James Lew is living the dream of kung-fu-crazed kids everywhere, parlaying his childhood obsession with martial arts classics into an on-and-off camera career as an actor and stunt performer in such movies and TV shows as Big Trouble in Little China, Alias, and the Rush Hour franchise. With that background, you might expect that his first stunt gig in the Marvel universe would be on the kung-fu-flavored Iron Fist. Instead, Netflix and Marvel tapped Lew to be the stunt coordinator on the first season of Luke Cage, starring Mike Colter as the titular hero for hire. “I first met with Marvel for the first season of Daredevil, when they were just kicking all of this off,” Lew tells Yahoo TV. The timing wasn’t right for that opportunity (although he had a small role in Daredevil‘s first year), but the stars aligned for Luke Cage.
And, as it turned out, this show and character also correspond to his youth. “I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, so doing a show with a black superhero really hit home for me. It was very important, just being with people of color. Normally, you’d see a Chinese-American coordinator get a kung fu show, and this was a little removed from that. It felt like a good change for me,” he says. The change did Lew good in another way: he’s received his first Emmy nomination as a stunt coordinator for his work plotting out the bruising battles seen throughout Luke Cage‘s freshman solo adventure. Over the course of our conversation, Lew shared the secrets of his hybrid fighting style “smack fu,” shared an exclusive image from his alternate ending for the final fight between Luke and his half-brother Willis Stryker a.k.a. Diamondback (Erik LeRay Harvey), and spoke about why the recent death of Walking Dead stuntman John Bernecker hit him especially hard.
Mike Colter has described your approach for Luke Cage‘s action sequences as “smack fu.” Can you define that for us?
That’s me, always trying to squeeze in my kung fu-ness. When I spoke with the showrunner [Cheo Hodari Coker] and the Marvel executives, I told them that if Luke Cage actually punches somebody in the face, that person’s head should literally be gone. That’s the kind of power he has. So I told them we should try to do it as a kung-fu soft-style technique, where you’re doing less-harmful attacks and defenses, but you’re still getting rid of your opponent. And “smack fu” sounded better than “punch fu” or “crush his skull.” [Laughs] As the show progresses to where he finally gets to fight a supervillain that can take the punishment, I used a kung fu style called Hung Gar that uses the fist and forearms to give it a little flavor instead of just regular street fighting.
What kind of training regimen did you put Colter through for the show?
In the very beginning we tried to get together and train, but once the show started, he was in almost every scene. And he had just had a baby girl, so on weekends, he usually flew back to Los Angeles. So rehearsal time was very limited. I would try to be on set and squeeze in one or two minutes here and there to go through the choreography. They really wanted us to be seeing him do the action, because that’s what sells it. For the bigger stuff where he’s getting tossed, we used a stunt double because we don’t want him to get a bruised rib or a scratch on his pretty face. Mike is a dream actor to work with. He is Luke Cage: 235 pounds, 6’3″ and just solid.
Let’s go to the first big fight sequence in the third episode, “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” Just like the famous hallway battle in Daredevil‘s first season, this is the statement-of-purpose fight announcing the kind of action we can expect to see going forward. What did you want the audience to feel throughout that sequence?
Everybody wanted to try and do it as a one-take sequence or oner, which is crazy because we needed to have rigging and stuff like that. It’s really costly. So we tried to compromise and get the best of both styles. You get the violence and the impact, along with a couple of the gags and tricks. Like the car door bending and wrapping around one of the thugs; that wasn’t scripted, it was one of my ideas. I shot it as part of the pre-viz; the director was adamant about not doing the door gag, but Netflix came back with this note that they just loved it. That was a nice little bit of satisfaction for me.
At the end of that sequence there’s this huge battle, and I wanted this melee of the thugs just ganging up on Luke. That’s one of my things, not having people sit back and wait for their turn. So we had guys coming at him left, right, and behind, hitting him in different directions. It’s like they’re hitting a big stone statue, and he’s just tossing them aside. We didn’t really have the time to rehearse, so that part didn’t come out the way I wanted. It could have been better. We set it up as a oner, but without enough rehearsal time, it’s tough for Mike to just walk in and for us to go, “Here’s your 25 moves against 25 guys.” But it all worked out, and nobody got hurt.
The whole sequence is scored to the classic Wu-Tang Clan track “Bring Da Ruckus.” Did you blast that song on set?
That song was already set for the episode, so I included it in my pre-viz, and we pretty much timed the hits and the smacks in time with the music. The music is an actual character in Luke Cage; they have these great performances in Cottonmouth’s club that are blended in with scenes. It’s brilliant, putting it altogether like that.
Jumping ahead to the season finale, “You Know My Steez,” and the big fight with Diamondback, that showdown is very much like a classic Western. How did you approach that sequence?
It is that classic face off in the middle of town between two guys. It was important to me to find a way to use the environment so that it’s not just like a tournament fight in the middle of the street. There had to be collateral damage in some way, which is why we brought in the cars. It showed off the power of these two guys coming at each other. At the same time, it also needed to be gritty, so we stayed away from the full CG stuff with cars flying through the air like Superman. This has much more heart and soul, because it’s an emotional fight between two half-brothers. There’s a lot of tears and anguish and pain between them. I was pretty happy with how it came out. I had an alternate ending, though.
Oh, really? Tell us more!
Instead of Luke just punching Diamondback and he flies back, I had him weaken him a little bit. Part of the story is that Diamondback can absorb the energy from whatever punch Luke throws at him, so it actually gives him more power when he hits him. So I came up with this whole idea of Luke putting him on his shoulders, gripping his whole body and bending him backwards. Symbolically, it looks like a cross. There’s a lot of religion in the series already, so I thought it was fitting. I pitched it as, “Imagine you’re close up on Luke’s face as he’s bending his opponent and hearing him crack. He could even shed a tear as he’s destroying his half-brother slowly.” I even had a drawing made of it as part of my pitch! It’s awesome artwork; my assistant, Zack Roberts, is an artist and he brought his touch to my ugly little sketch.
Are you returning for Season 2?
No. They’ve actually already started filming. I’m moving on to other stuff. It was a combination of things; I’m an L.A.-based guy, too. But I have a feeling this Emmy is mine! [Laughs] It’s a fantastic honor. The stunt community doesn’t always get the recognition and credit I feel they deserve, so this [category] is important both for the business and just plain recognition.
Do you think the Oscars might take a cue from the Emmys and create a category honoring stunt crews?
I would hope so! What does the Academy have against it, really? I feel strongly about that, because it’s part of not getting the respect of being part of the production department, and that really translates into getting safety issues taken care of. The recent cases of people getting hurt really hurts me. One of them was a very good friend on The Walking Dead. I remember when he was first starting off; I used him many times. He’s really talented and just a pro. Part of my quest is to try and do my very best to prevent things like that. Take a little more time, spend a little more money, don’t rush. All those little things are so important. That’s my rant.
Luke Cage is currently streaming on Netflix.
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