It’s hard to not imagine what could have been. For years, Asian-Americans had hoped that Marvel would cast an Asian-American actor as the lead of its Netflix series Iron Fist, only for the role to go to Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones. The decision wasn’t exactly surprising — after all, the character Danny Rand is white in the original comics — but a casting reversal would have turned a stereotypical narrative into a fresh story about an Asian-American reclaiming his roots. Now, we know that Marvel had seriously considered the possibility: Actor Lewis Tan was on hold for Danny Rand before he was offered the role of the one-off villain Zhou Cheng, who appears in episode eight of Iron Fist.
Tan, a half-Chinese, half-white actor, is the son of renowned martial artist and stunt coordinator Philip Tan. He was originally born in Manchester, England, but calls Los Angeles home, and can switch fluidly between British and American accents. In a narrative familiar to Asian-American actors, Tan has steadily worked his way through Hollywood, which means doing a string of roles as an Asian gangster in TV procedurals. “I’m six-two, I’m a 180 pounds, I’m a muscular, half-Asian dude,” Tan told me on the phone. “They’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know what to do with this guy.’” We talked about auditions, his most brutal injuries, and why Danny Rand would have been a great Asian-American part.
How did you come to audition for Iron Fist?
Well, I knew about Iron Fist before anyone was talking about it in the public. I heard it going around inside the industry, and I was like, “Wow, if I get a chance to audition for the lead, this could potentially be a great vehicle for me.” I had a lot to offer here, but I knew that the character is white in the comic book, so I was concerned. But I thought at least I had a shot — I’m half white and I do martial arts and I could easily play that role. So I was excited. And then I read for Danny and they liked me a lot. I read again and again and again, and it was a long process, and it got to the point where they were talking about my availability and my dates. That’s always a good sign, you know? And then they went with Finn and they had me read for a villain part maybe two weeks later. I was in Spain, and I read for the part and I got it.
So you originally read for Danny Rand.
Yeah, I read for Danny originally. I think they were highly considering it at one point in time, but it would have definitely changed the dynamic of the show. It would have been a different show.
Did you have conversations with them about the significance of casting an Asian-American?
I personally think it would have been a really interesting dynamic to see this Asian-American guy who’s not in touch with his Asian roots go and get in touch with them and discover this power. I think that’s super interesting and we’ve never seen that. We’ve seen this narrative already; we’ve seen it many times. So I thought it would be cool and that it would add some more color to The Defenders. And obviously I can do my own fight sequences, so those would be more dynamic. I think it would be really interesting to have that feeling of an outsider. There’s no more of an outsider than an Asian-American: We feel like outsiders in Asia and we feel like outsiders at home. That’s been really difficult — especially for me. It’s been hard for me, because in the casting world, it’s very specific. So when they see me and I’m six-two, I’m a 180 pounds, I’m a muscular half-Asian dude. They’re like, “Well, I don’t know what to do with this guy.” They’re like, “He’s not Asian, he’s not white … no.” That’s what I’ve been dealing with my whole life. So I understand those frustrations of being an outsider. Like Danny’s character. I understand him very well.
There was a huge push from Asian-Americans to cast an Asian-American actor as Iron Fist, and it would have made this story more compelling for precisely the reasons you’re saying: The narrative of having an Asian-American going back to Asia after losing his parents as a metaphor for regaining power is a really great one. It feels like a missed opportunity.
It is a missed opportunity. That’s exactly how I feel about it, word for word. It would’ve been a brave thing to do, for sure, for Marvel. I can see how that was difficult to make that decision. I think, personally, it would’ve paid off. But I think it’ll come next because people are feeling underrepresented. People are like, “Yo, this was a perfect opportunity to represent us.” They chose not to, and it’s not even their fault. I see why they stuck to the source material because it’s very risky to move away from that, but they’ll move away from it in other areas and in other shows where they’ll take an Asian character and make him white. So you can’t really win with that argument. Because we’ve seen many times when they’ve taken Asian characters and made him white.
Did they tell you why you didn’t get the part?
No. It doesn’t really work that way. I mean, you put your blood and sweat and tears into these things and then you just end up not getting a phone call. I got a lot of positive feedback and a lot of positive encouragement from Marvel and from the casting people. So I know they were saying good things about me, but then they chose not to [cast me]. But then the fact that they asked me to read again for a different character is a testament to they liked my work enough.
What have your experiences been like going out for auditions?
It’s been a learning process, but my whole life has kind of been like that. And before me, my father had a really rough childhood and upbringing, but it made him strong and he succeeded in so much. His parents abandoned him when he was a kid on the streets in China and then he raised himself and he’s achieved so many things in his life. That pressure made him strong and made him courageous. He’s a great man. I look up to him a lot. It’s done the same for me because I had a really hard time, because I want to be the best in my ability — not just in martial arts, but in my craft too. So when I go in the room, I am the best one there, so they don’t have an excuse. So they can’t say, “Well, this guy he’s Asian so, you know, let’s not give it to him.” They see my craft and they go, “Damn. Okay, this is an option.” That’s my goal. That’s why I work hard and that’s why I train.
