Ask anyone who knows Joe Taslim and they will almost all agree on two things: 1) He’s an absolutely legitimate badass, and 2) he’s one of the sweetest, kindest people you will ever meet. It would seem like those two things aren’t necessarily congruent, but the Warrior and Mortal Kombat star is amazing enough to be both.
In all the interviews that I’ve done with various members of the truly incredible and talented Warrior cast, I often asked the question of who among them stands out as the best martial artist. Without fail, every single cast member said Joe Taslim. And if you watched Taslim’s breathtaking performance in the 5th episode of the season, you know why so many are in awe of his abilities.
Given all that, I have to admit that I was intimidated prior to speaking with Taslim. I was already a fan of his from The Raid, and his performance as Li Yong in Warrior over the last two seasons has been fantastic. Fortunately, I found Taslim to be not only affable and talkative, but genuinely humble and…yes…sweet.
Heading into the season 2 finale of Cinemax’s Warrior tonight, below is my interview with Joe Taslim. Both seasons of Warrior will be airing on HBO Max beginning in January. The show has not yet been renewed, and with Cinemax no longer producing scripted shows, Warrior is in limbo. Please be sure to support this important show on HBO Max and send the message that we need more seasons!
This interview has been edited for clarity.
POCCulture: How have you been in there during these difficult times?
Joe Taslim: So far so good. I really hope that we can endure this until whatever this crazy thing going on disappears. I hope before Christmas we can hug each other! That’s probably too much hope but you don’t know for sure. Maybe this thing will disappear one day!
POCCulture: We have to have hope! Going back to the beginning, I know you worked with Justin Lin previously on a few films, how did you get the role of Li Yong in Warrior?
Joe Taslim: Back in 2013, I was in Vancouver shooting Star Trek: Beyond with Justin. He brought up that he was developing this show called Warrior and it would be great if we could work together again and I could be part of it. I love Justin so much and I trust him so much so I told him any time. If you think there’s something for me there and you trust me enough, I could contribute the best I can, then I’m in. I’m on board. Justin is the first person to introduce me to the global market so I owe him my career, but at the same time I know that he always believes in great creativity and great stories to tell. And Warrior is so special because it’s Bruce Lee’s vision. So for me, it’s as simple as that. A handshake was enough for me to be part of it. It’s something that I think every Asian actor wants to be part of, because it’s so important for Bruce Lee’s vision to be conveyed to the world.
POCCulture: What’s it like working with Justin? He’s such an amazing director and what do you like best about working with him?
Joe Taslim: Justin watched The Raid and he said “When I saw you in The Raid, I know for sure I need to work with this guy,” and I said “Are you sure? I think you probably got me mixed up with someone else?” And he said “No, no, I want to work with you!” Justin is the kind of person who, outside of his amazing creative vision and great directing, he’s the kind of person who believes that movie is not just a business, not just a career, not just Hollywood mumbo jumbo…Justin believes in family. That’s why I will always respect him. In order to create something special, you need to believe in the people you are working with. You need to unite and bond with them. Justin’s angle is always that you need to be part of the family. Not just you need to be part of the job or the show. That’s why I will always trust him and any time he wants me, of course, who doesn’t want to work with him? He’s very special.
POCCulture: I think that shows in his work and your work too. So when you learned about Li Yong and Warrior, what excited you about the character?
Joe Taslim: What I love about Li Yong, especially in season 2…season 1 is the introduction of the character. He’s so badass in season 1, but we didn’t get to see more about his personality and his arc towards the other characters. In season 2, what I love and what I’m thankful for towards all the writers and [Executive Producer] Jonathan Tropper, the creator of the show, is that they gave more personality to Li Yong. They gave him more of an arc. Season 2 is so special to me as an actor that I could play a character that’s so badass, that could deliver such cool fight scenes, but at the same time he’s human. He cares. He has doubts and he contemplates. That’s the thing that as an actor, you want to have that balance. You want to have a character that isn’t just cool and badass, but that he’s human on screen. So season 2 is special to me and for Li Yong and I hope the fans dig it as well. Fans are going to see more. They’re going to see more layers about him and his relationship with Mai Ling.
