Bo Svenson is an actor, writer, director, judo champion, and, as I was lucky enough to find out, an enthralling guy to talk to, turning an interview into a wide-ranging conversation.
Svenson was born in Sweden. His family emigrated to the United States and he joined the U.S Marines when he was 17. Honorably discharged after six years of service, he was in pursuit of a Ph.D. in metaphysics when he was ‘discovered’ by Hollywood. He has starred in over sixty motion pictures, including Delta Force, North Dallas Forty, and Inglourious Basterds, and several hundred hours of U.S. network television, including the Walking Tall TV series.
He has competed in world championships, Olympic trials, and/or international competition, in judo, ice hockey, yachting, and track-and-field. He holds black belts in judo, karate, and aikido, and he is a licensed NASCAR driver. He was honored by the Martial Arts Hall of Fame.
In 1961, when he was a U.S. Marine, he earned his first degree black belt in judo at the cradle of judo, the Kodokan in Tokyo. A year later he heard about a red-haired Jewish American woman from Brooklyn training at the Kodokan (at a time when no women were allowed). She was Rusty Kanokogi, nee Rena Glickman. “She took the name from a neighbor’s dog that she truly loved,” Svenson told me. “After the dog was killed by a car, she wanted the dog’s name to go on, to be embodied, somehow.” After her death in 2009, Svenson got the rights to tell her story. He has written and is about to direct a film about Rusty Kanokogi, called “Don’t Call Me Sir.”
It is a remarkable story. In 1959, when she was a single mother, Rusty Kanokogi disguised herself as a man in order to compete in the New York State YMCA Judo Championship. She beat the reigning champion and won the tournament. While on the podium after having received her medal she was asked if she was a girl. She admitted that she was.
They took the medal back.
Rusty Kanokogi vowed to change how women were treated in sports. She got women’s judo accepted as a competitive sport and an Olympic event. Kayla Harrison will portray Rusty. She is the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in judo, the first American, man or woman to be Olympic champion in the event that Rusty created.
“There’s not much difference between martial arts and learning how to type, from my perspective,” Svenson told me. “It’s repetition. Once you get beyond the mechanics of it, it is personalized by who you are, your being. Eventually it’s an issue of the person, the person’s ability, focus, needs. There are people in this world who don’t have a need to conquer someone else. I don’t have a need to beat someone in competition. I enjoyed the competition. I didn’t care if I won or lost. That outlook becomes a problem if you want to stand on top of the podium. I enjoyed the people.”
“A hero is someone who does something at great personal sacrifice for mankind,” he said. “Rusty certainly did. She worked hard for years to get women’s judo to be a competitive sport and an Olympic event. She fought against gender and ethnic bias. She was Jewish and she was a girl and she didn’t feel that either should stand in the way of whatever she was capable of. She set out to right the wrong across the board, and she did.”
Svenson wrote the screenplay. He said that when he was supporting himself as an actor to pay his tuition in the PhD program in metaphysics at USC, one of the most important things he learned was that “art is a word that is derived from the first three letters of the word ‘artificial.’ The greater the art, the less noticeable the artificiality. When it comes to my writing — to everything, really — I am attracted to authenticity, to that which is least contrived.”
He told me that judo is the world’s second most popular sport, with more than 50 million people participating internationally. He resisted the pressure from Hollywood to put a “name” actress in the story to cast someone who was a judo champion like the woman she is portraying. “I abhor deceit of any kind. Kayla Harrison is the most extraordinary young lady. She has been confronted with challenges that would break any other person. She is fabulous and I know she will be fabulous as Rusty in the movie. After all the dumb movies I’ve been in, I’m thrilled to be part of something that has heart, soul, authenticity. It is about something. People who see it will have experienced something. They will be better off than they were before it began. It is a wonderful, wonderful journey to be on.”