During a set visit to Mortal Kombat in Australia, Collider was part of a group interview with Tan, where he talked about his goals with playing Cole Young, the silliness of fan-started rumors, the intensity and authenticity of the fight scenes, the function of a grounding character in a fantastical world, his favorite MK character to play as, and how the only two things to knock him out are his father and… a plank of wood.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about Cole and his character? We were told that Cole is basically the audience’s introduction to the world for people who don’t know Mortal Kombat.
LEWIS TAN: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. It’s just nice to even be able to talk about the character because there was so much speculation and hype up until this point about which character I’m playing. Literally every single character has been checked off. Someone was even like, “Are you playing Goro? He’s playing Goro, he’s playing Goro!” Next thing you know, I wear Ray-Bans a lot, so someone was like, “Oh, he’s Johnny Cage for sure. He’s Johnny Cage.” So they went through, literally, the list of characters. So it’s just nice to be able to talk about it.
[Cole’s] a cool character because he’s a grounded entry point into the story. He’s an ex-MMA champion, he’s down on his luck, he’s a father, he’s a husband, but he’s a man who’s missed his opportunity and his timing. So he’s coming from a place of [having] missed the mark, and that’s an interesting thing to play just for myself, and he’s an interesting character to dive into. But he is a martial artist and he’s very capable, but he’s just never got his shot, and that’s where he starts out. And so he becomes intertwined into the Mortal Kombat world. I think it’s a really interesting way to show audiences that don’t know the game a new perspective. And it’s also good to create a cinematic experience that’s going to honor the game and what people are used to, but also give them something fresh and new when they go to the theaters and watch it. So that’s what I like about the character. It’s a tricky character to play because there’s a lot of pressure, because it’s not an established fan base already. So hopefully I can do it justice and deliver some authentic action scenes for everyone.
At the same time though, do you get a sense of freedom from getting to make the character your own and building him as you shoot?
TAN: Definitely. Definitely, man. And like I said, Mortal Kombat‘s interesting because it is a fantasy, there’s a lot of fantasy elements to it, but my character is a really solid perspective throughout the picture. So it’s nice to be involved in this fantasy world, but get to play a really grounded point. So yeah, that’s been a lot of fun for me.
Because you’re trailblazing your own path as this character, where have you drawn inspiration, whether it be on screen or anywhere else for the character of Cole?
TAN: Well he’s an MMA fighter, so I drew some inspiration from some of my favorite MMA fighters. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with the UFC, but Jorge Masvidal, who just beat Nate Diaz recently and knocked out Ben Askren in three seconds, I took some of the inspiration from him a little bit and the way that he moves and walks, and he kind of carries himself in this interesting way. And Cole’s down on his luck and he’s a man who’s missed his timing, but he also has a humor about him and a sense of sarcasm and wit. And I’ve been trying to balance that nice edge of delivering something authentic but also keeping it light, and he uses that to understand what he’s going through. And then there’s parts of it that I feel connected to as a person, as a martial artist myself. I know what it’s like to go through those situations and to be put in it. I’ve never fought MMA, but I used to fight kickboxing and muay thai. So I know what it feels like to build up to a fight and to lose and to suffer this type of loss. It takes a lot out of you. So yeah, I draw a lot of my own inspiration from it.
When you talk about him missing his moment, is that what you mean? He had a shot, but he didn’t win? Or do you mean family responsibilities, other stuff got in the way, a George Bailey Wonderful Life type thing? Or is it another thing that lead to him missing a spot?
TAN: Well, Cole won his championship young, and then from that point on never progressed. He lost it immediately and just never progressed. And his daughter is his coach, so him and his daughter have a very unique bond where she’s obsessed with mixed martial arts, she’s always checking YouTube and learning different skills for him.
And it’s not like a gimmick, she loves MMA and they have a bond together. And for me that’s amazing, because my father is the same. If you don’t know, my father, Philip Tan, he’s a fight coordinator and a stunt coordinator. He did Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones [and the Temple of Doom]. He did Batman with Tim Burton, which is actually the first film that brought us to America, which is a crazy full circle for me. My father came here with Warner Brothers, and now I’m leading a film with Warner Brothers, and it’s a trip for me, it’s full circle. So I love that studio and I’m very proud to take my shot at it. But yeah, so, what was the question again? [laughter]
What was it that led him to miss his spot? You said he won the championship young but he didn’t progress. He’s got this relationship with his daughter who’s training him.
