By Anthony T. Eaton |
“I was very immature when I was young, and for me, there was no balance. Everything was just all or nothing.”
Many people are able to overcome the challenges and adversity they faced as a child to become successful, but success in and of itself does not insulate anyone from challenges. When I came across Keith Mason the first thing that interested me was that he was a former Rugby star turned actor and writer.
It was only after reading more that I learned about his humble and troubled childhood and the other obstacles he has been faced with. What impressed me most was his selflessness and how he has taken setbacks and made something positive from them. I was humbled to have the opportunity to speak with Keith about his life growing up, career, family and his evolution.
You had what you described as really a troubled youth when you were growing up, bouts with the law, some depression. Can you explain what it was like for you growing up?
Well, I had a single-parent home, five kids; I was the second youngest. My oldest brother was around 12 years older than me. My sister Lisa was eight years older than me, and my other sister was five years older, then I came along. And then my youngest sister is eight years younger than me.
I was a kid full of energy. You know, my mom was a single parent, and she brought all of us up on our own, and we lived on a Council Estate; you probably call that the project’s back in America. But the thing is, my family was great. I had a loving mother support me. I just got to be a kid with a lot of energy and in a lot of trouble along the way, whether it was fighting, or you know, a few misdemeanors here and there. Probably from the ages of 11 to 14. I went through a pretty bad spell of being in trouble with the law, which added up to 45 appearances at court. So, the odds of me doing anything in life, looking at the record, was very slim.
I can relate to the odds being statistically against you the way you describe it. How is it you managed to overcome that?
I always had this drive in me as a young kid, and a bit of a gift as a rugby player. Ultimately, Rugby saved my life. The last time I went to Crown Court, which was for burglary, I was a young kid and got roped into that by two other people. The other two people went to jail, and one of those guys was my friend. So, when he got sent to jail, I got put on probation, and I just thought, that’s like my last life lifeline. And I knew that I had to change my life at just 14 years of age. I came out of court and said to myself; it’s time to grow up now. It’s time to go chase after your dreams. Because Ruby was always something I was good at, but I never really took it seriously.
Do you think coming from a single-parent home helped to create that environment where you got into trouble?
I think not having that father figure, that discipline in the house, probably made me look for other extracurricular activities. I believe that many men, young boys, need a father figure, a mentor, and someone who will show them the way. Pretty much, I had to show myself the way. I had a vision that I wanted to be a rugby player, a Super League player, and a good one at that. I stopped smoking weed, dropped those friends, and I just kept on persevering, and eventually got there.
That’s awesome. Yeah, that that. I’m sure it was tough for your mother to raise five children on her own. I know coming from a family of a single parent. I understand that.
In 2009 after playing the Challenge Cup final for Huddersfield Giants at Wembley against Warrington, Keith had a chance meeting with actor and boxer Mickey Rourke that would quickly turn into a friendship. In 2013 after 15 years, Keith retired from Rugby. After a series of personal challenges, a visit to see Rourke in California led to Keith’s first acting role, playing Rourke’s heavy in Skin Traffic with Daryl Hannah and Michael Madsen. Since then, Keith’s acting roles continued and evolved into writing a script and graphic comic book called Rugby Blood.
After being in several films, you wrote your first screenplay; how did the evolution from acting to writing happen?
My living in Yorkshire, in northern England, is not Hollywood, and it’s not London. And that’s where the hotbed of the film industry is. So, I decided that I’m going to do my material and start learning. So I wrote a screenplay called Rugby Blood, about a guy, a bit like a 007 type of character, a James Bond who plays rugby league. He is a superstar, and his family ends up getting kidnapped by these Russian mafia types for ransom. And then David King, the main character, haunts them down one by one and saves the day.
Unlike what we have typically seen, the script for Rugby Blood came first, and you landed a meeting with a producer; how did that happen?
So I wrote the script and sent it down to a producer in London at the Pinewood Studios, where they make James Bond and the Star Wars movies. And a lady named Deborah Walton invited me down there, and she and I talked about getting funding for the film.
How did you go from movie script to comic book?
