You might recognize him in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, and on TV shows like CBS’ Rush Hour, which airs every Thursday night. Those who consume Asian media might recognise him as the face for Nivea’s men’s beauty campaigns. Or, as I did, on the desaturated posters that line the walls of GNC here in the U.S. – a handsome Pan-Asian man with a body worthy of a health supplement store.
To be honest, when San Francisco-based photographer Victor Hugo approached His Style Diary with photos from his recent shoot with Lewis Tan, I had nary an idea who Lewis was. Even as I searched online for a wiki on him, all I could find was a short but impressive blurb about him on IMDB, and of course, quite a few professional photos of him both decked out and undressed, with a typically intense countenance and an impressively sculpted physique.
As a publication with roots in Asia, I thought it would be apropos for us to feature a man of Asian heritage who’s broken ground in both Western and Asian media, and is set to greater things ahead. What with the #whitewashedout debate in Hollywood, here I was able to get an insider’s look into the industry, and I sure wasn’t disappointed.
But I digress. Portraits was always meant to dig into a man’s sartorial make-up, and find out what makes him the stylish person he is. I found plenty of that too in my hour-long interview with Lewis, during which his professional yet affable demeanor won me over. Dressed post-gym for our Skype interview in a Gucci tank top, jeans, and some light jewelry, he exuded a confident ease that matched his West Coast accent. There was no bragging, no need to assert or to prove anything. None of that neediness some Hollywood types suffer from.
Perhaps it’s because of his upbringing. Lewis spent his childhood in Hollywood, beginning with his father’s move from England work on Tim Burton’s Batman set when he was just two. His father is Philip Tan, a respected action director and stuntman originally from Singapore. Thanks to his father’s sojourns, his childhood acquaintances are an enviable list of industry giants – Peter Sellers, Roman Polanski, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg.
Photography by Victor Hugo
Growing up in the industry was training enough, Lewis decided, when he had the choice of working on Pirates of the Caribbean in the Bahamas or go to film school. That decision landed him his fondest job yet in his film career, which he now wishes to gear towards two goals: directing a feature film, and being the male dramatic lead in one.
It’s an undeniably tough target to hit, especially the latter. Asian male leads on feature films just aren’t in demand. Tilda Swinton could’ve ceded her role in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie for an actual Asian actor, and so could Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. But Lewis is optimistic, pointing out that progress has been made, albeit painfully slowly. Forest Whitaker handpicked him for a third leading role in Sacrifice, which is yet to be released. Lewis is also playing Kung Jin, a lead character in the third season of the successful Mortal Kombat: Legacy webseries. He also has his own production company, Make Love Inc, with which he employs a good number of Asian subjects for short films.
We go further into the stereotypes Asian actors face in Hollywood and elsewhere, but we also go in-depth with Lewis about his take on personal style. For the Asian guy who’s itching to get into the industry, you’ll be doing yourself a favor to read through to the end. Not only does Lewis have some valuable advice, his journey of being a model, actor, and filmmaker is certainly a lesson in itself.
HSD: How did you get into the business of Hollywood?
LEWIS TAN: Well my father originally came [to the U.S.] from England to do the Batman movie with Tim Burton. My father’s in the industry; he’s a stunt coordinator, action director. That’s how I was introduced to Hollywood. I’ve grown up on movie sets all around the world, like when my dad was working in France with Peter Sellers, and we were moving around to Asia, and back here. So that was kinda how I got into the industry.
But I was just going to school, studying theater and the arts, and when I graduated I had a choice to go to college, or to work on a movie. So I spent one day in college, and I decided that wasn’t for me. I went to work on Pirates of the Caribbean in the Bahamas.
HSD: That was an easy choice to make.
LT: Yeah, and I’ve never looked back.
HSD: Any fond childhood memories?
LT: Yeah, I have pictures of me sitting in the director’s chair, working on Spielberg’s set. Sitting in his director’s chair. My dad worked on the Temple of Doom, so I was like two years old. But then we were moving around a lot, and I was in school, so I didn’t always go with my dad when he was travelling. It’s funny because when I look back on it now… My parents have pictures of me in Barbra Streisand’s house, or on Roman Polanski’s boat, and I didn’t register it then. When I look back now, it’s like holy shit! They were doing it!
I remember being in Thailand working on Blood Sport, and I remember living on that set and just getting along with the producers and production assistants, hanging out with the directors… I guess at the time I probably was just annoying, but for me it was cool to see what they were doing. I was in with these guys! I was probably eight or nine, but I remember that clearly.