TAN: So now that she’s training him, they’re together on this journey, and they just can’t catch a break. So he was on a losing streak in life: financially, in his relationship and in his career. He’s on that downhill slide that doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere up. I think it’s a nice place to explore those areas, and a place that we can all kind of relate to. He’s a guy that you can root for. And I think that was important because we know how important it is for the fans to get behind a character that they haven’t seen before. And I’m hoping that I can deliver with that, and then also with my own martial arts, deliver an authenticity that some actors couldn’t deliver.
The cast is just filled with incredible martial artists. What’s that like for you as a super-talented martial artist to come into this space and be surrounded by like peers and also elders, like Hiroyuki [Sanada, Scorpion]?
TAN: My God, it’s a dream. Well, first off, I just did Wu Assassins with Iko [Uwais]. And Iko and Joe [Taslim, Sub-Zero] did The Raid together and Iko kind of mentored Joe throughout that experience. Joe is insane, you almost have to slow him down, even in his armor he’s wearing, dead serious. So yeah, it’s great to work with artists that can fight and do their own fights. Like I said, it’s an authenticity that the fans I think now deserve and want. And I think there’s been so much backlash about people, films, and shows that haven’t delivered on that front. It’s time that we really give them the real deal. There’s ways that you can shoot those sequences that you couldn’t shoot with someone else. So for instance, if Joe and I, let’s just say hypothetically, had a fight, you could shoot that fight in a nice wide shot and shoot it for the whole fight and not have to use certain angles to hide faces or silhouettes to cover things up. I mean, it’s like two dancers, you just show them and just let them dance. So yeah, I’m very grateful to work with them.
Todd [Garner, producer] said you came in and showed something from Wu Assassins where you were like, “This is 40 choreography beats in one shot. Let’s do it.” So was there a lot of collaboration there when it came to fighting?
TAN: Todd has been great too, and everyone’s been on board with [the idea that] we want to take this Mortal Kombat brand to new heights, but we also want to take the action and the drama and everything in the movie to new heights. On every single level we want to raise it. So yeah, when I talked to Todd, our producer, I was like, “Look, this is what I’ve been doing, and we need to go even better than this. Here’s 40 beats of action, no cut. This is what I can deliver. What else can we do here to make this the next level?” It’s very important to me as an actor, for myself, as a martial artist, and to continue my father’s legacy to continue to deliver on that front and not take steps back.
You’ve been very lucky on that front, with Into the Badlands, Wu Assassins —
TAN: I wouldn’t call it luck because I’ve turned down so much stuff. I’ve turned down — ask my agents — I turned down six projects this year.
TAN: And I was getting to the point where I was like, “Oh, should I just start taking things? Where’s the one that is calling my name? I’ll feel it when I see it.” It came, but it came towards the end of the year. So it was getting to that point where you have to trust your instinct as an actor when you read stuff like, “All right, this is not for me.” “But the money is good” has never been a thing for me. It’s all about legacy, it’s all about creating a legacy. So I’m like, “Nah that’s not it, nah that’s not it.” My agents are like, “Oh, are you sure? You want to read it again?” And Mortal Kombat came along and I’m like, “There we go.”
What was it about this specifically? Because there’s a million ways this movie could suck if it was done a different way. If it was super whitewashed, if it ignored like the legacy of what it’s really about. So what was it that when you looked at, you knew that was the thing?
TAN: Truthfully, it was hearing the score. Simon [McQuoid, director] sold me on that because the score gave me an idea of where he was going to take this, how tasteful it was going to be done. Then obviously Joe, the first casting. The lineup: Hiroyuki, [Tadanobu] Asano-san [Raiden] — I used to have his poster on my wall when I was a kid, like it was above my bed, and I’m working with him. It was the authenticity that they brought to the characters, and casting correctly, and Simon’s vision and how tasteful it was going to be done. And as soon as I heard that, I was like, “Ooh, I have a chance here to do something.” And it’s challenging because you’re doing something that a lot of fans of the video game want to be pleased, there’s the remake of the  film, and there’s a lot of variables. I like those challenges.
Since Cole is a completely original character for the movie, who’s your go-to fighter when you play the game?
TAN: Oh, when I play it? I use Kung Lao. Joe and I have been playing a lot in his hotel room, and he’s been using Sub-Zero religiously. He’s getting really good, actually. But yeah, I like Kung Lao, I think he’s pretty cool.
