WAMG Interview: Sean Patrick Flanery – Writer and Star of BORN A CHAMPION
Sean Patrick Flanery was raised outside of Houston, Texas. His first role in Hollywood was a Kellog’s Corn Pops commercial starring alongside Paul Walker. In 1992, he landed the title role in George Lucas’ The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles Since then, Flanery has been in numerous films and TV shows, including POWDER, SAW3, SUICIDE KINGS, and the runaway cult hit THE BOONDOCK SAINTS. Off camera, Flanery is a high ranking martial artist having earned his black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from the Renzo Gracie lineage in 2008 and trains regularly when his film schedule allows. In his new film BORN A CHAMPION, which he wrote, Flanery plays Mickey Kelley, one of the first American black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, who gets pulled away from everything he loves and into an unsanctioned MMA tournament.
Sean Patrick Flanery took the time to talk to We Are Movie Geeks about his career and BORN A CHAMPION.
Interview conducted by Tom Stockman December 15th, 2020
Tom Stockman: I watched your movie BORN A CHAMPION recently and really enjoyed it.
Sean Patrick Flanery: Thanks a lot.
TS: I found it exciting and very well done.I like movies where I feel after watching them, that I have learned something.
SPF: What did you learn?
TS: I feel like I learned about this sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Technical things such as the rules and the lack of rules, and all about these illegal tent matches that they have out in the desert of Dubai. Is that a real thing?
SPF: It is yes. The film is a place where my heart has been living for quite a while.
TS: And I learned about you seeing this film. I didn’t know you had written BORN A CHAMPION until I started watching it.
SPF: Is that right?
TS: Where did you get the idea for the story?
SPF: Being a martial artist, there are a couple of forums out there were fighters congregate and chat. One is called MMA Underground. You have UFC fighters and some pretty big names in the sport post and discuss things there. I wrote a story and posted it there about a girl I met when I was a young kid when I was first studying martial arts. It got a pretty good response and immediately after that, I wrote a second story which I did not post to the forum. I immediately decided that I needed to make it into a film. I wrote that story in 2007, which gives you an idea of how long it takes to go from story to final film. We shot it in the summer of 2019 so it’s been a long gestation process.
TS: Was Mickey Kelley, the character you play in the film, based on a true fighter?
SPF: The story is based on a lot of truths but Mickey Kelley is completely fictional, but there are a number of pretty strong truths in the film. For example RAW Champ. RAW is an acronym for Real American Wrestling. It was an academy out in San Pedro. So there’s a lot of authentic elements to the story, but no actual Mickey Kelley, but having said that, there are a lot of Mickey Kelleys out there.
TS: Did you do all your own fights and stunts in the film?
SPF: I sure did.
TS: Were there any injuries during the making of this film?
SPF: No, no injuries. This is something I do on a daily basis so in a way, it was another day at the office but it was a joy and a pleasure to do it in front of a camera.
TS: When did you start fighting?
SPF: I started in martial arts when I was nine years old. A lot of people talk about being inspired by Bruce Lee for getting into martial arts. My inspiration was actually Elvis Presley. I saw him singing Suspicious Minds on the Vegas stage and he was wearing a jumpsuit that looked like a kimono and was doing these karate kicks. I asked my dad if he was doing karate. My dad, who had been a Golden Gloves boxer, said that yes, Elvis had trained with Ed Parker in Kempo Karate. I just thought I would love to do that. We did not come from a lot of money but one day I saw a girl in white pants pushing a bicycle with a flat tire. She was carrying her karate gi top in the basket, and I followed her as she went into this little karate studio that was next to a Piggly Wiggly Supermarket. I went in there and that’s how I got into martial arts. I followed a girl, just like everything else in my life.
TS: When you were growing up, were you a movie buff? Did you like the movies that star actors like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris?
SPF: Absolutely, but I’ve always been a story buff. Some of the best stories I’ve ever heard were firsthand stories from my grandfather and my dad. We all loved movies. John Ford movies. John Wayne films, All the way through Clint Eastwood and Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, all of that. It was a huge part of my upbringing as well as other films. I liked all the big WWII conflict stories like MIDWAY. I would see those with my dad and they had a profound impact on me.
TS: Speaking of MIDWAY, there was a remake of that last year costarring Dennis Quaid, who is your costar in BORN A CHAMPION. Talk about working with Dennis Quaid.
SPF: Dennis Quaid is one of the very best people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. Through and through, on the set and off, that dude is 100% authentic and a perfect example of a gentleman. I had a wonderful time working with him. He was sort of the conscience of the piece. I don’t think the film would’ve worked nearly as well without him.
