Lewis Tan | The Dao of an Assassin
Looking at Lewis Tan one can see his smoldering looks, physique of a demigod and the meditative gaze of a disciplined monk. The well versed Chinese-English by way of LA actor boast a pedigree most in the field of action heroes can barely grasp. Not only is the young actor the son of the respected action director/stunt choreographer, Phillip Tan, Lewis extensively studied acting under John Kirby. This well rounded upbringing led him to a strong career in theater before transitioning into film and TV.
With previous roles in titles such as Deadpool and Den of Thieves as well as his most recent part in the final season of Into The Badlands, Lewis has consistently pushed forth a subverted performance that has changed what we have come to expect of action hero and of an Asian actor. We spoke to him ahead of the release of his latest project Wu Assassins.
Were you raised in LA?
Actually, I was born in England. I was born in Manchester, England. I’m half Chinese, half English. I spent the majority of my childhood in LA. From LA to England to China. Those three places, I was raised. But primarily in America.
Oh nice. We’ll get into a conversation on that in a bit, but I just wanted to jump right in to your training. What was your background in training. Your father was working in the industry as well right?
That’s correct, yeah. My father was a national champion in Taekwondo when he was 22, and he’s been training me in martial arts since I was young. So he was my first teacher. But I have a background inthe amateur circuit in kickboxing in Muay Thai but I have jiu jitsu, i’ve training boxing MMA, many different weapons, Kung Fu, and Wushu.
Oh wow, that’s crazy. Did you see yourself getting into acting?
Yeah, when I was young actually I was just focused on acting. I’ve been doing theater for years. I’ve been training and preparing for this for a long time. Martial arts was something that I was doing as a hobby and to bond and spend time with my father, but I was acting since I was a kid. I was really young in commercials and different stuff. I think I did my first role when I was five years old. I was focused on doing that and then the worlds just collided later on. Martial arts and acting. It’s the same thing to me.
I really respect that. I have my own internalized issues with martial arts. My father was a martial artist as well. So it’s really funny speaking to you. It’s almost like we had parallel lives that split off at some point.
That’s so cool. Yeah, it’s interesting having a family or foundation in martial arts and then seeing martial arts grow and progress. And then also how it’s related to performing and how it’s related to emotion. That’s why I say it’s all the same, you know. It’s really just expression. When it comes down to it, movements are expression. Body language is expression. It’s the same with dance. It’s the same exact thing. It’s the same with martial arts, which is why I'm so adamant about performing my own fights, my own action scenes. I think that it’s an integral part of the expression of the character.
Let’s talk about your project with Netflix, Wu Assassins.
Yeah, so it’s Wu Assassins which premieres August 8th. Very exciting project to be a part of. I play a character called Lu Xin Lee. He’s kind of a cocky, flamboyant gangster extrovert. He’s dealing with a lot of identity issues. He’s dealing with a lot of pain and trauma from his past which he compensates, or overcompensates, through this flashy lifestyle with cars, jewelry, His cocky demeanor and attitude. So, it’s a very interesting character. It’s very multilayered. I’m excited to get to play someone like that, and I’m excited to perform a gritty, violent action series because Into the Badlands was so beautiful and very Hong Kong style martial arts. it had it’s own style. This is much more gritty and grounded. There’s no wires, and there’s none of that kind of grandiose, beautiful, almost dance-like choreography. This is more violent and gritty.
I was gonna say, there’s a certain type of performative, poetry, poetic thing that we were able to see in Into The Badlands. It is opratic. This upcoming project seems very brutal. How did you prepare for it?
