The Raid star talks about his rise from martial arts champion to action movie icon.
Iko Uwais has trained in his native martial art, silat, since the age of 10. In 2007 he was discovered by Welsh director Gareth Evans, who saw something special in the unassuming Indonesian, casting him in the lead role in his 2009 film Merantau. Three years later the pair are back with their second collaboration, The Raid. Uwais visited the LWLies office back in February with Evans to chat about his rise from martial arts champion to action movie icon.
LWLies: What is it that first got you into silat and made you want to develop as a martial artist?
Uwais: I used to play football – that was my main interest as a kid. I started learning silat in 1993 alongside one of my friends, the style we chose was silat tiga berantai, which is a style from Jakarta. My master is my uncle and he does tiga berantai. When I met Gareth he was shooting a documentary, he was travelling through five different cities in Indonesia and when he came to Jakarta to film my master I met him and we ended up working together. When it comes to silat, I’m always learning – I’m still a student of my master today.
Don’t be modest about this: was it obvious that you had a gift, even as a boy? What did it take to develop your talent?
I find it a difficult process, but my philosophy is just to let it flow. It’s been a natural progress, it hasn’t felt like I’ve had to do any kind of transition from being an athlete into film work. I’ve had an attitude of just letting things flow and allowing them to progress naturally. The hard part when it comes to action films is the design process because it’s everyday trying to remember everything and practice everything but then also come up with new ideas and new ways to use silat in film.
As you continue to learn, how much better can you get? What separates you now from the master you could be down the line?
I feel that in terms of what my master knows and what I know right now, what I know is very small in comparison because I’ve only picked up a little bit of my master’s knowledge base. When it comes to silat, you’re never really done learning, you never really reach the point where you’ve learned everything you possibly can. Even my master learns from other people – he has his knowledge but he’ll learn from his brother or his grandfather. There’s so many different areas where you can branch off and learn new movements. It keeps evolving and it keeps growing. There’s never really a pinnacle.
How would you describe silat in your own words and what kind of role does it play in your life on a day-to-day basis?
It’s something that I feel I need in my life – it’s never just been a hobby or an interest. And it’s not necessarily about bring physically stronger; a lot of what I take from it is about having discipline and control over my emotions. It’s become a very important part of my life not just on a physical level but on an emotional level.
What did you think at first when this random Welsh guy calls you up and says he wants to make a film?
The first time he told me he wanted to make a movie, I didn’t trust him. I thought maybe he just wanted me to be a fighter or help with the choreography, but not be the lead actor. I had a bad experience before. When I was working at the phone company, I was looking for work and I tried my luck going to an agency, trying to get TV commercial work or something like that. I was just thinking that I’d try it and see what it’s like. But the agency I went to made me give them some money as a deposit, then they’re supposed to give it me back after I make an appearance. At the end of the day, I worked from 5am to 10pm, and they didn’t give me the money back, I didn’t get any money for it, and I thought, ‘Fuck this industry, I don’t trust anyone.’ Because of that, I just thought, ‘I’m not going to be involved in that world anymore’. I had no interest in it then.
You’ve got to be quite brave to go around ripping off martial artists.
The guy who did that to me at the agency, he found out they’d had prior dealings with me and now they’re tearing their hair out for fucking me over.
Can you pick the scene you’re most proud of and talk me through it?
My favourite scene is the fight in the corridor, which we call ‘Carry Bowo’, because I’m carrying the character of Bowo on my shoulders. I’ve picked that fight because there’s a number of moments where I… There’s a lot of different elements that make that fight scene so much harder for me. First of all, the SWAT team flackjacket is so restrictive because there’s no room for flexibility, but I have to move fast. Not only that but then I’m using two weapons that are difficult to use – the stick and the knife. Then at the same time I’ve got a guy on my shoulders as well so I have all this weight on top of me. On top of that, I’ve got these heavy military boots which I can’t kick cleanly with as they’re weighing my leg down. Then just to make matters a little bit worse, this was the first fight scene of the film and I had an injury in my knee because I’d sprained the kneecap a month before and was out for three weeks. I had 18 people to fight in the corridor, the corridor is only two metres wide, I’ve got shitty weapons, a guy on my shoulders, shitty boots and a broken knee. So it was a battle with all these things that made the scene feel so much harder.
Where does that fight scene begin? In your head? On paper? Who decides on 18 guys, two weapons, and a guy on your back?
The process is that Gareth gives us the situation, the location and the props, and the amount of people in the scene. If it’s 18 people, it’s 18 people. If it’s one on one, it’s one on one. Then we figure out the design of the room. If it’s a corridor space, when we do the practice in pre-production we’ll have a two-metre gap between the crash mats so we know what the situation is like. After we get all those different elements from Gareth in terms of how skilled the fighters are, who’s supposed to do what, who’s carrying what weapons, then we all come in and design the content of the fight – the individual blocks and punches.
The 18 guys in that scene who you’re going to destroy in various ways – how well do you have to get to know them? Are you all friends? How much say do they have in this?