Was the MMA angle so that you could be able to adapt to different styles, as opposed to like a boxer or someone that’s more singular in terms of their training?
TAN: I think the choice is more current, it’s just the styles have evolved over the years, [especially] if you’ve watched the old, original MMA fights. Martial arts is constantly evolving because it’s movement. And so movement constantly evolves because this person goes, “Oh, I know how to do this. I know how to counter it.” And it constantly evolves which is why it’s so beautiful. But yeah, I think being a mixed martial artist opens up a lot of opportunities and doors for Cole where he can go.
How did it affect you training wise? Did you have a specific trainer, or was it more incorporating it into your natural fighting style?
TAN: Yeah, we have a trainer that teaches everyone here. His name’s Nino Pilla, he’s a student of Dan Inosanto who trained with Bruce Lee’s most prestigious students. So yeah, it’s a good sensei to have. He taught us things, he would do the upkeep. For me, it’s just upkeep. A lot of people say, and I post this on my social media, I don’t get here and start training for the film. We’ve been trained for years in order to be able to get here and do this, you know what I mean? So it’s just upkeep and learning new skills and learning choreo for me. I think a lot of actors [have] the wrong mentality: “When I get the part, I’m going to start training.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about? You’re going to do three weeks and play a martial artist?” We’ve seen the product of that. Everybody on this set here comes from a really strong martial arts background or is very athletic and has been really adaptable in learning choreography.
You once said the only person who’s ever knocked you out is your dad. But you’ve been taking some licks on this set, though.
TAN: I was about knocked out last night by a piece of wood! Dead serious! [laughter]
But your dad still holds that title, he’s the only one?
TAN: Yeah, he’s the only one. As you can see, I’m banged up right now. I got hit by a piece of wood last night and I was like, “Wouldn’t that be funny if it was a plank of wood and my dad?” No, he’s still the only one that has that over me.
Do you feel a special kind of magic with this one? It seems a lot of things are coming together.
TAN: One hundred percent. I don’t want to jinx it, but I can truthfully tell you, I felt magic when I got here and it’s just been increasing since then. And I’m really hard on myself and I’m really hard on the work that I do. So sometimes I’m like, “Ah, this wasn’t it.” And then I’ll see a little rough cut of what Simon was doing. And I’m like, “Oh-ho-ho! This is amazing!” You know what I mean? There’s some stuff that I wasn’t on set for and then I saw that stuff and I’m like, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.” And then I’ll see this thing that we did the other day that I wasn’t there for, [and] I’ll be like, “No, this is the best thing we’ve ever done.” And the film has a lot of scope. Adelaide is an insane place to film because the locations are just… I mean, an hour away, it’s like you’re on Mars. And then an hour the other way it’s a whole ‘nother thing, and then you’re in the forest. So there’s so much to see here. It’s been a really great place to film.
Simon said he was trying to put the best fighting that had been put to screen on screen. Do you feel like that’s something you guys are getting? Or even if you don’t want to judge yourself on that, have you seen stuff that feels like you guys are pushing the boundaries of what a big martial arts movie can be?
TAN: Look, it’s a lot of pressure and I don’t want to say that it is the best because I have to wait and see. I don’t want to jinx or speak too soon. [knocks on wood] But the blood and the sweat is there on the floor right now.
Simon used two words that he said are his themes for this film, and that’s respect and authenticity. Do you think so far that he’s achieved that?
TAN: Oh yeah, one hundred percent. I think those are good words. He’s a really interesting guy, really intelligent guy. One of the calmest directors I’ve ever worked with, and I’m not sure whether — in my head, I’m like, “Is this is a good thing, is this is a bad thing?” But then I see the footage and it’s incredible, it’s there. So yeah, he has a really good sense of what he wanted to do. There’s been so much preparation for this film and so much has gone into it before, for years. So it’s that long of a time period that’s gone in to making this thing perfect. But then still we’ll show up on set and I’ll be like, “What if we did this and I jumped off this thing?” And then Simon will be like, “Hmm, yeah, try it.” So he still has a flexibility to him. He’s going to deliver it one hundred percent.
What has been one of the biggest challenges for you on this film so far?