POCCulture: I love that because we want to see more Asian characters who are layered. Because in western media, we get so many Asian characters who are stereotypes.
You talked about Mai Ling. I spoke with Dianne Doan and she said that she loves you so much and that she couldn’t do these scenes with anyone else but you. She said you both have a lot of trust and respect for each other. How much do you like working with Dianne and how do you have such great chemistry with her?
Joe Taslim: My approach in acting, working with different actors and different productions, it’s like Justin, if I cannot be family with them, I open myself up as much as I can. I need them to trust me. And in turn I give everything to trust them. That’s the only way we can work together and create something special. Dianne is amazing! Great personality and amazing human being. She’s very talented. Day 1, we met in a lounge for introductions. First time I saw her, I definitely noticed that it’s going to be easy working with her. Because her personality…she opens herself up for someone who interacts with her. She has the same angle in performing arts, that trust is the most important thing. So I didn’t have any issues bonding with her. In season 1 we had this “special scene,” which was my first time and her first time as well. I thought it was going to be really awkward. I was so nervous and she was so nervous. But because the trust is there, it’s just like action scenes, before you do the fight scenes with your co-actor, you have to trust them. You need to trust that they’re not going to hit you for real and you know you’re not going to hit them. So that trust is the same in love scenes. You know for sure that you’re going to respect her on the highest level and she’s going to respect me. So that energy translates on set and on screen. She’s amazing. I don’t know how far this show is going to go, because we don’t know if it’s going to continue or not, but no questions, if I have to work with the same family again, with Dianne and everybody, the answer is always “yes!”
POCCulture: We hope we get many more seasons of Warrior. It’s an amazing show. Dianne talked about how she thought it was really hard to play Li Yong because of the physical acting and acting without words. She praised your presence, posture and expressions. Is that something that comes naturally to you or have you had to work on non-speech acting?
Joe Taslim: When I read the script I knew that there weren’t a lot of verbal deliveries for Li Yong. So as an actor, you know you don’t have that screen time. When you have lines, you know you have more screen time. If you don’t have lines, it means you have to give more. As an actor, you know for sure, “What can I give in this scene when I don’t have anything to say? What is my motivation? What is my purpose in this scene? Why am I here?” So that’s the thing I have to start with. Because my character is mostly related to Mai Ling, my character always reacts towards her. Whatever she does, I have to react, even if I don’t say anything. Because otherwise, it’s like a puppet, I’m there for no reason. My homework for the character was that whatever Dianne said, I listen to it and I have to give something…an energy…maybe the way I look, move or walk, it needs to be clear that he understands what she’s saying. And he respects her so much and supports her in so many ways. He’s always there for her. That’s the motivation for Li Yong that I need to convey to the audience. I did my homework and I tried to be part of the conversation, and at the same time, deliver that energy so the audience can see that I’m there. It’s something that’s hard to describe but easier to just perform it! [Laughing.]
POCCulture: You’re doing a great job explaining it and it’s fascinating to hear your thought process because your presence on screen is always impactful. Another actor you work with a lot is Andrew Koji. I spoke with him too and he said not only does he love you so much, but he said his mom loves you! [Laughing.]
Joe Taslim: I love his mom too! [Laughing.] We had a good time for two seasons!
POCCulture: You talked about the trust of doing fight scenes. How did you develop that trust with Andrew Koji or anyone and what’s the process of putting together those intense fight scenes?
Joe Taslim: Well it’s psychological man. We meet different people from different countries and different cultures. There are a lot of differences for sure. For me, I believe that if I open first, I don’t have to wait for somebody to open to me. I don’t care if they like me, but I know for sure that if I have to work with this guy, I need to open up myself like a football field. They need to know they can play in my world. Any time, anything, they just can do it, and we can discuss it from there. So starting from there, it’s easier to work with. Whether it’s a dramatic scene or a fight scene, when your co-actor knows that you don’t have any bad energy. Andrew is special. He’s my best friend. We Zoom a lot, sometimes twice a week during the pandemic.
