The Underlying Truth: An Interview with Lewis Tan

Photo credit: Michael Blank

Photo credit: Michael Blank

Lewis Tan is not just another pretty face. The actor, director, model and super hot martial artist playing Lu Xin Lee in the new Netflix action series, “Wu Assassins,” is introspective and aware — of a lot of things. In my conversation with Tan, he opened up about maintaining positive energy, his preparation for the role — both physically and mentally — and the common misconception about martial artists today. 

VD: What drew you to the role?
LT: First off, coming off of “Into the Badlands,” it was exciting for me to try something that was a little more modern. In the sense that it wasn’t in a genre piece. “Into the Badlands” is a very specific time period, very specific way of writing. Almost Victorianesque. Post-apocalyptic but almost Victorian. It excited me to play that type of character in this world. 

But what really drew me to this character was the chance to play an Asian American gangster who was multi-layered and had a lot of different dynamics going on. He is kinda cocky and flamboyant and wild. But underneath all that, he’s dealing with a lot of pain and insecurity. I thought that [it] would be very interesting to play a violent gangster character that had so many layers to him. 

VD: How did you prepare for this role, since I don’t think you’re a violent gangster in real life?
LT: That’s the thing, you know? We all have parts of us that can go there and can go to those dark places. That’s the interesting thing about playing bad guys. Not that my character is particularly a bad guy. [We have] to understand that all humans have that potential in them. Almost like a knife. A knife can be used to kill. A knife can be used to save a life. A knife can be used to eat. The potential is there for many different things, and I think that I like to explore those types of dangers as an actor. 

To prepare is just really to understand. I have to understand the desires of the character. The motives of the character. I don’t have to agree with them; I just have to know them. And then, once I know them on a fundamental level, I can start to embody it. Every role has different preparations involved. Understanding where the character is coming from, his desires, his fears, and then figuring out how I am going to embody it. And one day, it just kinda clicks. I might have already started shooting and maybe I won’t find the character until one or two episodes in until I really feel like I’ve found it. It all depends. This character, I found him quite quickly.

VD: What about the character made you find him so quickly? Or did it just happen to be that way?
LT: Here’s the thing. I work in an industry that is enamored by luxury and enamored by false truths. Even on social media, on the news, [in] the gossip magazines. This character is compensating his pain and his insecurity — his physical insecurities as well —  [with] these flashy cars, flashy jewelry, flashy clothes. His body language. I’m giving off these signs and what these signs say is, “I’m in control” and “Don’t fuck with me.” But really underneath all those layers is crying for help, trauma, a need to be understood, a need to be loved. 

I think that I can, as an actor and as someone who has been working in the industry for a long time, I see through all that stuff. My father has been in the industry for 30 years, so I grew up around it. It doesn’t enamor me. I think it’s easy for me to connect and see — and I’ve seen so many people who’ve gone down that path, that it was very easy for me to find and discover the underlying truth. 

VD: I know that you have a pretty active Instagram. When you talk about playing a role, do you feel like your Instagram is kind of like that as well? Or do you try to be more genuine? Like you’re saying about the knife, all these flashy things and social media, how do you balance being an actor and public figure with your own internal person?
LT: The truthful answer is that I don’t know. It’s something I’m still working on because as [a] people, we haven’t figured out how to use this platform and how it’s affecting us. We don’t know the repercussions of what it means to show the world — maybe millions of followers — a highlight reel of your life that usually is generally giving off this message of “I am happy. I am successful.”

When in reality, all of that stuff comes with all [the] other emotions. It comes with failure. It comes with pain and depression and anxiety and fear. But we don’t show those pictures because those pictures don’t get likes. Why would we show those pictures? 

But as an actor and as a person, I’m still experimenting [with] whether or not I can even do this. I take long breaks off social media. I’ll delete it for months at a time. I’ll only get back on to post stuff if my publicist is really angry with me. I have to go on breaks. I just did a long break and I did some meditation in Japan, in the forest, in this place called Hakone. I had to get rid of social media for awhile while I was there. I still took pictures, but I wasn’t on it posting and looking through it. 