Knowing the business and how it takes a lot of hard work and investors and everything else to make your film happen, I did a bit of research and realized that there has never been a rugby league comic done before. So I thought, you know what, let’s do it. Let’s do a comic about David King. But David King as a little boy like in origins. In the process of that, we reached out to an artist called Paul Roper, who took on the job to create and put the images to the story that I give him.
What about the characters in the book? I understand they are based on real-life Rugby players?
In the process, I reached out to some of the best rugby players in the world and asked them if I could use their likeness and their names for the comic. That makes it more commercial, and they all said yes! I’ve probably got maybe 50 of the best of the best players, professional players in the world, featured in rugby blood. We created a story, which is a bit autobiographical; the kid in the book is me. It shows you a kid who has to overcome being in trouble, to overcome his inner demons and rise up and become this professional sportsman. And that was my life. You know, so I put it into the book. And then, as the story goes along, it’s going to be more fictional.
Then I reached out to Betfred Super League, which is pretty much like the NFL; it’s the big league over here. And I reached out to Robert Elstone, the CEO of Super League, the Rugby division in England, and I pitched the idea to him and said, Look, there’s nothing like this ever done before, could you guys endorse it, the comic? Eventually, they came up with an agreement and endorsed the comic, and they put their logo on the comic. And it’s quite a feat to do what I did, you know.
That is impressive and amazing that you could go from writing a screenplay to turning it into a comic and then getting the league to endorse it!
That is impressive and amazing that you could go from writing a screenplay to turning it into a comic and then getting the league to endorse it!
Yeah, and not only that, within six months of the comic book launching, I had a sporting company O’Neills, which is the biggest and the oldest sporting brand in the world, the biggest fight in branding in Ireland, reached out to me. They said We’d love to collaborate and do a Keith Mason Rugby Blood sports line. So they created the sports line; we have three different color jerseys, tracksuits, hoodies, T-shirts, and shorts. In my mind, Rugby Blood was a franchise; it wasn’t just a comic. In all, I want to do figurines. I want to do a film or maybe a TV series or anime.
That is very cool and exciting. While it sounds kind of like a fairy tale, your life going from Rugby star to actor, writer, and entrepreneur, you’ve had struggles and setbacks in your life, and you’re pretty open about that. From a serious car accident and depression to other hurdles. How do you overcome those things? Where do you find that inner strength keeps you know, saying, I’m going to change my path again?
When I retired, I was lost, because I’ve done Rugby since I was six years old. I retired at 31. I won a big caucus. At that time, I just felt like I had no Rugby left in me. And I did the film with Mickey Rourke at he gave me the new vision, that maybe I can give the acting a gig, if I work as hard at acting as I did as an athlete, then maybe I can get somewhere. And that’s what type of mentality I’ve got.
But what I didn’t realize is how difficult the transition was going to be, saying goodbye to the Rugby League, to which I gave everything. I remember, a very good friend of mine, Joe Calzaghe, a very famous boxer, said to me, you know, you’re a long-timer and can retire Keith, but you know, it is difficult, and he struggled for a number of years with depression because you go from being up here, all these highs, then stops. And there’s nothing anywhere where it tells you how to deal with this, so to do this transition, so I pretty much self-destructed in my own way.
That is not all that unusual, I do interviews with people who have gotten out of the military, and they describe something very similar. What happened when you retired?
I didn’t hurt anybody. But I found the transition really tough, you know, and, and through that process, you know, I sold my houses and, you know, I ended up going back to my mom’s house, back in the bedroom where I’ve grown up, you know, and that was, was a big wake up call. And then I had a car crash, which, you know, could have killed myself, could have killed the people in the car. It was an accident, but, you know, that was a culmination of things. And I just decided I want to rise up again. I stopped drinking, cut the crowd off again, and realized that you know, sport is just one chapter in your life. It’s not. It’s not your whole life. And then you know, fate change that we’re working really hard to get to transition, you know because I’ve always been a grinder, I’ve always been a guy who just gets after it.
In 2016 Keith met and began working with Riona Kelly after being paralyzed in March 2015 after a rare spinal stroke. Initially working with Riona as a trainer to regain her mobility and ultimately take her first steps since the stroke, they continued to stay in touch even after that.
