Martial-artist-turned-movie star Lewis Tan has performed stunts in some of the biggest blockbusters to date. You’ll catch him in the upcoming Mortal Kombat reboot, playing an MMA brawler by the name of Cole Young. It’s a new character that wasn’t in the original hit video game series, but one he was seemingly born to play. Why? He’s the son of a legendary stuntman and Muay Thai champion. His qualifications aren’t purely hereditary, though. He’s studied the martial arts since he was young, and made memorable turns in respected action series like Wu Assassins and Into the Badlands. But those credits didn’t mean he stepped into the role without a little hesitation.
“I knew saying yes meant it was my job to show that Cole was worthy of being part of this iconic franchise,” Tan says over Zoom from Bangkok. “Not only that, but I had to prove to the fans I was worthy of playing him—standing shoulder to shoulder with these familiar fighters.”
That responsibility fueled Tan through his preparation. Further proving director Simon McQuoid picked the right guy: Tan’s first order of business after wrapping the movie was traveling to a Muay Thai training camp on Thailand’s Koh Samui. Men’s Journal spoke with the action-star-on-the-rise about his martial arts background, fitness routines, and stepping inside the legendary video game universe. Listen to the full interview via our podcast, One on One, down below.
How familiar were you with Mortal Kombat before you got connected to the movie project?
I picked up Mortal Kombat again once I got the role, but was already familiar with it because of my earlier years. I have three younger brothers, so that meant a house full of boys. We were drawn to all the fighting games—beating my brothers at home and playing it in arcades. My father was also a champion martial artist and a fight choreographer for a lot of big movies. We had martial art pads in the backyard. I must have spent thousands of hours with [the game]. Now I know that time wasn’t wasted.
Little did you know it was research for a future role. What character did you usually play with?
I played all the ninjas, so Scorpion and Sub- Zero. I also liked Smoke, Kung Lao, and Liu Hang. Then things changed a little bit when Trilogy came out with all the robots. Mortal Kombat has everything. I remember when I first got the script for the movie, I could see they had this great world to build on—kind of like a darker Marvel Universe. The R-rated version of what Marvel is—less CGI, more practical stunts, and true martial arts.
How old were you when you started training martial arts?
My father was a Taekwondo champion, then went on to win the British national Muay Thai championship. So those were the first styles I started to learn when I was five or six years old. I tried out a few other styles as I got older like jiu jitsu, some weapons work, and judo. I eventually started to focus only on kickboxing and Muay Thai. I competed in some amateur circuits at different gyms in Los Angeles. They’re called smoker sessions where you do three, three-minute rounds. Once I started my film career, I was fortunate enough to start learning from all these different masters—like Iko Uwais from The Raid, arguably the best martial arts movie of current day, and Andy Cheng and Master Dee during Into The Badlands. They have some of the best credits in the world, working with [actors like] Jackie Chan and projects like Kill Bill and The Matrix. Those were all growing experiences, and I’m still growing.
Is there one style you find yourself going back to and feeling the most comfortable with?
Muay Thai, no question. I’m 6’2”. I have these long-ass arms and legs, so I think it’s a good fit for me. You have to find what’s good for you, and where you may have the advantage, then build from there.
What were your first thoughts about playing a new character?
I was scared, man. I didn’t want to be the guy who messed up Mortal Kombat. At this point of my career, I’ve made good calls. This is a huge franchise, and an incredibly opportunity. But playing a new character is a lot of pressure, and a lot of weight on my shoulders. I met with the director, and he played me some of the soundtrack they were working on from Benjamin Wallfisch. I was blown away. I talked with him about the authenticity of the martial arts elements and how he was going go film it. I wanted to hear about all of that before I signed on. Once it became clear he was going to do it right, I was excited. And then I was hit with the fact I was going to have to compete with these characters that are so well established and loved. That brought some nerves. And then I thought, fuck it. I know martial arts. I can bring something special to this film. Whenever I’m scared of something, that’s a good indication I should be doing it.
What were you doing when you got the call confirming you got the gig?
I was in the gym sparring. I answered the phone with wraps on my hands and no shirt. I think he was a little taken aback. But maybe that’s when he realized how much the martial arts are a part of my life.
How did you create Cole’s fighting style?
He starts off as an MMA fighter, which means a lot of striking and ground game. But once Cole goes on his journey, he starts to learn some new skills. There were some weapons I hadn’t used before. I love a good challenge, so I was excited. I had about a month between when I found out I got the role to when we started filming. Regardless, getting ready for this isn’t something you can do in just a few weeks. There’s no fight double. That’s 100 percent me every single day, every single moment. I’ve been training hard for 20 years, so I didn’t have to do anything special. I had all the motivation I needed. Up until this point, I’ve only been the lead in television and done some small parts in big movies. That was in my head as well. Not just for myself, but as an Asian actor. There’s no choice but for me to be the best I can be. This isn’t a time for me to be lazy. We don’t get these opportunities often.
Outside of martial arts, what does your training look like?
I do a lot of rope skipping. I have a weights routine, as well as a full-body calisthenics and plyometrics program. When I’m doing a fighting role, I don’t want to be too big and too jacked. I don’t think that’s the right look for me. I can put on muscle, but it’s more important for me to be able to move, be powerful, and be precise. I train for endurance, and I make sure to mix it up. I’ll do hill sprints, jump rope, rounds on the bag, and rounds with a sparring partner. For the weight training, I’l have random heavy days, but for the most part I’m doing medium weight. I aim to do 12 to 15 reps of whatever exercise I’m doing whether it’s deadlift or bench press. I’ll never lift any weight I can only do two or three reps with, because that doesn’t help me for what I want to do.