TS: He’s one of my favorite contemporary actors as well. I think he’s one of those actors that just elevates everything he’s in.
SPF: You’re absolutely right.
TS: Your nemesis Marco in this movie is played by a big charismatic guy named Edson Barboza. Talk about him a little bit.
SPF: Edson is a very high-ranked UFC fighter. I had him in my mind when I wrote this script. I was trying to get in contact with him and found him on Facebook. He didn’t respond to me at first, but I sent his wife a message that I had written a story and wanted to cast her husband and wanted to see if he would be interested in reading it. She responded, and then he responded. He is a consummate professional and can be scary looking, but he could not be more docile in person. He was so worried about anyone getting injured. He’s a true friend to this day.
TS: Yes, and he has presence. I can see him getting other villain roles in films based on his performance in BORN A CHAMPION. You said you wrote the screenplay in 2007. You also wrote a novel called Jane Two. Was that after you had written the BORN A CHAMPION screenplay?
SPF: I wrote the novel right around the same time. I accumulate little pieces I called “thought trash”. Anytime I have a component of a story, I write it on whatever is handy, be it a candy wrapper or the cardboard at the bottom of a box of donuts. So I was writing both of those about the same time, but the book actually came out in 2016, so it beat the film by three years.
TS: Do you want to write more?
SPF: The storytelling aspect is something that I enjoy thoroughly. From the inception, to the idea, to seeing it realized visually and then combining it with the musical element. When I look back, every single pronounced moment that has happened in my past has a soundtrack. You could be driving down the road and listening to a popular song, or you smell the chlorophyll in the air from freshly cut grass and that may trigger a memory. Trying to re-create that combination I find ultimately thrilling and therapeutic at the same time. If the public consumes it, or digests it, and ends up with a smile on their face, then maybe someone will ask you to do it again. I do enjoy it and I hope to write another film again.
TS: I can tell by watching this film that you love what you do. You are a busy guy. Where do you teach jujitsu?
SPF: I actually started my first martial arts Academy in Los Angeles in 2003. I moved to Texas about three years ago when my parents became sick so started a Brazilian jujitsu Academy here in Houston. I teach every single day. Coming up later this month I am commentating a huge event for Submission Grappling in Houston, so this aspect of my life takes up a lot of time, even though my bread-and-butter is the film and entertainment industry . This helped my sanity when I’m in-between films and waiting for the phone to ring.
TS: I met you at eight or nine years ago at a movie convention here in St. Louis. Did you do a lot of those and do you miss doing those?
SPF: I do. Being in the film industry you don’t get immediate feedback, which is like nourishment for the soul. I love being in films, but the feedback is delayed. The boom operator holding the mic is not paying attention to your performance. They are too busy focusing on their job. So at the end of the scene, you may have thought that you poured your soul out, but the director says “cut” and everyone just walks over to the next set. You’re kind of left wondering how you did. Going to these conventions is when you really get the first-hand experience of the viewer. To me they are invaluable. I absolutely love those moments. Being on panels at those conventions are some of my favorite moments from being in the entertainment industry. You have a crowd of people who happen to love something that you did, or hate something that you did, but they want to hear you talk about it. You get that first-hand experience.
TS: At the con where I met you, you and David Della Rocco were on stage together. Norman Reedus was supposed to show up and join you guys but he never made it there the whole weekend. Do you remember that one?
SPF: I do. Anytime Norman has a weekend free and I do as well, we would like to meet up in a city for one of those. We have been buddies since 1998, but we actually first met in 1994. But that has happened on more than one occasion where he has not been able to show up. Sometimes filming gets delayed, and that’s what happens when you’re on a popular show like he was (The Walking Dead).
TS: Are you surprised at the depth of the cult following that THE BOONDOCK SAINTS still has? I’ve seen guys with THE BOONDOCK SAINTS tattoos.
SPF: I think you’re always surprised when something takes on that big of a life. People see maybe one percent of the things that we have done throughout our careers so when something is what they call a cult hit, and it starts growing and it seems to never stop growing, it’s mesmerizing and astounding. You’d love to be able to replicate that recipe and make something like that every day. I’m blown away and honored to have been part of something that inspires somebody to get a tattoo of it. It’s flattering.
TS: What’s your next project Sean?
SPF: I’ve got one project in the works but I can’t really talk about much right now. An announcement is going to be made soon about a pretty cool TV show that is coming up on Amazon prime. I can’t say too much, but I am going to be on that.
TS: Well maybe we can talk again when you’re working on that. Good luck with BORN A CHAMPION. It’s a terrific film.
SPF: I appreciate that. I really do.