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Surprising Actors Who Have Impressive Martial Arts Skills

Actors generally have to possess a lot of skills to make it big. It isn't enough to simply turn up and say the lines and cash the paycheck. Some of the most on-demand stars have multiple bows to their string, helping them stand out from everyone else trying to land a coveted role. Just look at all the actors who are good singers or those that can show off on the dance floor with impressive dance moves.

Another vital talent is the ability to get down and dirty in fight scenes. Many of the most popular movies contain their fair share of exciting action sequences where characters are forced to battle. It shouldn't be a major shock to learn that many actors, such as Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone, have backgrounds in martial arts.

Yet, there are plenty of actors out there who also have a love for martial arts that might be more of a surprise, especially when they are people who aren't usually associated with action movies or fighting.

Ed O'Neill: Brazilian jiu-jitsu

Many people know Ed O'Neill from his role on the sitcom "Married... with Children" where he portrayed Al Bundy throughout all 11 seasons of the show. But the American actor and comedian has also had a significant role in the more recent "Modern Family," playing Jay Pritchett, one of the lead characters. He began his adult career as a free agent signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL but didn't play any games after being cut before the season began, so he was no stranger to athletic activities since well before he got into martial arts.

A lover of the self-defense martial art Brazilian jiu-jitsu, O'Neill has been practicing for more than two decades. He trained under noted Grand Master and UFC co-founder Rorion Gracie and is one of the few to earn a black belt in the discipline from Gracie. Such is his enthusiasm for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the actor has even worked with Gracie to produce instructional videos.

Keanu Reeves: Jiu-jitsu

Keanu Reeves is one of his generation's premiere movie stars, with lead roles in a wide array of classic films. His greatest hits include 1989's time travel comedy "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," Gus Van Sant's mind-bending, heartbreaking 1991 Shakespeare adaptation "My Own Private Idaho," and of course, several action genre staples like 1991's "Point Break," 1994's "Speed," and most recently, both the "John Wick" and "Matrix" franchises. 

Reeves' entry into the world of martial arts came as he was preparing to shoot "The Matrix" in 1999. He and the rest of the main cast went through months of training in various forms of martial arts under the tutelage of expert Woo-Ping Yuen. Some of the disciplines included jiu-jitsu, Krav Maga, and kung fu, with Reeves taking his training so seriously that he continued to practice while in a neck brace and on off days.

His experience on "The Matrix" and its sequels seems to have left a lasting impression on the actor. For his role in the "John Wick" franchise, Reeves has continued to train and learn new styles. He worked with the Machado family, showed how proficient he is with various weapons, and even earned an honorary black belt in judo from Nomura Tadahiro. With director Chad Stahelski, Reeves even helped popularize the gun fu martial art depicted in the "John Wick" movies. The fact that Reeves is a skilled martial artist is not that surprising, but it is shocking to see how widespread his knowledge is and how dedicated he is to his training.

Jennifer Aniston: Budokon

When most people think of Jennifer Aniston, martial arts is unlikely to be one of the first things that come to mind. After all, the actor is best known for her roles in TV comedies and dramas like "Friends" and the Apple TV+ series "The Morning Show" rather than action flicks.

However, Aniston has been training in Budokon since 2005, using it to cope with a series of traumatic events in her life and maintain a healthy body. In fact, she even credited the martial art with helping her get through her divorce from fellow actor Brad Pitt. Budokon is a mixture of yoga and martial arts that also contains meditation elements. It was first created in 2000 by Cameron Shayne and is almost exclusively practiced in the United States. Offering a full-body workout, it also comes with a number of belts to denote competency and efficiency with the hybrid martial art.

Jessica Alba: Taekwondo

Jessica Alba became a household name in 2000 when she was cast in the lead role of the Fox action series "Dark Angel." Almost immediately after the conclusion of the show, she began to land prominent film roles and starred in the likes of "Fantastic Four," "Little Fockers," and "Sin City." Her role in the 2005 Robert Rodriguez movie was the first of a collaboration with the director; Alba went on to appear in other Rodriguez films "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" and "Machete."

As a regular in action films, Alba has never been afraid to show her physical side. What helps is the fact that she is proficient in Taekwondo, the Korean martial art that primarily involves various types of kicks and has shared videos of her workouts on social media. She has also trained in Krav Maga in preparation for the film "Mechanic: Resurrection" and became pretty good by her own account. "I could hurt you," she told USA Today. "But I'm not lethal. I'd probably just stun you."

Nicolas Cage: Jiu-jitsu

Out of all of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Nicolas Cage has arguably had the strangest career out of just about any current movie star on his level. Born into the Hollywood-centric Coppola family, Cage made his breakthrough in the early 1980s and he has been nominated for two Academy Awards, winning best actor for his performance in "Leaving Las Vegas." Considering his background in action movies like "The Rock," "Face/Off," and "Ghost Rider," and the fact that he had the lead role in a film called "Jiu Jitsu," it should perhaps not be all that surprising that he has some training in martial arts. The actor has reportedly trained under Royce Gracie, a former UFC fighter and expert in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Some rumors even suggest that Cage may be a black belt, although there's little evidence for that and Cage has never spoken about it publicly — apparently, that's just another part of Cage's mystique.

Taylor Lautner: Karate

Taylor Lautner will be familiar to anyone who is a fan of the "Twilight" series of films, as the actor portrayed the werewolf known as Jacob Black. But long before he pursued a career in acting, Lautner had a passion for karate. He was just 6 years old when he began studying the martial art and was almost instantly successful. While still under the age of 10, he won a number of tournaments and then began training under actor and stuntman Michael Chaturantabut. Lautner climbed through the ranks and earned a black belt in the sport in addition to becoming a world champion. Choosing a career in acting, Lautner largely gave up on his martial arts career to concentrate on his clearly more lucrative television and film work. Considering his background in martial arts, the fact that he's been doing projects like the miserably reviewed 2022 Kevin James football comedy "Home Team" instead of action movies is pretty strange.

