Interview with Erol Ismail
You have quite possibly seen Erol Ismail as a White walker in Game Of Thrones, but there’s a lot more that lives behind that prosthetic makeup! Erol Ismail is a proud vegan athlete, stunt performer, with a passion for martial arts and training.
What was the first martial art you started? How long have you been doing martial arts and how many different styles have you done over the years?
The first martial arts I started was a northern Shaolin system called Chin Woo. Nearly every Asian action star has portrayed either the founder and master Huo Yuan Jia, or the lead student given a fictional name called Chen Zhen. Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Donni Yen, Jackie Chan amongst others, have played either or both these legends.
I started training Kung Fu at the age of 16. It was all I wanted to do. I went overseas to Malaysia, Poland, and China to compete and to further my studies. At the age of 20, I returned to China to train at the sacred Shaolin Songshan mountains, and stayed overseas for a year with my two best friends and training partners, Karanja York and Rashid Phoenix (also stuntmen).
Training in China was a dream and one of the best experiences of my life. Eight hours of training every day and just morning training on a Sunday. This dream was also a nightmare however, and an emotional rollercoaster. Up every day and ready to train at 5.30 a.m sharp. Fatigue and lack of comforts was something I was expecting. At this time I had been doing Kung Fu for four years, but just imagine it’s leg day every day for a year and you’ll have a slight understanding of the physical pain. The nutrition was very poor unfortunately, but at this time of my life, it was just about learning the skills. The whole trip was a constant test and a journey of self-discovery which is what martial arts is all about.
Over the years I’ve supplemented my style with Kick Boxing, Boxing, Muay Thai and Tai Kwon Do. Doing Kung Fu, in my opinion, gives you the strength and flexibility to do any other style easily if you’ve had a good teacher. It showed when I started Tae Kwon Do. Not long after taking up TKD I started to compete with good success. I soon got onto the GB team, becoming the national champion and competed internationally. I loved the style which is 80% kicks and I simply love kicking.
How do you manage your time with training and what different types of training do you do?
I have for many years managed my time with training by usually sleeping fewer hours. My obsession with training has been absolute and I found myself often training late after work. Trying to keep on top of everything with work isn’t easy. The pressure from the GB team with work eventually lead me to step down, and give more focus on my career as a stunt man. Now, however, having a young family and being older and wiser my time management has improved. I train smarter with shorter sessions with higher intensity and it is proving me well.
I still train every day alternating from martial arts, gymnastics style training (tricking), and weights training.
Martial arts has brought me up and opened many doors, from traveling the world, performing on some of the biggest stages, to being in some of the biggest films going. Self-confidence, control, and discipline are qualities I wish to grow old with, and martial arts is the provider for me.
Tricking is the performance side of my training, also a practice of martial arts but with a constant rush of adrenalin, excitement, and overcoming your fears. It’s a community sport, and I can’t think of anything better than being with your friends learning to defy gravity.
Weights training fuses the sports and at the same time adds aesthetics. If you’re going to be on TV you want to look good right?. Also, a bit of extra muscle always helps being thrown around for a living.
What has been your favourite film / TV show to work on, and what has been a favourite memory? Do you have a stand out stunt that you have performed?
One of my favourite films I’ve worked on was The Mummy. It was a stunt packed film, and I got to perform one of my most memorable stunts, which was a zero G’s free fall in a plane.
Is there a similarity between stepping on the mat before a Tae Kwon Do competition and stepping on set to perform a stunt? Take us through your mindset before both.