POCCulture: You’re already an incredibly accomplished martial artist, and of course you’ve had amazing fight scenes in films like The Raid. On Warrior, many people praise the incredible stunt team led by Brett Chan. How did that team make you even better?
Joe Taslim: Oh definitely. They help me a lot with this character. I’m so lucky. I was so lucky working with the Warrior cast and crew. Most productions, once the production is done, the relationship is done. But the Warrior team, we still Zoom, we still email each other, we still WhatsApp each other until now. What’s special about Brett Chan is that it’s not about hierarchy, because he’s the action director or the choreographer. He cares about the actors. Every time he presents new choreography, the first thing he asks is, “Do you like it? If not, I will change it.” It’s not about pushing what he wants. He wants to know if we’re happy. If we’re not happy, he’s going to change it. So that energy comforts the actors, so we know we can depend on him. So Brett Chan…he’s special. He’s always in the Zoom with me with Koji! [Laughing.} We became brothers since the first season. Because we’re so bonded together, sometimes [during a fight scene] we’ll just yell out, “Let him punch me more! I think his character needs to be stronger in this part.” So rather than trying to stand out or steal the spotlight, we’d rather give the spotlight. So that’s the special thing about this relationship. So that’s why I said I’m so grateful that I could be part of this family. Again, family, not a show or a project. This is the family that I hope we could go far. Maybe another five seasons! [Laughing.]
POCCulture: Yes we need that! You’re one of the most famous and visible actors from Indonesia and Southeast Asia. How important is it for you to represent that community? We don’t get a lot of Southeast Asians in western media so how important is that to you?
Joe Taslim: It’s very important man. It’s great that I could represent the region. Not just Indonesia, but Southeast Asia. From a creative and artistic way, I want to represent the Southeast Asians and show the world that we have talented people, so hopefully more actors from Southeast Asia get hired and can play on a global level. But more than that, it’s the responsibility. Southeast Asia is a big market. Indonesia is #4 in the world in terms of population. So for decades we were just the watchers. It’s very rare for Indonesian/Southeast Asian representation in terms of acting that could represent the region. So now I can tell my people that we’re no longer watchers. That’s why we have to support the business, support movies. A lot of us now, we’re in the game. We represent you guys. I think it helps the movie industry on so many levels. More regions reached means more people are going to watch the movies and appreciate the arts. And talking about global, it’s more beautiful. You know, “Okay this is a Southeast Asian actor, oh which country? Jakarta? Oh I know Bali.” So people know the world more from art. People want to visit Thailand because they watched Thai movies. They see some Indonesian guys on Star Trek and Star Wars…people want to travel more. I’m proud and honored and I hope I can represent more and I hope other actors from Southeast Asia can play on a global level. That’s my dream. So more diversity for sure.
POCCulture: Joe, that’s a beautiful answer. You’ve been part of some of the biggest franchises in the world. You’re going to be Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat, one of the most iconic video game characters ever. How excited were you to play that character and what did you bring to that character?
Joe Taslim: Oh man…I don’t want to be a marketing man, but Mortal Kombat is a movie…I sound like I’m selling something! [Laughing.] Mortal Kombat is so special for me. I can’t really say, but if you watch the movie next year, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s so special to me as an actor and as a human being, because playing a very legendary character, and I’ve been a huge fan of that character since I was a kid, so this is quite a dream for me. So when they offered me Mortal Kombat and Sub-Zero, I was like, “Whoa dreams do come true!” [Laughing.] And for a person like me who was born in South Sumatra, very limited situation financially, it’s just impossible when I thought about it. This kid, who goes to his friend because he doesn’t have Super Nintendo because he was so poor, he needs to go to his richer friend and play only 5-10 minutes, and now I’m playing the character. It’s just huge for me. And in an artistic way, the movie itself is so elegant, the action itself is so amazing. It’s going to do justice to the fans but also going to introduce the MK world to non-fans. I think the movie is going to be very special. I’m not trying to sell anything! I’m pretty good selling stuff! [Laughing.]
POCCulture: Thank you so much for your amazing words and thoughtfulness. Thank you for all that you do.
Joe Taslim: Thank you so much. This was fun!
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.