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Iko Uwais: The Silat Master

Colours talks to Indonesia’s leading action hero about his love of pencak silat and his increasingly prolific martial arts and acting work at home, abroad and in space.

Interview by Anais Budiman

The number of Indonesian actors performing in international film productions continues to grow. It’s a positive reflection of the homegrown film talent Indonesia has to offer. One of the brightest stars in that talent pool is Iko Uwais.

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Iko Uwais broke out into mainstream success with his starring role as Rama in the non-stop Indonesian action thriller The Raid: Redemption, which premiered in 2011. Directed by Gareth Evans, The Raid was a commercial and critical triumph, garnering a rare amount of international recognition and numerous international accolades for an Indonesian film. The film marked the second project Gareth and Iko had worked on together, following their debut effort, Merantau, which was released in 2009.

Hailed as one of the greatest martial arts movies in decades, The Raid features a simple and linear fast-paced plot, punctuated with expertly choreographed and supremely suspenseful action set pieces. In the movie, Rama dispatches dozens of baddies who cross his path, using his mastery of the Indonesian martial art pencak silat. Iko shines through as a brilliant martial artist in these intricate hand-to-hand combat sequences, with a palpable energy and intensity.

His commitment to the role did not go unnoticed. After The Raid, Iko went on to pick up a cameo role in Keanu Reeves’s directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi. While it was only a brief cameo role, it helped further raise the actor–martial artist’s profile. Iko returned to Indonesia to shoot The Raid 2: Berandal, the sequel to the original, which was also met with critically positive reviews, especially for the frenetic fight scenes once again choreographed by Iko and his co-star Yayan Ruhian.

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Iko says he’s passionate about promoting pencak silat to the world through his stylishly brutal fight scenes. Having been a student of the martial art since he was 10 years old, Iko has a special respect and appreciation for pencak silat. He trained under his grandfather, H. Achmad Bunawar, a silat master and founder of the Berantai Silat School in Jakarta, for years, honing his skills until he was good enough to join the national silat team. He eventually travelled with the national team to the UK, France, Russia, Azerbaijan and Cambodia to introduce and demonstrate the martial art to other cultures.

“In addition to the demonstration of the martial art and its different moves and techniques, pencak silat itself is literally an art form,” explains Iko. “It’s like a performance art when the graceful stances are displayed accompanied by traditional rhythmic music to signal changing positions or steps. It’s really quite beautiful.” The beauty is still apparent in the ultra- fast-paced fight scenes choreographed by Iko and Yayan – they’re almost a kind of balletic chaos.

“The fight needs to look as real as possible, so every action and reaction needs to be carefully calculated. It takes us about three months of preproduction to plan, storyboard and choreograph the fight scenes for a whole movie. And when it’s time to shoot, if you’re working with a perfectionist like Gareth Evans, if he sees any hit that doesn’t land properly or looks powerless, expect to reshoot that one move at that particular angle at least 20 times,” says Iko with a laugh.

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This dedication to the craft is what resulted in the cult action status of the two films and inspired director J. J. Abrams to cast Iko, Yayan and Cecep Arif Rahman (from The Raid 2) in the biggest movie of the decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Abrams was a fan of both films. He told the website Slashfilm, “I knew we needed people for this one sequence… and I thought, ‘I wonder if the dudes from The Raid would be available?’ And to my amazement, they were willing, and they were incredible. They showed up and did a terrific job.”

The Raid trio were cast as the Kanjiklub, a band of galactic gangsters. Iko couldn’t believe his luck. “Star Wars is this global cinematic tradition, and I was entrusted to be a small part of it. Abrams was so kind, and chatting with Harrison Ford on set is something I won’t soon forget.”

The trio were even entrusted by Abrams to choreograph their own fight scenes, and Iko’s input for the iconic lightsabre duel scene was also entertained, but ultimately cut by the director for being a touch too brutal.

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After his attempted hijacking of the Millennium Falcon, Iko went straight into his next slew of exciting projects, including starring in Headshot, a thriller directed by Indonesian director duo the Mo Brothers; Mile 22, starring Mark Wahlberg and MMA champion Ronda Rousey; Beyond Skyline, the sequel to the 2010 alien invasion epic Skyline; and of course his latest collaboration with Gareth Evans, a gangster drama called Blister.

When he’s not storyboarding a fight, shooting or training, Iko stays grounded by spending time with his wife and daughter, Atreya.

When asked how being the biggest action star in the country has changed his home life, Iko says it hasn’t.

“Not much has really changed. I still find it weird when people want to take a picture with me. I don’t really think of myself as a celebrity. I just have a small family and we like to travel, not even far from Jakarta. We just like to get out of the city to relax somewhere simple. It’s nice and normal.”