(Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery in The Boondock Saints.)
Sean Patrick Flanery isn’t hungry right now, but lunchtime couldn’t come any sooner. On this chilly afternoon in the heart of New York City, the world-renowned actor is strapped with a backpack on 8th Ave. walking down 45th St. There’s a cup of coffee in his right hand and he’ll need the caffeine because he has a long afternoon of chatting with the media to promote his latest flick The Boondock Saints 2: All Saints Day, sequel to the cult classic The Boondock Saints, released ten years earlier.
Although the press day sounds exciting, the 44-year-old is looking forward to something else. It isn’t grabbing a bite at one of the hot dog stands that populate Manhattan’s street corners and it isn’t scaling every floor of the Empire State Building. Hell, it isn’t even scouring the multi-level Toys ‘R Us for the latest Obi-Wan Kenobi action figure – though he is dangerously close to its Times Square location.
Flanery is simply starving to visit his old stomping grounds at the Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy and roll during his lunch break. It’s only fifteen streets away and he is carrying all of his gear – even his black belt.
“I already planned my itinerary – when I can train, when I have to do interviews and what not. The first thing I do before I get on a plane [is] find out where I’m gonna train. Like right now, I got my belt with me in my backpack just in case,” he says with a laugh. “I’m fifteen blocks from Renzo’s, so at lunchtime, I can swing over there. I can go there and get an hour training while everybody is having some lunch, and that’s why I carry it with me. I didn’t know where we were going before [this] interview, but lo and behold, I’m fifteen minutes away from Renzo’s spot.”
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1965 and raised in Sugar Land Texas, Flanery began his martial arts journey when he was nine-years-old. He studied Tae Kwon Do because he felt it was the ultimate fighting style. “It’s like if you have a black belt, you could beat up five guys. It was this weird kind of magic that everybody put on,” he recalls. “In [the television show] Kung Fu, this guy is walking around and it didn’t matter if they had five weapons; he’d destroy them.”
Though he didn’t transform into Kwai Chang Caine, Flanery continued to train in many different martial arts. But once he saw little ol’ Royce Gracie dominate much larger competition with his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu pedigree at the inaugural UFC event in 1993, the thespian quit everything else and was determined to master this discipline.
“There are two kinds of people in the world. There’s the person that goes, ‘Well if that was me, I would’ve groin striked, gauged his eyes, and done this and this,’” said Flanery. “Then there are the kind of people who are like, ‘Fuck that. I need to learn that. I don’t know it and I need to learn it.’ And I was in the latter.”
But back in ’93, he didn’t have the income to pursue an education in jiu-jitsu. Also, time was scarce as his acting career was just taking off – thanks in part to his lead role in the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Then over the next several years, he was cast in several big pictures including Powder, Simply Irresistible and The Boondock Saints.
With some notoriety, and more importantly money to spend, Flanery finally began his formal training in 2001 when he stepped into the Rickson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy to practice under the legend himself. “When I signed up for classes, I was a white belt and I signed up for two times a week. The next day I came in, I changed to doing three. I was completely addicted,” Flanery recalls. “It was like somebody gave me what I would imagine would be a hit of heroine or something. I’m like, ‘I have to got to have that every day for the rest of my life’.”
The addiction only became more intense. Though he had a couple of roles Stargate SG-1, The Dead Zone and Charmed, the thespian trained consistently and was ready to put himself to the test. “I actually took off a block of six months because, in this industry, you can’t really plan to do a tournament unless you say, ‘Hey, I’m not gonna take any jobs.’ So I did it for six months and just trained because I wanted to go to the Pan Ams,” he explains. “I didn’t get any jobs and that was uneasy, but I did a bunch of a tournaments.”
Flanery was successful in his tournament bids too, becoming the first annual Inland Empire Champion in 2002 as well as the American Nationals Champion and Pan American Champion in 2003.
During that summer, he also went across the country to train at Renzo Gracie’s Jiu-Jitsu Academy under the tutelage of head instructor Shawn Williams. The two would develop a strong bond and open their own school, Hollywood Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a year later.
Though students could be star struck rolling with the “Boondock Saint” at first, Flannery believes it goes away relatively quickly. “I’m there every single day. As any of the students will tell you, they’re all my dear friends. I mean, I’m a pretty accessible guy. I’m not a star. I’m actually a working actor. There is a difference between a celebrity, a star and an actor. I’m an actor and chances are, realistically by the time people realize I was that guy in whatever movie, they roll with me four or five times, so it’s no big deal then,” he explains.
Although opening a gym is a milestone for anyone, Flanery’s proudest achievement came on May 4, 2008, when he received his black belt in under Williams – the first the instructor had ever given.
“It was very cool. John Danaher (BJJ instructor) came from Renzo’s school. He was giving a seminar at our academy. He did a move on me and Williams came up to me and started beating the shit out of me with a black belt,” Flanery says with a chuckle. “A buddy of mine runs the rooftop bar at the Standard in downtown L.A. and the whole academy went up there a week later and we had a ceremony – a black belt ceremony. It may sound stupid, but it was real meaningful to me. I’m Williams’ first black belt and it’s a huge honor for me, and in my opinion, he is the most technical teacher out there and he comes from an amazing lineage. So being his first black belt is pretty stellar for me and just a big moment in my life.”
Flanery will have several more big moments in the future. One of those will happen this afternoon in Manhattan when he continues promoting The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, something film buffs have been waiting more than a decade to see. And he’ll probably return to the city again next year to do another press day for the upcoming film Sinners & Saints, which features Johnny Strong and Bas Rutten.
“It’s funny. I’ve been doing martial arts since I was nine-years –old, [but] everybody knows me as the actor who dabbles in martial arts when, really, it’s the opposite,” he says. “I’m a martial artist who got into acting later on.”
Check out Bear’s breakdown of 10 actors who can actually fight in the Feb. issue of FIGHT! Magazine, on newsstands Feb. 1!