Ernie Reyes, Jr. may not be a household name, but to millions of kids who grew up as fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), he’s nothing short of a legend. Reyes appeared in the first TMNT movie as the ‘purple’ turtle, Donatello, and was taken out of the turtle costume to portray Keno, the pizza delivery boy, in the second movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.
Ernie has appeared in dozens of other television shows and movies, including his own Disney TV series, Sidekicks, and films such as Rush Hour 2 and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Aside from acting on screen, Reyes – a renowned martial artist – has worked as an action choreographer, director, producer, filmmaker, screenwriter, singer, and stunt performer.
Now residing in Arizona, Reyes serves as the Vice President of Dignity Kids, a nonprofit organization that educates and empowers youth through fitness-based programs that teach STEM concepts, encourage healthy lifestyles, and promote positive youth development.
Q. You’ve done so many different things in the entertainment industry. How do you describe yourself?
A. I normally say I’m an actor and martial artist.
Q. How did you get started in both those fields? You’ve been doing martial arts since you were very young. How did that turn into an acting career?
A. My father was actually my martial arts instructor. He had his first martial arts school before I was born. I was kind of born into the world of martial arts. I ‘came out kicking,’ so to speak [laughs] and was raised in a martial arts family. After school, I’d go straight to the martial arts school and my dad would be teaching. It’s what we did. We traveled all across the United States with my father’s demonstration team performing at national tournaments. We gained some popularity within the martial arts industry as a martial arts demonstration team and we were really on the forefront of bringing creativity to the demonstration by adding music and doing skits and things like that. This was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and martial arts was very different compared to the popularity it’s gained since then, especially among children.
We were doing a martial arts demonstration in Las Vegas and a lady saw my dad and I out there doing a demonstration and came up to my dad afterwards and said, “Does he speak English?” My dad said, “Hey, Ernie, come over here!” I talked to her and eventually she became my manager. She was very instrumental in hooking me up with Disney, which was the producer of the television show I had called Side Kicks. It was really luck, I’d say – being in the right place at the right time – and having the dream already in place to follow in the footsteps of my childhood hero, Bruce Lee. She had been in the industry about thirty years and knew the right people, and the next thing you know, we were on our way.
Q. You’ve done so many notable movies and TV shows. What were a few of the highlights for you or maybe your favorite roles?
A. I’ve been acting now for about thirty years and there have been many different periods of time and they’re all so very special to me. I’d have to say that working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the first film, was definitely a highlight – which turned into me being taken out of the costume by the producers and written into the sequel as a live action character. That was a pretty spectacular moment in time, being part of something that was so big and so loved by a generation of kids. It was phenomenal to be a part of that and to see everybody’s response to the films and to the franchise as a whole.
The Rundown with The Rock was some fifteen years later and was also a big highlight for me. It was a great role and I got to act in Portuguese, which is not a language that I speak. I got to do a spectacular fight scene with Dwayne Johnson. He’s a remarkable guy.
I worked on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It was not my biggest role, but it was probably one of the biggest moments of my career as an actor, just being on set and being in an epic movie like Indiana Jones, which I had first seen in the movie theater when I was eight years old. Choreographing some of the action sequences and being on this great set with Shia LaBeouf and Harrison Ford, and having Steven Spielberg give me the thumbs up from a distance as he watching playbacks – that was a groundbreaking moment for me. I was a little more behind-the-scenes on that film, but it was still a defining moment.
Q. Thirty-plus years is a long time to be successful in the entertainment field, which can be very fickle. Aside from your amazing martial arts skills, what other qualities have contributed to your longevity as an actor?
A. I think it’s because of evolving as an actor, honestly. When I came into the entertainment industry, it was because I was a ‘karate kid,’ so to speak, and they developed products around me. I did have to take the time to work on my craft as an actor in order to have the ability to do some of the things that have come across my path. If I wasn’t prepared for my role in The Rundown, for instance – if I wasn’t able to handle the demands of that role as an actor, outside of the fight stuff – my career would have been kind of dead in the water after Ninja Turtles.
