Gillian White
Photo by Kem West
Gillian White has worked in film and television for 25 years — far longer than she's been married to Michael Jai White, whom she wed in 2015. Recently, she's created a buzz in the entertainment industry because of her role as Zara in Take Back, a movie that also stars her husband and teacher, as well as Mickey Rourke. After eight years of hybrid training that includes kyokushin karate and an array of effective fighting styles, Gillian will step into history as the first Black female martial artist to play the lead in an action film when Take Back is released this year.

Black Belt: How did you end up playing the lead in this film?

Gillian White: You know, I was offered the role. The producer and the director contacted me and said, "We got a script for you. We think you'd be great for it. Let us know what you think." As soon as they told me what it was about, I knew I wanted to do it. Coming in and being able to showcase my martial arts skills and fight skills has been awesome. I always wanted to do action. I got a little bit of it playing Amoria on Xena: Warrior Princess. I mean, it's absolutely exciting. I did choose to have a stunt double, but the actual fighting is me.

Black Belt: Who choreographed the fights for Take Back?

Gillian: Mainly, my husband. We also had our stunt coordinator Arnold Chon, who does a lot of stuff in the film. He has trained a lot of MMA fighters in Bellator and the UFC. And we [had] stunt choreographer and director Larnell Stovall (Captain America: Civil War).

Black Belt: This role had to be physically demanding — you were very convincing!

Gillian: I don't want to look like I'm acting or I'm reading lines. I want you to feel me in the moment, in my tears and my happiness or whatever I'm trying to portray at the moment — so believable, so genuine that it just makes you want to cheer for my character. To make it look effortless, to expend energy at that level, [I have] to simultaneously be dramatic, be funny and sensitive, be someone that the audience can relate to. As an actress, I never want to come across on the screen as I'm "acting."

Black Belt: You have fast reflexes, very strong kicks and jumps, upper-body strength and tremendous athleticism. How do you stay so fine-tuned?

Gillian: Because I was an athlete, I am physically in the best shape of my life. I make smarter choices in my diet and how I take care of my body and the things I put in it. I'm very aware, and it's very important to me. Yeah, I keep on my diet, staying in shape training with my husband, not drinking or smoking, not doing anything that I know is gonna affect my body in a negative way.

Black Belt: Besides screen time, what are some of the differences between your roles in Take Back and last year's Welcome to Sudden Death?

sudden death film

Gillian: In Sudden Death, there was only one scene where I got to fight. It was so much fun, but it gave me that little bug of "Oh, I like this! I can do this!" [It was] not as hard as I thought it would be, you know, being able to fight and do choreography and still staying in character. I was thinking that it doesn't matter if it's a small role. It doesn't matter if I die. It was a moment like I got to be badass crazy! (laughs)

Black Belt: You've obviously made quite an impression. Welcome to Sudden Death has garnered great reviews. What kind of feedback are you getting?

Gillian: You know, I've had men tell me that they're going to put their daughters in self-defense and martial arts. Some guy told me his daughter's 15 and that he can't wait to take her and her friends to go see this movie — so just a lot of positive responses. And that is what it all boils down to for me. I just love inspiring people.

Black Belt: When will your fans get to see more of your martial arts skills on-screen?

Gillian: I'm playing an MMA fighter in a new prime-time television pilot, but I can't talk about it just yet. And I just finished a drama called Love You Anyway where I play the mother of a woman battling her whole life with mental-health issues and depression. It's very important to me to have a range of characters.

Black Belt: You are breaking new ground in Take Back. What do you want to say to the girls and women who see it?

Gillian: I want to say [that] I started learning martial arts late in life — and look at what I'm doing and look where I'm at now! So at a younger age, the possibilities are endless. If it's something that you want to do and you work hard and put in that dedication and time, you can do it!

Black Belt: Congratulations, Gillian. We look forward to seeing your work inspire a new generation of women in the martial arts.

Gillian: Thank you.
For more information about Black Belt Hall of Famer Gerry Chisolm, visit

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