Todd Senofonte, best known to martial arts film fans as the main stunt double for Jean Claude Van Damme, or as one of the stars of Robert Tai's Iron Bodyguards: Fists Of Legend II, has accumulated a number of credits besides in both support and lead roles, in comedy and drama. He discusses his whole career, in action and non-genre roles.
Todd Senofonte is perhaps best known as being one of the best main stunt doubles for action star Jean Claude Van Damme for the better part of a decade. In that capacity he won the respect of Jean Claude Van Damme's fans. He developed his own fan following not long after beginning stunt double work, when he was cast as one of the stars of Iron Bodyguards: Fists Of Legends II (1996).
Iron Bodyguards: Fists Of Legends II was directed by Chang Cheh protege Robert Tai, with assistant/action direction by martial arts legend Alexander Lo Rei. It was produced by Toby Russell, George Tan, and executive produced by Roy McRee, from a script by George Tan. These were some of the top tier of the martial arts film industry that Senofonte worked with for his first lead role.
As Jean Claude Van Damme films used Senofonte less for stuntwork (unwisely, because fans notice these things), he sought out other work as an actor in both support and lead roles, in comedy and drama, in features and independant films. His recent roles, particularly the dramatic ones, have shown growth and intense refinement from that pivotal first acting role as the Russian martial artist in Iron Bodyguards: Fists Of Legends II, though the knack for comedy is clearly there as shown in one of the funniest parts of Kung Phooey! (2003) from writer/director Darryl Fong.
Knight: Todd, how did you start on the path of the martial arts?
Senofonte: I have always been an athlete. Martial arts and my military experience has helped me with my acting and stunt career. When you have that innate ability, you have to use it. I am considered one of the best, if not THE best athletic actor in the business... Today, Tomorrow and Yesterday. Not too many guys can hit a baseball 375 ft, throw a football 60 yds, drive a golf ball 300 yds, make 20 free throws in a row, bowl a 200 game. Athletes and actors are born, not made...
Knight: What martial arts styles are you currently practicing -- is it mainly Tang Soo Do?
Senofonte: Tang Soo Do and Sambo. I like to workout alone and if there is a bag available, I will do some kicking and punching. I am an avid person of push ups. Most guys will not keep up with me or they will just stop and complain that it's too much... Hahaha.
Knight: Your first film in a lead role was Robert Tai's film, Fist Of Legends II: Iron Bodyguards (1996). How did that come about?
Senofonte: After I finished my second film The Quest (1996), I received a call from George Tan (a producer in N.Y.) and told me that Chang Ching Peng Chaplin (he played Master Tchi in The Quest) gave him my name and said you need to use this guy in your films. And so it was that I flew to N.Y., met with Joe Lewis and he came with me, and we both took Sambo lessons for my role as Letov.
Knight: How familiar were you with Robert Tai's work at the time -- did you have a favourite film of his?
Senofonte: Oh, I was pumped knowing that I would be working for one of the greatest action directors... Who doesn't know Five Deadly Venoms? My other favorite of his is Mantis Fist Fighter (one of the best old school kung fu flicks).
Knight: Alexander Lo Rei was one of the action director's on the film. How much of the fights were Tai's vision, or Lo Rei's?
Senofonte: Alexander and Robert both put together a great choreographed fight for us. Who knows, one day maybe it will be up there with the best fight scenes in film? It really came out nice. Hahaha... Van Damme's double fights Jet Li's double...
Knight: You had Robert Tai, who was mentored by the great Chang Cheh, and then Alexander Lo Rei who was mentored by Tai and starting to action/assistant direct. Was it a bit of a shock to be working with people that some film fans consider legends?
Senofonte: It wasn't a shock, but an honor, knowing that this was a great opportunity to show the best in the business what I had and to learn from them. I always made sure that I was doing what they told me. My goal was for them to give me a thumbs up after I did what they told me... And I got a lot of them...
Knight: You also had one of Chang Cheh's 'Five Deadly Venoms', The Centipede, Lu Feng cast in the film as your Russian character's interpreter/guide. What can you tell us about working with him?
Senofonte: He was a great guy, quiet, and we enjoyed each others company on set. Again, an honor to be around these great people. I enjoyed my workout scene with him.
Todd Senofonte and Lu Feng in their roles as visiting Russian martial artist and guide.
Senofonte as Letov advances for combat; a North American DVD release of the film. These images used from the collection of Todd Senofonte with kind permission.
Knight: There are many scenes that get fans talking, but I guess the first one would be the extreme push ups Letov does, elevated, on his finger tips, then one each. I have seen the film in widescreen and it looks pretty convincing to me, but for those that wonder, how much was for real? You had previously won a championship or award for a push up competition?
Senofonte: What do you mean? It's all real... Hahaha. Now, I'm not going to be cool if I said I had help with the one handed finger tip push ups. I did receive the physical fitness patch in the military for doing 124 push ups in two minutes, 85 sit ups and running the two mile in 12:34.
Knight: When Letov and Chan Jen finally have their friendly fight at the end it really commands attention. How involved was the planning of that fight scene?
Senofonte: There was really no planning. We did the scene in two days and when we got to set we would rehearse and shoot it.
