Ludi Lin on the state of Asian Representation and playing the iconic role as Lu Kang in Mortal Kombat
You may recognize Ludi Lin for karate chopping Rita Repulsa as the Black Ranger in Power Rangers, or maybe you recall him jump-kicking across virtual reality in Black Mirror: Striking Vipers episode, but our conversation revealed Ludi Lin as an artist that takes his craft seriously. Ludi is patient, he is considerate, and above all else, he is a thinker.
Born in Fuzhou, China, moving to Australia, Canada, America, then back to China can do that to you. Ludi is the first to appreciate his journey. He doesn’t take the time to weigh the good against the bad; instead, he relishes the experience. He savors each lesson even if it means being picked on for his accent in Australia, or the derisive looks of disdain he received in Canada. The trials of learning a new language never set Ludi back. Instead, it empowered him to be more passionate, understanding, and selfless.
It was incredibly difficult to talk about his upcoming movie Mortal Kombat because Ludi has so many important things to say. While he shares his praise for executive producer James Wan, and director Simon McQuoid, he also takes the time to show the arcana of his character, Liu Kang, on how it is grounded in Chinese mysticism. As we dive deeper into our conversation, we learn about his zeal for Asian American rights, and the vigor he has for promoting hope and positivity.
I think at some level, we can use our imagination to make things as real as possible, but I do think that sometimes reality is so powerful and it is that way because reality is irrefutable.
The Power Rangers are a big part of some many people’s lives. What did you try to add to the character of Zack Taylor/Black Ranger when you starred in the reboot?
I wanted to add an element to an Asian American character that wasn’t the typical framework for an already established perception: he’s either already a Kungfu master, well off, or the model minority character that has been stereotyped in America. For Zack Taylor, he grew up in the trailer park, he had a sick mom to take care of, he was at the fringes of his social group and society; he had to make ends meet for himself and wanted to make his own strife into the American Dream, which is to become a YouTube superstar and make money so he could help his mom out. That’s very individualized, very American, but on the other side, similar to many Asian American kids out there, they have to struggle between two cultures. Zack speaks Mandarin with his mom at home, but he also melds in with his other friends in Power Rangers as a purely westernized Asian American. I think a lot of times, it’s difficult for people to juggle those two identities at once, and you feel like you’re being pulled apart, but what I also realized from my own experience is that you’re actually very capable of doing that, and that’s what culture does. As long as you know who you truly are at heart, it actually is not difficult to wear both hats. So that is one thing I do. When I take on a role, I usually want to put in something that I call “diamonds”—something in my heart that is true and pure, and I want to inject that into my character, and it’s usually something that hasn’t been seen before on screen.
Besides being in Netflix’s Marco Polo for a quick episode you had the distinction of being in Black Mirror: Striking Vipers. Were you a fan of the show, and what are your thoughts of virtual reality being a future destination to escape?
Comic books and video games were like my best friends growing up. I moved around from place to place, and each time it was difficult as I had to make new friends and learn the language too, but things like video games and comic books have been with me all along. I think the reason Black Mirror appeals to so many people is the idea that this thing could actually happen. In the back of our minds, I believe we are already preparing to play out the scenarios that are in the show. When I first read the Striking Vipers’ script, I was immediately taken to it because one of my favorite movies is Her with Joaquin Phoenix. It’s really about this new definition of love, not just as a virtual escape but also as something real, authentic, and whether or not love can exist between human beings as opposed to something that is not of flesh and blood. It’s funny, when I listed my favorite Black Mirror episodes, Owen Harris also directed my top two. All these episodes, including Striking Vipers, explore human love and a love for something that is not traditionally, human. It’s a really interesting topic to explore because I think many of the huge tragedies we get into now and then are usually based around the idea of dehumanization. I think people can only commit genocide if they first dehumanize someone, and an anecdote is actually to humanize and find out what love really means. These things really tickle my brain and really pull at my heartstrings.
The Ghost Bride is one the most beautiful shows that Netflix has produced. It creates a fantastical world in historical Malaysia. How did the set and costumes add to your ability to act?