The mindset of doing a stunt and stepping onto the mat for a competition is very similar I would say. The feeling of all eyes on you and the pressure of not making a mistake can be equally measured in some ways. There is always a build-up for the stunt, if you’re lucky enough to know what you’ll be doing the night before or a few days before. knowing your about to do something pretty dangerous willingly, is a funny feeling but also exciting. The same for a competition, but it’s a build-up of months and hours of hard work and expectations all down to a few minutes. Your heart rate is high and your adrenaline is pumping, and the last few minutes before go time you have to bottle it all up and turn it into a calm, confident, and ready to go feeling. If you learn to harness that energy and use it, you get to see your true spirit and what you are made of. There’s no other stunt that I can really compare that feeling more than being set on fire. There are so many people involved and the risks are pretty high, you are literally putting your life in someone else hands, you have to know your ques, know when to take your last breath, and also make sure you perform, so there’s plenty going on besides the danger factor. But when you’re all suited up it’s about controlling your emotions, controlling your breath, your doubts, trusting your team, and knowing you’re going to kick ass. It’s an addictive feeling, to say the least.
For anyone out there that’s interested in a vegan/plant based diet, what are your recommendations to maintain performance, keeping focus and what are your tips on staying in great shape.
For anyone interested in a vegan diet, I would suggest first learning the properties of foods. It will give you a much better head start, because to start with your going to be replacing the animal products you’ve been used to. Making sure you are eating enough and regularly is a must, for any athlete vegan or not. Talk to other plant based people as the community is huge and fast-growing. In-person or online we love helping each other out, with tips and recipes to try. There are amazing alternatives to getting the foods you love but can’t get anymore because of the change you’ve made. It’s an endless discovery of fun to make delicious foods. To stay on track you have to remember why you felt you wanted to change and reinforce that feeling. One of the best things also is to go to vegan food festivals and events. You’ll love them and you’ll see that you can get that hot dog craving your having without cheating.
For staying in shape being vegan doesn’t mean you’re going to have a great body. The only way is to watch what you eat and put in time either playing sports or gyming. Being healthy and being in good shape is a lifestyle. You just have to get the ball rolling and have a vision of your goals, so you can take the steps to achieve them. Being so active, I do take vegan protein as supplementation, usually after a workout or in the morning as part of my breakfast. The range is vast and in today’s age being vegan is so much easier, so good luck to all in the pursuit of being healthier. I’m lucky enough to have a partner that makes all my yummy food, so I don’t meal prep, but depending on your goals I would recommend it. I’ve heard of this great company 😉
How do you manage what you eat when it comes to working on set?
When working it’s pretty easy to get carried away with eating bad food that tastes great. We’ve all been there. Luckily most of it isn’t vegan, so I’m not tempted, but catering services have stepped up their game and are putting together much better options, and I can say that the vegan options are very good. I’ve had it when there haven’t been vegan options, just a few years back until now being spoilt for choice. Even I have to watch out as they are making vegan snacks more and more.
The shift in knowledge is very refreshing, but I’m sad to say being vegan hasn’t always been “trendy” or accepted. I’ve often been on the end of criticism and attempts of ridicule for being vegan, and I’ve always been proud to prove people wrong by following my passions. I’m happy to see that in the stunt community many people have made the change, and I can see they are proud and can be confident in their choices without hardship.
Who is your idol?
My Idols were all the action heroes from the 80s like most I’m sure. My whole life I feel has been a montage of achieving the fetes, of what I’ve seen in all the action films growing up. From martial arts competitions, training with Shaolin monks in the mountains, hanging off helicopters etc. The magic of cinema is a powerful thing and I hope to inspire people in the same way that I have been inspired.
Looking forward in your career, what haven’t you done yet that you would like to do?
Looking forward in my career I would love to be in a motorbike chase scene. The Matrix 2 and Mission Impossible Rogue Nation did it for me, big time. I never feel cooler than getting to the studios on my ninja.
Any advice for younger up and coming dream chasers?
My advice for the young hopefuls would be to work your ass off, learn about the industry you’re trying to get into, and follow your dreams. Don’t give anyone a reason to throw you under the bus and never, ever, ever be late!
Favourite film and why
One of my favourite action films is Kill Bill, one and two. The storyline and the way it was shot was beautiful. The characters, costumes, action, music, and fight scenes all amazingly done without taking it too seriously, but at the same time being deadly serious. For one of the first times, I could truly appreciate all the department’s efforts on screen. By far one of the coolest films out there for me.