to do every day, but it's something that I'm good at and it's something that I know I can do because I'm educated and I know how to speak, and I know how to get things done. I'm very behind the scenes when it comes to how I want to affect change. I protest, I do all kinds of things like that, but what I found is most effective is if we can, at the core where our lawmakers live, we need to be affecting them because the truth is, when I'm driving down Melrose and I see a lineup for lip gloss around the corner and I'm at the State Capitol and I don't see that, it's devastating to me. It really is because we have so much power in this experiment, democracy that we're living and we need to exercise that. And if we're not doing that, we are doing a disservice to this life that we've been given, and I do believe that we have so much power to effect change. And that is why in my activism, I hit it from that angle because it may not be out front, it may not be sexy, but it's effective.
What's next for you?
I have a new show ["Pivoting"] that I start next month on Fox. We've been picked up. We're mid-season. We come out in January and it's a comedy. It's a half hour comedy with Ginnifer Goodwin and Eliza Coupe, and we're playing three women in our 40s who are not quite sure they made the right life choices. So turning their lives around in their 40s and it's hysterical. We have such a great creator, great writers, and I'm so excited to dig in. I'm so looking forward to having fun at work in that way.
"The Protégé" is in theaters beginning Aug. 20.