NEW YORK—Connections between the movie industry and the mob have existed since before Frank Sinatra. With multimillions on the line, the high seas of Hollywood are indeed shark-infested waters.
Italian-born, Staten Island-based action-producer Julius Nasso put movie star Steven Seagal on the map. The mogul and the aikido master made nearly a billion dollars together, and had four more films in the pipeline.
However, in 1997, a Tibetan lama pronounced Steven Seagal the reincarnation of a 17th century “tulku,” a holy man of a venerable Buddhist lineage.
This was controversial. Some in the Buddhist community suggested Seagal had purchased his Buddhahood with donation dollars.
For one reason or another, Seagal could (allegedly) therefore no longer fulfill the last four movies in his contract. He’d taken to wearing elaborate robes, and lecturing. Preferred to be addressed as “Rinpoche.”
Nobody bought it. Nasso, especially, wasn’t buying it either, and apparently brought a $60-million lawsuit against Seagal. However, federal agents said there was also, around that time, a Gambino crime-family-related attempted shakedown of Seagal.
Nasso pleaded guilty to extortion charges and did a little jail time.
As Nasso said during a phone interview with the Epoch Times, “The judge said it was like a schoolyard fight between boys.”
Such litigiousness backed by muscle is rather ho-hum in the history of Hollywood. Nasso and Seagal still talk on the phone every once in while.
But this is not a story about Steven Seagal. This is about Julius Nasso waiting many long years for his next opportunity, with Hollywood studio heads clamoring, as Nasso puts it, “C’mon! When are you gonna do another one? Give us another one.”
From Aikido to Karate
And so, after a long wait, things are heating up again, significantly. Nasso’s finally discovered what looks to be the next old-school, bona fide Hollywood action star: South Africa-born former heavyweight karate champion, former intelligence operator, and current special forces instructor, Tony Schiena. We’ll come back to him.
Nasso’s always had a serious talent for business. He earned a pharmaceutical doctorate from the University of Connecticut, and then founded the world’s largest international marine medical supply company, servicing oil rigs, cruise ships, super-yachts, tankers, and so on.
After more highly successful, pharmaceutical-oriented business ventures, Nasso started taking courses in movie production in Italy and got his foot in the showbiz door as assistant to legendary spaghetti-western director Sergio Leone in 1980, on the set of “Once Upon a Time in America,” which starred Robert De Niro.
Then it was on to the extended Seagal collaboration, where he produced Seagal’s third movie, 1990’s “Marked for Death.” Thereafter came “Out for Justice,” “On Deadly Ground,” and “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.”
Some reporter-impressions of Nasso suggest an image-fixated Hollywood hanger-on in search of validation, replete with a demand for Seagal to submit a presidential-pardon request for Nasso’s jail time. This may be the case—or not.
Our phone conversation didn’t give me this impression. Mine was more one of a Hollywood heavyweight. A polite, quiet man with an aura of gravitas, at ease in the high-stakes arena of millions of dollars and titanic showbiz egos. Slightly world-weary, his talent-agent’s eye for those who have what it takes to be a star, is, at this late date, simply matter-of-fact.
Epoch Times: So how’s the new guy?
Julius Nasso: After the last one, everything else in my life is wonderful, like marshmallows.
Nasso’s New York accent lends a classic movie-mogul air to utterances like, “Steven’s aikido, it was fresh, it was new.” And, “In 1999, the Seagal franchise ended. I met Tony, at the time still an intelligence operator—he had the demeanor.”
As for Schiena’s own accent (South African with overtones of London), Nasso feels it “makes him mysterious, sophisticated.”
Nasso has the eye for martial arts credibility—which means putting real fighters in films. Not actors.
Tony Schiena, the ‘New Guy’
I spoke with Schiena directly after producer Nasso, and he makes an immediate impression.
Deep-voiced, soft-spoken, laid-back, funny, and yet with the curiously paradoxical sensitivity and inquisitive mind found among many modern-day warrior types for whom routinely looking death in the face is the occupational hazard, regardless of whether it’s extreme sports or actual combat. He considers himself a spiritual man. He is, in a word, charismatic.
Schiena’s a former South African intelligence operator, an undefeated heavyweight karate champion at age 25, a respected member of multiple law enforcement communities, and founder of the private intelligence military and counter-terrorism company MOSAIC.
Part Italian and part Dutch, he grew up in a karate household, his father and sister having black belts, and South Africa being, in his words, “a karate nation.” He’s an orthodox Shotokan karate practitioner, using reverentially, as do all those who honor their art, the proper Japanese pronunciations such as “kara-teh” and “buh-do.”
