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Recently, we were able to catch up with Diana Lee Inosanto, the goddaughter of the legendary martial arts master Bruce Lee. Diana was in Chicago to host the screening of her film The Sensei. The film is set in 1985 and follows the life of a gay teen who is constantly bullied and ostracized. The film addresses a number of controversial issues such as racism, homophobia and bullying. Diana celebrated the 5-year anniversary of her film at the historic Logan Square Theatre in association with the Flix of Fury (FOX) Chicago Martial Arts club.
Diana is an award winning director, writer and producer. Most recently, she was the trainer for Melissa McCarthy for the comedy/action film Spy. She has also worked as a stunt actress for various films and TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Face Off, Walker Texas Ranger, and the Fast and Furious.
We were able to talk to Diana Lee to discuss cyber-bullying, her favorite martial artists, advice getting into the film industry, the UFC, and a really cool Bruce Lee story. Peep the interview below!
Tell us about your film, “The Sensei” what inspired you to create it?
The Sensei is about a bullied gay teen named McClain Evans (Michael O’ Laskey) growing up in a small town during the height of the AIDS epidemic in our country. After a brutal beating by town bullies, his mother secretly recruits a martial artist named Karen (played by Inosanto) to privately teach her son. Long story, short the community finds out, and it triggers a hell storm of events.
What mainly inspired the making of my film was the Matthew Shepard murder case that took place in Laramie, Wyoming. Matthew was just a young gay man, minding his business but he was being targeted for being gay. When I read his case in the papers, and did further research I was stunned to learn how many young people are bullied especially if they are from the LGBT community.
In your film, you address issues such as racism, homophobia and bullying. What made you choose to address such sensitive and controversial topics?
This film is important because the SENSEI shows the many symptoms of bullying and hatred weaved through the fabric of our society—from the school grounds to the arenas of our adult day-to-day living. Racism, homophobia are all symptoms of hate and intolerance. They may feel different on some level, but it all derives from fear of people that are different.
Growing up as a child, have you ever been bullied? If, so, what impact did that have on you? (What impact do you think being bullied has on children?)
Yes I have been bullied. But, my father always taught me that martial arts is the last option, not the first option. Dad always taught me to try to turn a bully into a friend. However, in two cases, I did have to defend myself physically at school. Later, what I didn’t foresee, and what was never explained to me is that there are other ways kids could bully, and that was verbally—today we now have to add cyber-bullying to that mix—I remember when I first started Junior High School, some teenagers started some nasty rumors about me. They called me horrible names. I would see my name written on the bathroom walls. I remember walking down the hallways and having kids laugh, whispering behind my back. I was stunned and devastated as a 12-year-old.
I discovered that words could hit harder than a fist. Long story short, I always learned coming from a martial arts family, that you have to first, be your own best friend. In my film THE SENSEI, my character shares with McClain, who has been bullied and nearly beaten to death, that “You have a right to defend yourself against Hatred and Self-Hatred”. A bully or bullies can impact the psyche of oneself, but you can’t let that kind of negativity in—you’re a gatekeeper of the words you let in. Don’t believe the insults, and work on developing a least one good friendship with a classmate, neighbor or older kid to support you.
With the rise of social media giving everyone a voice, what advice would you give kids today dealing with Cyber bullying?
Well, first of all, I don’t feel young people should be wasting their time in places on the Internet where bullies will target you. But how realistic is that. But, it’s interesting, that I am seeing grown ups behave in cyberbullying. It’s astonishing!
I have talked to certain actors and actresses in the public eye and what they report to me is disturbing. Unfortunately, there are people that are wired negatively, and I truly believe that such people are probably privately very miserable people.
For me, my social media pages are my home, and my work office… and just as I would like someone to be respectful in my place, if someone is abusive or bullying me or my guests on Facebook or other site–metaphorically speaking, I escort them right out my front door and kick them off immediately. You don’t have to put up with people’s non-sense. You’re the captain of your own ship… in my opinion.
What sparked your interest in getting into the film industry?
I grew up around it as a child because of my father, and my godfather. A lot of students and even celebrities started training with Dad, and sometimes I would go with him to the sets. I love the creativity that was around me. I loved how people would be acting in a scene and start choreographing some amazing fight scene. More important, I liked how you could create a story, and possibly get it out there for the world to see.
