Indonesian Action Star Iko Uwais from Wu Assassins Shares His Inspirational Rise To The Top

The action star talks about his rise from Average Joe to one of the most sought after action stars in Southeast Asia

By Hanan Haddad 16 Sep, 2019 8:36 AMTags
Iko Uwais, Wu AssassinsCourtesy of Netflix

36-year-old Indonesian action star Iko Uwais has been making waves beyond Southeast Asia with his heart-stopping action films that have garnered quite the cult following.

In particular, his first foray into the film industry, the Indonesian martial arts film titled Merantau earned him legions of new fans as well as the respect of professionals in the film industry. 

Since then, Uwais has been pushing the boundaries of action sequences with complex martial arts choreographed sequences that not only look brutally realistic, but also sets his audience's hearts racing.

Born in Jakarta, Uwais was an average salaryman, working as a driver for a local telecommunication company. Though he was skilled in silat, taking after his grandfather who was a renowned silat master, he did not think to pursue it until he met director Gareth Evans in 2007. 

While filming a documentary on silat, Evans decided to cast Uwais as his lead for the film, Merantau and the rest, as they say, is history. 

This year, Uwais starred in his first television series, the Netflix original Wu Assassins. He was not only the star, but also the producer of the show, which follows the story of Kai Jin, a chef working in San Francisco's Chinatown. Through a series of events, Kai Jin reluctantly becomes a Wu Assassin who was tasked to retrieve five deadly ancient powers known as Wu Xing. Little did he know that he would have to fight against villains who were pursuing Wu Xing in order to attain world domination. 

E! Asia sat down with the action star for an intimate chat about his inspiring story, unbelievable stunts and first time producing a television series. 

Courtesy of Netflix

You have worn many hats, from being the star to the stunt choreographer. However, in Netflix's Wu Assassins, you also have taken on the role of a producer. How was that like for you? What was your vision for Wu Assassins as a producer?

As a producer, my vision was to incorporate all the styles of my previous works. Particularly in terms of the fighting style used in Wu Assassins, I wanted to deliver a vision that is brand new for the audience when it came to the fight sequences and camera angles. My aim was to showcase the fights as if it were a dance, so I focused a lot on long shots with minimal cuts. As a result, the audience is able to immerse themselves in the dynamic nature of the fight choreography.

Tell us about your incredible journey from working in an Indonesian telecom company to now starring in action films and Wu Assassins.

Yeah, it's crazy! Previously, I worked as a driver for a telcom company in Indonesia. I worked there for two years before meeting an English director named Gareth Evans. He discovered me while he was filming a documentary about silat and things just took off from there. He was the guy who cast me in my first film, Merantau. And when that gained success, we decided to film The Raid and then its sequel.

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Who is your biggest inspiration as an Asian action star? 

I deeply respect Jackie Chan. Gareth actually gave me a few film references before we began filming movies. He gave me a bunch of Jackie Chan films such as Police Story, Project A and Armour of God. These films were great sources of inspiration for me as they effectively utilised a long shot action sequence. Every frame is active and all the elements are engaged and timed perfectly. 

Your new series Wu Assassins, is currently airing on Netflix, and has so many incredible stunts that you had a hand in choreographing. What is your most memorable action scene?

The hardest ones come in episode 9 and 10! The fight scenes there were complex as it involved many people. I flew in my team of stuntmen from Indonesia because chemistry is important when filming a fight. We've worked together for so long that we are all in the same wavelength. So I told them my vision for the scene and we came up with the fight choreography on the spot, that day itself.

In the show, Kai Jin has supernatural abilities based around elements such as fire, earth, etc. If you could pick one supernatural power, which element would it be and why?

Hmm, I don't think there is just one. Personally, I feel like all humans possesses two elements — fire and water. So there is an element to ignite passion and an element to put out the flames when it gets out of control. Humans have better control when these two elements are balanced and in harmony.

Your grandfather was a renowned silat master in Indonesia. Was he a huge catalyst for your passion for the martial arts?

Yes, that's right. Actually, I've been learning silat since I was 10. I always saw my friends wearing their silat uniforms and I was attracted to the discipline and art. Though my foundation in martial arts is from silat, I think fundamentally I was attracted to the ability to defend myself. That led me to my love for martial arts.

Silat also became my window to the world as I travelled a lot when I was representing my country in various international competitions. It broadened my view a lot.

You have an incredible physique. What is your workout routine like and how many times a week do you work out? 

I gym a minimum of three times a week. But in between, I meet with my stunt team and I choreograph new moves as well as practise with them. So, in a sense, we work out together too. I always try to push the boundaries of an action scene, that means, it takes many practise sessions. That's probably where I get work out the most.

Are there any other genres in film that you would like to explore besides action? Will we see Iko in a rom-com one day?

I think I still have plenty areas in the genre of action that I have yet to explore so, I don't think I'll be venturing into new territories soon.

Watch Iko Uwais on Wu Assassins, currently available on Netflix.