Is It Time for a “Best Stunts” Oscar? A Conversation With Lewis Tan.

The actor and martial artist chats about his most memorable fight sequences, filming in Thailand and a glaring Academy omission

March 3, 2022 9:44 am
Lewis Tan as Lu Xin Lee in Fistful of Vengeance
Lewis Tan as Lu Xin Lee in Fistful of Vengeance
Patrick Brown/Netflix

Lewis Tan grew up around the stunt departments of film sets even before he became an actor. His father Philip Tan applied the physical ability he developed as a Taekwondo champion into a career in stunts, working on classics like Batman Returns with Michael Keaton and Demolition with Sylvester Stallone. So it comes at no surprise that Lewis feels just as comfortable spending hours rehearsing fight choreography with the stunt crew as he does in front of the camera. 

Tan’s connection to the stunt world has only deepened as he has recently become a certified action star in his own right. Over the past few years he has starred in widely successful, high-octane projects like Wu Assassins, Into the Badlands, Mortal Kombat and Fistful of Vengeance on Netflix. These experiences have further open his eyes to the huge amount of effort it takes to build a great action sequences. 

InsideHook spoke to Tan about training martial arts, building stunts in Thailand, his hopes for the Mortal Kombat sequel, and why it’s time The Academy added an award for Best Stunts.

InsideHook: Let’s start by talking about your new film Fistful of Vengeance, which has been hitting the charts all over the world on Netflix. What excited you about going back into that universe?

Lewis Tan: The first part about this project that got me excited was getting to take these characters and our fights out into the real world. The majority of Wu Assassins was filmed on a sound stage, but for this we were able to take the action to Thailand, one of my favorite places in the world. There is an additional bit of fun that comes with getting to design stunt sequences in real environments. That is what we did during the fight scene in the marketplace where the big van blows up.

That area is actually out in the boonies of Thailand, but is perfect for filming and looks beautiful onscreen. There were a lot of scenes filmed for the Netflix film Extraction with Chris Hemsworth there as well. Since there is a lot of activity in the marketplace, we decided to do something with the food stands that people had parked around the area. I wanted to play with the surroundings, just like Jackie Chan in so many of his iconic movies. I wanted to do it in homage to him.

How did you go about setting up the fights in that marketplace?

Once we showed up on set they pointed out that a cooking stand was going to be nearby and I knew that I had to grab a frying pan. Iko grabbed the knives. If you have been to Thailand before you know that at the markets they will have all of these weapons laid out for sale. It’s Asia, so you know there’s going to be weapons! So in that scene Lawrence actually grabs a weapon from one of those weapon stands and then the guy who owns the stand packs up all of his stuff and takes off. Lawrence goes back to reach for another weapon and the guy is gone. If you go back and watch that moment it’s hilarious.

What was the most difficult stunt to film?

The last scene was absolutely crazy, I haven’t really talked that a much about it. That one needed to be shot in a studio, because they needed to hang us like 50 feet up in the air. They had this giant vat that was pouring green sand down on top of us. The pour-down lasted about a minute or two at a time. Then they would fill the tank back up, and we would do it again. I was finding sand in places that you really don’t want to be finding sand up to two weeks later. 

Did you have a lot of rehearsal time for this movie? How long did you have in Thailand before you started filming?

There isn’t always rehearsal time to work on the fight choreography. There was barely any time when I did Mortal Kombat, and for Into The Badlands we were actually practicing the sequences between takes. But we had actually had three weeks for Fistful of Vengeance. They had most of the fights mapped out, but they asked us for our creative ideas to add in. That is when the time really helped to allow us to put those plans together. 

Once we landed we were immediately taken to a quarantine hotel in Thailand. We didn’t get to say hello to the rest of the cast. We were picked up by an ambulance-type vehicle and taken to our rooms. We were stuck in the hotels for 14 days. Our rooms had these outdoor balconies on the ground floor where we would train when we were locked down. I would see JuJu out there throwing kicks and all these moves. I would be out there jumping rope and a lot of bodyweight work. I was able to get a kettlebell and a couple of dumbbells for my sessions in the room. We were all going in with the training because we all knew what was coming when the filming started.

What did you do in Thailand when you weren’t filming or rehearsing?

I go to Thailand often to train Muay Thai at a few of the camps that I frequent. This time around I was able to train with a coach who has worked with Buakow Banchamek, who is the best in the world. The gym was outdoors, and brutally hot. Getting to train with him was insane, and it was amazing to run over there whenever I had a break from filming. I don’t like to kick back when I have free time, even when I’m exhausted. I am always finding ways to make myself better for the action projects that I want to do in the future. I haven’t gotten to the point where I am doing the full fight choreography gig, but it is something that I can see happening. I have a few projects I am working on to direct where it would be helpful too. 

