Interview with Diana Lee Inosanto

Diana Lee Inosanto

The one thing that protected me was my father’s name in the business, but that didn’t bring me comfort for my fellow colleagues in the industry that sometimes had to deal with sexual harassment.  Hollywood is a tough industry.

Tell us about yourself and what you do
Well, most people know me from the “charmed circle” of martial artists that I was raised around. My father is living legend, Dan Inosanto, and the Late Bruce Lee, who I was named after at birth, “Diana Lee,” was my godfather—sort of martial arts royalty.   However, the closest thing to royalty was my homemade castle made of cardboard and a paper crown from Burger King.  My life was training and hanging around in sweaty gyms, kicking shields, punching focus mitts, and learning to swing lots of fun armory: Swords, Kali Sticks, knives, staff, etc.  It’s an unusual background.

However, being raised around male energy at my father’s martial arts school, prepared me as an adult woman to work in male dominated industries like Hollywood and the Martial Arts world.  Between both these industries, I am a Martial Arts Stunt Choreographer and Teacher, Filmmaker and Actress.  Beyond that, I am a family woman.

Who has inspired you in your life and why?
I look to people that were underdogs who became movers and shakers and who thought outside the box, so to speak.  People who stepped up to the “plate” under life’s adversities and created real change that helped shape our world and make it a better place.

Diana_Lee_and_Bruce_Lee_Family_PhotoWhat was it like to know Uncle Bruce?
Well, as a child I had no idea that he was famous.  He was just one of Dad’s best friends and training partners.   I could see that he was an amazing family man, a good friend to a group of students that looked like the United Nations.  He was kind to animals.  He was a philosophical man and yet, he was quite funny and humorous—a side that the world has never seen or known.

My fondest memory was when he had returned from Hong Kong and came over to our home in our Los Angeles neighborhood.  After months and months of him being gone, Uncle Bruce and Linda had stopped by our home.  I remember I was playing in the back yard by myself, and he had stepped out into our Japanese garden.  I remember running to him as a small girl to hug him around the waist.  He smiled and gave me warm hug back.  Later, he would be in my father’s library, lifting weights (yes, dad’s personal library also had a weight bench and desk in the middle of the room.)  I remember walking in the room and watching my godfather bench pressing, while he spoke philosophy and related his thoughts about martial arts, meanwhile my father would sit at his desk taking notes.  I remember as a small child I had interrupted their discussion.  But my Godfather got off the bench, smiled.  I noticed that his shirt was off and that he had incredible “six pack” abs.  I had never seen a man with that kind of muscular structure.  He smiled and comically allowed me to punch his abdomen.  His stomach felt like a rock.   It was pretty funny.

How has martial arts shaped your life?
It’s taught me to be a survivor and a woman warrior.  Martial Arts has taught me to work pass the pain of life’s challenges, mentally, emotionally and physically.  Within the philosophy of martial arts that I was given, I understand how important it is to adapt to a world that is constantly changing, and to be respectful and open minded to all cultures, religions, and belief systems.

What is your greatest achievement so far?
Raising my children.  I have two sons. My youngest son is 12 years old, and my oldest son is now 26.  Although I am remarried today, in the early 1990’s, I was a single, divorced mother in the predicament of having my then, 4 year-old son diagnosed with Autism.  It was a harrowing experience because they didn’t have the resources and support systems that they have today.  In fact, most people didn’t know what Autism was!

Thank God for my martial arts background that helped me pave a way into the Hollywood system as a Stuntwoman.  I landed “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Stunt Double.  From there, my career progressively took off.

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Do you have any tips for our readers that are trying to break in the industry?
It depends on what their goals are.  Do you want to be a Filmmaker, an Actress, or a Writer?   Outside of the training you should have (Improv classes, Stage plays, Film workshops, writing courses), you have to get along with people and forge professional friendships and still watch out for the sharks…especially young people that are just starting out.  Lately, we have all seen the news coverage about Bill Cosby, but I can tell you from experience, I have heard these kinds of stories with other celebrities coming up the system for 20 years now.  The one thing that protected me was my father’s name in the business, but that didn’t bring me comfort for my fellow colleagues in the industry that sometimes had to deal with sexual harassment.  Hollywood is a tough industry. However, there are great creative circles in the Entertainment field that you can find and build a network.  The Internet is a game changer.  One of my heroes in the biz is Actress and Filmmaker, Felicia Day who created an Internet sensation called “The Guild.”  She was an out of work actress who hungered for more creativity and control.  So she came up with a concept, gathered some creative friends, and created a fantastic web series.  I am excited with the newer generations of filmmakers that are utilizing the Internet and finding an audience and in some cases, a fast track into the Hollywood system.

You created the film, “The Sensei”, which addresses many topics from bullying, gay rights, and racism.  What inspired you to create this film?
The Matthew Shepard murder case had a profound effect on me.  Here you have this young man that happened to be gay, struggled with acceptance and found himself a murder victim in Laramie, Wyoming.  After that, I had read up on countless stories of young people, particularly within the LGBT community that were being bullied simply because they were gay or just different.  In some cases, they weren’t gay at all, but words as we know, can have a profound effect on young minds, and thus you would hear of people using inappropriately labels in a negative light, that made teens vulnerable to being bullied and ostracized within their given communities and schools of attendance.  I was shocked to learn of the high suicide rate among gay teenagers.

