As the biggest film of his career explodes onto screens, “Mortal Kombat” star Lewis Tan is thinking about boxes — the figurative boxes other people put him in as he rose from martial artist to stuntman to guest actor to, now, movie star facing the milestone of his first studio lead with his eyes firmly on the horizon.
“Everyone tries to put you in a box,” he says, “especially if you’re a person of color. They feel comfortable being like, ‘You’re over here. You do these categories.’ No, we’re artists. Why can’t we do everything?”
In “Mortal Kombat,” Tan, 34, levels up from breakout turns in action series “Into the Badlands” and “Wu Assassins” to anchoring Warner Bros.’ R-rated video game reboot (now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max). As Cole Young — a new character to the franchise — Tan plays an MMA fighter who joins an interdimensional death match alongside otherworldly bruisers and bloodthirsty killers.
“From day one we wanted an Asian lead, given so much of ‘Mortal Kombat’s’ stories and elements are borrowed from different Asian cultures,” James Wan, who produced the project for his Atomic Monster banner with Broken Road Pictures and New Line Cinema, says in an email. “It would’ve been criminal to not embrace this, especially since male Asian leads are still so rare in Hollywood — ones that aren’t just the sidekicks or portrayed as stereotypical, emasculating jokes.”
Born in the U.K. and raised in the States, Tan grew up on the larger-than-life movie sets where his actor father and veteran stunt coordinator Philip Tan (“Batman,” “Wild Wild West,” “Minority Report”) worked. He made his screen debut as a toddler on one of his dad’s films and followed in his footsteps, training as a martial artist, then breaking into film with bit parts and stunt work.
It wasn’t until he decided to pursue acting at age 18 that his father warned him of the near-impossible odds for Asian actors like them in the industry. “He said, ‘We’re 1.5% of the working actors. You really want to do this?’” Tan says over a video chat from Thailand. (According to a UCLA study of the top theatrical films of 2019, Asians held just 5% of film roles; and a study of 2020 film releases found that only 5.4% of lead roles went to Asian performers.) “I was hard-headed. I was like, ‘Dad, I’m going to do it — and I’m going to make it.’”
There was a time not so long ago when he wasn’t so sure.
His father, who moved from Singapore to London as a child, had prepared him for the battles ahead. “My mom is Caucasian, so I’m half Asian,” Tan says. “He dealt with a ton of racism in London because he was dating a white woman, then he dealt with a ton of racism in Hollywood, so he set me up for what was coming.”
Trying to break in to Hollywood he’d had moments of doubt, hustling together a modest filmography of small roles, stunt gigs and TV guest spots. Larger parts, however, eluded him. At one point he considered giving up acting. “I thought, maybe I’ll just be behind the scenes,” Tan says. “No one wants to see my face in front of the camera.”
In small film and TV roles, he’d find himself dreaming up his own backstories while playing Asian gangsters with one or two speaking lines “on every ‘CSI’ possible.” “I was just trying new stuff because no one would give me the chance,” he says with a laugh.
Eventually the shots got bigger, landing him on Marvel’s “Iron Fist” and in “Deadpool 2" opposite Ryan Reynolds. In breakout roles he brought dashing swagger to Gaius Chau on AMC’s sci-fi action series “Into the Badlands” and flexed his chops as Lu Xin Lee on Netflix’s “Wu Assassins,” two of the most inclusive recent shows to combine kinetic martial arts choreography with compelling character drama.
MORTAL KOMBAT!!! A blood-slicked reminder that, in arcade fighter games and Hollywood blockbusters alike, no fatality is ever truly permanent.
Simultaneously, he’d been writing, shooting and producing his own projects — most of them not in the action genre, but dramas, comedies and even a silent film inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s nouvelle vague classic “Band of Outsiders” — aiming to build a reel and take his career into his own hands.
Then, a few years ago, he sat through the longest plane ride of his life.