Robert Downey Jr.: Wing Chun

The phrase "living legend" gets tossed around too much, but if there's one individual it definitely applies to, it's Robert Downey Jr. From '80s teen movies like "Weird Science" and "Less than Zero" to prestigious acclaimed work on "Chaplin" to substance abuse issues nearly derailing his career to a once little-known Marvel Comics hero named Iron Man and becoming one of the best-paid actors in Hollywood, we've all heard his story. 

One of the things that the actor pinpoints as helping to turn his life around was Wing Chun, a form of kung fu developed in Southern China. Speaking about his experience training in the martial art, Downey Jr. said that it has helped to strengthen both his body and his mind. He has been training Wing Chun for more than two decades and stills practices several times a week, serving under the tutelage of Eric Oram. The pair have maintained a close relationship and Oram has worked as a fight choreographer on several movies featuring Downey Jr.

Ashton Kutcher: Brazilian jiu-jitsu

Ashton Kutcher is another actor that most people don't associate with martial arts. The television and film star is mainly known for his roles in comedies and romance films, meaning that he rarely has any need for fighting skills or high-octane action. Nevertheless, the actor seemingly began training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the early 2010s and by 2014 had achieved a blue belt. He is even reported to have traveled to Brazil to learn from tutors in the country, although he has also trained under Rigan Machado and earned a purple belt in 2014 before being awarded a brown belt — just one step below the coveted black belt — in 2019. In a video posted to Instagram, grappling expert Craig Jones can be seen sparring with Kutcher.

Apparently, the onetime "That '70s Show" star is one of the many folks who practice martial arts as a hobby. Martial arts disciplines, after all, can be good for the mind and body, and don't necessarily require practical application in the real world. In fact, most martial artists will say they would prefer not to be beating people up on a regular basis in their everyday lives. 

Henry Cavill: Brazilian jiu-jitsu

In many ways, it makes sense that Henry Cavill has some fighting training. He has portrayed many characters who are involved in battling bad guys, most famously Superman in the DCEU and Geralt of Rivia in the Netflix fantasy adaptation "The Witcher." Yet it's not obvious that either of those characters uses a fighting style that you'd consider a traditional form of martial arts.

Cavill has spent many years studying jiu-jitsu and has spoken about it as one of the main ways that he stays in shape, with running being his other fitness passion. From his frequent posts on social media and interviews with the press, it is clear that the Hollywood star has a deep love of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and misses it when he is unable to get on the mat to train.

"I've done a little bit of boxing, but for me the martial art I do the most is jiu-jitsu," Cavill said to Men's Journal. "I'm very fortunate to [work with] the world-famous Roger Gracie. When you're doing jiu-jitsu, you can't think of anything but jiu-jitsu. You have to focus fully on it — or someone chokes you out."

John Cusack: Kickboxing

A teen star in the early 1980s, John Cusack was known for roles in comedies like "Better Off Dead" and "Say Anything..." before he started landing more serious leading-man gigs during his adult years. Despite his comparative lack of action roles — with the exception of 1997's essential "Con Air," of course – Cusack has been a fan of martial arts for many years and trained with kickboxing champion Benny Urquidez for more than two decades. He is so experienced and proficient in the discipline that he has earned a level six black belt. This came in handy when he appeared in "Dragon Blade" with Jackie Chan and was able to put his skills to use during fight scenes with the famous action star. Despite a language barrier existing with Chan's team, Cusack was able to adjust, telling the Straits Times, "I've been doing martial arts for so long, I understood the body rhythms even if I didn't understand the commands."

Wesley Snipes: Karate

Throughout his long career, Wesley Snipes has done a little bit of everything. However, the actor is probably best known for his role in the "Blade" trilogy, where he played the titular vampire hunter in his quest to rid the world of the blood-sucking menace.

One of the reasons why Snipes' action scenes look so convincing in "Blade" and other movies is that he is an experienced martial artist. In fact, he loves getting involved so much that he has even said that he only likes to do projects where he can get physically involved, saying, "[There's] no reason to do the role if I'm not going to do some ... action and martial arts."

Training since he was just 12 years old, Snipes has specialized in Shotokan karate, Brazilian jiu jitsu, and capoeira. His skill with karate has seen him earn a fifth dan black belt, denoting that he is an expert in the discipline. Reports suggest he has achieved high ranks in many different forms of martial arts and is constantly looking to expand his skillset.

Jon Foo: Wushu

Among the surprising actors who have impressive martial arts skills is Jon Foo, a relative unknown to the industry. However, thanks to his abilities, he's landed roles in a range of movies and television series over the years, including "Batman Begins" and "Street Fighter: Legacy." These roles have usually involved uncredited parts where Foo also acted as a stunt performer. His big break came when he played Jin Kazama in the live-action video game adaptation "Tekken" in 2010. In 2016, he took on the role of Jackie Chan's character alongside Justin Hires in the CBS television series "Rush Hour."

The actor's interest in martial arts began from an early age. Both of his parents had studied different disciplines, including judo and karate. Exposed to these martial arts and inspired by Jackie Chan, Foo took up training in Wushu as well as Shaolin kung fu when he was just 8 years old. By the age of 15, he was skilled enough to join the London Chinese Acrobat Circus. Foo has since trained in China and worked with the Jackie Chan Stunt Team.