You have to be cautious of what you take into your energy. There are so many different stimulants that are coming in. As soon as you wake up, you grab your phone and you’re filling your brain with stimulants. Think about how many images you’re taking in. Images of other people’s lives that have been fabricated. These advertisements and messages about Donald Trump and whatever, as soon as you wake up! You have to be cautious because as an artist, your energy and your mind, that is your main tool. Without that, it doesn’t make you any different from anybody else. What separates you is your spirit. Your energy. You have to be cautious, and I’m learning how to navigate this. I’m still learning. 

VD: How has your experience in the disciplines of martial arts that’s a lot of energy and transferring energy helped in dealing with shutting out certain energies and taking in certain things and putting it into your acting, writing and directing?
LT: Martial arts has helped me in every aspect of my creative life. Without that output, I am very unbalanced and very aggressive. When I’m training a lot and doing martial arts a lot, I’m much more at peace. I’m much more open to the creative flow which has pushed my career into the right direction. 

I think there’s this horrible misconception that I really want to break, that is about how these actors that do martial arts aren’t real or as good as actors that are more theater actors. There’s this weird kind of trope that comes along with doing martial arts and action films. Or even studying martial arts and being an actor. 

It’s the same as dance or expression. Everything that you do from your body, acting is not just in your face. Acting is everything in between the words. Acting isn’t even the words. I think Stella Adler said that — Stella Adler is one of the greatest acting coaches of all time — “Acting is everything in between the words. Everything but the words. The words are just sprinkled in.”

Acting is emotion and expression. If I can understand how to use my body and how to channel my energy in the correct way, it’s only going to improve my [emotions] and my performance in every other way. Think about the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton from the silent film era. How did you think they were performing? They were performing with everything in their body. They didn’t have the words. It was just performing. 

Martial arts is a good way to understand your body and channel energy and emotion into physical performance. I think a lot of people misunderstand what it’s about. It’s not this aggressive kind of macho thing. It’s peaceful, understanding how I can use my physicality in a positive way. Especially for men in particular because there’s so much testosterone and so much — it’s good for everyone — but I think for men, it really helps balance aggressive energy. And we see a lot of that nowadays in life — men acting like children because they don’t know how to channel their energy.

VD: Speaking of masculinity, as an Asian man, you’ve previously mentioned how important it is to have representation of Asians in different roles like being in “Iron Fist” and how your fans are so excited to see an Asian superhero. How do you think this role in “Wu Assassins” both plays into and subverts the other Asian stereotype? There’s always the nerd, but then there’s also the gangster and martial artist. How do you think this role plays into that stereotype and also subverts it?
LT: Well, stereotypically, Asian men of my size or Asian Triad gangsters, there’s a trope that comes with that, which is aggressive; crime. Maybe they know martial arts. Maybe they studied kung fu. All of these stereotypes are not stereotypes for no reason. There’s a reason why.

This comes from our culture. Kung fu and karate and martial arts come from Asian cultures. So that’s part of our history. So is being in gangs and so is the Triads. Because when we came to America, everybody wanted us to leave. Everybody, right off the boat, were throwing trash at us. Telling us to go back to our country — even though America was founded on immigrants, built on immigrants. 

But when we came here, we had to go to Chinatown. We had to stick to our own because that’s the way to survive. That was the only way. So we created these tongs, these little meeting places. And these tongs turned into protection. And the protection turned into what is now modern day gangs. So that’s where it comes from. It didn’t come from the need to bully people. It came from the need to survive. If anything, the Chinese were being bullied when they first came into the country. 

So those are the stereotypes and the facts that we kinda play into. But there’s a modern telling of “What does it mean to be a foreigner in America? What does it mean to be an Asian American? Is that different than someone that is born in Asia that now has moved to America? What is it like to be someone who is Asian by blood but is born in America?”

There’s many different dynamics and many different characters in this series, and we kinda hit on each one of them. There’s still room to explore many other things — but what I think is cool about it is that I’ve never seen a series that dives into the subjects on every single level. We get a lot of series that talk about people that are foreigners but not that of people that are born in America and are Asian. 

And at the same time, we just want to be entertainers. As much as I want to fight for Asian representation and I think it’s important — I’m sure many other Asian artists and maybe even [you] yourself [feel this]: How much longer are we going to have to talk about how important it is? We know it’s important. What we want to do is we want to entertain and perform. 