I prepared the same way I prepare for all my roles. First I find the character’s fears and desires and loves, and then I figure out a way to embody those characteristics—or at least understand them as deep as I can. I use different techniques each time, depending on what I’m doing and what kind of role I’m playing. But as far as that, when I get to a point, and I fail a lot. And then when I finally find the thing that flows it feels like it just connects, it just fits, you know? The energy just kind of fits like a puzzle piece and then I know I have something. Then I start to feel a lot better. As far as physicality, yeah I trained a lot. I did a lot of training with Iko Team and kind of built a character physically as well as emotionally, and then I merged those two things when I performed. Each kind of different, and this character was really fun. Like I said, it has lots of layers and as the series progresses you get to reveal more and more and more of these layers so it’s been a really interesting performance. One of my favorites.
You have a background in plays and theater. You were coached under John Kirby. What kind of roles do you inhabit in those types of plays?
Yeah, John Kirby has been my coach for many years and we do a lot of different theater work from the classic playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neil, John Patrick Shanley, Chekov, David Mamet, these types of classic playwrights. We get to explore a lot of interesting things that I wouldn’t necessarily have the chance to explore on film because you’ve got to be given these opportunities to play these parts. It’s very rare for a six-foot-two Asian-American actor like myself to be given these types of opportunities. So it was nice to be able to perform plays and to dive deep into material. As an actor you dream of doing Tennessee Williams, you dream of doing John Patrick Shanley plays, so that has helped me grow as an actor. John Kirby is a legend in the film industry, and has been around forever—him and his family and his brother, Bruno Kirby, have been around since the Godfather days. I’ve been very fortunate to have him guiding me.
It’s an interesting concept what you say, “as an Asian actor, getting these types of opportunities. Do you feel like we’re at the point where we’re finally seeing some crossover in regards to the turnover post-Crazy Rich Asians, where it’s recreating the type of identity in the American canon of the Asian figure. How do you feel like your narrative is fitting into that?
It’s definitely an exciting time. I’ve been watching it since I was a kid, watching my father play villains on films like Tango & Cash and Batman for years. I’ve been watching the progression since I was young. I’m very sensitive to it, and obviously when it became apart of my life and my career, I became more intune, more sensitive to it. It’s been nice to see the explosion of interest, and I wouldn’t even necessarily say it was Crazy Rich Asians—there was definitely a huge public turnaround as far as the community getting together and making their voice known and saying, “Hey, we’re going to support this show.” I didn’t even see the film, I bought out a theater before even watching the film. I just bought out a theater with some of the cast members of Wu Assassins just to support. The first time that this happened was with this movement and I think that social media and with everyone finally coming together speaking their voice and making it heard, it’s created opportunities for other Asian actors, for other actors of color, because from that is when can get to the real story that we can really relate to and that we really want to tell. There’s so much more than Crazy Rich Asians, there’s so much more to be told and I’m excited that we’re finding these opportunities.
We know that you’ve had your time in theatre, and now your acting is very focused on the performative aspect. Do you feel like you’d like to explore territories and narratives you’ve faced in film in a more dramatic matter?
Oh God, I’d love too. As much as I love martial arts and action stuff, as an actor I’m dying to do that. Anything that scares me, I want to do. I can’t sing, but I would do a musical. I would train to learn how to do something completely out of my element. That’s what excites me. If I have to open up opportunities for myself in the action world and become a household name there before I do other things, of course. Dark comedies, interesting characters, great directors--like P.T. Anderson, Alejandro González Iñárritu. Guys that are pushing the boundaries and are pushing the narrative forward in the artform. Those are the people I want to work with.
Tell us more about the world that Wu Assassins takes place in.
It’s an interesting world. It’s a modern tale in San Francisco, in Chinatown. It’s set in the underbelly of Chinatown, in the gang world. You’re seeing a lot of these different characters that are either foreigners, or they are Asian but raised in America, or they are mixed like myself. There a lot of identities along with the story, which originates from an ancient Chinese tale. It has an Asian mystical energy force--it’s called the Dao. In American culture it’s called energy or spirit, but in Asian culture its Dao, the balance, and it’s the energy force that drives humans, that drives good and evil. There’s this old fantasy mixed with this modern tale, set in a gritty crime underworld in San Francisco. It’s a crazy mashup of genre.