What advice would you give to someone interested in getting into the film industry?
Don’t quit your day job. You can still pursue this industry, but I would approach it as a passionate hobby until you find there is a breakthrough, and even then, save your money, because you don’t know where the next job may come from. Our industry is global now, and a lot of work has gone out of the country and out of state. I know plenty of producers, and working actors who are also entrepreneurs and have other projects to keep them afloat. I think the Writers Strike, followed by the stock market crash and recession, taught people to be resourceful. Hollywood can be a roller coaster ride with great ups and down.
Out of the many films and TV show’s you’ve worked on throughout your career, which has been your favorite and why?
Okay, here comes the geek in me—I come from a family of Trekkies. I loved working on the TV show Star Trek: Enterprise. The sets, the costumes, the legacy and vision of this franchise are just amazing. I felt like a kid…but with a legitimate Star Trek costume. As far as films, I loved working on “Face Off,” directed by John Woo. That movie taught me so much about safety and how to lead a crew. Watching John was amazing!
Who are some of your favorite martial artists?
My Father, Dan Inosanto, my husband, Ron Balicki (a Chicago Native and leading student under my father) and of course, Uncle Bruce (Lee). But I must say, I love UFC champion George St. Pierre, and my favorite, is one my dad’s old masters who died years ago named John LaCoste- an amazing Filipino Martial Artist.
Do you have any advice on how to unwind from a stressful day?
I try to find a time to take walks and remember to be thankful for what I do have. I am a huge proponent of Yoga, and I believe very much in understanding the discipline of breathing and meditating. Mindfulness is something all human beings can benefit from.
A few of my favorite action starts of all time are Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jason Statham and Liam Neeson. If they all got into a ring, who walks out victorious?
LOL…No comment. I can’t get on anyone’s bad side here. And to top it off, I know Chuck and Jean-Claude, so I can’t get lured into this one here.
Do you have any cool Bruce Lee stories?
My fondest memory was when he had returned from Hong Kong and came over to our home in our Los Angeles neighborhood. After months and months of him being gone, Uncle Bruce and Linda had stopped by our home. I remember I was playing in the backyard by myself, and he had stepped out into our Japanese garden. I remember running to him as a small girl to hug him around the waist. He smiled and gave me warm hug back. Later, he would be in my father’s library, lifting weights (yes, dad’s personal library also had a weight bench and desk in the middle of the room.) I remember walking in Dad’s office and watching my godfather bench-pressing, while he spoke philosophy and related his thoughts about martial arts, meanwhile my father would sit at this desk taking notes. I remember as a small child I had interrupted their discussion. But my Godfather got off the bench, smirked. I noticed that his shirt was off and that he had incredible “six pack” abs. I had never seen a person with that kind of muscular structure. He smiled and comically allowed me to punch his abdomen. His stomach felt like a rock. It was pretty funny.
Are you a fan of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Fighting and the UFC superstar’s Ronda Rousey? (What are your thoughts on the sport?)
My friends help run UFC, and my family knows UFC promoter, Dana White quite well. I am a fan of it as a sport—I personally know a lot UFC fighters. My own husband used to do what they call “Mixed Martial Arts” in the 1990’s and fight in Japan in Vale Tudo. MMA has come a long ways. But I hope people understand that martial art has a much broader spectrum.
I haven’t had a chance to meet Ronda, but I think it’s great that young women like her, and Gina Carano have helped pave the way for women sports fighters in Mixed Martial Arts—it’s an exciting time. I know a lot of talented women in UFC: Colleen “The Thoroughbred” Schneider, Jessamyn “The Gun” Duke, and Shayna “Queen of Spades” Baszler, and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos. I hope UFC will allow there to be more female stars to enter into the same realm as their fellow male competitors.
What’s next for Diana Lee Inosanto?
What’s next? I ‘m working on a documentary as a producer about Ethan Saylor–a young down-Syndrome man that was killed by off duty police officers in Maryland. I’m also working on a top-secret project as a producer that I am sworn to great secrecy but it does involve professional football. That’s all I can tell right now. But most important, I just like hanging out with my kids! They are always what’s next!