To become a leading martial arts movie star, you must fight your way to the top. And Mortal Kombat star Lewis Tan has paid his dues. He’s a second-generation Hollywood martial artist, with his father Philip Tan being a British Taekwondo champion who’s been acting and working in stunts since the 1980s, eventually rising to be a distinguished action director in his own right. It gave Lewis an early start.
He was only three when he appeared in his first film, China Cry: A True Story. He grew up in the business. His father set him on the martial path too, teaching him how to fight at an early age. Outside of acting, Tan competed as an amateur fighter in Muay Thai and trained in Kung Fu, Jiu-Jitsu, and Japanese sword. Due to his lifelong dedication to the martial arts, he insists on doing his own fights and stunts, just like Jackie Chan did when he was younger.
Tan’s fighting skills also caught the attention of the martial arts fandom in Netflix’s Iron Fist. The Netflix series was berated for its lackluster fight choreography, especially because the titular character was supposed to be a martial arts expert. However, Tan’s guest appearance was exceptional. Tan portrayed Zhou Cheng, a drunken Kung Fu master, and his fight scene was the only one in the entire series worth watching. Tan followed that with another appearance in a Marvel project with Deadpool 2 where he played the short-lived character of Shatterstar.
Tan soon really started to show his stuff in two martial arts driven TV shows though. Into the Badlands brought top-notch fight choreography with a Hong Kong approach with veteran martial talent, including Daniel Wu, Stephen Fung, Huen Chiu Ku (a.k.a. Master Dee Dee) and Andy Cheng. In Netflix’s Wu Assassins, Tan landed the lead role of Lu Xin Lee. That series’ cast was also stacked with martial arts actors, including Iko Uwais, Celia Au, Mark Dacascos, Juju Chan Szeto, Katheryn Winnick, and more. A feature length film follow up titled Fistful of Vengeance is premiering later this year.
In Mortal Kombat, Tan takes on the role of Cole Young, a new addition to the massive fighting game franchise.
“We felt it was okay to have a new character in a game that brings out new characters all the time,” explains director Simon McQuoid. The character serves as a device to introduce the world to a new audience. According to McQuoid, Young’s role is “so anyone who’s not a Mortal Kombat scholar or doesn’t have a PhD in Mortal Kombat like a lot of people do, they’ll be able to enjoy it as well.”
This puts a lot of burden on Tan. Not only must Tan carry the central role dramatically, but he must also deliver on the fight scenes. After all, Mortal Kombat is first and foremost a fighting game. It’s one of the greatest fighting game franchises of all time, in fact. McQuoid insisted that the fights be as authentic as possible. “From the get-go, I said to Kyle [Gardiner], the stunt coordinator, and Chan [Griffin], the fight choreographer, I want these to feel real and I want to be just there with them. Don’t get too foxy or fruity, or crazy, and I don’t want loads of slow-mo. We’ve got to use slow-mo really carefully. Let’s just see it happen.”
Den of Geek caught up to Tan to chat about his role as our eyes and ears into the world of Mortal Kombat.
Den of Geek: This is a dream role for you, isn’t it?
Lewis Tan: Yeah, it’s a dream role for so many different reasons and on so many different levels. For me, personally as an actor, it’s a dream role because I’ve been working for 20 years to get to a place where I can showcase my skills as an actor and as a martial artist at the same time with a project that I like, and with a story that I like, and with a character that has a clear arc, and that it is of value. To have this as my first big leading role introduction is truly incredible.
And then there’s a level of pride as a martial artist that I get to showcase and perform all my fights on a huge scale with a big budget and a big studio behind it. That hasn’t been done in many years. I can’t even think of the last time that that’s been done. Then obviously as an Asian actor, to get to lead a film like this and to see not just myself, but many Asian faces and many diverse castmates being looked at as heroes, that makes me very proud. I think that it’s helping push the boundaries and break stereotypes, and it’s very timely considering what’s happening.
We saw that Mortal Kombat billboard on the side of a building that you posted on your social media. How does that make you feel to see your face as tall as a skyscraper?