Knight: At one point in the fight there is a 'foot stomp' which I don't often see in martial arts fights in films of that time. Usually it is something seen in some boxing matches though. Was there maybe a Western influence on the fight choreography -- the fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner, perhaps being the most famous 'foot stomp' controversy in boxing up to that time?
Senofonte: Whatever Robert and Alexander wanted. We did our best to make them happy.
Knight: With Fist Of Legends II: Iron Bodyguards Tai shot footage of you, Lu Feng, and Joh Haau Foo aka "Jet Le" and inserted it among footage from a much earlier film called The Bodguard which had Larry Lee, James Nam, and Bolo Yeung in it. So you were sort of in the same film as Bolo Yeung, but just not at the same time. You may again be in a film with Bolo Yeung as he is cast in Trigger Reaction, which you are also to be in. Have you met Bolo? Do you have a favourite film of his?
Senofonte: I have not met Bolo, yet. Trigger Reaction is in the works. I am a fan of all Bolo's films.
Knight: What was it that brought you to the attention of Jean Claude Van Damme's people?
Senofonte: I overnighted a letter and pictures to Van Damme's agent back in '94 and received a call from them the next day. No one knew of me. I had to find them myself and keep in touch with them until I got what I wanted. The rest is history.
Knight: You worked on many films of Jean Claude Van Damme's, eventually with more involvement as the years and the films went on, as stunt double. You must have stories about every film. Sudden Death (1995) was the first film you worked on though?
Senofonte: Yes. I have many stories and they are in the vault, unfortunately I lost the key... Do you know any locksmiths I can call? Sudden Death was my first film ever, and I was used like it was my first film. The First A.D. would use me to stand-in for other actors and I thought that was odd, but I went along with it. At that time Jean-Claude was using a great stunt double named Mark Stefanich (an ex-frogman). It was cool to watch him and learn from all the other stunt guys.
Todd Senofonte in martial pose. Image used with the kind permission of Todd Senofonte.
A promo shot of Todd Senofonte, taken on the set of Jean Claude Van Damme's adventure epic, Legionnaire. Used with kind permission of Todd Senofonte.
Knight: One of my favourite Jean Claude Van Damme films -- perhaps because it is many people's least favourite and I can be contrary, but also because it was so different than most of what he had done up to that time -- is Legionnaire (1998), a straightforward adventure movie patterned after the old classic movies, which Van Damme co-wrote/co-produced. Was that a different shoot to be involved in, with the foreign locations?
Senofonte: This was one movie that I thought would be in the theaters. It is one of my favorites. It was a difficult shoot being in the desert in Morocco. I experienced my first sand storm when we were filming. A sand storm is a scary sight; you look straight ahead and it is clear, you look behind you and it's a black cloud coming right at ya... RUN FOR COVER!
Knight: Were you just involved in the hand-to-hand fight scenes in Legionnaire, or were you also working in the battlefield scenes?
Senofonte: I was involved in everything.
Knight: Universal Soldier: The Return (1999) was another Jean Claude Van Damme film you worked on. A lot of people thought Michael Jai White was impressive in his role, giving Jean Claude Van Damme a worthy villain to fight. What did you feel about Michael Jai White's involvement and his skills?
Senofonte: To this date, Michael is the best martial artist I have worked with. I am waiting for him to return my emails so we can work together again.
Knight: I don't think a lot of people know you were in the cast of some of the Power Rangers shows (2001, 2002). That must have been a change of pace from your previous work?
Senofonte: It was cool to work on a t.v. series as one of the Silver Guardians. The only difference is that it was a smaller crew than a feature film.
Knight: You played a comedic role in Kung Phooey! (2003) as 'Jean Fraud Croissant' which I thought was an hysterical performance, but I have always wondered how you handled the role. Did you ask Jean Claude Van Damme if it was okay to take a role that was a parody of his action hero roles?
Senofonte: No, there was no reason to ask permission to play that role. I got that role through a stunt buddy of mine. He gave the director Darryl Fong my info and I told him, sure, that sounds like fun. There is talk about a sequel, but it's just talk as of now.
Knight: The last Van Damme movie you worked on was Until Death (2007)... Perhaps his best film at that time since Wake Of Death (2004), I think. His acting was clearly so much improved and genuinely intense. Was there any feeling among the cast and crew that there was something seriously right about what they were all working on?
Senofonte: It was a great role for Jean-Claude. He was focused and really on his dialouge. The cast was awesome. I am probably the only stunt double that actually likes to read lines with the actors. I was told by them that it helped so much when Van Damme came on set and did the scene... Made me feel real good that I could help them nail their scenes.
Knight: Out of all the films you worked on with Jean Cladue Van Damme, can I ask if you have one that is a favourite of yours?
Senofonte: I have many favorites, but the top of my list is Maximum Risk (1996). But all are special because I have different memories. I still have nightmares of the tiger chasing me in Double Team (1997)... I try to stay away from zoos these days... Hahaha.
Todd Senofonte, as stunt double for Jean Claude Van Damme, being chased by a tiger from the film, Double Team. Used with kind permission of Todd Senofonte.