FOR ‘ARROW’ STAR DAVID RAMSEY, MARTIAL ARTS IS A WAY OF LIFE
(NOTE: This was written before the Season 3 premiere of “Arrow” in 2014 and published at www.kungfumagazine.com)
The martial path and the road to stardom are one and the same for actor David Ramsey, co-star of the hit CW television series Arrow, which is based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow. The 42-year-old Detroit native plays John Diggle, a former Army Special Forces who works by day as bodyguard/chauffer to millionaire playboy Oliver Queen. By night, he joins Queen’s quest to rid his city of criminals and act as Arrow’s moral base. The popular show enters its third season on Wednesday, October 8, 2014, 8 p.m. EST.
Ramsey has more than 20 years of training in Wing Chun, Jeet Kune Do, and kickboxing, which adds a realistic, lethal edge to his performance. He didn’t just learn martial arts for a role. Martial arts and acting became intertwined in the early 1990s when Ramsey, a boxer in his youth, moved from the tough streets of Detroit to sunny Los Angeles where the young actor worked in a video store. The store’s assistant manager was his future martial arts sifu, Ray Copeland, who was training under the legendary Dan Inosanto.
“Ray and I talked about martial arts, and we both shared our love for martial art movies,” Ramsey recalls. “Every single time I got to the video store, I don’t know how we got any work done, because we were always doing martial arts at the job.”
When he and Copeland weren’t talking about the martial arts, they were watching classic martial arts films — so many that today he can’t pick a favorite movie, though he fondly remembers Tai Chi Master starring Jet Li, and Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx. These genre films provided Ramsey a video education in on-screen action techniques.
He says Steven Seagal’s Marked for Death, and Above the Law in particular, showed Ramsey how a martial artist could present “an attitude” and how directors and fight choreographers, in turn, incorporated that character’s attitude into fight scenes.
Copeland agrees the two men didn’t do much work at the video store, but they forged a deep, lifelong friendship. When Copeland opened his first school in Santa Monica, CA, in 1992, Ramsey began his training in Jeet Kune Do, eventually earning his black belt. His study, which Ramsey continues today, has shaped his outlook on life and his career in show business. As his on-screen time increased with larger and more important parts, so did his martial arts skills under Copeland’s direction.
“I have taught other actors over the years and it amazes me how fast they pick things up; however, it doesn’t really sink in for most actors. They clear their minds and get ready for the next download. Except David. David always remembers what I teach him. That’s when I know I have a winner and that’s how I know he is a martial artist,” Copeland says.
The 6’ 3” Ramsey also trained in kickboxing with the infamous Benny “The Jet” Urquidez in 2000 while preparing to play Muhammad Ali in a FOX television movie. The role blended the boxing training from Ramsey’s youth with his 8 years of martial arts work. Ramsey says that Urquidez’s training helped broaden his on-screen fighting skills and showed him a different approach to competitive martial arts.
The martial arts also helped Ramsey keep his head on straight as his career went through up and downs. The life of a working actor isn’t always red-carpeted premieres and thousands of adoring fans. It is dealing with the disappointments of lost roles and going unrecognized for your work. Ramsey climbed his way up the star ladder taking TV and movie roles of various sizes, the most famous being the roles of Anton Biggs on the Showtime series Dexter and Mayor Poole on the CBS drama Blue Bloods.
In 2012, Ramsey earned a co-starring spot in a new weekly TV series, Arrow. It is ironic that Ramsey studies Jeet Kune Do, a martial art and philosophy invented by Bruce Lee, a fellow actor who also portrayed a chauffeur/bodyguard to a millionaire playboy superhero on TV.
“The idea of taking what’s useful and discarding the rest is something I say to myself almost on a daily basis,” Ramsey says. “And that’s a major tenant of the art that I studied for over 20 years. Just kind of taking what’s useful, and disregarding, almost, any BS. And to the point where it really doesn’t bother you — where there really isn’t an effort to disregard, where it just falls off you. That’s training all by itself. And yet, I think that’s the direct reflection of the art. And I don’t know if I would’ve had that kind of patience had it not been for my martial arts training, to be completely honest.”
The years of training and staying physically fit also benefited him on-camera, especially when it came to on-screen fighting in Arrow. A YouTube search turns up Arrow clips of Ramsey’s character in action beating up evildoers, and training on the traditional YouTube search turns up Wing Chun wooden man.
Of course, the choreographed fights on TV are different than actual in-the-ring fighting. Ramsey notes that as “a martial artist or boxer, you are trained to hide or conceal the strikes.” That does not work when shooting a fight scene for the enjoyment of an audience. He had a bit of a learning curve, but credits Arrow’s stunt coordinator James Bamford, also a JKD student, with helping him adapt his fighting talents. But Ramsey is happy that this is the first time he has been able to use his martial arts prowess on camera.
“I think the (show’s) creators originally had in mind that this guy would be the mentor, the voice of reason, for Arrow, for Oliver Queen. And this is — for all intents and purposes — Batman: Year One. So he needs the moral voice, the Alfred, if you will. But in this case, Alfred can kick ass. So, they knew I had a martial arts background but I don’t think they anticipated the response when they saw the action,” Ramsey says.
Ramsey calls the response from fans and critics to Diggle “overwhelming.” The character’s popularity even prompted DC Comics last year to add Diggle, who is named after comic book writer/editor Andy Diggle, to the “Green Arrow” comic book. Ramsey says that is such a high honor that neither he, nor anyone else on the show, saw coming. It says much about Ramsey’s ability to imbue his character with an aura of stoicism and mystery that draws audiences’ attention away from star Steven Amell’s own amazing ripped physique and frequent bouts of shirtlessness. Ramsey uses his martial arts background to also make Diggle believable.
“I think, honestly, it has to do with…having Diggle able to not just handle himself on screen but be able to really proficiently use the (martial) arts — and look like he is a trained soldier. You don’t see the stunt guy. You actually see David Ramsey doing it. I think that all adds to the overall presence of the character,” he says.
Ramsey still trains when he can, which isn’t as often as he might like, given the tremendous rigors of shooting a weekly television show. Twelve- to fifteen-hour workdays are common. Plus, there are the public appearances and interviews he must do for Arrow, in addition to keeping himself sharp physically.
“The show also has a very specific look,” Ramsey says. “Stephen…is known for his 18 pack abs. So you have to be on a diet and you have to be on an exercise regimen. So with not only, obviously, getting the choreography down and training, but it’s also getting in the gym and doing just the regular stuff — you have to keep up the look.” Copeland helps his friend with staying fit when he can — just like in the old days.
“Before he went all Hollywood on us,” Copeland jokes, “he was a staple in the classes that I teach. Even now — when his schedule permits — he comes to train in the regular classes and sometimes will do private (classes) if there is something specific he needs.” Copeland hopes in Season 3, Arrow’s producers allow Ramsey to “let loose in combat,” though he thinks they may worry that “he would overshadow the Arrow.”
Arrow did feature a Diggle-focused episode in Season 2, “Suicide Squad,” which offered more depth to the Ramsey character as well as showcasing his action skills. Arrow fans — and television critics — regarded the episode as one of the best of the year. As Season 3 begins, Ramsey is looking forward to sharing the screen again with his cast mates — whom he sees as family — as well as continuing his education as both an actor and as a martial artist.