Then something special happened, do you want to share what that was?
That’s when I Met Riona, and things started changing. I was doing a bit of personal training when Riona came into my life, a paralyzed lady who wanted me to help her. She made it a lot better, she gave me focus, and she gave me a purpose and the same for Riona. We bounced off each other. I saw this lady who struggled, who had been through worse than me, you know, waking up in the hospital being paralyzed before that being super fit, a schoolteacher, and super attractive. That was the turning point for me. She brought the best out of me. Basically, I’ve got a good heart. With Riona building me up, I wanted to build her up, and while I built her up, I build myself up. In the space of five years, we’ve gone from being homeless, thinking everything’s finished and I’m not going to do anything in my life, to being household names all over the world.
Of course, well, your story is inspirational, that’s what made me initially want to connect with you. When I read one of the posts about what the two of you have gone through.
Inspiring people and overcoming, we continue to do that. I mean, the acting stuff, all that is my baby, I enjoy that. But what’s most important to me is my family; they inspire me, they motivate me. And to see my family flourish my children, and my partner is the best thing for me. And then when I’m happy, I can go out, and I can seem to conquer the world.
In December 2018, after making so much progress, Riona had a second stroke. The stroke dealt a devastating blow, and while it didn’t take Riona’s life, but it did take away all the progress she had gained.
What was it like for you and the family when Riona had the second stroke?
At that time, we were so fit and healthy. I had film roles coming up. We had covered so much ground, had overcome so much to get to the place where we were. That fateful evening when Riona suffered a second spinal stroke was heartbreaking because there was about an hour before the ambulance got to us, Riona could have died. That brought the best out of me again, because I saw my misses, the wanting to go to sleep wanting to pass out and I’m praying to the Lord, please, please don’t take you to know, and I thought, I’m going to stay strong, I’m not going to make it about me, I’m going to make it about my partner. I’m going to make sure that my girl’s going to be okay.
She went back into the hospital; all the gains were lost; walking, we had to learn pretty much from scratch, to move our hands to move our fingers and move to slightly move the legs to set up. We had to start from zero.
Everything you have both done is amazing. The strength and commitment that is what is inspiring, but what don’t people see?
All these people see our inspiring story, but they don’t see the dark days. And there’s been many, many dark days. And that’s what I mean; you see, we have big smiles on our faces. Because, you know, for Riona, just to walk from one side of the room to the other is winning the lottery. People tend to take that for granted. I promised her as she laid in bed that everything’s going to be right. Riona said to me; you don’t have to be with me, you can leave me, you know what good am I? And that wasn’t going to happen, because I’m not a surface person.
I had to make sure I was strong for the kids, and the kids were great. You know, the kids were great. And I think that’s down to our parenting, the kids were calm, and I told them that mommy’s going to be okay—every single day. I took the kids to school, went to the hospital, and spent time with her. Sometimes she was sleeping, and sometimes she was up. But I was there every day, playing mom and dad for three weeks. And then, after a week or so, we start slowly but surely to move again. So, the rise was starting again, and she sat up and then she starts trying to stand up. That’s what life is all about, you know, stuff happens in life, you just got to overcome it. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. You’ve just got to overcome it. And that’s why I think people all over the world love us, not just as a couple, but they love our drive, they love our tenacity to overcome the impossible.
I think the inspiration comes from so many people being able to relate to that unseen side of what we have gone through together as a family.
You mentioned taking the kids to school. You’ve got six kids between the two of you. How has that worked with everything else?
We’ve got a big family, but we’re very close. The great thing is, my little girl, who’s eight years old, is best friends with Riona’sson Logan, who’s eight years old, and they’re into the same things. Then my son is 14 and Riona’s son’s 14, and their best mates. What were the odds of our kids being super friendly? So that helps in the house. And I think that means we are such positive role models. I think the kids flourish off that. But don’t get me wrong, the kids out there days where they want to be stubborn, and they get told off. I think the fact is, the kids have seen mommy and daddy go through so much. You know that they’ve been there with us on that journey. And I think he’s made us closer.
Has there been a role model for you, somebody that you looked up to?