A huge part of Schiena’s life mission and work has been an ongoing fight against the world’s human trafficking problem. Just recently, both Schiena and Nasso attended a gathering of the Global Freedom Network as guests of the pope at the Vatican.
Tony’s first tweet on Twitter reads: “I’m in Cambodia. Sex Trafficking press conference & conducting seminars with Khmer commando’s at war with Thailand on their shared borders.”
“Darc” is the movie they’re currently shooting, a Schiena star vehicle. Darc is also Schiena’s character’s name. It’s of the same genre as Liam Neeson’s “Taken,” but according to Nasso, “goes further and shows things we haven’t seen before.”
The character of Darc grows up in a brothel. His mother is a prostitute. After witnessing her death, he grows up in and out of detention centers. An Interpol agent gives him direction, but he ultimately rejects that structure.
His destiny is as a protector of women, and therefore he eventually goes after the Japanese Yakuza organized crime syndicates, and human trafficking.
Which would almost make Darc a sort of latter-day crusader, in the nonsarcastic sense of that word. A crusader’s chivalrous oath was “to defend to his uttermost the weak, the orphan, the widow … women should receive his especial care.”
Schiena wrote the first 10 drafts of the screenplay himself, after which he brought in another writer to help with the structure, as the heavy workload of pre-production was already underway.
Schiena is already one of those world-stage characters who counts many of the world’s movers-and-shakers and celebrities as close friends. Nasso tells me, “On the first day of shooting, the president of Pakistan called Tony up to wish him the best.”
Schiena got into acting by working with Al Pacino, and having Schiena’s good friend, movie star Armand Assante, give him a shot. He also counts Brazilian jiu-jitsu “royal-family” member Rigan Machado as a friend and studies qigong with one of the world’s top Shaolin monks, Yang Ming, in New York. As he said, “I need to do more qigong, most of my movements are very hard, I need more of the softer arts.”
According to Nasso, the movie will come out next February. When I asked him whether this would be a franchise, he replied, “Oh sure, but you never know with these things. We’ve already got sequel scripts in the pipeline. Maybe, the next picture, after ‘Darc’ will be a paramilitary. Then, a sequel.”
Schiena is a fan and collector of Korean films. Of “Darc” he says, “Hopefully we’ll wow you.” After all, on their “Darc” team, they’ve got some serious heavy hitters.
A Perfect Martial Arts Storm
At the helm will be Nick Powell, who’s worked in various capacities on action trendsetters “Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” and “The Bourne Identity.”
The fight choreographer for “Darc” will be ninth-degree black-belt Korean grandmaster Jhong Uhk Kim. This is going to be one heck of a manly-man film, for sure.
Bruce Lee kicked off (pun intended) the worldwide martial arts craze in the early 1970s, with wing chun kung fu and jeet kune do. Chuck Norris familiarized us with karate. Seagal brought aikido. The “Bourne” movies showed the world Krav Maga. Van Damme and Tony Jaa’s films demonstrate the art of Muay Thai. The upcoming “Star Wars” sequel will familiarize the world with the Malaysian art of pencak silat. And the fastest-growing sport in the world, mixed martial arts (MMA), is everywhere in the movies now.
So why is Schiena’s debut likely to be electrifying and show martial arts fans something they haven’t seen before? Because Schiena is not like, for example, Matt Damon in “The Bourne Identity,” an actor who studied Krav Maga for a couple of months and acts.
Much like the active-duty Navy SEALs in the movie “Act of Valor” (Schiena has numerous former SEALs working for him), “Darc” will show a unique blend of real-life karate champion expertise and battle-tested lethal commando moves, guided by the rarified eye of a ninth-degree black belt.
As Schiena said of shooting fight sequences—it all comes from his own experience. When the director suggests something unrealistic, Schiena is invited to co-choreograph. “No, that doesn’t feel right, I would have shot him by now,” he may say.
Nasso and Schiena, both tough guys in different arenas, have picked a topic—human trafficking—that is the utter abyss and reek of human ill-doing. If ever a concept immediately conjured the words human sin, it’s that.
There’s potential redemption in this venture. Perhaps there will be a small step made toward global healing in this spotlighting of the demons that infest the human trafficking underworld.
Schiena spoke at length about his hopes of translating the film’s consciousness-raising possibilities toward some form of legislation. We also spoke of human trafficking’s grisly subset—live human organ harvesting—a phenomenon that’s currently widespread in China. Maybe there’s a sequel there.
When asked if he felt prepared for the upcoming possible massive media storm and talk show circuit, Schiena replied, “I live one day at a time. If I’m still on the planet by then—I’ll, of course, do it.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the director of “Darc.” The director is Nick Powell. Epoch Times regrets the error.