When Marvel’s Iron Fist premiered on TV about this time last year, it bombed. And justly so. It ran into a number of problems, starting with the casting, character developments, plot and action sequences.
There was all but one good thing that came out of the series – an eight-minute fight between the protagonist and a baddie skilled in drunken boxing. That drunken master was played by half-Chinese, half-English actor Lewis Tan.
It was later reported that Tan was almost cast as the lead role in Iron Fist, which would have made the character Asian-American instead of Caucasian. But, for whatever reason, the network decided to play it safe despite conversations about white-washing circling the show.
Using the provided platform, the actor – the eldest son of martial artist, stunt coordinator and action director Philip Tan – spoke extensively to the media about the need to create more diversity when it came to the casting process in Hollywood.
In an e-mail interview, Tan shared that he sees being part of the movement in changing the environment for Asian actors as a responsibility and a privilege.
He elaborated: “I’ve watched my father play villains all his life – gangsters, ninjas, monks, etc. There are some of these stereotypes that are part of our culture but there is also so many more dimensions and stories to tell.
“I want to see Asians playing leading roles, heroes, love interests, characters with many levels, and not just be in the background. The landscape has been changing – movies like Black Panther has opened a lot of doors for actors of colour … I am optimistic for the future.
“The more stories we tell, the more colourful and beautiful cinema will be. It will influence the younger generation in a way that empowers them.”
Born in Manchester, England, and raised in Los Angeles, California, Tan has been working in the entertainment industry close to two decades now in various capacities – as a stuntman, martial artist, actor and director.
Although his mixed parentage has made his chosen career a challenge, he admitted it has given him depth and perspective on the world too. And that much more determined to make it in Hollywood, instead of anywhere else.
The 31-year-old, who stands at 1.88m, explained: “I have been asked many times to do films in Asia and I am a big fan of those films and directors – I would watch all the classics as a young kid with my father. I have a lot of gratitude and respect for them, but that’s not my path.
“I want to make my mark on American cinema. This is where we have almost no representation. I train hard in theatre and in martial arts to make a difference here. It is like beating down a wall, very tiring and frustrating but this pressure has made me great in what I do.
“It pushes me and inspires me everyday. Every leading role I get is another hole in that wall, I want to break it down for the future to come.”
This year he can be seen in Season Three of Into The Badlands and feature film Deadpool 2. He has a few other projects in the works too, including a series he created called The Fire Born. “It is an action drama based on my father’s childhood, mixed with a fantasy element.”
Tan revealed that he has met with the people behind the live-action film Mulan (2020) currently in its casting stage. “I am a HUGE fan of Mulan … We will see what happens with it. I think it’s a legendary story and a huge platform for Asians in cinema to tell a beautiful tale.”
Marching to his own tune
In the martial arts series Into The Badlands, headlined by Daniel Wu, Tan plays Gaius Chau, who has run-ins with some of the main characters – in the form of kicks and punches, as well as dialogues.
According to Tan, the series’ showrunner Alfred Gough contacted him through Twitter with the possibility of the role. An audition tape later, Tan secured it. Training in martial arts with his father since young, Tan has mastered a few of them including kickboxing, Muay Thai, Ju-jitsu and the Japanese Katana sword.
Naturally, he was excited to be immersed in a world like Into The Badlands, which has been described as a martial arts extravaganza on TV.
“This is the best martial arts drama on TV, in my opinion,” stated Tan. “I was very excited to work with legends like (action choreographer) Master Dee Dee, and (fight directors) Stephen Fung and Andy Cheng. I am a big fan of their work on Kill Bill, The Matrix, Rush Hour.
“When you do a martial arts film or TV series, the action becomes a character. The fights are a form of expression. It is equally important as the dramatic side.
“Having a background in martial arts and doing my own fights let me fully express my character’s emotions and helps me to tell his story, physically and theatrically. Also, the fans appreciate seeing an actor perform his own fights, it makes everything deeper and more powerful.”
Meanwhile, in Deadpool 2, Tan stars as Shatterstar, whom he described as an agile gladiator from the planet Mojoworld, with the ability to channel sonic waves through his swords. In the film, Deadpool forms the team X-Force, recruiting Shatterstar as one of its members, to fight the villain Cable.
As it happens Tan is a comic book fan, listing Deadpool, Shatterstar, Wolverine and Gambit as his favourite characters of all time.
“I used to have the Shatterstar toy as a kid, and now I am playing him! It is a really surreal experience. I am very grateful
“(Putting on the Shatterstar costume) was surreal too. The suit was tailored perfectly for me. (A costume) really helps to get into character; it gives you a lot to work with for body language and embracing the energy of the character. I tried to convince them to let me keep the (Shatterstar) costume but it wasn’t going to happen,” he said.
Being able to combine acting with martial arts in any role is especially fantastic for Tan since he plans to be both a martial artist and an actor for the rest of his career. “I am always training and learning. Martial arts and acting go hand in hand in telling the story, especially on Into The Badlands.”
He credits martial arts for teaching him to be a calmer and a more confident person. “It is a form of meditation for me, it has transformed my life.”
While Tan is serious about training, he never says no when it comes to food, especially Asian cuisine, having enjoyed them while living in Thailand and China.
“I am a huge foodie, I love it all! Thai food, Japanese, Chinese; nasi lemak and ikan bakar are my favourites from Malaysia. I love spicy food, rice and coconut. Actually I am getting very hungry now talking about this.”
For Tan, it’s all about putting his best foot forward in life. That is why even though his screen time in Iron Fist was only eight minutes, he poured his “blood and sweat” into it.
“I was so thankful when fans responded the way they did, with a lot of them telling me it was their favourite part of the series. Marvel has incredible fans and a huge base so it helped me grow as an actor and helped me be seen by a large audience.
“The journey is the best part, the critical acclaim that comes with doing your best work is just icing on the cake.”