Some of the people in the film we’d already worked with, but also on The Raid there were a couple of people we’d never worked with before and who I hadn’t met before pre-production started. When we meet… A lot people we hire come from a basic background in martial arts or at least a background doing films and TV so they know the score. Before we do prop choreography, before they start practicing with me, they all have a sit down and talk about our experiences and get an understanding that the whole team knows how we do things. On some of the TV shows and films on a lower budget, maybe they don’t get the same amount of time to execute a fight scene as we give them, because we’ll spend three or four days on a fight scene. They might be used to only have a day to shoot an entire episode of a TV show. One of the things for us then is that we build a level of trust when we’re practicing and when it comes to the shoot, so that when it comes to the fighting they’ll do full body contact – so take hits to the body and sometimes to the face – but they’ll take these hits and there’s no hard feelings. At the end of every take we check on each other and there’s a friendly atmosphere – ‘You got hit in the face, but are you okay…?’
When you first meet these guys, as you’re the star do they want to test you out and see why you’re the star? Do you have to prove yourself?
After the first movie, a couple of people tracked me down on the internet and challenged me to a fight. One time I was in a shopping centre and a guy tracked me down and challenged me in the car park. We had a little fight and when I kicked him, I won. But after that, we shook hands and that was it. I haven’t fought anyone since then. There was one guy in the cast, the guy with the machete, he’s the only one in all the auditions who came into the office and gave me a tough time – friendly but he didn’t hold back. He’s the one that fucked my knee up after he threw me over his shoulder.
When you’re shooting how do you channel the level of violence? Is it just a learned skill?
I find shooting action scenes much easier than drama – I’m much more comfortable doing action because it’s second nature to me. I’m more confident being able to channel that aggression level and expressions doing action than I am in the quieter moments of the drama. I swing fast with kicks and punches, but screen fighting’s a little different. It’s not really about hitting someone even when it’s full body contact, there’s a pull back moment to create snap. We call it the ‘snap back’. So when there’s a punch to the face, if the person reacts but your hand stays where it hits, it doesn’t look so good. But if your hand snaps back it looks better. You’re relying a lot on the stunt guys too. As good as I am, I need the reaction from the guys to make me look even better. It all relies on the skill sets of the action guys and the stunt fighters who are taking the hits. If they don’t sell it, it never looks good. It doesn’t matter how good I am, we need both. Otherwise it’s fucked.
How much of what’s on the page makes it on the screen and how much does it evolve on its own while you’re shooting?
Once we’ve designed the video storyboard, we ten to stick to it and keep it as rigid as possible, it’s our safety net when we make the film so we don’t tend to change anything when it comes to production. We use that as a template so we can look at it and know what happens in every shot. That’s why we do so many takes because we keep at it until we get it. Or at least, if something absolutely doesn’t work then we might try to change something. Usually if two shots have worked perfectly in the previous storyboard but they don’t edit together in the final version, that’s when we’ll add something to smooth it out. Or if we lose time and we can’t shoot everything, we might drop little bits of choreography out. So there’s a little bit of improvising but mot much really.
What difference does it make when you’re using the weapons? How does that change the rules of the game?
When it comes to the weapons, it’s a little bit different from the way we punch. Sometimes there’ll be contact with the stick to the face, but then we do things to the props in the art department to make them a bit safer. Obviously the sticks aren’t made of wood, so it stings but it doesn’t do damage. It still hurts though! With the knives, the blades will go into the handles. Sometimes with the knives we might cut the blade off and do a CG blade so it looks like it really goes in. So the guy who’s leg gets stabbed and then we rip the knife down – that was a CG blade and blood.
Being both the choreographer and the star, what difference does that make compared to just having a separate choreographer? Do you push yourself further?
There may be moments when I’ve worked with people in the past when I haven’t been in control of the choreography and because we’ve tried to create a certain style, we’re keen to hold onto the qualities I present in my choreography. So sometimes people want me to do stuff where there are too many effects – like I have to fly or throw fireballs – I don’t like that. I don’t want that because I want the choreography to work within the context of what we’re shooting. But if I’m working with someone I respect and have a lot of time for, I’m happy to have those experiences and work with other people but the one prerequisite is that I maintain my style of silat. It can’t become a different martial art that I don’t use. Silat is such a big part of my life, I want to maintain a certain degree of control over the technique but not necessarily the choreography.
What sets silat apart from the other martial arts? Particularly something like Muay Thai?
A lot of martial arts tend to have the same style – the punches can be the same, the kicks can be the same, the blocks can be the same. It’s only the packaging that’s different. With silat, there are over 200 schools in Indonesia alone and what I love about it is that it’s very specific to different parts of the culture and different regional traditions. There are certain styles of silat, like, one that is performed to music and has a cultural element to it. This one came about because during the Dutch occupation of Indonesia, the Dutch prohibited silat so one of the schools decided to camouflage the teaching of silat by using music and doing it as a dance movement, but each dance movement was a specific silat movement, so it was passing on that information to students so they could become good on silat. Then it became an artistic thing as well – it has a performance based background. There’s also a religious aspect to it as well because a lot of silat now has roots in Islam. In preparation before they pray in the mosque, they have to wash their bodies – wudu – part of that movement was the idea that when you wash your hands before prayer, that becomes some of the martial art.