Tan had finished filming “Wu Assassins” and was on a flight to Japan when he heard that he’d lost out on the massive Marvel role he’d been reading for. “I was in a terrible state of mind for 12 hours straight,” he says. “Didn’t sleep, landed in Japan and was like, ‘I’m going to get off this plane and I’m never going to think about this again. I’m going to not only move forward, I’m going to move forward with more ferociousness.’”
It could have easily gone the other way, Tan admits. Sitting with only his thoughts for that long, he chose to recenter himself. “I was so close to getting these jobs and it was just slipping out of my hands every time, for two years straight,” he says. “I was like, ‘If I never get it, I’m going to die trying. And if I go to my grave and they were like, “He never succeeded but he tried to the last breath,” I’d be happy with that.’”
Three weeks later, he got “Mortal Kombat.”
The reboot, from first-time director Simon McQuoid, comes more than two decades after the movies “Mortal Kombat” (1995) and “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” (1997) brought an abrupt end to the video game’s cinematic prospects for nearly a generation, Scripted by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, the new film finds a motley crew of Earthrealm heroes struggling to unlock the inner powers they’ll need to fend off the sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and his warriors on the eve of a tournament that will decide the fate of the world.
Wan, whose directing career took off with the hit “Saw,” “Insidious” and “Conjuring” horror franchises before he took the helm of “Furious 7” and Warner’s “Aquaman,” produced the film alongside Todd Garner, McQuoid and E. Bennett Walsh.
“I’ve always been warmly embraced by the Asian American community since the moment I came to the U.S.,” he says. “I realized it’s because I represented something positive — I broke stereotypes by succeeding in an industry and genre that had very few people looking like me. So I get that representation is very important. That’s why Atomic Monster is very adamant about finding projects that collaborate with a wide swath of people and discovering new POC artists who may not have had the opportunity in the first place.”
The casting search for the right Cole meant finding an actor the audience could identify with. He’d have to be able to hold his own alongside established characters like Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) — and square off against formidable action stars like Hiroyuki Sanada (as Scorpion) and Joe Taslim (Sub-Zero), whose blood feud reaches far into the past.
“Lewis has the screen presence of a brooding leading man, and despite all the fantastical stuff swirling around him, he played the drama grounded with real humanity,” Wan says of Tan, who performs his own stunts and lends an approachable physicality to a hero who finds strength in his love for his family as fate takes him from the MMA cage to unearthly battlegrounds. “And of course, his martial arts training helped tremendously. This meant Lewis could make the fights a part of his overall performance.”
On set in South Australia, Tan spent long days training with stunt coordinator Kyle Gardiner and fight choreographer Chan Griffin and running exhaustive fight sequences with the cast, which included Max Huang as Kung Lao, Sisi Stringer as Mileena, Josh Lawson as Kano and Tadanobu Asano as Raiden. A matchup against the hulking, four-armed CG villain Goro (voiced by Angus Sampson) “was a big challenge,” says Tan, who squared off against two stunt performers, one on stilts, to film a complicated fight sequence.
It didn’t help that the film was shot in order, starting with Tan’s first fight, a grueling MMA match against real-life fighter Ian Streetz. But he also found something rare on “Mortal Kombat”: a predominantly nonwhite cast, the opposite of most Hollywood productions. “Everybody on set wanted to prove something, not only for themselves,” says Tan. “They wanted to do the franchise justice, but they wanted to earn their place. We have a chip on our shoulder. Something to prove.”
Indonesian action star Taslim, internationally known for the martial arts extravaganza “The Raid” as well as “The Night Comes for Us” and Cinemax’s “Warrior,” describes Tan as the “torch” who guided the way for the “Mortal Kombat” cast. The two trained together, ate meals together and, unlike their onscreen enemies, became friends, building the sense of mutual care necessary to pull off some of the most demanding fight scenes of the film.
“In action, trust is No. 1,” says Taslim. “You need to trust your opponent. I trust Lewis. You need to become friends, because it’s not throwing lines — you guys are throwing punches or kicks or weapons. It’s so easy to slash somebody or break somebody’s nose. Trust is No. 1, and in order to get that you have to open yourself.”