Hollywood was promoting me as a teenage martial arts action star and if you don’t take that next step, you kind of fizzle out and go away. But, during that time, I spent a lot of time in the theater and was part of a theater company, getting back to the love of acting and the respect for acting, and I think that has helped me. I’m not trying to hold onto the roles that I played when I was a teenager. I’m looking forward in my acting career and hopefully the best roles are yet to come.
Q. Are you still reading scripts and trying out for parts?
A. I’m not actively pursuing any work in the entertainment business, but, fortunately, having worked in the industry for over thirty years, I get a surprise phone call every once in a while with some good news about a role, like when I worked on NCIS: Los Angeles recently. That was a call that came out of the blue and it’s probably the role I am the most excited about right now. It was a great role and there’s so much potential for where that character can go. I don’t actively pursue things, but I do make myself available for the right projects when they come along.
Q. Tell me what else you are working on now.
A. I’m the Vice President of Dignity Kids, which is an Arizona nonprofit. We’re dedicated to promoting martial arts in youth development. Currently, we’re participating in the STEM campaign and promoting science and technology to kids via sports and the martial arts and we’re having tremendous success with that. Dignity Kids, on a day-to-day basis, is what takes up the majority of my time. It’s been great to be able to leverage the years that I’ve spent in the entertainment industry to go and talk to kids and deliver an empowering message.
Q. I understand that there is also an anti-bullying component to the programs that you’re offering. That’s a hot topic right now because of some of the tragic stories we hear about on the news.
A. Currently, we service about 21 school districts in Maricopa County. Our bullying prevention campaigns, in terms of assemblies and in-classroom presentations, have been tremendously well-received. It’s about tying in the martial arts component to capture the children’s attention and get them engaged, which allows us to deliver our message. That’s been going on for some time and we’ve been getting spectacular results.
It’s interesting for me to speak to kids because we talk to them about superheroes, and everyday heroes like your mom and dad, teachers, and people like that. Then you have the ‘hero in waiting,’ which is every one of us participating in life who has the ability to stand up for themselves or other people in certain situations.
As somebody who became a real-life superhero in the original Ninja Turtles, it’s fun to see the kids, who weren’t around to watch the Ninja Turtles movies, still get excited to talk to someone who’s been a superhero. We talk to kids about how they can be their own everyday hero by being aware of some of the situations around them.
Q. With all the success you’ve had, what is the best career advice you can offer young people today?
A. I always tell young people to follow their passions, and that’s what we’re doing in promoting STEM and promoting careers that they may not hear about on a regular basis. They hear about the professional athletes and the actors and the singers and even people like myself and they think, “I want to be like that.” What we’re doing in promoting STEM is telling them about different careers that they may not be aware of.
I believe it comes down to passion and the love of what you want to do. I don’t think that you can be a great scientist or engineer if you don’t have a passion for it, or even make it to a point where you have a career in one of those fields. I believe in having a passion for what you do and I also believe in education. A lot of times, we think we have a plan in terms of what our career will be, and then our career ends up going in a totally different direction than we ever thought. It will be the sum of your education that gives you the possibilities and the opportunities in a career.
Q. There are lessons to be learned just by completing an educational course – whether it’s a high school diploma or a college degree – just the fact that you pursued something and saw it through to the end.
A. I think that’s a syndrome that we are facing currently, the fact that a lot of young people don’t have those experiences. We have steered away from the idea that some goals take a long time to accomplish – graduating high school, for instance. It’s not going to happen at the double-click of a mouse. You’ve got to put in the time to see it through. It’s the same thing with college and beyond. It takes discipline, focus, concentration, and the ability to do the same things over and over to get to a point of excellence.
Somewhere along the line, we have been losing that, and that’s also part of my personal message to kids – staying disciplined, being able to focus, being able to concentrate. Without those kinds of core elements, you’re going to find life very, very challenging. That’s why I believe in martial arts as one of the most powerful tools in youth development, because it gives kids skills that take practice. A skill like discipline doesn’t just happen. You have to learn that quality, at least for most of us. I believe that martial arts is a great way to nurture some of these basic core qualities that make pursuing life and a career that much more pleasant and enjoyable.