Lewis Tan Was Afraid Mortal Kombat Might Become Another ‘Cheesy Remake’

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Lewis Tan Was Afraid <em>Mortal Kombat</em> Might Become Another ‘Cheesy Remake’

Lewis Tan was born to be a fighter. But when he was approached to play the lead role in Mortal Kombat, the first live-action adaptation of the blockbuster video game franchise in more than 23 years, he knew that he would have to prepare for the biggest fight of his career.

“You don’t want to be the guy that fucks up the Mortal Kombat remake,” he says in a recent Zoom interview with Men’s Health. “Originally, I turned the script down, because it’s just a big undertaking, and I wasn’t sure where they were gonna go as far as the taste and the aesthetics of what they were gonna do.”

Having grown up with the iconic video game series, Tan, 34, was wary of signing on to another “cheesy remake.” In his first meeting with the director Simon McQuoid, Tan heard the film’s score—composed by Blade Runner 2049’s Benjamin Wallfisch—and immediately changed his mind.

“I was like, okay, I really understand where they’re going with this,” he recalls. “[McQuoid] wanted to make something cinematic and really grand, really violent, and really powerful.”

The third installment, which will be released in theaters and on HBO Max on April 23, stars Tan as Cole Young, a former MMA fighter struggling to catch a break in the breakneck world of cage fighting. A new character in the Mortal Kombat universe and determined to protect his family, Cole trains with Earth’s greatest champions as they prepare to take on the Outworld in a high-stakes battle for the universe. (No pressure.)

When Tan was cast in the lead role back in 2019, producers decided not to disclose his character’s identity. For the better part of the next year, the 34-year-old says he received messages on a daily basis from people who attempted to guess his on-screen persona from the existing roster of fighters. “They asked, Oh, are you Johnny Cage? Are you Kenshi? Are you Goro? Literally every single Mortal Kombat character has been mentioned in my social media, and it was hard to keep it under wraps,” Tan recalls with a laugh.

“Everybody on the cast and the crew really wanted to keep things secret, so when we released it, it was a shock,” he adds. “It’s few and far between that you can have these grand, theatrical moments where we’re doing a reboot that hasn’t been made in 25 years.”

While there was already a lot of pressure to embody a new character in a beloved universe, Tan says that it was arguably even more pressure to lead a reimagined sequel and do all of his own stunts. “People don’t understand the exhaustion, the physicality and how you have to be so on-point—not only physically, but also emotionally—in order to get that done,” says the Into the Badlands and Deadpool 2 alum.

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Tan’s immersion in martial arts and the film industry began from an early age. His father, Philip Tan, is a national champion martial artist who got his big break on Tim Burton’s Batman—another Warner Bros. production—and has worked as a professional stuntman and action coordinator. In a full-circle moment, Mortal Kombat marks Tan’s first leading role in a major feature film from the same studio that kickstarted his father’s Hollywood career more than 30 years ago.

“My father came from nothing and he was abandoned on the streets when he was a kid, but he gave me a good life and introduced me to filmmaking and entertainment and showed me what it’s like to play make-believe on set,” Tan explains. “I’ve been living on movie sets since I was five years old, and I don’t know anything else besides that. And to have my father there in Australia [where Mortal Kombat was shot]—he was watching me fight and perform—was a crazy moment and very special.”

Tan says that his background in martial arts has not only humbled him, but also forced him to build “an endurance and a toughness” that can’t be replicated by an actor with only a few weeks to develop a rudimentary skill set in hand-to-hand combat. For instance, two days before our Zoom call last month, Tan reveals that he fought for eight hours in a row on the set of Netflix’s Fistful of Vengeance in Thailand, where he repeatedly took a knee to the face.

“There’s a huge misconception when it comes to action films, which is, look, if you want the authenticity, you have to have someone who knows what they’re doing, or else you can just double them or you can [use] face replacement and CGI them to do whatever they want,” he says. “But if you want the legit shit that you’re about to see—and you’ll see the difference that it makes—those are people that have been training forever. When you see that shit, you know it’s me, and I’m proud of that.”

lewis tan

Lewis Tan in Mortal Kombat.

Warner Bros.

With a diverse cast that reflects the global nature of the franchise, Mortal Kombat is just one of the most recent productions to feature a predominantly Asian cast, toplined by an Asian lead. While the entertainment industry has more diverse representation in the last decade, Tan argues that, at a certain level, not much has really changed.

“I’m grateful for the things that have happened and I’m grateful for the opportunities that have opened up, but it hasn’t changed much in the sense that, for instance, white actors can talk about the acting and they can talk about their art,” he says. “For me, I have to talk about what it’s like to be Asian, what it’s like to be Asian in Hollywood. Every interview I do, I have to talk about it. And that’s not to take away from what you’re asking me. I’m not trying to disrespect you, but a white actor can talk about the art and they’re never gonna mention them being white. So, until that ends, then it hasn’t really changed.”

As a half-Chinese, half-British man and a self-proclaimed “person of the world,” Tan explains that he never felt the need to define his racial identity, but he felt an unnerving amount of pressure when he began to audition for projects in Hollywood.

“People would be like, oh, you’re not Asian enough or you’re not white enough,” he says with a wry laugh. “Like, fuck, man. Where do I fit in? Are you guys ever gonna write me a role where I’m perfect for this role? I’m just an artist, and I want people to look at my work and not look at me and the color of my skin.”

actor lewis tan attends the special screening of deadpool 2 at amc loews lincoln square in new york city on may 14, 2src18 photo by hector retamal  afp        photo credit should read hector retamalafp via getty images

HECTOR RETAMALGetty Images

After a year that has seen an alarming spike in anti-Asian racism, Tan says he also recognizes that it’s “nothing new.”

“My father has dealt with racism his whole life; I’ve dealt with it my whole life,” he says. “In my high school, they used to spray paint the swastika on my locker—and I’ve never told anyone that. I’ve dealt with racism my whole life in violent ways too, and this is what I’ve been seeing forever. I just feel like people need to understand we’re not so different.”

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Men’s Health

In order to make real progress in the industry, Tan asserts, there needs to be a push to tell more original stories—told by people like him you don’t see on T.V. and film everyday.

“I think that that’s what’s gonna push this artform forward the most,” he says. “Let me tell you the story through our eyes.”

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