“Mortal Kombat,” which hits theaters and HBO Max on April 23, marks Lewis Tan’s first time leading a major blockbuster — and it’s not a role he took on lightly.
Tan, a martial artist and actor who performs his own stunts in action-heavy roles in “Iron Fist,” “Into the Badlands,” “Wu Assassins” and “Deadpool 2,” has a legacy to protect. His father, Philip Tan, is also a martial artist and stunt coordinator, and Lewis has prided himself on choosing roles that present the stunts authentically.
Your character, Cole Young, is not one that’s in the games. Tell us about him.
If you’re familiar with the game, you know that the game started with only a few characters, and now the game has expanded into a “Mortal Kombat” universe if you will, and there’s over 100 characters. So, in the movie, we wanted to introduce something new and at the same time — [to] give you all the heroes and villains that the fans have grown up with and have that nostalgic kind of connection to. Cole Young is an MMA fighter, just down on his luck — ex-champion, kind of helpless when we first meet him. And throughout the film, he expands into looking deeper into who he is and where he’s from. In the meantime, through Cole’s eyes, you get an experience of seeing the “Mortal Kombat” universe and meeting all the characters that the fans really love.
What was the audition process like?
If you’re not familiar with my work in the past, I do a lot of action stuff and I perform the action myself. My father is a fight choreographer and a stunt coordinator, and he comes from a background of doing a lot of amazing films. He’s been teaching me martial arts since I was a kid, and it’s something that’s very important to me and very dear to my heart. So when I read the script, I was hesitant to take the role at first, because I don’t want to be the guy that messes up the “Mortal Kombat” reboot, for lack of a better way to explain it. It’s scary. I think it’s one of those things that if it’s not done correctly, then could potentially be a hinderance to my career, especially as someone who the fans know me [as] being an authentic martial artist, and they like my work up until this point. I’ve been really picky with who I want to work. Up until this point, I’ve been happy with my work, and that’s what’s the most important thing to me. So yeah, when I got the script, I was like, “How is this gonna be done? Who’s going to do it, and who’s directing and what do they have in mind?”
What really sold me after I found out they were interested in casting me was – I still hadn’t committed at that point – but I spoke to [director] Simon McQuoid. We spoke for about two hours and I found out that he truly loves this game and truly cares about the lore, the fans, wanted to honor the game and wanted to honor the film, but wanted to take it to a new height, and make it deeper, grander, more powerful. He referenced movies like “The Dark Knight” and he played the soundtrack that Benjamin Wallfisch created for me, and after I heard what he did with the soundtrack, I knew what kind of tone he was going for. And I was like, “Oh, he wants to reinvent this, and he wants to do it with good taste,” and after that, I was in. And I’m really happy that I made that choice because every day I was just in awe of what they were doing. I’ve been really, really blown away by the team.
The past “Mortal Kombat” movies are beloved in their own ways, but they are a little, well, silly. Did that play into your initial hesitance?
Part of that is why it was fun, and part of that reason of the silly, campiness is why it was a cult classic and why it’s good, but then we can’t just copy that again. I think that Simon McQuoid [has an] approach to making it kind of grander and more powerful and darker with the fatalities and with the gore and with the blood that comes along with the game. We never saw that in the first movie. It’s kind of weird, because the video game is known for how violent it is. And then not to go too far overboard to where it’s just some B-movie slasher thing. We wanted to do it and do it well, and honor the legacy of the 20 years of this “Mortal Kombat” franchise and all the fans. I feel like we did that and more.
As you mentioned, you’re a martial artist yourself and you do your own stunts. How were you able to incorporate your training in this role?