That’s an interesting question. I think it adds to a lot. I don’t think our cognition and evolution have caught up to the point where we can just fully delve into our imagination and not have reality count as anything at all. For example, when I shot Aquaman, we never really got wet! The whole time we were on blue screens, and everything else was CGI. But, when I did Mortal Kombat, our director really wanted it to be physical and as little blue screen as possible. So I think at some level, we can use our imagination to make things as real as possible, but I do believe that reality is so powerful because it is irrefutable. I started learning about this in martial arts when one of my coaches told me that you are using the most honest communication possible to humans. When you are talking with fists, and it hits you, it hurts, and there is no lying about that. It is direct, and it is honest.
So, drawing back to your question about the costumes, having the set and the costumes there really brings about a strong effect for me because it is something I can touch and something I don’t need to use tools to convince myself or put extra effort into making belief. The Ghost Bride is a Malaysian story, and we shot in Malaysia, and all the costumes were authentic to that. They call it Nyonya. Nyonya culture is a Malaysian culture where the Chinese moved over from China hundreds of years ago, so it’s many, many generations. They preserved their traditional culture from ancient China and mixed in some Malaysian elements. On set, it was all there for us to delve into and study. We saw it, we breathed it, we felt it, we lived it. It was just really rich.
I was never ashamed of who I was. I was never ashamed of the way I spoke, no matter what accent it was. Though I was frustrated that people couldn’t understand me, and I think that’s why I acted out so much. That’s also why I think communication is very important. Eventually, that was one of the factors that really made me very sure that acting is worth pursuing because I think a story is the best way to communicate with many people.
Mortal Kombat is a blockbuster video game, and the first film in 1995 was a hit with fans all over the world. It was responsible for several sequels and other projects. Why is this the time for a re-make?
I don’t only think this is the time. I think we are really overdue for a remake of Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat was very inspirational for me. In the video game, the characters are so diverse, and I love that there’s a super powerful Chinese guy, Liu Kang. When the film came out in 1995, it was inspirational not just to Asian actors but also to many Asians because it lets them know that they can be the hero of their own story. Robin Shou did such an excellent job at it. I actually saw the original film when it came out and didn’t see it again until months after we wrapped filming, and then I had the chance to speak to Robin. It’s bittersweet that we had to wait 25 years, or something like that, for us to see a film so diverse and that shows Asians in such interesting and nuanced ways. I’m used to walking on set and being the single token Asian, and I know that they cast me just because they needed to feature an Asian. I worked very hard to find ways to break out of that box and show off some part of my culture that hasn’t been seen before and familiarize people with Asian culture, so we are not known just as “exotic foreigners.” But, for Mortal Kombat, I walked on to set, and there’s Hiroyuki Sanada from Japan, Lewis Tan from London, Max Huang, who plays Kung Lao whose mother is German, and his father is Indonesian-Chinese, so it’s such a broad spectrum of different Asian people—and that’s the reality of the world. We represent 60% of the world, and we are not just one box. We are very diverse and nuanced even within ourselves.
James Wan is known for his incredible horror movies. What elements does he bring to the new Mortal Kombat?
James is known for his horror films, but he is also known for making extraordinarily successful films. He is kind of like that. He’s nuanced in every single category. He’s done Fast and Furious 7 and Aquaman, both of which broke a billion dollars in the box office, and his horror series are tiny but scary as hell! I think the one thing James and our director, Simon, really agreed on was that things should be as authentic as possible. So we had a lot of discussions, and Simon is the kind of director who trusts the actors to bring their backgrounds and contribute as an artist to the final story. He trusts us to bring about these things and trusts that we know the character way better than him in some respect. For example, I really wanted several things to be shown in Liu Kang, as a monk, and as a healer. I wanted to do some traditional Chinese medicine, which was interesting, but it was difficult because the person I was doing it with was deathly afraid of needles! I learned this in China, so I had to prove that by poking myself tens of times to make sure it was safe. Of course, none of this would have happened without someone like Simon at the helm, who is so open to suggestions and ideas, and someone who is such a champion of Asian artists like James Wan.
Were there any physical aspects of his signature moves that required additional training?
