Ramon Rodriguez studied Krav Maga for years before signing on to portray Bakuto in Netflix’s The Defenders Universe, but playing a ninja leader required taking his martial arts practices from hobby to habit. “This was unlike anything that I have ever done before,” says Rodriguez, who has starred in Transformers and Battle Los Angeles. “I have done physical roles but this meant diving into a whole new set of skills.”
It all started on the set of Iron Fist, where he was placed under the care of a master fight choreographer Brett Chan, whose credits include Marco Polo and Jet Li’s War. Rather than leaving the cast to their own devices, Chan built a makeshift dojo within the production building for the show where the group could train as a community. Rodriguez worked alongside fellow cast members Jessica Henwick and Sacha Dhawan, pushing each other to go harder. “Everyone was spending a lot of hours at the gym before and after filming,” says Chan, who runs Hitz International. “But it was worth it in the end, to get to see them hold their own.”
The training techniques built in that dojo have changed Rodriguez’s life forever. The actor gives us inside look at that preparation and what it was like to learn multiple martial arts disciplines at once.
Did you find yourself more excited or intimidated by the idea of preparing for this role?
I love the martial arts, so getting to do a project that is so martial-arts heavy was really exciting for me. I think there is a lot to learn in their practice. The character is a master of many skills. That is what happens you have been around for hundreds of thousands of years.
How did you design the training around this character?
His background is in Shotokan and katana, because he is based in Japanese arts. I also got to do a lot of knife work. Brett liked the fact that I had done Krav Maga, so I think we kept some of the more aggressive elements of that technique for his fights. Colleen was established on the show as an amazing katana warrior, and Jessica Henwick had done a lot to get great for her scenes. I had never done anything with weapons … so I had to do a lot to get where I wanted to be.
How was the dojo set up?
It was really impressive. Brett had taken one of the empty rooms of the production office in Brooklyn and cleared out all of the desks. Then he filled it with mats, pads, boxes, and weights. The room was filled with his stunt crew and trainers, who were all experts. For the knife work I got to train with Hiroo Minami, out of Japan, who worked on Wolverine and John Wick.
Did you enjoy one part of the process more than the rest?
There was something special about getting to use the katana, and learning how to move with one properly. Getting someone to look natural with a katana, who hasn’t been doing it for years, is not an easy task, so I was proud of what we were able to do with it.
Did you find one movement or position that was the key into your training?
I think that would have to be horse stance, which is the opening stance. I don’t think you realize how difficult it is until you are doing it for a long period, and they would have me do it for a long time. Just standing there, then moving forward or backward out of it. It was all about keeping yourself centered and balanced, which built up your glutes. Everything comes from that position.