It felt good to see. But at the same time that I was scrolling through that, and I was looking at that poster, I was then also looking at the news about people targeting Asians and the violence towards the Asian community. The contrast of that was very emotional for me. It was a very emotional experience to look at that and to feel the energy of the time and how I can be a part of that. I don’t want to say destiny or anything like that, but it’s just like, it lined perfectly with something that I care so much about. And I don’t know what that is, whether it’s fate or destiny or whatever, but it’s important and I’m happy to be here and I’m grateful for it.
You played the game, right? Who did you play?
I played the game when I was a kid, played the game with my brothers, played the game with all my friends. I was playing the game since I was 12. I’ve played with every different character, but I played a lot with Kung Lao, a lot with Smoke. I played a lot with the robots, Cyrax. I played a lot with Raiden, Kitana. I played with everybody really, but my favorite character would be Kung Lao and Smoke, besides the obvious two favorites that everybody plays with. I was one of those kids that was like, “I’ll find a different character. Everyone keeps playing with Scorpion.” So, yeah, man. I loved the video game. It’s part of my childhood. Now it’s part of my career.
Cole Young is the only character that wasn’t predefined. How was it for you to find that character?
It was not hard to find the character. It was hard to make the character worthy of being in this world, and make the character stand out because all these other characters have such clear and in-depth backstories, and they already have a big fanbase. So I’m kind of going in against the grain here, fighting against the waves. But that’s nothing new for me. I enjoy this type of challenge.
So I was respectful of how fans were going to feel about having a new character in the movie, but at the same time, there’s been a lot of new characters in Mortal Kombat since the game first came out. Now we’re at like 80 different characters, and I felt like if I earned my spot, then I would be very proud of that. So hopefully I did it enough justice to earn Cole’s place in the Mortal Kombat world.
How was it to work with all those special effects?
It was great, man. There were not too many visual effects. There was some stuff with Goro obviously, and there was some stuff with different sets, but for a movie of this caliber and where it is, and how it takes place and the fantasy world behind it, there was very little green screen, very little VFX. A lot of it was done practically. A lot of the light effects, a lot of the different special moves that happen. A lot of the lights and everything is all happening on set done by our genius photographer, Germain McMicking, and obviously our director Simon McQuoid. So yeah, it was cool to see.
I liked the idea of doing things a little different than what these big action blockbusters have been doing. They set out to make it more authentic, more grounded, more violent, more realistic, and I think they did a really, really good job. Then the VFX that we do have are really incredible, and those could make or break a project.
I am always nervous about that because I don’t know what it’s going to look like. You know what I mean? So to see it finally on the big screen—when I saw Goro jump up, I was like, “Oh my Lord.” I was so happy. He looks ferocious and our VFX team has done such an incredible job. So yeah, I’m really happy with the work that they did. I’m working with super talented people and that made me confident to take the role.
You’ve had the luxury or privilege to work with several great teams of martial artists before. And here in this film, you’ve really leveled up. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Man, I’ve been so fortunate to get to work with crazy legends from Andy Cheng and Master Dee Dee, and Daniel Wu on Into the Badlands, to Iko Uwais from The Raid. When I was growing up, I was training with guys like Chad Stahelski, who is [now] directing John Wick, and my father who’s a national champion, and many, many, many different people, even champion UFC fighters. All sorts of different people, I’ve trained with in my lifetime. I’ve been so fortunate. To then get to work on this set with someone like Joe Taslim or Hiroyuki Sanada, who are not only incredible artists and actors, but incredible martial artists as well.
I feel like a lot of people, they get this thing mixed up where it’s like, “Oh, well, he’s a martial artist. He’s not a real actor.” No, no, he’s a real actor. And he can kick your ass. It’s both. And if anything, it’s like even more of a testament to how talented these guys are because they’re performing with every part of their being.
When you watch Joe Taslim play Sub-Zero, you see his performance. If you put it on mute, you will see his emotion in the character, and that’s the goal. That’s what martial arts is. It’s an expression. It’s a truthfulness. So it was an honor to work with them, and my trainer Nino Pilla, who is a student of Dan Inosanto, who was a student of the great Bruce Lee, and all of these legends have taught me and have a piece of that performance. Some of that performance is dedicated to them.
Mortal Kombat premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on April 23, 2021.