Lewis Tan: The Iron Fist villain who almost became Danny Rand
James R | On 21, Mar 2017
Last week saw the premiere of Iron Fist, the latest superhero series from Marvel and Netflix. While the show’s debut should be the talk of the town due to it being the final part of Hell’s Kitchen puzzle, before The Defenders crossover, it’s been a hot topic of debate for another reason entirely: people don’t think it’s very good.
One of the biggest criticisms of the show is the fact that it portrays a familiar comic book narrative with a white man at its centre, despite the fact that the source material comes from the dated 1970s when Marvel was keen to cash in on the martial arts craze of the time, regardless of stereotypes.
Finn Jones has fended off criticism of the show, relying on the similarly cliched argument that fans and critics are different people who want different things. Our own reviewer, though, singled out more than just the flawed source material and its white saviour trope as problems. “Simplistic writing” and “tedious characterisation” were highlighted as weaknesses of the opening episodes – and you can read our ongoing reviews here, as we give the series a chance to improve as it progresses.
Certainly, Episode 8 has drawn a lot of attention from viewers – in no large part due to the arrival of villain Zhou Cheng. Cheng is played by Lewis Tan. The thing you may not know? Tan also auditioned to play Danny Rand.
— Lewis Tan (@TheLewisTan) January 25, 2017
An excellent interview with him by Vulture reveals how close Marvel came to casting an Asian-American actor in the lead role of its series.
“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,’,” he tells Vulture. “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.”
It would have “definitely changed the dynamic of the show”, he comments – and goes on to explain why having an Asian-American in the role would be such a big deal.
“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,” he explains. “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.”
Nonetheless, Tan is very diplomatic and respectful of the people making the show.
“I can see how that was difficult to make that decision,” he adds. “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.”
His comments echo those made by Daniel Wu, star of AMC’s martial arts show, Into the Badlands, Season 2 of which premiered in the UK today. Talking to us about Season 1 back in 2015, he said he was particularly enjoying watching the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.
“The kid Hudson Yang came to our premiere in LA and I’m supporting that kid: me and him are the only Chinese-Americans leading TV shows in the US right now!” he said.
You can read the full Vulture interview with Lewis Tan here. Whether you like or dislike Netflix’s Iron Fist, it’s an enlightening, interesting read.