You don’t meet many people in life whose resume includes training ‘Short Round’ for “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, doing stunt work on Tim Burton’s “Batman”, and having Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee on your trail in “Showdown in Little Tokyo”. Nonetheless, Hollywood stunt legend Philip Tan can boast exactly that claim and plenty more over the course of his long and colorful career in stunt work and action filmmaking.
Beginning as a gymnast before transitioning into martial arts, Philip has worked with some of the biggest action stars on the planet, including Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and his aforementioned “Little Tokyo” co-stars.
He’s also been part of huge blockbusters like “Tango and Cash”, Demolition Man”, “Inception”, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”, and many others. Throughout a career that spans four decades, Philip’s talent as a both a martial artist and stunt performer is highly respected throughout the film industry.
Today, Philip sits down with KFK to share a look back over his life in martial arts and stunts, his work on movies like the Van Damme vehicle “Wake of Death”, which has seen a recent re-release on Blu-ray in the UK as well as offering his thoughts on the rising stardom of his son Lewis in action movies such as “Mortal Kombat” and the upcoming “Wu Assassins: Fistful of Vengeance”! So, without further ado, please welcome martial arts and Hollywood action-stunt legend, Philip Tan!
Hi Phil, welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom! It’s great to connect with you and we hope you’ve been keeping well during the pandemic?
Hi Brad, I’m doing well, thanks! Actually, it’s been busy lately. It wasn’t at first, of course, but now, everything’s just taken off and I’ve worked through the pandemic.
Great to hear that! Had you heard of us before by any chance? Also, may we get your views briefly on the Kung Fu Kingdom mission to encourage 100 million people around the world to get into martial arts (for all the positive benefits that it brings to individuals, physically, mentally and socially)?
Yes, I had! And that’s a fantastic mission. Bruce Lee encouraged people to take up martial arts, and now you guys are doing the same.
Philip’s Martial Arts Background
Thanks. That’s definitely our mindset! Okay, so let’s start with your beginnings in martial arts. What different disciplines have you studied, and how did you originally get involved in stunt work?
Well, I started as a gymnast when I was very young, and I started representing the British Team in the Junior Olympics. I ended up breaking my wrist and started thinking “What else should I do now?”, and I started training in Taekwondo, and by 1985, I was the British National Champion in Taekwondo.
I was going to train for the Olympics, but they wanted me to train for a year and I said “Well, I’d love to train for a year, but who’s going to pay my mortgage?” (both laugh). So, I didn’t end up doing it, and I think I definitely could have competed, but you’re not going to win unless you knock out the Koreans.
Training Muay Thai with Master Sken
I’d also started training in Muay Thai with Master Sken, and my sparring partner was Phil Nurse, he trained Jon Jones, Rashad Evans, and Georges St-Pierre. I was offered to compete in some fights, but the pay was like £500, and I thought “I’m going train for three months for £500?”
It was also at that time that I had my first job in the business in “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Machu”, and I made a lot of money, so I started training as an actor and as a stuntman, and I was the first British-Asian stuntman in the business (both laugh).
On Working with Steven Spielberg
Later, I did a movie called “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes”, and I met a guy named Steven on the set, and he asked if I could choreograph the action on “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, and I asked who the director was, and he said he was, and I said “You can’t be the director, you’re like 30 years-old!”. But I said I’d do it, and I didn’t realize at the time that he was Steven Spielberg!
On “Temple of Doom”, I trained Ke Huy Quan (Jonathan Luke) who played ‘Short Round’ how to fight, and Steven asked me to come back for “Empire of the Sun”, and I also played a Japanese Colonel, and then came “Batman”. That made a ton of profit, and it was at that point that I went to America and then did “Tango and Cash” with Sylvester Stallone, and I put some Muay Thai techniques into it. And then I just stayed in America and the rest is history…!
Selling on the Streets: Going Way Back with Jason Statham…
Definitely a true ‘Made in Hollywood’ story! On that note, you’ve worked with many major action stars as mentioned, like Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, Gary Daniels, Byron Mann, Cynthia Rothrock, and others. What are some interesting stories you could share about working with some of them?