In addition, I was extremely unhappy, when I would conduct martial arts seminars across the country with my husband, and found out that some martial arts schools felt reluctant to allow people from the LGBT community in their dojos for fear of retaliation from the community and potential loss of business.  I felt, given my families’ reputation in the martial arts world that perhaps I could make a positive difference with my family name, and thus, I wrote The SENSEI screenplay, and went on to direct and produce it with a team of producers, including my husband Ron Balicki—a Chicago native.

How could I not speak up about this?  I know what it’s like to endure bullying and racism growing up as a child, especially having a white mother (Irish American) and an Asian father (Filipino).  I felt spiritually lead on some level to address this issue.

When the film was released 5 years ago, it was one of the first flocks of independent movies, digitally released on the Internet (I-Tunes, Netflix, etc.).  It was not politically easy either, as I had some in the martial arts community that were very disappointed at me.  They thought I would be putting out a chop socky film, and instead I was presenting a serious film to the world.  Would you believe that I even had a couple of death threats on the Internet toward me, supporters of my film and my father?  As mad as I was about this, I knew on some level I was doing the right thing.

Now 5 years later, we have the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act signed into law by President Obama, the Supreme Court has lifted the ban on gay marriage, and we are having real, serious conversations on the issue of bullying (including adult bullying and cyber bullying, etc.)

Do you have any personal stories of bullying?  How did you deal with that?
Oh, I know what it’s like to be bullied as a kid.  It’s interesting that I was able to protect myself a couple of times on the school yard in elementary school.  What I didn’t foresee, and what was never explained to me is that there are other ways kids could bully, and that was verbally—today we now have to add cyber-bullying to that mix—and sadly, we all have seen comments on the Internet with adults saying cruel and horrible things.

I discovered that words could hit harder than a fist.  It’s psychological.  And kids can be cruel.  Gossip is an ugly weapon that people don’t even realize they are wielding at a person.  I really felt I could die.  I was embarrassed, lonely and I didn’t know quite what to do.  My father was doing a lot of traveling, and my mother was having her own personal issues at that time, so I didn’t feel like I could turn to an adult about this.

What saved me was my faith in a power higher than me.  I had an amazing grandmother –my Dad’s mom—who had always sent me inspirational and spiritual material that would feed my soul.  I said a personal prayer and saw the materials sitting in my room.  Somehow, I knew that I had to be my “own” best friend (meaning love myself) and look to a high power to cry to at night, and have faith that somehow “that this too shall pass.” I forgave (but I want to reiterate that forgiveness does not mean condoning people’s negative actions).  I practiced the art of killing people with kindness (as best as I could at the age 12).  You can call it my “micro” peaceful protest.  Grandma taught me historically about people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Gandhi and if you are a fan of the Bible, then you would know that even Jesus was persecuted.  For people that I knew were calling me the most vile and filthiest of names, I practiced kindness.  I also looked around my school and sought out friends from different backgrounds than me, and that I felt most certain were underdogs like me.  Before you knew it, things turned around for me.  I think kindness can be contagious, and before I knew it, anyone that did try to bully or say horrible things about me, I found that circles of friends from different groups were actually starting to protect and stand up for me.

What message do you hope viewers will walk away with?
One of the key lines in the film is “You have a right to defend yourself against hatred and self-hatred”.  In order to deal with the craziness that can existence in our world, you have to seek every day to accept and be kind to yourself.  I hope also that people realize that bullying and hatred can come in many forms: racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc.  That once we understand that on some level we are all connected, the better off we will be as a society.  I always loved the quote from my godfather: “Under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one Family. It just so happens that people are different.”

Tell us about the impact the film has had socially?  Any awards or recognitions?
The Sensei received the endorsement of the Matthew Shepard Foundation

The authors and activists, (Senator Gordon Smith and the late Senator Ted Kennedy) of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (aka The Matthew Shepard Act) had also endorsed our film.

I also received the American Courage Award in Washington, D.C at AAJC

And I was the first woman to receive the Maverick Award at the International Action on Film Festival.

Where can we see your film and when?  How can we keep in touch with you?
We are having a Celebratory 5 year Anniversary Screening of The SENSEI, hosted by Chicago Film Critic and fellow martial artist, Master Kirk Haygood of Flix of Fury.

Date: SAT. Aug 8th,
Time: 7 pm – Until,
Location: Logan Theater 2646 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60647
To purchase tickets please go to : http://www.flixoffury.com
Host: Chicago Film Critic and Martial Artist, Master Kirk Haygood with Flix of Fury Chicago Martial Arts Cinema Club

People can always reach me on Twitter (d_lee_inosanto)

or Facebook at The Official Fan Club of Diana Lee Inosanto.

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