Lewis Tan comes from a filmmaking pedigree—something bigger than just an acting pedigree, martial arts pedigree, or anything in between. Tan has talent and heritage that runs from behind the camera to the front of it. His father is a Singaporean stunt coordinator who worked on legendary films like Indiana Jones and Batman, and now Tan himself splits his time between the set and dojo. What you see when he’s on-screen is a desire to blend a martial arts lineage with top-rate dramatic acting, which creates something more than the sum of its parts.
You may have seen Tan in films like Mortal Kombat and Fistful of Vengence, or shows like Wu Assassins. You can also find him in the newly-released second season of Shadow and Bone, the popular fantasy series adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s ever-expanding novel universe, which topped Netflix’s most-watched list this March.
It follows the young orphan Alina Starkov as she trailblazes through the monster-infested realm known as the Shadow Fold. Along the way, she awakens sun-summoning abilities that may be key to destroying the darkness. Fighting beside Alina is Tan’s character, Tolya Yul-Bataar, a reformed mercenary and poet-warrior. A running theme you might notice here: combat, assassins, mercenaries, warriors.
To understand Tan is to understand his journey. He first entered the film biz in the mid-late 2000s, doing stunt work on blockbusters like The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Once established, he kept himself busy: featuring in network staples like NCIS, CSI, and Hawaii Five-0, directing everything from music videos to Levi’s commercials, and polishing his Muay Thai and swordplay with some of the best in the business. All the while, he was developing his own acting and combat style, a combination of something both beautiful and practical, with hints of the West and East.
But at that time, few actors of Tan’s ilk hit the limelight. It was an era of close-up, shaky-cam fight scenes, post-9/11 war films, grotesque Marvel CGI, and near-zilch Asian representation to boot. As an Asian who practices martial arts, Tan was pigeonholed as an Asian martial artist, a niche that never seemed to put him at the top of the call sheet. But Tan was much more than that. Still, casting directors didn’t seem to care that he had directed music videos for Robert Plant and David Guetta, or that he had dramatic aspirations apart from being a non-screen brawler. He refers to himself as a “filmmaker, actor, martial artist.” Note the order.
“At the time they said ‘this Asian guy cannot play the lead in this project, because it hasn’t been done before,’” Tan recalls. “The people weren’t ready for that. It was a really frustrating time, and I can only imagine how frustrating it would have been for people before me. That’s what got me through those years. Thinking about people who came before me who couldn’t do it.”
But the industry tides started to turn over the last half-decade, recently culminating with the Oscars domination of Everything Everywhere All At Once (a true full-circle moment for Tan, whose father trained Ke Huy Quan for Indiana Jones), which was built off practical effects, dramatic acting juxtaposed by surreal action, and a bit more than the industry-standard quota of Asian representation. For Tan, the shift was felt in 2017 when he joined the main cast of Netflix’s Into the Badlands, a flashy homage to old-school samurai and Hong Kong filmmaking lauded as a “martial arts drama series.”
Since then, Tan has been in high demand. His stardom isn’t just due to his natural abilities: there is also his screen presence, good looks, athleticism, and head-turning affability. Tan has a cunning professionalism and film I.Q. that few possess, traits born in part out of paternal wisdom and part from a decade of hard-nosed industry experience. “You have to be strategic,” Tan advises. “You can’t do these movies by just learning them a few weeks in advance. That’s what actors don’t understand.”
Another skill is his penchant for picking projects. Apart from Shadow and Bone, last year Tan made his foray into rom-coms in the acclaimed, About Fate. He has also fostered a close partnership with Rémy Martin, a dynamic pairing between a storied French spirit and a burgeoning actor. At a glance, these pursuits seem like shots in the dark. For Tan, however, he is simply balancing tried-and-true quality with a flowering ambition. Shadow and Bone pushed his acting and combat chops into a fantastical realm; About Fate challenged him to venture into a new genre and share the screen with stars like Emma Roberts; and Rémy Martin is a brand that encourages Tan to keep evolving. “They say iron sharpens iron, and to surround yourself with those that push you to be your best,” Tan says of his exchange with the fabled cognac brand. “I feel like that has helped amplify not just me, but many diverse artists, and I love to be a part of that energy and movement.”
Now is Tan’s coming-out party, with Hollywood finally turning its head to what his brand of filmmaking and familial roots have to offer. For Tan, he isn’t just testing the waters—he’s been ready. “Every time I’m on set,” he shares, “I’m watching and learning to build my own unique voice. But now I have that. It’s about getting to a point in your career where you can prove it, and that’s where I’m at now.” Onward.
Photographed by Angella Choe
Written by Jake Carver
Styled by EJ Ellison
Styling Assistant: Skee
Production Assistant: Serafim Mgeladze
Location: KA’TEEN LOS ANGELES