Well, one story with Jason Statham I have is one of my favorites. Statham and I actually go way back. He used to sell watches and perfume on the streets, I was selling shoes, and I was a national champion gymnast while he was a diving champion.
Of course, he goes to Hollywood and becomes famous, and we haven’t seen each other in years, but I get hired to work on a movie called “Crank”.
And I’m thinking, “I think I’m going to see Jason today, I wonder if he’ll recognize me.” But he gets out of his limo and he looks at me and goes “F**k me, it’s Phil Tan! What are you doing here?”, and I asked him the same, and he said “I’m the star of this movie”, and I said “Well, I guess I’m working for you, mate!” He told me “Mate, you’ve got all your hair. Look at me, I’ve got no hair!”, and I said “But, you’re a lot richer now!” (both laugh) And he gives me a big hug, and we worked together on that movie.
Working with the Late Brandon Lee & Dolph Lundgren
What a way to reconnect! You also worked, of course, alongside the late Brandon Lee and Dolph Lundgren on “Showdown in Little Tokyo” what memories stand out to you most vividly from then?
Well, Brandon was a lovely guy, we talked a lot about life and his father and where he was headed in his future. He also told me about the movie he had coming up, “The Crow”, and he was just a humble, good dude. We didn’t know he’d pass away so soon after that, but it was great to hear him share stories about Bruce, and I asked him what he thought about the conspiracy theories around Bruce’s death, and he said, “No, the medical people showed that he’d died the way it was reported, and it is what it is.”
Dolph was also a lovely guy and a real martial artist, he was a real European kickboxing champion, which a lot of people aren’t aware of.
Working with Sammo Hung & Jet Li
Dolph no doubt, is as legit as they come. Another legend you worked with in the kung fu movie world, was Sammo Hung on “Martial Law” in 1998 – what did you take away or learn from working with Sammo? Also, that same year, you also appeared in “Lethal Weapon 4” which of course, starred martial arts movie legend Jet Li – what did you enjoy most about working with Jet? What unique insights did you pick up from that experience?
Oh, it’s amazing, you see all their movies, and for the first time, you get to meet them and Yuen Woo-ping. You try to be cool and not come off like a stalker!
Jet Li was really nice and humble on the set, and when he’s ready to perform, you’re there like “Okay, he’s going to hit you, he’s all in!”
And Sammo, as well. I’m doing my own stunts, so I know I’m going be fighting with Sammo, and you don’t want to hit the actor, but we’re doing a fight scene, and I just tap him with a back kick, and he says “Philip, hit me!” And I didn’t want to put everything into it and hurt him, and he says, “Look at me, I’m 240, 250! Just hit me, you’re not going to hurt me!” So I hit him with a back kick, he went flying, they said cut. Then I went over and said “I’m so sorry!” And he goes “Philip, very good, very good, but too hard!” (both laugh)
We became really good friends, we went out for dinner and shared a lot of stories about Jackie Chan, and he’s a lovely guy, so bloody talented.
Working with Jackie Chan
Later on, I got to work with Jackie on “Rush Hour 3”, and he’s telling me all about Sammo, and they both have different versions. Jackie says “Sammo likes people to hit him!” and Sammo says “I don’t like people to hit me!” (Both laugh) Jackie also told me a lot about getting kicked about by Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, who was my sensei when I came to America.
Working with Jean-Claude Van Damme
Cool stories there! You also appeared in 2004’s “Wake of Death” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, which has recently gotten a new Blu-ray release in the UK. What do you recall best about working with JCVD? Did you give him some fighting tips?
Well, I was asked if I could help with the fight choreography and also play a part in the movie, and I said, “Yeah, it’s with Van Damme.”
When I met Jean-Claude, he was describing to me how he wanted to do the fights, and wanted to do things like dropping into his split to punch his opponents. And I said, “This is a gangster movie, it’s about an ex-gangster going after the people who went after his family, splits aren’t going to work in this movie.”
