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FLEX: When did you first see Pumping Iron?
KAI GREENE: It was sometime in the late ’80s. It was the class movie at the institution I was in at the time (Greene became a ward of the state at age 6), and I remember the main character was this huge dude who liked working out.
It became a point of reference for my life because I was working out by that time, but didn’t know what competitive bodybuilding was, didn’t really know what bodybuilding itself was, until that movie. The ’80s was a time when pop culture was very heavily influenced by the idea of working out—you had Olivia Newton-John telling everyone to “Get Physical” and Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon was still very popular. Hollywood was showcasing Arnold, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and other action heroes who were larger-than-life, with equally larger-than-life muscles. That exposure made a lasting impression on me as a teenager.
Seeing that movie definitely changed my life forever. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. My friends and I could quote the entire movie verbatim. If fact, several years after seeing it, at my first Colorado Pro [in 2006], I got a chance to meet [IFBB pro] Darrem Charles. The whole time we were backstage, we went back and forth with dialogue from the movie. It was clear we were both well-versed in the art of Pumping Iron. That was our common ground. I can imagine— I hope—aspiring athletes in the future will do the same with Generation Iron.
You met with Vlad before filming. What was going through your mind, knowing that you were going to be in the film?
I remember being very excited and honored. I wished that the people who were in my life 20 years ago were still around so I could share this with them. Part of me wanted to call them up and say, “I’m going to be in the new Pumping Iron!” The uniqueness of this sport is in how lonely the journey can be as you dare to dream and aspire to be the best bodybuilder in the world. It’s unfortunate that the people who were in my life then are no longer in it now, because my life is drastically different today. There’s no one here today that I could share notes with from 20 years ago. But it was still very exciting!
With several training videos under your belt, you’re no stranger to the camera. But were you prepared for the size of the Generation Iron crew? Vlad had upward of 10 people on his team.
At times it seemed like even more than that! It was an amazing spectacle. We were walking the streets of Brooklyn and people were looking out their windows and coming out of their buildings to see what was going on. People were saying, “They’re filming that dude with the muscles who’s always carrying bags of food.” Normally you don’t see a film crew that size in the project streets, so it was interesting seeing their reactions.
The goal of the documentary filmmaker is to capture subjects in their natural state. Did having the cameras and all those people following your every move affect you at all?
Yeah, as much as I want to say it didn’t, there were a lot of times when I struggled to keep my concentration. It’s a tremendous demand to focus on what you need to do. I definitely learned firsthand that it can be very challenging, particularly those times you think you’re prepared but realize you really aren’t. There’s a certain amount of practice one needs in order to be natural and comfortable with that many unblinking eyes on you—and that’s one thing about the camera, it does not blink, ever! It’s like having people come to your house—you want to clean up and put away your dirty laundry, so to speak, before they enter your home so you don’t expose parts of yourself you may not feel comfortable putting on display. But it’s like you hid the dirty laundry behind the door, when the cameras are rolling, this is me getting ready for the biggest moment of my Life. and that’s where the vulnerability comes in. and people are there in your home, looking behind the door and seeing it. Now it’s revealed to the masses, so there’s a certain amount of trepidation that comes with the experience. That feeling of vulnerability can cause a lot of anxiety. Will people understand and accept me? Will the fact that a professional bodybuilder is not driving a $100,000 car refect poorly on my status, or on the expectations people have of a two-time Arnold Classic winner?
How did you deal with that?
You want to be the athlete getting ready for the biggest and most important competition of your life, and that’s all—you’ve invested so much in being ready for that moment you’ll be called upon. There’s a part of me that recognizes the responsibility of being in the spotlight. As I’m committing myself to making my dreams tangible, I have to be aware of the fact that people are paying close attention to my actions and words. The audience may need to hear a much more powerful message than just how many sets and reps I do. In that moment, there could be individuals watching who are willing to make themselves available to you and whatever it is you have to say, with more respect and attention than they might give their own parents at any given time. I didn’t grow up with a father in my home, but through TV, movies, and various other mediums there were other role models. That’s why I have to give props to the Bill Cosbys of the world for giving me a point of reference I could draw upon in my own life—be it fostering a loving relationship between me and my niece, or being with other people who make my life more fulflling— even if it was only something I was watching onscreen.
But getting back to the question, the shooting days were at times very long. While you’re trying to get this work done, you want to make sure you’re concentrating on doing what you—the athlete aiming to be the best in the world—should be doing. The last thing you want is to not place well at the show. I didn’t want it to be a case of thinking afterward, “My parts were great, but I didn’t do well in the show.” I felt continually torn between serving two masters. I thought, What would [six-time Mr. Olympia] Dorian Yates do? Would he allow distractions to interfere with his goals? Then again, you realize that this is a golden opportunity, a million-dollar moment, and you’d be an absolute idiot to let it pass you by. So you put your best foot forward and do whatever needs to be done.
The trailer came out shortly before last year’s Olympia. What was your reaction on seeing it?
There’s a part of you that thinks, “Aw, man! I could have done that better!” or “I wish I would’ve said this…” But the truth is, when you were in the actual trenches of the experience, there were so many things going on.
What about the gym scenes? Did you put any pressure on yourself to make them memorable for the film?
There might have been times when I thought like that, but I didn’t want to get injured. Would that serve my goal? No. You really have to keep your ego in check, and with all my years of training experience, I’ve been pretty good at keeping my ego at bay. Actually, there were a lot of things I’d like to be able to take credit for now, and say I knew what the end result would be, so I decided to do this or say that, but I didn’t. That credit goes to the flmmakers and to the situation at hand, and how it all just played out naturally. Being an athlete who has a responsibility to himself and his sponsors and fans can be daunting, because you try to keep everybody happy—but sometimes you come up short at the end of the day. So you just do the best you can and focus on things that are immediately important as the cameras are rolling. You realize that this is representative of my preparation at this period. This was my big-screen acting debut, so in my mind I was thinking of Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang from Rocky, because characters like that resonate with me. But then you tell yourself that this isn’t some part I’m playing. I’m not a thespian. I don’t need to know what my “motivation” is before a scene, because this is real life—my life. When the cameras are rolling, this is me getting ready for the biggest moment of my life. And that’s where the vulnerability comes in. Because you aren’t acting, you’re just being yourself and the whole world is watching.
What do you hope people will come away with aer watching Generation Iron?
At the root of the [bodybuilding] experience is the recognition of personal power and the ability to use it. You’re not a victim of circumstance, genetics, or the permissive will of a deity. You have the power to create your own reality.
It’s through the application of decisions that are made from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep that I’m able to defne myself as a champion. My successes and failures are not a product of the sins of my father or the demonstrations of love by my mother. My own hand decides to create what I will with my life. That’s the biggest lesson this lifestyle teaches.
I got the support I did as a youngster embarking on this journey not because someone expected me to be Mr. Olympia, but because they understood that at the root of this, this young man would be able to devote his energy, anger, whatever, toward developing skills—crafting a physique, following a diet plan—that will carry him through life.
That’s the beauty of this lifestyle, and that’s the lesson I hope people watching the flm come away with. You can create your own destiny. You’re an active participant in that process every day, with every decision you make. And whether you recognize that power in your hand or not, that reality is not one to run from, but one to recognize and embrace. To embrace it puts you in the driver’s seat to create and make of yourself and your life what you will.