I had a few people I used to look up to when I played Rugby; there are certain players I really enjoyed watching. And it was funny, and I think it’s important in life that we have mentors, you know, somebody we want to be like, or similar to, because, you know, people pave the way you, you’re not going to be an original and do what no one else has done before. But as an athlete, you know, you kind of pick up on certain players and want to pick up their traits, and then combine it and use them as yourself. There’s been a lot in a lot of people, you know, inspiring people, people inspire me, or people who are in wheelchairs or want to get up on their feet. You know, my missus inspires me. My mom’s a big inspiration because she put all our dreams on hold to have five children and support them the best she could on our own. And I think I think she gave me her strength, a fire in my heart, so my mom’s probably at the top of that list.
That is where mom should typically be. As we wrap things up, what are you working on right now?
Right now, I’ve got a CBD company called Project Mason, which should have launched about six months ago, but because of COVID, everything kind of stopped, and a lot of our stuff, our products came from China, believe it or not. Hopefully, we will relaunch before the new year. That will be ProjectMason.cm Also, we’ve got the 1010 challenge, which Riona and I are doing that is covering 100 miles over ten days. Riona will be in a wheelchair, and I will have a harness, and I’ll be pulling her while she’s pushing. All to raise money for the Keith and Riona Foundation, where we can help people in similar situations to Riona who probably don’t have a Keith Mason in the corner and maybe even veterans. We want to give back. Also, the motor neuron disease and the Stroke Association will be raising money.
A new music single is out called Heart on Fire, which is sung by Will Purdue. That song is dedicated to honoring Riona and me. The song is actually made a go-fund-me page if we raise 10,000 pounds, which would be fantastic for Riona to get the best health care possible.
This song is both a celebration of their journey, but also an important tool for raising money for Riona. All of the sale proceeds will go directly to Riona’s recovery, and any extra will go into a foundation. Will was chosen for the project for his ability to convey both sides of a story within a song, and the track features both the darkness ‘To see the fear in all I hold dear’ and the incredible light of their journey ‘Here we stand, I’ve never been so proud.’ The song was recorded at Barge Belle, a stunning riverboat studio in London.
Riona is no good if she’s laid up in bed and she has been laying in bed for the last three days, you know, people don’t see that. She puts so much out to do things. It takes so much out of her that it takes a day or two to recover. And we’re doing that right now.
What about the acting, are you doing anything right now?
I’m just about to complete my first feature film, which is called Imperative it’s a British thriller, a crime thriller. It’s my first lead in a film. I play a guy named DCI Sullivan; he’s hunting down a serial killer on the streets of England while fighting his own demons. He lost his wife, lost his daughter, and he block’s out that pain by drinking alcohol and taking drugs. But he is a good cop, you know, he’s is very mean and tough but really deep down inside, he’s got a good moral compass. So the film’s going to be released in early 2021, and we’re looking at releasing that worldwide.
Great. I can’t wait to see it. What advice would you offer to those who are struggling with challenges right now? In addition to what people have to deal with daily in “normal” circumstances, we have COVID, a lot of social and political change taking place.
Well, I think at the end of the day, you can’t change the world until you change yourself. If you’re looking out there for someone to change your life, the Americans right now, the hopping on this presidency, you know, Joe Biden wins but now Donald Trump saying it’s a fake, and it’s all you know, fake news and all that kind of stuff. Joe Biden’s not going to change somebody’s life. You know, it’s all polarized media, and I think Donald Trump, he’s not going to make you a better person.
I think people look outside for influences to make them better, but it really starts inside. And I always say, take it one good day at a time. Look after yourself, do yoga, go for a walk in the park. You know every day is a good day. While we’re breathing, every day is a good day. The more grateful you are, for just the small things in life, you know, that you’re alive. If you’re alive, you still got a purpose in life, and I think along the way, if your kind to people, that’s a ripple effect. If you’re kind to people, that person’s going to pick up on that. Just work hard, and never give in. We’re all here. We all have something inside of us. We all have grit in us. We just have to tap into it.
I couldn’t agree with you more, Keith. I so appreciate you taking the time to do this interview!
Connect with Keith and Riona via their social media outlets.