I also told him “If somebody kidnaps my daughter and I’m going to go get back at him, I’m not going to be doing a split, you know?” And Jean-Claude goes, “You’re right, you’re right”. So, we agreed, and I told him “The action is going to be very, very violent and simple, and it’s going to be something audiences have never seen in a Van Damme movie. Doing the jump-spinning hook kick in slow-motion just isn’t going to work in this movie.”
What I wanted to do was similar to the alley fight in “Batman” with the two swords, but this time with two knives in my fight scene with Tony Schiena, and the rest is history. It was a very different and very brutal Van Damme movie, and it ended up doing really well.
Hong Kong Action vs Hollywood Action
Yes, “Wake of Death” was a very different kind of Van Damme movie, and it’s aged surprisingly well. So, having worked with legends from the Hong Kong film industry, as well as being on the British Stunt Register and working on Hollywood productions, how would you compare working on each and the differences between them?
Well, doing action in Hong Kong or with Jackie Chan, you can’t beat that. The guys in the Hong Kong film industry are just masters of their craft. But everybody from every different industry has their own niche and they’re all good.
Every movie is different too, so you have to decide how it works, and working on Hollywood movies, I’ve sometimes incorporated some of the Hong Kong style into it. One example was when I worked on “Willow”, I had to train Val Kilmer for that movie and I put a little bit of Chinese flair into it with his swordplay.
Training with Chad Stahelski & David Leitch
So sometimes, you’re doing a bit of a mix of every different kind of style of action. I used to train with Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, I actually directed Chad on “Bloodsport II” (I was stunt coordinator and director), and they’ve both got photographic memories, so they can do just about anything, and of course, they’ve gone on to do great things. Every movie’s different, so you’ve got to be thinking about what style of action you’re doing and try to introduce something fresh.
Like Father, Like Son: On Lewis Tan in “Mortal Kombat” & “Wu Assassins”
Definitely. On that note, your son Lewis can also now be seen as ‘Cole Young’ in the reboot of “Mortal Kombat”, and will be seen again soon in the upcoming “Wu Assassins: Fistful of Vengeance”. What are your thoughts on Lewis becoming such a rising action star?
Well, Lewis literally started in the business when he was just two, that was when he got his SAG card! (both laugh) I needed a kid for a scene in a movie called “China Cry: A True Story”, and he was the right age. And I didn’t know if he was going to want to be in the business after that, I just wanted him to do what he wanted to do, but he fell in love with the movie industry when he was two years-old!
The Asian community is only about two percent of the business, and of those, only about twenty percent work consistently. Hopefully, it’s about time that that’ll change in Hollywood.
Lewis Trains Hard in Taekwondo, Muay Thai, & Jiu-Jitsu
Lewis trains very, very hard, in so many different disciplines from Taekwondo, to Muay Thai, and Jiu-Jitsu. And since his character Cole Young is an MMA fighter, he has to do a bit of everything, and he’s good at that.
He just recently finished up the “Wu Assassins” movie, and my wife and I also got to see him work on “Mortal Kombat”. He’s the first one to show up, the last one to leave, and he trains so hard even when he’s working.
Upcoming Projects with David Leitch & Brad Pitt, Terry Crews, Michael Jai White and Frank Grillo
Hard worker, like father, like son! Definitely great seeing Lewis breaking out. Well, as sign off, Philip, what other projects do you have coming up?
I have one called “The Commando” with Michael Jai White and Mickey Rourke that’s coming out later this year, and I’m also working on a movie with Lewis and hopefully Frank Grillo in India called “MR-9”. I’ve also got a hitman movie coming up that (fingers crossed) I’ll get to work with Terry Crews on. He’s involved in martial arts too, which a lot of people don’t know. I’ve also recently been working with David Leitch and Brad Pitt on “Bullet Train”.
We’re definitely looking forward to seeing all of those. So, what special message would Philip Tan like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom followers and your fans around the world right now?
Just keep doing what you guys are doing and practicing martial arts!
Thank you Phil, we’ve enjoyed your work on film for years and it’s surreal to revisit the classics we grew up on with you, as well as appreciate that you’re still very active in the industry! It’s been a real pleasure, and we wish you all the best of success with your upcoming action projects in 2021.
Thank you Brad, I’ve enjoyed speaking to Kung Fu Kingdom today!