In Mile 22, the new action-movie from director, Peter Berg (Lone Survivor), Indonesian martial arts star, Iko Uwais (The Raid), marks his first major Hollywood role. As Li Noor, Uwais plays a trusted US intelligence asset in Southeast Asia holding the key to encrypted information needed to prevent an imminent terrorist attack – information he’s willing to share with the Americans only in exchange for safe passage to a refuge in the United States. To get him there, it’s down to Jimmy Silva’s (Mark Wahlberg) elite paramilitary unit to transport Noor from the relative safety of the US Embassy to an airfield for extraction – a distance of 22 miles from the city center; no small feat as Silva and his team (featuring Ronda Rousey and The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan) must fight their way through an urban landscape populated by local forces determined to prevent Noor’s escape.
Discovered in 2007 by director Gareth Edwards while filming a documentary on Indonesian martial arts, Iko Uwais went on to make his feature debut in Edwards’ 2009 film, Merantau. His breakthrough would come three-years later with The Raid, which captured the attention of martial arts fans, worldwide. Uwais, who also choreographs his own fight sequences (including those seen in Mile 22), has since starred in The Raid 2 (2014) and briefly appeared in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) as the feared mercenary, Razoo Qin-Fee.
We spoke with him in Los Angeles through an interpreter about the making of Mile 22.
What’s it like starring in your first big American movie?
It’s flattering, you know. To be able to work with such talented and big names on this project is like a dream come true for me. I mean, all of this had never been an ambition for me, so it’s beyond my expectation.
How did your casting in Mile 22 come about? Had Peter Berg seen your work in The Raid?
Yes (Laughs)… He called me at 4AM in Jakarta saying he wanted to bring me to Los Angeles to talk about a project called Mile 22. And I immediately said yes! He told me that he saw me in The Raid; that he liked what he saw, and that he wanted to make something with me. Which was a compliment, considering Peter Berg is not your usual martial arts film director.
What was it like working with Mark Wahlberg? What do you think it is it about him that’s so appealing on screen? And is that the same thing you found by working with him and getting to know him?
It was a humbling experience. Honestly, I was kind of starstruck when I first met Mark. But he was a funny guy and really easy to work with. And that guy can do anything. He can fight, he acts beautifully, and he works hard. I learned a lot from him. For example, he is a very spontaneous actor. He improvises, and he brought an energy to the set that was infectious… The first time we met he already made me feel like an old friend. I can see why he’s a big star.
You’re also working with Ronda Rousey, here. What was that experience like for you? Were you a fan of hers?
My first experience with Ronda was watching her on a TV screen, seeing her fight in the MMA. She seemed like a tough and scary person every time I would watch her. But to my surprise, she was very friendly and humble when I met her in person. That made me like her more than before. The first time I met her was at her gym in Glendale, California, back in 2015, just a few days before she had a fight. She was training hard, and I could just see the determination in her eyes. I saw that same determination again two years later when we shot Mile 22. She is amazing.
How did you collaborate with Peter Berg when it came time to choreograph your fight sequences?
One of the best things about working with Pete is that he trusted me and gave the freedom to do my own fight choreography. We would discuss what he wanted to achieve in a particular fight scene, what would be the goal of the fight, the tone of the fight, the emotional aspects that should be shown in the scene, and then he would just let me work on it. I choreographed each fight with my team, shot a pre-viz video of it, and would then present it to him… You know, sometimes, I tend to have an aggressive, violent imagination when it comes to fight scenes – and Pete expected nothing less (laughs)…
Your fight scene in the medical examination room is one of the film’s standouts. What went into putting that together? Did anyone get hurt? And how does it compare to other fight-sequences you’ve filmed before?
Well, we worked hard on that scene. We created the choreography for it, shot the pre-viz for a week, and then spent 4-days actually filming it. It’s quite challenging shooting a scene like that for 4 days – especially just wearing your underwear in a cold warehouse (laughs)… Sam Looc, my fellow choreographer, slightly injured in his forehead while we were filming when a sharp edge on the plastic end of the handcuff that I’m wearing kind of slashed him – but he was okay. Although, this fight scene is shorter than what I did in The Raid, I think it’s special nonetheless. We put a lot of work into making it look like a real fight. We wanted it to be brutal and visceral. And that’s what we got.
What was the biggest challenge making Mile 22? Did the film push you or challenge you in ways you hadn’t experienced before?
It was challenging because this is my first time having a big role with a lot of English dialogue. So, that was new for me. Pete Berg’s method of improvising on set was also new and challenging, and kind of pushed me to do better. I learned a lot making Mile 22. The film also pushed me to create an intense and complex fight scene in a very limited time. It wasn’t like my previous films, where preparation can take months. This time I had to work more efficiently. And I loved the challenge.
What do you like most about making Hollywood movies, and what do they do better back home?
Well, It’s healthier, for one. For my previous films I once spent two days non-stop shooting a fight scene. That’s not going to happen in the US, mainly because of union regulations. And that’s good. Not that I’m complaining, because I’d do whatever it takes to make a breathtaking fight scene. But it’s nice to be able to work with better hours, you know. What is better back home is definitely the location – of being close to your family. It’s quite hard to leave your family to shoot abroad for months and to be apart. Especially when I have a new baby.
What was it like seeing the film cut together for the first time? Was it what you envisioned when you first read the script?
Better. I think Pete did a fantastic job in keeping the audience on the edge of their seat. I mean, I had some idea of what the movie might look like. But when I saw the final cut, it was just… Wow! The intensity is breathtaking. It’s a rollercoaster ride.
There’s already been talk in the US of a sequel to Mile 22. Would you be up for it?
Of course, I would do it for sure. I’d like to see Li Noor take it up a notch!
I hear you have a new series coming up for Netflix – Wu Assassins? What can you tell us?
Yes, Wu Assassins – I play a character called Kai Jin, a Chinese-Indonesian chef. It’s set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and it’s an action drama with elements of martial arts, organized crime, and Chinese mythology.
Are you planning on working more in Hollywood? What does the future look like for you?
I would like to do more work here, but I just tend to focus on what’s in front of me. So, I don’t know about the future. I just focus on trying to make the best action-movie you could ever see, work hard at it, and just go all the way.
Mile 22 is in cinemas from September 19th.