I want to do all sorts of different roles. Some roles that have nothing to do with me being Asian. I want those roles, too. I tell my manager and my team a lot. What are the roles that the white actors are going for? Send me for those roles. Don’t send me for the Asian roles. Send me for the roles of the white actors. What are the white actors going for? That’s what I want. Because at the end of the day, we’re artists. I don’t want to be defined as an Asian actor. It’s limiting. Why would I want to embrace that? I’m proud of my roots and where I come from, but that doesn’t mean it defines me.

VD: Right. You’re not just Asian. You’re a whole person. So you’ve mentioned before that you also write and direct and do all these storytelling-related activities. What made you decide to focus on acting for the moment? How do you find time to exercise your other talents? Do you miss them when you’re not doing it? What projects should we look out for in the future?
LT: I don’t think I’ve said this in an interview before, but I started wanting to just write and direct. I was acting at the same time, but my goal was to direct. I started taking acting classes 15 years ago to learn how to talk to actors. But at the time, I didn’t take opportunities that I had for directing. I was writing and directing short films. I was getting into film festivals. But it was such a jump to give someone like me a chance at that age to direct a feature film, that it was very difficult. We didn’t have the cameras that we have now like the Sony A7. You can get a Black Magic camera that shoots 4K and 8K for two grand. At the time, we didn’t have that. So I was thinking to myself, how am I going to make this jump? And then I started booking work as an actor. 

I always wanted to do both, but my goal is to direct. It still is; it’s just [that] I fell deeply in love and now I’m here. I have things to say now. I have things I want to tell people with my filming as an actor. In the meantime, I’m still writing. I’m still shooting. I’m constantly watching movies. I’m constantly learning. When I’m on set, ask any director that I’m working with, when I’m not filming — even when I am filming — I’m sitting next to the director watching, learning. Because in the next year or two, I hope to jump into the director’s seat. 

And right now, I’m writing a story about my father who was abandoned when he was 5 years old. He was born in China and abandoned when he was 5 years old. He moved to London later in life when he was about 15 and grew up in London in a very racist environment in the ‘70s. At the same time, it’s a story about how he came from nothing to winning the British national title in martial arts during the ‘70s in London. Kinda like a coming of age tale — so that’s what I’m writing right now. 

VD: Any advice for Asian Americans wanting to pursue or who are currently pursuing the arts? I’m also very curious if you also have advice for their parents. A lot of times, we bemoan there’s not enough Asian representation, but it’s also because a lot of times, our parents won’t let us go into these things. They spend thousands of dollars to teach us music, but don’t want us to pursue it when we actually love it. So any advice for both the parents and the people who want to pursue things like you do?
LT: My advice for the parents would be to think deeply about your child’s happiness and whether or not you want them to be happy or you want them to make money. Because those two things are not the same. They don’t always equate. You can have a lot of money and still be really upset and unhappy with your life. You can have no money and be very happy. These things don’t necessarily mean the same thing. And if your child wants to pursue the arts and that’s what’s going to make him happy, I would take it seriously.

As far as advice for younger, up-and-coming artists, to ask yourself why you want to do this. Because you’re going to suffer. There is no doubt you’re going to suffer. The reason you want to do this has to be because it’s the only thing you can do and think about. The way I look at it is: There is no other thing I could possibly think about doing. This is it. I want to make films and tell stories so badly that all the failures and all the suffering was worth it. 

You have to ask yourself why you want to do it. Do you want to do it because you want to get a bunch of followers on [Instagram] or you want to make money or you want to be famous? These are [the] reasons that you’re going to end up failing. And if you don’t fail, you’re going to end up unhappy because your intentions are not pure. Your intentions need to be pure, and I would ask yourself, “What are my intentions here?” And if your intentions are pure, then don’t look back. Just run for it.

Check Lewis out in “Wu Assassins” on Netflix (out now) and Season 3 of “Into the Badlands.” Lewis also is lead character in “Mortal Kombat,” in theaters in 2021. Follow him @lewistanofficial on Instagram and @TheLewisTan on Twitter.