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Lewis Tan on Fistful of Vengeance and the art of a movie fight

Actor and martial artist Lewis Tan is popping up everywhere you look lately, with Netflix film Fistful of Vengeance the latest entry in a resume filled with exciting, hard-hitting projects in and around the action genre.

The son of a martial artist, actor, and stunt coordinator, Tan’s recent roles also include Wu Assassins and Shadow and Bone on Netflix and AMC’s Into the Badlands — as well as the lead role in the recent Mortal Kombat franchise reboot. That’s all in addition to popular, celebrated appearances in Deadpool 2 (as the mutant Shatterstar) and Marvel’s Iron Fist series (as the drunk assassin Zhou Cheng).

In Fistful of Vengeance, Tan re-teamed with his Wu Assassins co-stars Iko Uwais and Lawrence Kao for an adventure that brought the trio to Thailand and featured more of the extended, brilliantly choreographed fight scenes that have become a hallmark of both Uwais and Tan’s performances. Speaking to Digital Trends shortly after Fistful of Vengeance became the top-ranked film on Netflix both in the U.S. and internationally, Tan shared his thoughts on the film’s success, working with a martial arts icon like Uwais, the relationship between actors and their stunt doubles, and when we might see sequels to both Mortal Kombat and Fistful of Vengeance, among other topics.

More on Lewis Tan and Fistful of Vengeance

Lewis Tan in Fistful of Vengeance.

Digital Trends: It’s been fun to watch your behind-the-scenes commentary on Fistful of Vengeance on Twitter over the last few weeks. It seems like you, Iko, and Lawrence have a fun, close relationship — both in the film and outside of it. Is that the case? 

Lewis Tan: It’s just good acting, man, because I can’t stand those two guys. [Laughs] No, they are like family to me. We did [Wu Assassins] together for six months in Vancouver and then we’re in Thailand together traveling around, and it’s a beautiful country, we love it. I talk to them every day, always. The camera captures the energy, and the energy doesn’t lie. I think that comes across on screen really well. I hope to do another one with them.

This is the latest film you’ve worked on with a bunch of martial artists in the cast. What’s the environment like on sets like that? Is there a lot of sharing? Some competition? 

Every set is different. You can get people who are not so open to sharing things. It really comes down to ego. I’ve been very fortunate to work with people who don’t really have big egos and are extremely talented. Joe Taslim, who’s an incredible martial artist and plays Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat, and Iko Uwais, who is one of the best in the world, they’ve both been so open to sharing and teaching. I learned from Iko. He helped me learn so much about timing and rhythm, and he’s so generous with his advice. He choreographed some fights for me in the series, which were really cool. He doesn’t need to do that. They don’t need to share those secrets with me, someone in the same genre as them. So I’ve been very fortunate to work with good people who care. You also have respect for each other as martial artists, because you know what it takes to do all of this: It takes a lot of discipline.

Lawrence Kao, Iko Uwais, and Lewis Tan stand next to a street cart in Fistful of Vengeance.

The film finds a way to get you and Iko fighting this time around, which is a combination we haven’t seen before. What goes through your head when you find out you’ll have a fight scene with a legend in the genre like him?

When they told me, they were like, “We have a very complex fight scene for you… and you’re going to be fighting Iko.” I was like, “Oh my god.”

No pressure!

Right? No pressure! That particular scene was really complicated because we used a robot crane arm for it — something called a Bolt crane. Imagine a giant robot with a huge arm, with cameras attached to it. People program where it’s going to move and how fast it’s going to move, and then we fight around the camera. No one can make a mistake, because if the camera hits you, it is going to take your head off. It’s no joke. We did a lot of rehearsal for that particular fight scene. You end up seeing around 200 moves in one take. So we just did it over and over and over again until we got it right.

That’s a lot of fighting — particularly when you have to worry about the giant robot next to you, too.

It is! There was one time when one of the stunt performers is supposed to get hit and do a gainer — which is like a backflip, but moving forward — and the camera’s supposed to go right under him as he does it. The timing was off by a second and he got clipped in the head with the camera. He was OK, but yeah, it’s a dangerous thing. People don’t know how much work goes into creating something like this.

Lewis Tan works on a fight scene in Fistful of Vengeance.

When you’re a trained martial artist in an action film, the point where you typically hand off a scene to a stunt double tends to be different than for other actors. Where does the line get drawn in that relationship with you and your performances?

Wow. That’s a great question because a lot of people really don’t understand how the industry works. They’ll say, “Oh, he’s got a stunt double to do that stuff.” But here’s the thing: Everybody has a stunt double. Even Jackie Chan has a stunt double. Every actor has one because that’s what’s needed to make the film. In my case, my stunt double will do rehearsals for me and do blocking [establishing where actors stand and move within the camera frame] in action for me. In this movie, I don’t know how much my stunt double was used on screen, but in Mortal Kombat, for example, there’s a scene where Goro hits me through three pillars. And… I’m not doing that. Can I do it? Sure. But why would they have me do that? [My character] is just crashing into a wall, so if I get injured, how am I going to continue performing?