That’s amazing. A thing we’ve been missing in the action conversation in martial arts is this signifying and identity drivin narrative that subverts what we have already expected and normalized as the stoic Kung Fu man. There was more dimensionality given to the usual stereotypes
Right 100 percent. And that’s the same way with all the female characters in the story. It’s such an interesting story because they’re not just strong female characters, these female characters drive the story forward and they all fight and they’re all badasses. It’s not like a normal action series when they throw in the females for eye candy or almost as a prop. I hate that idea, I hate that narrative. These female characters drive the story forward in a badass way. They’re all kickass characters. I really like that idea, and the cast members that we got involved are all fighters and all come from a background in some way shape or form of fighting and martial arts, so there’s a legitimacy to it, and I think that’s something that was missing in that genre. We’ve had a lot of failed ideas because they haven’t gotten the legitimacy, the authenticity of it. It’s going to be interesting to see.
What other projects are you working on right now?
I’ve got stuff in the works. I’m currently working on writing and producing my own series with Tucker Tooley, the producer of Christian Bale’s film The Fighter. I’d like to start writing and directing my own stories as well. I’d like to start working on the other side of the camera. I’ve been directing short films and been writing three plays for quite some time, and I’ve been building up my voice as a writer and director so I would like to start moving into that. Maybe in Wu Assassins 2 I could direct a few episodes.
What type of writing and directing have you been focusing on? Is it more narrative driven or more abstract?
I wrote a couple pieces. I wrote a romantic comedy, actually [laughs]. It was the first thing I wrote, just because it was a genre that I had not connected to, to what I’m doing right now. So I felt like it was nice to kind of get my feet wet in a different type of genre and to experiment with my writing. But most recently the screenplay that I’ve been working on is about my father. It’s about his story, which is a true story, about how he was abandoned as a child and how he dealt with racism in London in the 1970s and worked his way up to winning the British national title martial arts championships. It’s a cool coming-of-age story but it has a lot of heart, a lot of action, but it’s drama-driven action. It’s very close to my heart, it’s based on my father and it’s a very interesting story.
That’s amazing, I love that. That’s really beautiful. Is there anything else that you would like to cover, anything you feel you should express?
No, I mean, yesterday I got a picture of this billboard in Times Square, New York with me and all the cast members, and it just was really emotional to see all these Asian faces in Times Square, when I remember going there and walking around and looking around and not seeing a single one. It was moving and it was a moment of validation, and I’m looking forward to much more.
I definitely feel that. And I feel like that is something that is so...back to that whole Crazy Rich Asians thing, I saw it twice, I’m so very much dark and kind of only like esoteric work, but I felt that spirit of having to support and stand up for the community is so important. I feel that. It’s so beautiful.
I’m the same as you, I like dark, artistic, abstract films—I’m a huge film buff—so it’s like, that type of romantic comedy is not necessarily what I would go to the theater to see but again, like I said, you show up to support the movement. It’s not just a film. I like that idea and I like filming the community, and then those other genres will be able to explore as well, but we need to breakthrough first and break the story down first before we can open up those opportunities because those types of films don’t always make money.
What’s else is going on? What other interests do you have? Are you based in LA or London?
I’m kind of all over the place. I have a place in LA but I’m barely here. I was just in Japan yesterday, a few weeks before that I was in Spain, a few weeks before that I went to London. I think that one of the most beautiful things about being in this business is the ability to be able to travel, to experience different cultures, and the more you do that—the more you realize how similar we all are, how there’s a unity in everything, and that is what I want to show in my work. Bigger than being an Asian-American actor or an action star, I just want to be an artist who is doing work that inspires people to see and understand the unity in everything. I think the more that we do that, the less hatred, less ignorance, and that is the beautiful thing about the film industry and the film artform. The medium is powerful. It can influence this type of change.