Stunt acting also requires additional layers of a performer, Tan explains. “It’s similar to approaching a scene; you need to know how your character moves, how he walks, what he’s feeling,” he says. “What are his emotions like? Why is he fighting? Is he injured already? What level of exhaustion is he at, how are his breathing patterns, what’s his heart rate? What’s at stake? Those are all the things you need to layer on the performance after you learn the choreography.”
Next, you must perform it at the highest execution while in character and in costume. Then repeat, sometimes for hours or weeks, finding the physical and mental endurance to keep going until you get the shot.
Much of the film industry has yet to acknowledge action cinema as an art in itself, but Tan and Taslim also share common goals. “I think now he wants to find the balance, for people to respect action,” Taslim says. “We share the same dream: We want people to see action in terms of an art.”
The timing of Tan’s leading-man debut landed with more emotion than anticipated. Cole’s arc of self-discovery “is something I can relate to as an actor,” Tan quips. “I used all those years of rejection as fuel, and now you see my face all over Hollywood on billboards.”
It is not lost on Tan that the moment of his arrival, his image plastered on the sides of buildings and in marketing materials that tout an Asian-led majority nonwhite cast, coincides with rising anti-Asian hate related to the pandemic. Later this year another major studio blockbuster centered around an Asian hero, Marvel’s “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” will repeat the feat. While representation alone is a far cry from structural change, the baby steps matter.
“It’s not just about me. It’s an Asian face. I’m proud of that,” he says. “It might sound like I’m being phony, but when I saw it I thought, ‘Damn, that’s an Asian dude with his shirt off on a freakin’ building, in the same time that Asian people are getting beat up in the street.’ It was an emotional roller coaster. I was happy, and I was sad. I’m glad that I can be part of this moment.”
Like many of his experiences, it might serve him best as fuel for what’s to come. Tan credits the strength he found to keep fighting for a big break to his mother. The energy that kept him going was borne of frustration at how artists of his community have been tokenized and sidelined in Hollywood.
“It made me frustrated to walk into the room and read for an Asian role and just see every type of Asian possible in the room, just because it’s Asian,” he said. “Doesn’t matter the age, doesn’t matter the body type, doesn’t matter anything. It’s Asian, right? Call every Asian actor to read for this role, which is a stereotypical role anyway, but we just want something. Give us a crumb. I was frustrated. It fueled me.”
His next moves crystallize a newfound assuredness on both sides of the camera. “People have this misconception that because I do martial arts and I know how to fight, that I’m not a real actor,” says Tan, who wanted to direct before becoming an actor and is intent on building the career of his dreams. “I’m going to continue to do action films, but I’m also going to do other films, too. I’m also going to write, and I’m also going to direct movies.”
Tan recently signed on to star in and co-executive produce a thriller novel TV adaptation of “Quantum Spy,” and a few weeks ago wrapped filming on the Netflix standalone action feature “Fistful of Vengeance,” based on characters from the streamer’s “Wu Assassins” series. “It’s much darker, much more violent, there’s barely any CGI and it all takes place on real sets and in the real cities of Thailand,” Tan says. “It’s like ‘Wu Assassins’ on steroids.”
He’s been experimenting and creating, cultivating more of his own films, including a female-led action project. The one dearest to his heart, however, is the one he plans to star in and direct from a script he finished during the pandemic: the story of how his father, abandoned as a child in Singapore, moved to London, took up gymnastics and became a national taekwondo champion en route to his Hollywood career.
It’s the kind of passion project he knows will only come to fruition if he makes it himself.
“This type of movie that I’m going to make would never be made in this climate,” he says. “Movies like ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Shang Chi,’ these are the films that are important because they open up doors for telling original stories. ‘Minari,’ that type of story, needs to be told. And those are the unique stories that we actually need to be telling because they are going to familiarize people with a more detailed view, a deeper view, of the culture.”
As for playing his own father, Tan says, “If there’s a character study that I know really well, it’s him.”
There’s just one thing to iron out: In addition to being a survivor, an immigrant, a martial artist and a filmmaker, his father was also a champion disco dancer in his day. Tan grins. “I’ve got to learn how to dance.”