It’s kind of intimidating to talk to the stars of a martial arts film. You’re always sure that if you ask the wrong questions they will get very angry and look like they’re about half a step away from snapping your neck in half. Granted, I’ve never actually interviewed anyone from a martial arts heavy film like The Raid: Redemption, but the stars of this Indonesian action epic Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim are easily some of the sweetest and humblest people on the planet.
Both extremely polite, they come to director Gareth Evans action epic from different fighting backgrounds. Iko, who previously worked with Evans on both a documentary and his first feature Merantau, is a master of the film’s primary mode of ass kicking, Silat. Joe, on the other hand, is a professional actor who just also happens to be an accomplished Judo master. In this film, they play two of the primary officers in a group of SWAT members trapped inside a building full of criminal scum that want them dead at any cost. Both get ample chance to show off their considerable talents… or simply pick up a gun or knife and just waste someone that way instead. Because, you know, that’s how it would really go down.
Dork Shelf talked to Iko and Joe back during the Toronto International Film Festival about their fighting styles and what sets The Raid: Redemption apart from other films in its genre.
Dork Shelf: How long have you been practicing martial arts?
Joe Taslim: Before becoming an actor I was an athlete. I started Judo in Jr. High, it’s been around 16 years now. I’m still doing the local competitions but I quit the national team in 2009. In 2010 I met Gareth, so I applied myself to that project because I’m a big fan of what he and Iko accomplished with Merantau, so I thought that I really wanted to get into films, really wanted to become an actor. I approached Gareth, introduced myself.
Iko Uwais: In 1993, I started learning Pencak Silat and still learning till now. There was about three months before production of The Raid where I made sure to learn some more fighting techniques.
DS: Did you ever think that your skills in martial arts would be applied to the context of a film? Were you fans of martial arts films?
JT: When I began learning martial arts, I had never thought of being an actor. It was just a passion. And it wasn’t just something for me to be tough with or ‘kick somebody’s ass’; not like that. My dad was also my coach, and he told me that if you want to be an athlete just, “do something for your country.” Asian games, Olympic Games, something like that. That was the priority, the main purpose to begin martial arts. Years go by, I begin watching these films and I really like them. I like Jet Li, I even like Tony Jaa. I watched our local hero here, Iko in Merantau. We in Indonesia, we have the talent and with this we have the chance to show off to the world. I joined The Raid and I started brushing up on Silat with Iko and his partner. I was not a Silat guy, I was a Judo player. Even with this choreography, made by Silat player, I still had the chance to show off my capability as a Judo player. We planned together, discussed, planted things into the choreography, things that I could show myself. So if you see The Raid, it’s going to be different than Merantau. It’s going to be more universal.
IU: I never thought about being an actor. I had been playing football for most of my life instead, and I’m still more interested in playing football, actually. I was playing until 2003, I changed direction, concentrated more in Silat and have been winning championships ever since. I’ve worked to introduce the sport to different countries. That was how I eventually met Gareth. Gareth went to make a documentary about Silat and eventually made it to my club.
DS: This is your second film with Gareth, so how important is trust in these kinds of projects? Was there anything noticeably different this time around?
IU: For Merantau, it was the first time we worked together. It felt like gambling, creating that movie. For this film, we were a lot more focused. We concentrated on making a Silat movie that we could export to other countries. The working relationship remained the same, however, between the two movies.
DS: Were you excited about joining the cast?
JT: Yeah, of course. It wasn’t easy to blend. In Judo, you don’t punch, you don’t kick. It’s grappling, wrestling, arm blocks, moves like that. But doing the workshops, with Iko and his partner Yayan Ruhian, I could learn how to evade, how to respond when I get kicked, a lot of new things for me.
DS: Were either of you surprised with how these skills converted when using them in film?
JT: Yes. In the competitions we focus on ourselves, we focus on winning. We defend the club. We defend the country. Win no matter what. But in the movie, you have to sync with the camera, sync with the story and most of all sync with the other actors. It’s not about ‘me’ anymore. It’s about the film, it’s about the fight. Even with just the fight, there’s drama inside. The purpose of each fight must be shown through expression. In a movie there’s so many things to consider.
IU It’s different. So in real life you can move however you want, but in movies it needs to be controlled by a choreography, a very specific choreography.
DS: This film is very brutal (Iko and Joe laugh) and violent, were either of you surprised by any of that?
JT: Oh yeah.
IU: Gareth had the ideas, and he says just start stabbing somebody. But how to do it? I was doing choreography, I was given the opportunity to ‘create’ that.
DS: Were any fights or stunts more demanding than others?
IU: The fight on top of the table in the drug lab, and the last scene where it was the three of us, two against one.
JT: Yeah, that final fight. Though, otherwise, the drama more than just the fighting. The drama and the fight, they both flow into each other. There’s drama first, then intense drama in the fight. I have to get into the drama, 100%, because the reason why a fight goes on in the movie is that there is drama. When I fight, when we do that on camera, I have to focus on choreography, but if I got the drama, the reason why we’re fighting, then it will be all there. The chemistry, the expression, it will all be there. If I get the drama, I get the fight scene.
DS: Was having this more brutal tone liberating to the fight choreography?
IU: In Merantau, there was a specific tradition on how to do the choreography. That all came from Western Sumatra. In this movie, it’s more universal movement. Some Silat style, but it didn’t need to bring the tradition into it. I could generally move however I wanted. Gareth gave me all the freedom that I wanted to plan the fights.
DS: What is film culture like in Indonesia?
JT: In our country, actually, doing action is against the flow. In our country, action movies are very risky to make. They are more likely to consider making a drama or a comedy. Even horror. With action, the budget doubles. It needs more of everything. There is very little action. This year, The Raid is really the only martial arts movie. The others might just have, say, one to three fights.
DS: Do you think this will make The Raid stand out?
JT: We hope so. We hope so. In Toronto for Midnight Madness, the reaction has been really great. Hopefully they’ll be just as in to it when we open in Jakarta.