Were you absolutely spent after a days on set?
This was the hardest project I’ve ever done. I was generally sore all over after our working days. There’s a fight toward the end that I think was somewhere around 180 different beats of fight choreography. And we did that for six or seven days straight. There wasn’t a lot of dialogue at all, just fighting for 12 hours a day. There were a lot of ice packs, fans, electrolyte drinks, and vitamins. You lose so much water and salt during these sequences. Not to mention some of the guys I’m fighting are wearing these crazy outfits, so when I’m blocking them, their metal armor and spikes are digging into my skin. I got ripped in the arms and ripped in the neck. I understand why a lot of action movies don’t do their fight sequences in long takes. First of all, most of the actors don’t actually know these fighting styles—and even if you do, it’s so hard to coordinate every element. So I get it. But when you get it just right, it looks special, and that’s what we wanted.
I still hit the gym while we were making the movie, even though filming was very demanding. I did two days a week, with one day fully devoted to recovery. During that day I would see do cryotherapy, magnesium salt baths, and see a physical therapist, who was always surprised at how much damage I’d done to my body. There was a bench press on set. We’d need to do a scene and look over to see Sonya Blade pumping away. I’d be like, ‘Alright, your biceps look good. Can we film now?’ ”
Did you take any supplements to complement the workouts?
On set I’ll take amino acids, BCAAs, and magnesium. I lack some of those minerals that prevent you from getting stiff. That helps a lot when you’re filming action shows. For Mortal Kombat, I had a protein isolate I used three or four times a week. It can be a nice thing to have available when you’re on the move—like when we’re on set and you don’t necessarily want to eat a meal, then have to fight or run around.
What was it like to see everyone in full costume?
Joe [Taslim] and I are really close friends. He’s not just an incredible actor, but also an incredible martial artist. The first time I saw him in the Sub-Zero costume I was just like, ‘Holy shit.’ His body language when he was in the outfit just transformed; it was really incredible. Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays Scorpion, is a consummate professional and doesn’t really goof around on set. He was very serious, and I think that works well for the character, because when he’s there, things get intense. That’s why the movie is going to be so great, because the guys they got for these roles are just unmatched. Everyone is taking these characters to new depths. That’s what this franchise needed.
There’s a pretty brutal MMA fight we see in the trailer. What was it like filming those scenes?
The name of the guy I’m fighting in that scene is Ian Streetz. He was a professional Lethwei fighter, it’s a style of martial arts from Myanmar—like Muay Thai without gloves. They just put wraps on their hands, and you’re allowed to headbutt. You’re also not allowed to win by submission. You can only win by knocking the other person out. He’s an amazing fighter, and we went in on each other pretty hard. By the end we were both beat up and bruised.
Did you watch any UFC fighters and study anyone’s style in particular?
I took a little inspiration from a few of the UFC guys. I’d say most importantly Jorge Masvidal. He reached out to say he was a fan of the game and told me to hit him up if I needed anything. That flying knee knockout he got on Ben Askren was epic, and right before that match started he leaned up against the cage very casually, like he was chilling. I straight up jacked that from him. I do that in the early scene where I fight Ian Streetz.
How have you enjoyed playing the game since you got the role?
We actually played it on set. Joe Taslim is actually really good. He would play as his character, Sub-Zero, and I played as Kung Lao. He’d just beat everyone, so I started to get frustrated and had to step away a little bit. I hate losing. I’m secretly training now, and once I get better I’m going to challenge him again. Playing the game helped me get through quarantine while we were filming actually. I was in quarantine at my hotel, playing Mortal Kombat, so that I could finish the movie.
You’re training Muay Thai while in Thailand. What’s it like to train at the mecca?
Going to Thailand to train is actually part of a ritual I have. Normally after I finish a movie I go to this part of Thailand called Koh Samui. I’m there pretty much every December, and I train at a training camp called Lamai Muay Thai. It’s exactly how you’d picture a gym on an island. There’s no air conditioning, no fancy Equinox towels, or lotions. It’s hot, it’s sweaty, and it’s full of real fighters. They have bags all around the gym. You do your work, then you go to the beach to eat a coconut. There are a lot of fighters who fly in from all over the world to study and live there on the premises. They get a cot—nothing fancy—but they get to live and work there for free, and do fights at night where they give part of the purse to the gym. That’s the kind of training experience you want. I believe the grit from those workouts goes into your style. I brought that into what I did in the film.
How did it feel to watch the movie for the first time?
The version I saw wasn’t truly completed, but it’s still hard to describe how it felt. I was speechless for a few days. I think we all were. I’m watching something iconic, but also iconic for me and Asian people. My father started with Warner Bros., as many people know, and to be a part of this film felt like a bit of a full-circle moment.
Would you do a sequel?
I would do another one in a second, but it would have to be with the same people and the same director. Despite the fact he hasn’t made his own movie before this, he couldn’t be more calm or prepared. I think he’s a genius. The cast and I have gotten very close as well. We all went on this crazy journey together. We beat the shit out of each other and nearly killed each other.
Mortal Kombat premieres in theaters and on HBOMax on April 23rd.
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