How do you come up with new ideas on moves to bring into your fight sequences?

I am always brainstorming new moves to bring to the screen that I haven’t seen in movies before. I even find myself watching UFC some nights and seeing something that I know would be fire onscreen. Fighters like Israel Adesanya (aka Stylebender) and others like him have these interesting transitions that so unique. 

Do you have an example when a moment from a UFC match made it into a final product?

There was one that made it into Mortal Kombat. I was watching that UFC fight when Jorge Masvidal kneed Ben Askren in the face and knocked him out in that first round. I just loved at the beginning of that match he was just chilling against the fence so casually. He looked like he was waiting in line at a Burger King, and not about to knock a dude out in front of the whole world. The confidence was on another level, and I felt like that really fit with my character Cole in Mortal Kombat, so I brought that into one of our opening scenes. I had filmed it for the movie and figured it would be a good idea to let him know, just in case he saw it and recognized. I wrote to him to give him the heads up. Luckily, he wrote me back saying how much he loved Mortal Kombat and the movie. That was pretty cool.

Speaking of Mortal Kombat, I know there are a lot of people waiting for the next one with bated breath.

I know we are moving ahead and I have been told to get ready. They announced that they brought on Jeremy Slater to write the script, who did Moon Knight. They are deciding what characters they want to bring into the world, and I know that the producer, Todd Garner, is listening to the fandom for what they want to see next. I personally want to keep the tradition of having most of the actors in Mortal Kombat coming from some sort of fight or stunt background. I could see us bringing in people from that mixed martial arts world as well. UFC fighter Anderson Silva is a good friend of mine and is interested in doing movies. Of course I am a huge fan of Stylebender. I think he has a great look too. I also believe that Scott Adkins would be a great candidate for Johnny Cage, who is mentioned at the end of the first movie. Not only is he a movie star, but he is also a legit martial artist and stunt performer. He’s got my vote for Cage. 

Lewis Tan helps coordinate a stunt on the set of Fistful of Vengeance
Lewis Tan rehearses a fight sequence on the set of Fistful of Vengeance
Patrick Brown/Netflix

Since so much of your life has been spent around stunt departments, I know you have a desire to see The Academy add an award for Best Stunts.

Pretty much every other department in the filmmaking process has an award at The Oscars. Rightfully so, too. I think that the people behind make-up, costumes, production design and beyond all deserve recognition. For some reason, when it gets to stunt and action design, there is nothing. Let’s be honest: in the current state of movies, action is a huge part of what is bringing people to the theaters. Those sequences are bringing people in to these new worlds, and advancing the drama. I don’t just mean the Marvel movies, either — there are stunt teams required for almost every major picture these days. 

I don’t think people know how those superhero movies would look like without stunt teams. And what they are doing to advance the art is super impressive. The people that make up these departments are world champion athletes, world champion martial artists or world champion drivers. Not only are they professional athletes, but they are also filmmakers in the finest sense. They understand camera work, timing, editing and then they put they put their lives on the line to get the shot. I mean how can you have someone going backwards at 90 miles per hour for a scene, positioned perfectly for the camera, and not be impressed? They never get their faces seen, but they are the ones making everyone else look good. 

I just think is just kind of dumb that there is no stunt award. It doesn’t make sense to me. I think it is a shame that they are trying to cut a few of the categories from the broadcast, but those people should get their moment too. There is no denying that a stunt and action design category would be amazing for the viewers. Imagine getting to watch the clips for that award, and who the nominees were. 

Do you have an idea on how to get The Academy to make a move in the right direction?

The first instinct is to ask people to boycott until we get the category, but I think there are other ways we can make progress. These changes begin with changes in the voting population. I can think of a lot of great people in the industry who would make great new entries into The Academy, who could argue our side effectively. To start there is David Leitch, who came from the stunt world doubling people like Brad Pitt in Troy. Now he is directing huge movies like Deadpool 2 and Atomic Blonde. Another one is Chad Stahelski, who is also from that same stunt world and directed all of the John Wick movies. Back in the day he was doubling for Keanu Reeves, now he is making movies with him. There are new additions to that list, like Sam Hargrave, who was a stunt guy and recently directed Extraction with Chris Hemsworth. These kinds of people could be grandfathered in by The Academy’s usual standards since they are filmmakers. But they also understand the stunt department in a very deep way. 

The other hill that we are going up here is that stunt people are mad humble. My father was in that world doing movies like Batman Returns with Michael Keaton and Bloodsport 2. I grew up around them, and I know better than most. They are not looking to be in the limelight or to be famous. If you ask a stunt person about this, they are going to say that they are in it for other reasons, and that they don’t want any award like this. But I want them to have it.

Fistful of Vengeance is now available on Netflix.

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