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Ex-UFC star Keith Jardine finding successful second act in Hollywood

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Keith Jardine FilmMagic

In the fall of 2007, two days after Keith Jardine celebrated his most famous victory by defeating UFC legend Chuck Liddell, he was back home in New Mexico. The adrenaline of the win had long since worn off, leaving Jardine feeling as though he’d suffered through a car crash. After visiting his doctor to address some of the injuries he’d sustained throughout his training camp and in the fight, he was relaxing in a cafe in Bernalillo with his fiancée Jodie Esquibel when he noticed two people slowly approaching them.

He assumed the duo to be shy fans, but instead, they introduced themselves as Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, co-directors of a movie that was in pre-production in the area. After a few minutes of speaking, and out of the blue, the duo asked him if he was interested in reading for a part in their movie, Gamer, which starred Gerard Butler and was eventually released in 2009.

For Jardine, it was a strange but welcome bit of serendipity. He’d grown up a huge movie fan and had contemplated acting; now an opportunity was presenting itself to him. Jardine won a part, and in the decade since, has earned over 30 credits in film and television.

The last year has been a particularly productive one in Jardine’s second act. During the course of 2017, he has appeared in nine releases, including a recurring role on the long-running Showtime series Shameless and more recently, a regular role on the new, critically acclaimed Netflix western Godless.

There are long odds on building a successful career in professional sports. Jardine beat them; to do the same in another wildly challenging venue is his next trick, and one he is fully embracing.

“This is way more competitive than fighting ever was,” Jardine told MMA Fighting from Utah, where he was preparing to film on Yellowstone, a new project by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. “There’s a lot more people trying to be actors who went to school, that go to Broadway and chase different methods of learning. The talent pool is a lot deeper than it is in fighting.”

Keith Jardine as “Dyer Howe” in Godless
Godless, Netflix Screenshot

Movies always fascinated Jardine. As a boy, he drawn to Clint Eastwood movies and the original Star Wars trilogy. In college, he veered toward indy films, like those authored by Jim Jarmusch and later, Darren Aronofsky. But as his athletic career took flight, he was just another audience member. It wasn’t until around 2011-’12 when Jardine truly began to take acting seriously, which is, probably not coincidentally, around the time his fighting career was nearing its end.

At the time, he’d made what he calls an ill-advised move down to middleweight, and after struggling to back-to-back losses at 185 pounds, contemplated coach Mike Winkeljohn’s advice that he should retire. By then, he’d already done a host of movies, mostly stunts or small roles in action flicks in which he played some type of heavy that dovetailed with his “Dean of Mean” cage nickname. But it was only with that experience under his belt that he began to unpeel some of the layers of the craft and undertake training in an effort to improve his skills.

He went all-in, draining his bank account with frequent trips back and forth from his home in New Mexico to Los Angeles for auditions. He also built a small studio in his house to tape himself. It was a process that felt somewhat familiar to what he’d done earlier in life when he threw himself into fighting, training under the noted coaching duo of Winkeljohn and Greg Jackson. The money didn’t matter; neither did public acclaim. Instead, what was important was the journey and seeking the improvements and adjustments that would move him forward.

“The challenge of going into an audition, at first it was almost identical as going into a fight week for me,” he said. “You walk into a hallway with all these other people trying to do the same thing, trying to pay their rent by competing with you for it. It’s the same feeling. It’s the same nerves. You have this one room you walk into; you have one shot to impress. If they see an ounce of nerves or weakness, you’re done. You’re fried. In fighting, you can fake it first. No matter how nervous you are, you get hit a couple times and then it becomes a fight. Acting is like you’re naked in that audition room. Whatever weakness you’re showing is going to be apparent. They’re trained to see it.”

Part of Jardine’s total transformation into an actor is working to change the perception of him as an athlete first. Earlier, this year, he had a part in the well-received prison drama Shot Caller, but it was a role he almost never had a chance to earn. The casting director recommended Jardine to the director Ric Roman Waugh, but Jardine says Waugh initially passed on him, thinking he was just a fighter masquerading as an actor. It was only after the casting director showed Waugh Jardine’s reel that he earned an audition, and eventually, a part.

The role in Godless came along, similarly, through proving himself by auditioning. It’s his biggest role to date, and comes in a series helmed by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Scott Frank, best known for writing mob comedy Get Shorty, sci-fi film Minority Report and superhero film Logan. Jardine plays Dyer Howe, a member of an outlaw gang headed by Frank Griffin (played by Emmy Award-winner Jeff Daniels).

“Shooting is a whole different thing,” Jardine said. “It’s actually easier than the audition, but it’s a whole different animal. Walking into a scene with Academy Award-nominated actors, you don’t want to be the bad one.”

Jardine cites the path taken by Jon Bernthal as one he’d like to emulate. Bernthal spent many years working consistently as a character actor before recently scoring the lead in The Punisher series. It’s not his goal to be popular or famous; it’s more to gain the respect of his peers.

He’s hard at work on making that happen. Prior to traveling to Utah to film Yellowstone, for instance, Jardine filled a bag with scripts to work on, break down and otherwise study. He’s also dabbling in writing his own screenplays.

“There’s never a day when I don’t have anything to do in regards to getting better at this craft,” he said. “I have a lot of catching up to do.”

While that’s due to his prior act as a fighter, it’s not time he regrets. A cast member of The Ultimate Fighter season 2, Jardine used a unique, herky-jerky style to create some memorable moments in the cage, notably knocking out future champion Forrest Griffin at UFC 66. Ask him what his favorite highlights are, and he’ll mention the obvious wins over Liddell and Griffin, but he’s just as likely to rattle off his decision loss to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson or his draw with Gegard Mousasi, simply because of what he proved to himself.

He says he misses competition when he watches a good fight, and still trains occasionally for fun, but now, five years removed from his last bout and making a good living with his thespian skills, his sights are firmly set on his future goals.

For 2018, he’s already booked a part in an upcoming Sandra Bullock post-apocalyptic thriller titled Bird Box, and with his agent Kevin Turner of the Daniel Hoff Agency, he’s looking forward to the upcoming pilot season, where he’ll have the chance to audition for projects that are in the casting stage. This is Keith Jardine now. MMA got the first part of his life, but acting gets the rest.

“I have as much passion for this as I ever did for fighting,” he said. “I don’t want to be a coach. I like helping guys learn, but that’s not for me. Here’s an opportunity to do something I really love and I’m passionate about. Even if I had to be poor doing it, then I’ll be that. It’s better than doing something I’m miserable at. It’s just like in fighting, there’s an easy way and a hard way. The hard way is usually the better way, and it usually pays off in the end.”