Back in 2012, an Indonesian Judo champ by the name of Joe Taslim would be seen in an action flick you’ll no doubt have heard the name of, “The Raid: Redemption”. Along with his co-stars Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, Joe would be catapulted into the epicenter of the action movie world, continuing to thrill audiences in movies like “Fast & Furious 6” and “Star Trek Beyond”. Joe would also lead the way in Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Night Comes For Us”, which escaped a protracted period of development hell to finally blow viewers away on Netflix in 2018.
Projects being freed from development hell is actually something Joe has a fair amount of experience with, given that he can also currently be seen on Cinemax’s “Warrior”. Beginning in the mind of Bruce Lee himself, it was finally brought to life in 2019, and is currently in the midst of its second season.
As the antagonistic Tong enforcer ‘Li Yong’, Joe brings all the energy a kung-fu gang drama set in the old West demands, but naturally, anyone who has seen his prior work knows that simply goes without saying!
Today, Joe sits down for an exclusive interview with KFK to share a behind-the-scenes look at the making of “Warrior” and his role as Li Yong, along with shedding a bit of light on the ambiguous ending of “The Night Comes For Us”, and providing some info on his role as ‘Sub-Zero’ in the super-exciting, upcoming reboot of “Mortal Kombat”!
It’s great to connect with you, we hope you’re keeping well? Welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom!
Hi Brad, thanks for having me today.
Our pleasure! Before we get started, how have you been holding up during the coronavirus lockdown?
Well, it’s a struggle for everybody, but by Christmas, I hope we can at least hug each other again.
That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? To get your views, what are your thoughts on the name Kung Fu Kingdom (or KFK for short)?
I follow KFK on Twitter, and you guys are very supportive of those of us who work in action movies. The name is great too, because it sounds like a kingdom full of people who talk about martial arts all time, but know how to kick ass too! (Both laugh)
Joe Taslim’s Martial Arts Background
We do our best! Okay, let’s start with your beginnings in martial arts. What different disciplines have you studied and who has been the most influential on you in your martial arts journey?
I started out in taekwondo when I was 9 or 10 years-old, then my dad moved me into wushu for a couple of years. My dad thought I could be a big national champion, so if I wasn’t excelling in one martial art, he’d say “Okay, this one’s not for you”, and he’d place me in a different art. So I moved through a lot of different martial arts, from taekwondo, wushu, boxing, and then judo, and when I got there, my dad thought, “Okay, this is perfect for you.” The good thing about it was that I’d experienced so many different forms of martial arts by then that I could easily combine them with judo. I had a lot of flexibility from wushu, I had good stance work from boxing, and I was good at throws using legs from taekwondo.
When I was 15, I won my first national championship in judo, and I joined the national team for 15 years. I retired in 2009, and from there jumped into the action business. “The Raid” was my first action movie, and that opened so many doors.
Father’s Influence — Like Growing Up in Cobra Kai!
As far as my biggest influences in martial arts, I would say that my dad was probably the biggest one, because he was kind of like my coach. The other kids would be playing video games and stuff like that, and he’d tell me, “No, let’s train, trust me, it’s good for you!” So it was kind of like growing up in Cobra Kai, but it really paid off, so I’m grateful, and I can play on my PlayStation everyday now! (Both laugh)
“Warrior”: Playing ‘Li Yong’ on the Cinemax Series
That’s quite a journey. Looking at “Warrior” now, (which is executive produced by kung-fu legend Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee) how did you first become involved with the show?
It was back in 2013 when I was shooting “Star Trek Beyond” with Justin Lin, and he mentioned that he was developing “Warrior”, and it’d be great if we could work together again on it once he got the green light. Of course, I knew this was a show that Bruce Lee had thought up, and both my dad and I loved Bruce Lee, so I said I’d be honored to be a part of it.
Then in 2017, I was shooting a movie in Korea, and Justin called me and said the show was greenlit, and I asked if he still wanted me to be a part of it, and he said “Yeah, we have this character ‘Li Yong’ that I think you’d be perfect for.” So they gave me the script, and I was definitely eager to be a part of something in Bruce Lee’s legacy, and I knew that it was in really good hands with Justin and Jonathan Tropper, so I came aboard. So here I am after two seasons, and looking forward to another if we’re lucky to do that! (Laughs).
The Making of: Warrior — Season 2
That would be superb. So, how did the making of the second season of “Warrior” compare with the first?
Season 1 was the introduction to all the characters and their motivations, so coming back for season 2, everything felt a lot more familiar, the chemistry between everyone was already there and everybody had bonded so well. I think we also understood the need to elevate what we did in season 1, and from watching season 2, I think everybody really did as it turned out really solid.
What, No Coronavirus?
Excellent to hear. So, how has the coronavirus pandemic affected the making and/or release of season 2?
We finished season 2 last year before the pandemic hit, so we were lucky. Today, a lot of friends tell me that it just feels so different because it’s not a playground on a set anymore because of the pandemic. So we were really fortunate that we were able to finish it up in a normal setting, people could still shake hands and hug each other before the pandemic really set in.
Warrior Season 2: Joe’s Most Memorable Fight Scene
Sealed in good time! So what would you say has been your most memorable experience in making season 2 overall?