TAN: Physically, it’s been a lot. Night shoots are hard, those make you delirious. A lot of people don’t know, because they’re not here during production, how hard it is to do your own action work and how much it takes out of you physically. There’s a whole ‘nother thing when you’re you’re doing drama and you’re finished with the day and you feel like you had a workout because you’re just so drained mentally and emotionally. Now, add a physical state where you’re fighting for 14 hours straight. People don’t know how hard it is to do that. That, including the nights, it’ll catch up to you, and then that’s when little mistakes happen and you could get hurt. So you have to be extremely careful and aware. And I compartmentalize my energy really well, so that’s helped me, but this has been one of the most challenging experiences for sure. Filming in [small Australian town] Coober Pedy, that was a challenge. That place is insane, that place is absolutely insane. It’s really hot and windy and there’s flies everywhere — the second that you’re talking the flies are [on you]. And they’re mean flies, they’re like desert flies. They’re not scared of you, they’ll land on your face and they’ll crawl up in your eye. So it was difficult acting with them. Wanted to Fatality all of them. [laughter]
We saw Ludi [Lin, Liu Kang] actually meditating in between takes. What are some things like that you do?
TAN: I definitely meditate daily as well. To compartmentalize your energy, you have to figure out ways that work for you. For me, I like to listen to classical music in the morning. Because you’ll wake up in a state. I’ll have dreams about people being like, “Another take,” and I’m like “Ughhh!” Or I’ll have dreams that I’m fighting in my sleep, and I’m tossing and turning, and literally I’ll wake up and I’ll have to recenter myself. Meditating helps a lot, laughing helps a lot. It’s been good to be on set with cast members that you enjoy and you can joke around; Josh [Lawson, Kano] is so hilarious. To have people around you that are there with you and supporting you and keeping it humorous even though you know you’re all suffering, but it’s for the best. The payoff is going to be worth it. So that’s just keeping your eye on that prize.
But yeah, we do a lot of meditation, breath work. And like I said, I compartmentalize my energy so when I’m fighting, I’ll get hyped up moments before. I used to get hyped up hours before — this is when I was a younger actor — and then I’d be dead before lunch. So now I’ll get pumped up right before the take and when the take is over, I’ll bring my heart rate back to normal, and then I’ll do it again, instead of staying in a zone where I’m like, “Ahhh!” I used to listen to music and I used to get pumped, and then I’d be dead halfway in the shoot. So now I have to carefully use my energy.
Is there a way for you to tell us one of your favorite scenes or one of the favorite actors that you’ve been able to work with without spoiling anything?
TAN: I’ve created a nice bond with Joe. I think we both come from similar backgrounds, and he’s done a lot of martial arts films and a lot of action work as well, and a lot of action work. So we have a lot to bond and talk about and share advice and work off each other. So yeah, Joe’s been really helpful in this process.
Who’s the most talkative, Joe or you?
TAN: [laughter] This cast is very talkative, so it’s a challenge. They’re very big personalities, so hopefully it comes across on screen.
A lot of the talk has been about balancing character and action, and you have a very specific version of that because you have this familial aspect. What’s that been like for you, having to throw yourself into this otherworldly martial arts, fantasy-horror movie, but also having this grounded relationship with your kid and building this family for Cole?
TAN: It’s almost easier for me because I’m one of the only characters that has that so apparently there. So in a way it’s easier, but then there’s times when you want to switch it onto more full Mortal Kombat mode. So I’m jealous, of course. It’d be cool to play someone like Kenshi or [another] character there and it’s so specific and the folklore is already laid out for you, I can do all my research. I see Joe all the time, Ludi all the time checking, like, everything to do with their character in the game, every single costume he’s ever worn, every single movement he’s ever done. And they try to add little Easter eggs in and I’m like, “Damn, that’s pretty cool. I wish I could do that.” But being the emotional grounded point, and then also being as violent as I can be in a good way — and I mean that — that’s been really fun.
And being the outsider’s eyes into this world, what do you want the audience that has never played the game or is not familiar with this world to get from the movie?
TAN: My goal would be for audience members to walk away and be like, “I love that character as much as I do Liu Kang.” Because those characters are so iconic that if I can just be in that world and have the audience go, “Yeah, that’s one of my favorite characters, Cole, because of what he did or the way he acted or the way he fights,” then I think I did my job.
Mortal Kombat comes to theaters and HBO Max April 16, 2021.
KEEP READING: The Cast and Crew of ‘Mortal Kombat’ on the Film’s Power Through Inclusive Casting
In a cryopod, no one can hear you scream.
About The Author