Fistful of Vengeance (2022)
Fistful of Vengeance
94m
Genre Action, Crime, Fantasy
Stars Iko Uwais, Lewis Tan, Jason Tobin
Directed by Roel Reiné

It probably wouldn’t be great for performing fight scenes, either.

Exactly. As an actor and a martial artist, I have to do 100% of my fights. I can’t let anyone else do that, because the fighting is such a big part of the performance. The fighting is part of the storytelling. So I always do that part myself. But if I’m getting kicked through a wall or something you don’t need to see me doing — something that could be a big injury risk — I’m not going to be doing that.

But do you ever kind of wish you could do it? Some stunt work looks like a lot of fun.

OK, yeah. Sometimes I will. [Laughs] Because yeah, I think it might be fun. There’s a scene in Fistful of Vengeance where my character gets pulled on a wire through a table into a tree. And the stunt coordinator was like, “We’re going to use your double.” I was like, “Let me take a look at it?” They showed me what was going to happen, and I was like, “You know what? I think I can do this.” They told me, “You don’t really need to, though.” And I was like, “I know. But stick it on me. Let’s go.”

But I try not to use my stunt double as much as possible. Obviously, I have huge respect for the stunt community. My father has been in that business forever — since Tim Burton’s Batman, since Indiana Jones, since Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther. My father’s been in that game forever and I grew up with those people, so I have the highest respect for them. But I also want to deliver a performance that audiences can see me in — where they know it’s me fighting.

Lewis Tan kicks someone into the air in a scene from Fistful of Vengeance.

The film teases more adventures to come, so has there been talk of where things might head next with the Wu Assassins crew?

Of course we’re going to do another one! I want to make it like a Fast and the Furious franchise, but for martial arts fantasy. That’s my goal. And when we do the next one, we’re just going to make it even crazier. This film set a new bar for the franchise. We got crazy car chases. We got guns, explosions, boats, motorcycles. We even got fighting robot camera cranes! What are we going to do for the next one? We need to start getting ideas, so if people have ideas, tweet at me — because I want to go crazy.

The film welcomed some new actors to the franchise, including another martial artist, Jason Tobin. What did he bring to Fistful of Vengeance?

Well, I’ve been a fan of Jason Tobin since Better Luck Tomorrow. We’re lucky to have him. He’s incredible in Warrior. He’s a great actor and loves martial arts, too. He trains in jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai and everything, and even though he didn’t get to fight in this movie, he was training with us all the time. It was great.

What about Pearl Thusi? You had a very intimate scene with her that generated a lot of buzz on Twitter!

Pearl is a whole other story. [Laughs] Pearl is very famous in South Africa, and she’s done some great movies and shows. This was her first big action movie, though. She was training all the time. She would be training on a Sunday when none of us are working. She was just so committed and wanted to do as much as she could herself, and she brought so much energy to the film. I loved working with her. And yeah, we have a very intimate scene together, too, which I think is pretty unique to see. An African woman and an Asian man together? You don’t see that type of thing very often in film. And I am happy to broaden everyone’s perspective.

Characters from Fistful of Vengeance walk down the street as a car explodes behind them.

It does have a very diverse cast. Did it feel like something different from the norm on your side?

It just makes me proud. All of these people are super talented, so it’s not like they’re being hired simply to make it diverse. They’re all insanely talented. But for me, it makes me proud to share voices and faces that are not normally seen on screen. I grew up around this business. I was on movie sets at two years old, and I grew up watching Asian people pushed to the background, basically. I didn’t know it could be a different way. But now I’m here, and Asian actors and filmmakers are breaking records with movies and shows, and a different generation is going to grow up with a new perspective on what’s possible. That, to me, is very meaningful.

So, switching gears a bit, when are we going to see Cole Young, your Mortal Kombat character, again?

We’re just getting started with the sequel. That movie was essentially the introduction. What we’re going to do next is going to be insane. We have Jeremy Slater, who wrote Moon Knight for Marvel, writing our sequel. The first film was released at the worst possible time [during the pandemic], but it still broke records. So I’m excited to see what we do with Mortal Kombat 2. And like I said, you haven’t seen anything yet.

You’re everywhere I look these days, from Fistful of Vengeance to Shadow and Bone and everything else. What’s next for you?

I’m filming Shadow and Bone season two right now in Budapest, and it’s going really well. It’s going to be super fun. And then I have a completely different type of genre coming up. I have a film coming out with Emma Roberts [currently titled About Fate] that’s more of a classic romance — a romantic comedy. I’m also going to be working on my directorial debut with producer Nina Yang [Bongiovi], who just did Passing. She’s going to be producing the movie I’m directing about my father’s life growing up as a Chinese guy in London in the ’70s during the disco era while training for the martial arts championship. It’s a true story.

Lewis Tan can be seen in Fistful of Vengeance and Wu Assassins on Netflix, as well as Mortal Kombat on HBO Max, among other projects.

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