There was actually! But I felt it was more mental than anything! We were bringing in this idea of the arcana into the Mortal Kombat universe, which had never been shown before. What arcana means is that you are in a power that you have to discover. Arcana means mystery, but more of discovering your inner mystery. For Liu Kang, his arcana comes from the ancient Chinese idea of “Chi.” All the moves are about flow, and everything is circular with Yin and Yang, which is the whole dynamic between Liu Kang and Kung Lao, who is his brother in arms and the closest person he grew up with. Also, the fact that he’s got a very tragic past, the arcana really comes from deep within his heart. It’s fire, but also it illuminates the darkness within him, so how to bring about that is a lot of mental work. I just had to get into 100% tip-top shape for the physical aspect. I am vegan, which also helped a lot. I really feel like I am at my peak performance at all times, and I feel great.
Melanie Neufeld/Lizbell Agency
Like many English-speaking Asians, your path to Hollywood was not straight and easy. You went through Australia and Canada before landing a spot in Los Angeles. Can you tell us about your journey and some of the important lessons you learned?
One of the lessons I learned is that you have to take things one step at a time and enjoy those steps no matter how difficult they are. In Chinese, they always say màn màn lái, which means take things slowly. When I went back to Beijing for work, everyone was saying “màn màn lái, màn màn lái,” and I didn’t understand that! When I looked around, everyone was hurrying around like chickens with their heads cut off or like little ants crawling around the place, doing all these multi-various tasks, and I am going “why are you telling me to màn màn lái, while you guys are zipping at 200 miles per hour?!” Eventually, I learned the meaning behind those words: things will happen on their own time, and impatience will not speed it up no matter what you do. I even turned it into this phrase for myself. I call it: you have to love the way you suck. If you love how you suck and enjoy that process of sucking, I think disappointment will have great value. As long as you don’t give in to fear, you can turn that disappointment into something productive. If you love the disappointment and trust yourself that you will improve, eventually, I think you will meet your idea of success.
You have been very outspoken about Asian rights. Did you face any racism while you were in Australia and Canada, and how did you deal with it?
I faced every form of racism every day while I was moving around. I faced as much as I fought, which is very often. I think everyone has this idea of an ingroup and an outgroup. If you can play together, you are an ingroup, and if you don’t know the rules of the game, you are out. Someone said the color of the skin is one of the criteria of being an ingroup, and that’s what was taught. It’s not a lesson we were born with. It’s due to prejudice, and an innate misunderstanding of what being a human being is and what we should strive for.
I didn’t quite understand that, so I would always stand up for myself and try to disprove that, and I usually end up getting beaten up because I was vastly outnumbered. But, I was never one to silence myself. My Chinese name is Lin Lu Di, my English name is Ludi, so I was never ashamed of my name. Growing up, I spoke with a Chinese accent and learned Australian-English and then Canadian-American English, and now I codeswitch a lot.
But, I was never ashamed of who I was. I was never ashamed of the way I spoke, no matter what accent it was. Though I was frustrated that people couldn’t understand me, and I think that’s why I acted out so much. That’s also why I think communication is very important. Eventually, that was one of the factors that really made me very sure that acting is worth pursuing because I think a story is the best way to communicate with many people.
Imagine that COVID is gone, and you can travel anywhere in the world. No quarantine. Where is your first stop, and why?
I have been fortunate enough to travel a bit during COVID. We had to go back to Australia to finish Mortal Kombat during the pandemic. I remember right after college, my acting coach told me to travel because I had done too much school, and I needed to learn from the school of hard knocks, which is life. So, I backpacked for two years. Those were some of the freest times I have ever had. I learned a lot through those journeys, but right now, I am lucky to be working in Vancouver on the TV series Kung Fu. You don’t know how much thankfulness and gratitude I feel for where I am right now. I realized many people were out of jobs, and a lot of businesses have been upended by this pandemic. I think, even after the pandemic, I just have to embrace my work, because I really love it! I really think vacations are boring as HECK.
I am looking forward to going back to Asia to do some work there because there are so many stories in Asia to uncover. It’s like a cornucopia, a treasure trove of stories, and the way they tell stories is different from Hollywood. This helps me to get different doses of inspiration from all over the place. So yeah, I am looking forward to traveling and working… anywhere really! Malaysia, Indonesia, China… wherever things take me.