Having made a career out of action-oriented roles, the Into the Badlands and Wu Assassins star is now elevating to leading man.

By Nick Romano
March 29, 2021 at 10:00 AM EDT

Mortal Kombat (2021 movie)

Sitting cross-legged on a rehearsal mat for the new Mortal Kombat movie, Lewis Tan felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. He played on this kind of mat as a kid while his father, martial-artist Philip Tan, worked on Hollywood sets as a fight choreographer and second-unit director. Tim Burton's Batman films with Michael Keaton. Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallone. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with Harrison Ford. "I grew up on these films [and] around these guys," Tan says.

By the age of 15, Tan had begun training with Chad Stahelski, the stunt performer who'd later become a director on the John Wick movies. Later, that tutelage would blossom into professional work as Stahelski and his partner, filmmaker David Leitch, worked with Tan on the stunts in Deadpool 2. (The actor appeared in the role of Shatterstar.) "This is where I began my understanding of the film industry," Tan recalls. "I was just learning martial arts, training, and acting, doing plays. That's my history."

After assembling a career in the action genre, from suave sword-wielder Gaius Chau in AMC's Into the Badlands to co-headlining Netflix's Wu Assassins with martial-arts megastar Iko Uwais, Tan is now stepping up as the lead of a major feature at Warner Bros .— the studio that coincidentally helped launch his father's career — in Simon McQuoid's Mortal Kombat (in theaters and on HBO Max April 16).

"It's really a full circle moment for me and my family," Tan says.

As Cole Young, a washed-up MMA brawler who becomes the target of Outworld emperor Shang Tsung (Skyscraper's Chin Han), Tan felt it was "imperative" to perform the action scenes himself, rather than rely on a stunt double. That's what his idols did, including his dad and Uwais.

"One hundred percent of these fights in this movie is me. One hundred percent," he says. "It's imperative that, especially with an action movie, that the actor who is doing the [action] is actually performing. Just like dancing, you can tell a story."

Mortal Kombat
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Tan pulled from multiple fighting styles to tell that story, ranging from Muay Thai and jiujitsu to MMA and UFC fighting. He notes how he previously trained with ex-UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley and channeled moves from mixed martial-artist Jorge Masvidal into his Mortal Kombat performance. One scene, where we meet Cole in a cage match, sees Tan mimicking a move from a famous fight where Masvidal "knocked out Ben Askren in three seconds and set the whole MMA community on fire."

"I'm a legit martial artist who respects that world," Tan says.

This training brought a level of "authenticity" that became crucial for the film's action, even if the grueling demands of Mortal Kombat nearly wiped Tan out. "Sometimes you wake up and your body just can't move," he recounts of the filming in Australia in late 2019. "You feel like you [can't] even walk to the car to get to set. You have to perform at the highest level possible — and you have to do that for three-and-a-half months while traveling in these amazingly beautiful locations." But, he adds, "there was no way that I wasn't going to do it."

The bigger pressure for Tan was introducing Cole as a brand-new character to the franchise, knowing how ferociously overprotective fans can be with their favorite IPs. It's the first Mortal Kombat film since the widely derided 1997 entry Annihilation.

"You don't want to f--- it up because it's so iconic," he says. "You want to bring something new to the table that people haven't seen before, but at the same time really respect and pay homage to these legendary worlds that were already created."

Just as important: He's also a Mortal Kombat fan — and one who got in trouble with his mom for playing the always-gruesome video games as a kid. In those days, he played as Liu Kang before gravitating to Smoke. "Now, the new game" — Mortal Kombat 11 — "I play with Kung Lao," he says. (Stuntman Max Huang plays Kung Lao in the new movie.) "I'm getting pretty good at it. So, get ready."

If there's one thing Tan understands, in terms of both the games and his own career, it's the importance of legacy.

A version of this story appears in the April issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands and available here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Related content:

Mortal Kombat (2021 movie)

  • Movie
  • Simon McQuoid