It’s a different perspective because not many people get to see that side of the camera. Usually when you graduate film school you work your way up the ladder, you don’t get to sit next to the director, to hear what he’s saying, and learn. I’ve been very blessed to have learnt from these people as I’ve gotten older. I didn’t feel like I needed to go to film school, I had a film school already.
HSD: To you, what does the entertainment industry expect of Asian males? What is considered beautiful? Are you judged against the same standards as white males?
LT: Wow, that’s a really a good question. We have a long way to go. Unfortunately, the Asian community has been very slow to progress in the eyes of the Western culture, especially in the film industry. I feel fashion is maybe a little bit better, more with the females. But if we’re talking specifically males, the progression has been really slow. We’re Asian, we have nice soft skin, we have nice hair, good cheekbones usually. But people have a long way to go looking at male beauty as something deserving of the limelight, on the cover of magazines.
HSD: Any personal experiences with photographers or designers or casting directors? Have you heard from them about what they perceive as beautiful, as marketable beauty?
LT: I’ve worked here and in Asia, and in Asia it’s very much about looking mixed. They want you to have pale skin, they mimic Western style. They love pale skin, they love the idea of being masculine but not too masculine…
HSD: Do they expect Asians to be somewhat androgynous?
LT: Yes. For me, personally, I don’t live by anybody’s standards, and I just walk off the set if I don’t like what’s going on. But I support my Asian community a thousand percent, to shine a light on what we’ve been doing that people haven’t noticed. And to answer your question, yes, I think they do feel that way.
HSD: Is there difficulty finding roles you want to be in? Important roles? You’re very handsome, but maybe it doesn’t translate to selling stuff.
LT: Extremely difficult! I’ve worked hard over the past ten years to build a name for myself, and it’s very difficult because when I get a role, they expect me to act a certain way because I’m Asian. I’ve always been the opposite. I train very hard to make sure I’m really goof at my craft, so I don’t just get a role because they like the way I look. If I do get a role for that reason, when I come on set, I always do something interesting, something different.
For instance, I just did this movie with Forest Whitaker, and I play the third lead character. The lead character is Caucasian and the other lead is black. We’re on a Southern football team, and I was the only actor to do a Southern accent in the film. But my manager advised me not to do it, because it would be more marketable to see me in my normal voice, and I can probably get more jobs after this one. But I chose to do it because Asian actors are underrepresented as far as doing something different on screen. I took that risk, I did that, and I think it paid off.
HSD: Are you going to tell us more about this movie?
LT: Yes! It’s called Sacrifice. We shot it two and a half years ago and it’s taken a long time to get it released. But it should be coming out this year, hopefully.
HSD: Are there certain expectations as to what roles Asians can play?
LT: Well, you have to know martial arts, you have to be super smart. I don’t see male leading roles for Asians. The thing is, I want to be the lead, the hero, the love interest character. I don’t want to play the fifth best friend who is a nerd. I don’t want to play the ninja, whose face you never see. I know kung fu, I’ve been doing martial arts for 15 years, and I love it. But I think there are these expectations. These are the roles they are comfortable with Asians doing. They aren’t comfortable in seeing you in lead roles – the ones I want.
HSD: Have you had to make certain decisions to impress on them that you don’t want these roles?
LT: I have! I’ve walked out of auditions. They say, hey, can you do an Asian accent? And I just stood there and went, What’s that? I don’t know what that is. I can do New York, I can do Brooklyn, Louisiana, English? I’m not going to do an Asian accent to perpetuate that stereotype.
HSD: Where do you think this trend of typecasting Asians is headed?
LT: I think you see in social media, you see people raising the question of whitewashing. It’s #whitewashedout. There’s a conversation about casting Caucasians in Asian roles. Like casting Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell as Makumoto, a Japanese character. They cast Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange as the Ancient One, where she’s supposed to be a Buddhist monk. The question is being raised, and the Asian community is starting to speak out, but it needs to be heard more. We need to talk about it more, we need to do interviews about it more, we need to be more adamant about pushing our people out there. We need to support each other.
HSD: Do you think on the practical level there needs to be more casting directors or filmmakers who are Asian?
LT: There are many levels to how we’re going to beat this battle, and those are some of the levels. But also, we need to boycott films that are disrespectful. If they did that to a black actor, make his face look Caucasian to play a Caucasian role, or if they made a white guy look a little black to play a black role, there would be an uproar. But they can do it with Ghost in the Shell with Asians. We need to boycott shows and studios that do that.
