'Mile 22' Star Iko Uwais on Crossing Over to Hollywood, Indonesian Martial Arts and 'Star Wars'

The Indonesian martial artist, who got his big break in cult hit 'The Raid,' is fast establishing himself as the next big action star from Asia.
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Iko Uwais

Iko Uwais burst onto the scene in 2011's The Raid, the high-octane Indonesian action film directed by Gareth Huw Evans that wowed the critics, gained a cult following and spawned an equally lauded sequel.  

With icons Jet Li and Jackie Chan on the wrong side of 50, Uwais, famed for his frenetic fight style, has been tipped to take over and establish himself as the pre-eminent Asian action hero. His star has risen so fast, Hollywood has already come knocking, with an integral role in Peter Berg's Mile 22, currently playing in theaters, and even a cameo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens alongside his Raid co-stars Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahma

In Mile 22, Urwais plays Li Noor, an intelligence asset at the center of a terrorist plot. Starring opposite Mark Wahlberg, Ronda Rousey and John Malkovich, Uwais gets to show off some of his trademark high energy and brutal martial arts prowess onscreen. 

With a slew of projects coming up, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Uwais about crossing over to Hollywood, that curious Star Wars cameo, the nuances of Indonesian martial arts and whether he will work with Evans again. 

How did your role in Mile 22 come about? Who approached you? 

[Peter Berg] really wanted to work with me. He watched my movie The Raid, and suddenly I had an invitation from Pete. Straight away, he invited me to work with him and talk with him about a feature project. Mile 22 is my first "Western" movie, but I'm not the lead actor — the main actors are Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan and me. So it's my first big project, yeah.  

The Raid was your breakout role. Is it still your proudest achievement as an actor? 

My first movie was Merantau, but The Raid is the biggest one in the U.S. That's the film that got Pete's attention, so it's all about The Raid, everything comes from The Raid

You've done three films with The Raid director Gareth Huw Evans. Will you work with him again? 

Gareth lives in Wales now, right?

I think so, I'm Welsh too actually... 

Oh, really? That's why your accent is similar to his. I think I have to trust [that we will work together in the future]. We're both so busy right now. Gareth's doing [Apostle] in the U.K. and I'm working with Netflix right now on Wu Assassins. 

Could you tell us about Wu Assassins

I will be the lead in this Netflix series and I created it. It's got action, crime and drama. It's set in San Francisco. My character's name is Kai Jin, but sorry, I can't tell you any more about it. We are doing the preparation now in Vancouver. 

OK, let's talk about your fighting style. For people who don't know, could you briefly explain what is Indonesian martial arts? 

Martial arts from Indonesia is called pencak silat. Silat [exists all over Asia], but pencak silat is traditional to Indonesia. Basically, everything is the same, just the character is different. It's hard to explain; we have really powerful punches and kicks, but it feels more like a dance. It's rhythmical and you can play music to it. It's fun to choreograph onscreen. When I choreograph a fight scene, I create a set program for each actor. It doesn't matter if that actor's style is karate or capoeira or kung fu, we can adapt for his style. 

Do you still do the fight choreography in your films? 

Stuber's coming out soon. It has Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjani, I did the choreography in that. On Triple Threat, I worked with [fight choreographer] Tim Man. He's a really good guy because he trusts me with the action stuff. Triple Threat has Tiger Chen, Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White and Michael Bisping. It was like a family working on that film, as we worked together for two months. It's easier to do fight scenes with them as they have the basics, they are professional fighters. 

You're known for action movies, but a lot of people may also know you from a cameo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. What was that like? Were you a Star Wars fan? 

It was fun, a new experience for me. It's another big project as well with a big name director like J.J. Abrams. It didn't take too long to shoot. Just three weeks. I didn't grow up with Star Wars, but I knew it was a big franchise from America. I'm not really a sci-fi lover. People recognize me from Star Wars, but more so because of The Raid

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.