Li Yong’s fight with Zing. I think it was a very important moment for the character of Li Yong. It was also important for me as an actor, because I used to watch Dustin Nguyen on “21 Jump Street”, so having a fight scene with him was a big deal for me personally. I think Dustin might have been the first actor representing Southeast Asia on a global level, and with Dustin being Vietnamese, it made me feel like, “Well, that’s the same region as I’m from in Asia, so if he can do it, I can do it!” We became really good friends, and he visited me in Jakarta before we started on season 2.
Cool to relate that way. What injuries or mishaps occurred in the making of season 2?
Dustin did tear his ACL, (anterior cruciate ligament) and had to have surgery for that. Fortunately, we’d finished about eighty percent of the fight by that point, and Dustin is so persistent and finished the fight without needing a double to step in. Making that fight scene was really special for both of us, and I hope that comes across when the audience sees it.
Warrior Season 1 & 2: Favourite Fights
Glad to hear he was able to make it through despite that. So what are some of your favourite fight scenes from the show’s first and second seasons?
From season 1, I think my favorite is the final fight, and from season 2, definitely the fight with Dustin. I think in my history as an action actor, that’s one of the highlights of my career.
Joe’s Favourite Bruce Lee Fight Scenes
Absolutely. Looking at the Bruce Lee influence on “Warrior” now, with the show being based on a concept he created, what are some of your favorite fight sequences from Bruce’s career?
One of my favorite Bruce Lee fights was the fight in the ice factory in “The Big Boss”, that was awesome, because he didn’t do a lot of flashy stuff or flying around. He was always very grounded, and he made you believe that you could do what he was doing if you trained hard enough. That’s also the thing I’ve really loved about “Warrior”, the action is very grounded and believable.
Mortal Kombat: Playing ‘Sub-Zero’ in Next Year’s Reboot
Agreed. Looking ahead, you’ll also be seen playing the iconic character ‘Sub-Zero’ in the upcoming reboot of “Mortal Kombat”. How was your experience of making the reboot and playing Sub-Zero?
We were definitely lucky again to finish it before the pandemic! (Both laugh)
What I can say is that the movie is going to do justice to the fans, and it’s going to stand out to non-fans, too. I think people are going to rave about it because we’re really able to capture now what people see in the games with characters using ice, fire and thunder and combine real action with superpowers.
We filmed it in Australia, so it’ll have a lot of gorgeous landscapes in it, and it has a really strong story. If you love “Mortal Kombat”, I think you’re going to love the movie coming up next year…!
The Night Comes for Us: The Fate of His Character ‘Ito’
Well, “Mortal Kombat” fans certainly can’t wait to see what it has in store! Looking back a little now, to the ending of “The Night Comes for Us” – it’s rather open-ended when it comes to the fate of your character “Ito”. Do you think he lived or died at the end?
(Laughs) Well, according to the director Timo Tjahjanto, Ito is still alive. He said to me “If I do a sequel, I need you to continue your character’s journey.” I thought at the end of the movie “Look at me, I’m not Wolverine!” and he said “Well, you’re just so badass, you survived.”
I don’t know if there’ll be a sequel to “The Night Comes for Us” in the near future, but I know that Timo had a plan for Ito and he didn’t want his journey to end. If it happens, it’s going to be more focused on “The Operator’s” character (played by Julie Estelle who you may remember as “Hammer Girl” in “The Raid ”). I don’t know what’s going to happen with that one, but fingers crossed!
Joe Taslim’s All-Time Favourite Martial-Arts Films & Fights
Ito was a tough-as-nails guy for sure, hopefully we’ll get to see him again. On that note, what are some of Joe Taslim’s favorite martial arts films and fight scenes?
I love “Fist of Fury” and “Fist of Legend”, and I also really love the “Ip Man” movies with Donnie Yen. When it comes to action movies overall, I’m also a big fan of “Terminator 2”, it really inspired me to be part of this business, and “Hard Boiled” is so badass!
In terms of fights, I loved the fight between Jet Li and Yasuaki Kurata in “Fist of Legend”, that one was crazy! I also really like the respect they showed to each other there, because that’s so important to martial arts. The kitchen fight in “The Raid 2” is also great, and a really hard one to top.
That was an intense and crazy knife fight! What kind of martial arts training do you do these days?
I still keep up with judo, and my kids have been wanting to get involved in it too, so I’ve been training them since March. As far as for movies, I was an athlete for 15 years, so I really just keep up my endurance to that same level in training for movies. You can’t shoot a fight scene without good endurance, so keeping that up is really important.
Joe Taslim’s Message to Kung Fu Kingdom Fans & Followers
Agree. Well, as we prepare to sign off Joe, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom followers and your fans around the world right now?
It might sound cliché, but when you’re going after your dreams, you have to believe you can do it first. This was something I always wanted to do growing up, and I managed to do it. If you’re wanting to make action movies, you need to love this job. I never feel like I’m working, even when I’m working for 15 hours straight getting beaten up in “The Raid”. It’s my hobby and I get paid for it, so it’s awesome! (Laughs)
So well said! Thank you so much for the privilege of speaking today, Joe. It’s been an honour and a real pleasure and we wish you all the best of success with “Warrior: Season 2” and “Mortal Kombat”.
Thanks Brad. Happy to speak with you guys at Kung Fu Kingdom today!