It’s been real frustrating when you put in that much work and you get very little, but then I look back at Bruce Lee, I look back at Jackie, I look back at these guys who were paving the way and they also suffered. Bruce wrote this series [Kung Fu] that didn’t get picked up, because they didn’t trust that Bruce Lee was a star. He’s a superstar. That, to me, is courageous. It makes me inspired and keeps me going, but yeah, it’s been a long, hard process. I have been blessed and fortunate enough to be working. I don’t have another job. This is all I do.
Do you feel like you do martial arts because it’s something you need to keep up as an Asian-American actor?
That’s a good question. I actually love martial arts. If I didn’t love it, I would’ve stopped. To me, it’s meditation and it’s put me in tune with my body in so many different ways. It’s also made me a better actor. Like Stella Adler said, acting is not in the words. Everything else is acting: the emotions, the physicality, your energy, your spirit. That’s where it comes from and that’s connected to martial arts. I love it. And if I got to whoop that ass, I can whoop that ass.
Have you tried to avoid roles that you think are stereotypical or offensive?
I’ve turned down a couple roles. My agents will tell you when I first signed with them, I turned down the first three or four things that came up. I’ve just turned down roles that were super-stereotypically Asian that I didn’t feel represented me and I didn’t want to do. Not to necessarily say they’re bad roles, but it just wasn’t me. I’m not going to do this dorky Asian accent and just play someone in the background. That’s not why I’m here to act. I’m here to represent and to make stories that I believe in and to achieve new things in the industry. If it’s not pushing that, then it’s hard for me to take those jobs. But a lot of the roles that I got when I first started acting were villain roles: Yakuza, Chinese gangsters. I’ve played every single Asian gangster there is on every single CSI or crime show. I just have to try make something different each time or else I get bored.
What do you think you need to do to get to the next level?
It’s just getting in front of the right people. I read for a Forest Whitaker film called Sacrifice that’s not released yet. We shot it already, and he cast me as a Southern football player. That’s it. There’s no martial arts. It’s just a drama. I play a Southern football player from West Texas. And man, he’s an artist. Forest Whitaker is a visionary. You have people like that and they see the future and they don’t see you as some ninja. They’re like, “Oh, right, he’s an actor.” It’s going to take people of color behind the camera, it’s going to take even Caucasian people with a broader scope or a deeper understanding of how the world looks now. The world doesn’t look black and white. The world is grey. Everything is grey. Everybody’s mixed up. Like, it’s 2017. People want to see themselves represented and we want to see what our real life looks like on film and on TV. That’s why those movies that don’t show that — they flop. Because people are like, “Ah, that’s not how it is.” And now people are pretty angry.
Do you feel like you have to work harder to get the same opportunities?
Yeah, we have to work harder to see ourselves represented. But like I said, that determination makes the greatest actors and the greatest artists if you don’t shy away from it. When you see these people and they do get roles, they take an inch and they make it a mile. They really go there. That’s how I’ve looked at it. Even with this part with Marvel. Was I frustrated being on set knowing that I was on hold for the lead and that I can do that? Yeah, it was frustrating. But when I do my thing and when you see me on camera, it’s always going to be dynamic. Because I put in ten times more work. I hope that the fans see it and they notice those things and people enjoy it.
What’s the worst injury you’ve ever had?
One time for a commercial, I was in Chicago and I snowboarded behind a train and I got caught in the tracks and it threw me and I almost broke my ribs. If you Google “Mountain Dew Train Boarding” that’s me. That was one of the gnarliest things I ever did.
What was it like working with Finn Jones?
He has a lot on his shoulders. He just seemed focused, and he was a nice guy.
[Laughs.] I mean, you know what? It’s hard for me to answer that and I’m not trying to be weird about it or anything. The real reason is, I’m so focused on what I’m doing that when him and I are there, he’s focused on what he’s doing and that’s what it is. It’s not like we really get a chance to hang out and chill. I mean, Jessica Henwick was in the gym training with us every day so we got a chance to become friends. Finn and I never really hung out. If he wasn’t on set, he was doing something else because he’s busy. He’s the lead. So we never really got a chance to connect. But as far as when we’re doing our scenes together, I’m just in character. I’m just there, in the zone, focused on what I have to do.
What kinds of roles do you want to play?
I want to play roles that are going to give the younger generations of Asian-Americans hope, where they see themselves as love interests, as heroes, as badasses, as confident protagonists. It’s a vicious cycle: They see themselves as nerds and fourth and fifth secondary characters in the background, and that’s how they start to feel. And they start to think that other people feel that way about them because of their ethnicity. Everybody loves cinema, everybody watches it and it affects the world. So I want to play roles that they can look at and be inspired by. I would love to just play normal roles — just a character, it doesn’t have to be an “Asian” character. I would love to play interesting roles. I would love to do Macbeth. I mean, you fall in love with the words and you’re like, “I’m never going to get to play that.” That’s disheartening. I get to do that stuff in class. I get to do it when I put plays up. But I would love to take on all types of roles and not have to worry about my race.
This interview has been edited and condensed.