By the time actor Lewis Tan graduated junior high school he was essentially a bullyproof lethal weapon: His father was a martial artist, he’d been taking karate lessons since the age of 5, and he even put his skills to the test in amateur Muay Thai bouts in Thailand. But times have changed for the 31-year-old former stuntman who is set to bully do-gooders as the super-human assassin Zhou Cheng in the Netflix original series Iron Fist (premiered on March 17). For Tan, the ass-kicking part was easy, but the transformation into an actor required patience, dedication, and help from an industry insider.

Tan’s father, Phil Tan, is a national martial arts champion turned director who has choreographed stunts for a handful of acclaimed directors including Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and Tim Burton. That “in” was enough to get a foot through the door, but was by no means a free pass to celebrity status. He still had to pay his dues, first as a stunt performer.

“I worked with my dad on the stunts in the third Pirates of the Caribbean,” Tan recalls. “I [was] 18. I’m in the Bahamas. I get to work with Johnny Depp. And I’m like, ‘If I could do this every day of my life, there’s no way I couldn’t be happy.’”

Tan also performed stunts in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and the TV series 24. In 2006, he began acting, finding minor roles in both TV and film. He was even the face of Nivea For Men skin-care products in Asia. But he had to fight his way out of being pigeon-holed to race-based roles, like Chen on the Rush Hour TV series, and Kung Jin in Mortal Kombat X.

“I’ve played every Asian gangster on every CSI there is,” the biracial (half-Asian, half-British) performer says with a laugh.

What sets the 6’2″, 185-lb Tan apart, however, is his focus and commitment to training—especially as he gears up for his Marvel Cinematic Universe premiere. Despite being turned down to play the lead role of Danny Rand (the part went to Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones), Tan has put in leading-man hours to prepare. Unlike some of his higher-ranking Hollywood counterparts, he doesn’t lean on a personal trainer, celeb chef, or modernized training gimmicks to get in shape. Instead, Tan pushes himself in the gym six days per week, three hours a session. He sticks to his roots, performing martial arts–centric workouts, which encompass free weights, mixed martial arts training, a dance-gymnastics hybrid called “tricking,” parkour, and weapons training—all of which meld together to sharpen Tan’s capacity for lethal force, both onscreen and off; and his function-over-form approach has built him a solid physique, too.

Lewis Tan From Iron Fist With Two Swords
Michael Blank

“If you throw kicks, knees, and [practice] jiu-jitsu, you don’t need to [work your] abs. I’m throwing a dude around who weighs 175 pounds,” he explains.

A tweet from Tan shows him shirtless, with tight abs, striated, capped shoulders, and a dense, defined back—proving his theory—while skillfully wielding a katana and performing a series of backflips.

Training was half the battle, though. To look like the most dangerous assassin in the MCU, Tan—who fortunately abhors junk food—stuck to a palette of clean, whole foods that are chock-full of nutrients. That includes hydrating with alkaline water, which is naturally lower in acidity.

“If I have bread, it better have three ingredients in it,” Tan says. “When I eat fish, chicken, vegetables, brown rice, I have good quality food. Plain and simple, Japanese-style, where a piece of chicken is a [high-quality] piece of chicken.”

While Tan’s fight to climb the ranks to A-list action star is far from over, his commitment to clean eating, hard training, and kicking as much ass as possible as a major villain in Iron Fist is a big step in the right direction. And with Marvel’s proven track record of producing spin-off shows—Luke Cage and the upcoming The Punisher—it’s possible that Tan’s hard work could push him into that coveted lead role. But until then, his main concern is pleasing what is sure to be the hardest group of critics he’s faced yet: dedicated fans.

“I’m in tune with my body and with who I am,” says Tan. “As far as Iron Fist is concerned, the action team beat the shit out of me every day. Whenever you see me fighting, I bled for that show. There’s no CGI. And I’m excited for fans to see it.”