I started learning martial arts when I was a kid, and then I started learning how to fight for real, in the ring, in amateur kickboxing matches, different competitions. But when you fight for film, it’s really different. It’s almost more like dancing, and I think that’s a whole other skill to learn. It’s another technique — dancing, rhythm, timing, the endurance that it takes to do these fight scenes. These are things that I’m familiar with because of my training and all the years that I’ve been working in the business. And it’s not something where you could just jump in and learn. I think you can learn to a certain degree, but you can’t learn to a degree where it’s going to be impressive on a multi-million dollar movie. So fortunately, I’ve had years and years of training previously. I have this saying: “Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.” I don’t like the idea of being like, “Oh, my God, I’ve got to roll! Quickly, I’ve got to call somebody because I need to learn martial arts!” I’ve been ready for this, and I’ve been waiting for the opportunity, and now those worlds have collided and it’s kind of like, I didn’t need to train; I just needed to learn the choreography for this particular film, and then go perform it.
How would you describe Cole’s fighting style?
He starts off as a mixed martial artist that’s mostly doing muay thai and jiu-jitsu and judo, and then he goes kind of more into a wing chun, karate, weapons – I don’t want to say which kind of weapons and stuff, because it’ll give a little bit away, but multiple different weapons. So as Cole develops, he’s being trained by some of the other “Mortal Kombat” characters. And as they’re training him, his style changes and expands and you’ll see that expansion. You’ll notice the different styles as the film goes on, which I think is another cool part of the movie, because we explore all different types of martial arts, so people will get to see some really cool stuff.
Of course, when you talk about “Mortal Kombat,” one of the major things you talk about is the fatalities. So how gruesome are the fatalities that you got to witness?
Yeah, they’re pretty gruesome. I walked on set one day and I didn’t know what was going on, and I accidentally walked into a post-fatality set and I felt pretty sick to my stomach. [Laughs.] I was like, “What the hell is this? What happened here?” It looked like somebody destroyed a buffet line, but there was no food.
I think there are a lot of fans who will be pleased to hear that – there’s a lot of desire to see the violent, gory spirit of the “Mortal Kombat” games represented. Do you think fans looking for that will be pleased?
Hell yeah. That was one thing for sure that the director was adamant on. He was like, “This is going to be hard R. Try not to make it NC-17, but let’s take it all the way up until that point.” And that’s what we did. But I think he did it really tastefully. He didn’t just try to be super gory and crazy. I’m not into all that, but I think if you’re going to do “Mortal Kombat” correctly, you’ve got to have it.
On a different note, you posted on Instagram recently a compilation of all the character posters, noting how many of these badass heroes are people of color. What’s it like to be part of that on a movie this huge?
I thought about it when I was on set, and we talked about it with the other actors and it kind of inspired us all to work really hard. But it hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw the posters and someone posted it all together, and I was like, “This is crazy.” It just hit me hard and I was overwhelmed with a wave of emotion because it’s powerful in many, many aspects.
And not only that, but going through the friggin’ pandemic and going through what we went through on the film and injuries and traveling all over the place, and flying back to Australia because we couldn’t finish because of the virus and then quarantine and then trying to go through all this while at the same time, all of us are trying to do our best work. Because when you’re a person of color and you’re performing and you’re making it in this business, you have to be 10 times better than everybody else just to get noticed. It’s starting to get a little bit better now, but Asian people are, like, 1.5% of the working actors, so if you’re in that 1.5%, imagine how hard you have to work you have to do to stay in that 1.5%.
You make an interesting point about trying to film through the pandemic. What was that like?
It was extremely challenging, and we all cared about the project so much that we were going to go through whatever we had to go through in order to make it happen. You have quarantines; you have all these different regulations and protocols, which I understand, totally, but we were filming in Australia where, there was very little coronavirus there, but if somebody, god forbid, gets it, then it’s game over for quite some time, and it’s going to cost the studio a lot of money. I feel really grateful that we were able to accomplish it and nobody got coronavirus.
Things you didn’t know about Lewis Tan:
Birthplace: Manchester, England, but moved to Los Angeles at a young age
In the family: Tan’s father has done stunt work on movies including Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns,” “Tango & Cash” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.”
Favorite “Mortal Kombat” avatar: Kung Lao
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