HSD: Who are some of the favourite people you’ve worked with? What were those projects about, what did you do, and why did you like it?
LT: It was nice to work with Johnny Depp on Pirates of the Caribbean. To even just watch what he does when he’s on camera, when he’s off camera. He’s a very talented actor, an inspiration to me. Watching my Dad work was very interesting too. He’s done a hundred movies and I really respect him and his opinion about things. As far as photographers go, there’s one who taught me a lot. His name is Fred Greissing. He shoots for Italian Vogue. He’s from Italy. He taught me a lot about lighting, how light works. Once I started to understand a little more about light, I think that helped my modelling career and acting career. My eye will always look at the light. At the end of the day it’s really all about the light.
HSD: Tell me more about Make Love Inc.
LT: Make Love Inc is my production company. We shoot commercials and short films, and soon to be feature films. Make Love Inc’s name is a play on society’s way of making art forms corporations. I’ve been shooting a lot of fashion and travel videos with my girlfriend. We’re coming out with an art book and a video line. I’ve worked with David Guetta, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, shooting music videos for them… I’ve also shot for different brands and fashion companies. That’s kinda the filmmaking, directing side. I cast a lot of Asians, many friends of mine who are really talented and who no one’s seen before. I would say half my projects have Asian actors.
HSD: What is the funniest or weirdest experience you had working in the entertainment industry? Any awkward propositions, or embarrassing rehearsals, shoots?
LT: Working for beauty companies… it sounds really simple, but it’s actually hilarious. Because all day you’re just putting the product on your face, maybe a hundred times. By the end of the day your skin is like, just… You’re sitting there with masks, and masks, and masks, on your face. You’re taking pictures and smiling, but deep down you just hate what you’re doing. You hate life. Your face is stiff and the skin can’t breathe and you’re smiling, pretending that you love it. There comes an awkward moment when you’re like… is this worth it?
HSD: Any embarrassing times?
LT: I won’t say embarrassing. On Rush Hour just recently, I’m in the steam room and I’m doing a fight scene in a bath towel. I’m sitting in this chair and I’m supposed to turn to look at the main actor, and I stand up and we have a fight scene together, me and him. The first take, I turn and before I could stand up the director said, cut! And the DP’s like, hey man, I have a full crotch shot in front of me. You need to adjust your angle. Ohhh, shit. Things like this happen and thank goodness they don’t use these takes…
HSD: Or you think they don’t…
LT: Oh I’m sure…
HSD: What sparked this photo shoot / collaboration with Victor Hugo?
LT: Victor’s awesome. He’s from San Francisco. He’s an amazing photographer. Young, up and coming. He has an interesting style, and he knows exactly what he wants. People say that, but it’s actually amazing to find someone who does know what they want. Nowadays you shoot on digital cameras. When I was learning from Fred Greissing, it was medium format film. In order to take the picture you really had to understand what you were doing, the concept you wanted, the fashion idea, the model’s pose, everything.
Nowadays you can roll off 2000 frames and hope to get 5 photos. But Victor is really good because he will shoot 20 frames and say I’ve got it! And I’m there saying Are you sure? And he’s moving on. He’s a younger guy, and it’s nice to see somebody with a clear vision like Victor. His style has a really interesting colour and technique to it, it’s really different from what I’ve seen before.
HSD: Did he find you, or you him?
LT: He found me through my agency. And we did an underwear shoot, a Calvin Klein thing, and he was amazing. So I said to him, if you ever wanna work together again, let’s do it. My show was coming out, the one I’m in right now, called Rush Hour, and so he hit me up to do some photos.
I think everybody should check out his work. His composition is different, and he’s going to stand out. And he’s a hustler. So that guy, he’s going to get somewhere in I’d say a year. A lot of people are going to be hearing about Victor.
HSD: Where do you see your career heading in the near future?
LT: I’m going to be the leading actor in action movies and in dramas, and I’m going to direct feature films. That’s going to be what it is in the next few years.
HSD: Anyone you wish to work with?
LT: I would love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino.
HSD: It’s high time he did something with Asians.
LT: Yes it is! He loves Asian women, so… [pause]. I think David Bellemere is a great photographer, and I know that he works mostly with women. But if he’d ever shoot a guy, maybe we can do it!
HSD: Do you have a personal mantra when it comes to work?
LT: My mantra is to make a way where there is no way. Especially for an Asian actor, you have to see the invisible, in order to achieve the impossible. That’s my second mantra.
HSD: What does “personal style” mean to you?
LT: I think style is an expression of yourself. That’s the best way to put it. It’s a personal expression. I probably change outfits two or three times a day. I go to the gym, I have meetings, I want to be comfortable… and it’s all a reflection of how I’m feeling and who I am.
HSD: Describe your personal style. Do you consider yourself a stylish man?
LT: It’s classic. I like to wear dark colors, simple, comfortable clothes. I like to have nice shoes, nice suits, nice jackets. If I’m wearing leather, it’s got to be real leather. If I’m wearing nice dress shoes, they’re going to be really nice dress shoes. I only have a few things, but the things that I have are of nice quality. Because of the comfort and the way I feel in them. I feel confident, I feel more like myself when I have some of these things. I don’t overdo it though. I don’t have a huge closet. But the stuff in my closet are all nice things.
Honestly, if you were in my house, most of the time I’m… I’m… half the time naked. Or in my underwear. Or in jeans and no shirt. That’s really my day to day style when I’m alone. No shirt in the summer, or just walking around naked. As my neighbours, I’m sure, have seen. I’m very relaxed and comfortable in my natural state.
HSD: How would you say your style developed?
LT: My mother was a model and she helped me develop my style a little bit. I think my style is mostly formed from watching films, singers… I love how Marlon Brando can make a t-shirt look iconic. I don’t like trends. I prefer to make a different path. I like it when things become iconic because of your confidence, instead of just being trendy.
HSD: What kind of guy are you, a shoe guy, watch guy?
LT: A mixture between… oh shit. Maybe I’m all three… I like watches, I like shoes, I like jackets! I like jewelry. It’s hard to find good jewelry for men. But I guess I’m a watch guy. I have a couple of nice pieces.
HSD: Guys struggle with jewelry. What is your preference for jewelry?
LT: If you’re going to go loud with jewelry, you got to balance it and be calm with the clothing. If you’re going loud with the clothing, minimal jewelry. It’s all about balance. I don’t like extremes. When it comes to fashion and style, I’m about balance. So if I wear very dark clothes and nice shoes, you might see a few rings on my fingers just to pop a little.
HSD: Any particular styles?
LT: I like heavy pieces. Silver or gold. I like interesting pieces, like this one which I had put on a gold chain. It’s a pocket knife from Japan. It’s different and when people see it on my chest they go, what is that?
HSD: Tell us about a fashion trend that you like, or are following, and a trend you simply cannot stand.
LT: I have two trends that I cannot stand. One is… I don’t like it when guys wear super skinny jeans with a long t-shirt that goes past the knees. I don’t mind skinny jeans, but if you wear those with a long t-shirt, kinda like how Justin Bieber was doing it six months ago. I don’t like that style. My other pet peeve is when people wear their boots but they unlace them and pull the lip all the way down so it’s hanging out. You know what I’m talking about??? They used to do that with skinny jeans too and it’s like, you can’t walk! It’s not practical!! It’s just an awkward thing seeing the tongue flapping all over the place when they’re walking. It’s just so odd! I can’t.
HSD: You sure this is a trend?
LT: Yes! I see it all the time!
HSD: You look great without a shirt on! Are you always in the gym? What do you do to keep trim? Do you feel lazy sometimes, and how do you get motivated?
LT: I don’t get lazy… I get tired and I fall asleep. I get sore, I get to a point where I can’t move my body. After kickboxing for two or three hours I get sore! I do MMA, I do wrestling, Japanese katana, which is a mix of gymnastics, extreme martial arts and swords. And I do regular weightlifting and cardio. I do it everyday.
HSD: One last thing. Any parting advice for the aspiring Asian male trying to break into the entertainment industry or modeling industry?
LT: Be confident, find your niche, really learn your craft. Know your cinema history and learn your craft. GO out there and be confident. And support other Asian artists!
Rush Hour started a few weeks ago on CBS Thursday nights. John Foo is playing the lead. I play one of the bad guys. The series is a full series, and my character doesn’t go all the way. I’ll let you see it for yourself..
Unless otherwise attributed, all photographs were taken from Lewis Tan’s Instagram account, which you can follow here.
Interested in Victor Hugo’s photography? Visit his website here for more of his work and his story.