Lewis Tan & Anna Leong Brophy
On finding camaraderie, the twin dynamic, and a good Chinese restaurant in Budapest
On finding camaraderie, the twin dynamic, and a good Chinese restaurant in Budapest
Words: Jiselle Liu @jiselle03
Talent: Lewis Tan @lewistanofficial, Anna Leong Brophy @longbrophy
Photos: Raen Pelagio Badua @raenbadua
Fashion: Kyle Kagamida (Lewis) @kylekagamida , Luci Ellis (Anna) @luciellis
Makeup: Sonia Lee (Lewis) @sonialeeartistry , Hinako (Anna) @hinako_makeup
Photo Assist: Miles Caliboso @_ohmiles Jean Marie Biele @jeanmariebiele
In season one of the hit Netflix series, Shadow and Bone, we were introduced to the Grishaverse, a fantasy world based on Leigh Bardugo’s novels, the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology.
Influenced by nineteenth century czarist Russia, the fictional war-torn Ravka sits next to a rival nation, Shu Han, inspired by Ancient China and Mongolia. The show follows the original trilogy’s protagonist Alina Starkov, an orphan cartographer in Ravka’s First Army (non-magic military) who discovers that she has a rare ability as a Grisha (the term for magic users who consider themselves practitioners of the “Small Science”). Joined by a gang of thieves known as the Crows, the first season keeps most of the action in Ravka, but the story introduces us to new places and new faces in the new season.
Among Alina’s new allies are a pair of Grisha twins, Tolya Yul-Bataar and Tamar Kir-Bataar, played by Lewis Tan and Anna Leong Brophy respectively, who join Alina on her quest to destroy the Shadow Fold that ravages the nation.
Ahead of the long-awaited premiere of season two, Timid had the opportunity to speak with Tan and Leong Brophy about their characters and the fresh new perspective they bring to the television series. Clad in black and white with matching smiles and a laid-back demeanor, it is easy, even at first glance, to imagine them portraying the rebel siblings who avoided being drafted into the Second Army (Ravka’s Grisha military) and became privateers. They effortlessly switch between contemplative and playful as they speak, in sync and with an obvious mutual regard born from similar and shared experiences. From mastering swords and battle axes to connecting right from the first chemistry read, Tan and Leong Brophy are game to talk about all their adventures from filming the series.
Anna Leong Brophy: I think in terms of our characters, we stay pretty true to our arcs. Obviously, towards the end of this season, things start going in a different direction, but I would say that our core objectives remain the same. There is an element in the book, in terms of the kind of religion that we're following, that is more prevalent in the book and isn't brought into the season, but there's just so many elements already at play that we kind of incorporated more into the main group.
Lewis Tan: I think it was really wise how they've woven together different parts of the book into the story, even in season one. And then thematically, it stays pretty on point for at least our characters, and the things that you really love about the twins, individually and together, are still incorporated into the show. So yeah, I wasn't surprised. I was pleased.
LT: Well, [Tolya and I are] similar in a lot of ways actually. We both study and revere martial arts and that whole world and everything that comes with that, including the psychology and philosophy behind a lot of a lot of great martial art forms. And what I mean by that is, there's ways to train the mind as well as the body, and I think that's something that I really follow and love and have dedicated a lot of my life to.
Tolya loves poetry; I also love poetry. I love reading and I think that it's a great balance between the physical and the mental, and strengthening all areas of your life instead of just one or the other. And Tolya is a big foodie. So is Anna—I think she's an amazing cook, an incredible cook—it blew my mind. I took photos of everything.
I think that those qualities in Tolya are also in myself and then, you know, he's very loyal. When he believes in something, he goes whole-heartedly into that project or into that mission no matter what, even if his life is at risk. I feel a lot of similarities towards that in many ways.
ALB: I also, from the get-go, really resonated with Tamar. She's very strong-willed, and I have definitely been described as such. But I think at her core, she's got a big heart. And she's very decisive—she's very much someone to set her mind on something and go for it. But she's also always up for a challenge, I think, so that is a really exciting, front-footed character to play.
I think I would love to be as decisive as she is, or at least single-minded. I'm often assessing things, weighing up the pros and cons, and I can be a bit too much of a thinker sometimes. And yeah, not Tamar. So I think that [...] I could maybe emulate that a little bit more. That would be great.
LT: Do you think that it rubbed off on you at all?
ALB: Definitely. To a certain degree, I was like, “Make a decision, go with it, go with the gut.” And it sorts of bleeds in a little bit. So yeah, I’ve been doing that a bit more.
LT: I mean, for me, it was—I think, for both of us?—When we first read with each other in the chemistry read, we were still reading with other actors and stuff. And you know, [Anna] you were my first choice that I felt the most connected to.
I think from the very beginning, we kind of felt that weird connection. And obviously, both of us being half Asian, I mean, you go through so much being a half Asian actor, and half Asian in life and in the business. You automatically have—I think [Anna] said it [before]—an empathy. And that's a really big foundation to build from that. We already had that from the beginning, you know, and Anna is an incredibly talented actor. She learns super fast, she's super funny. And she's very much on her toes with improv, with everything. And it was an honor to—it was easy, I should say, to develop something together. Her instincts are so true. And we talked a lot about the background and backstory.
ALB: That’s so lovely. No, I really agree. You know, it could have been a situation where you click in a chemistry read, and then you're like, “Oh, this person, I don't have anything to connect me to them.” But we—energetically we're quite the same, both quite thoughtful. And when we were talking about how our characters had gotten to where they [are]—creating a shared backstory, we were really straightaway on the same wavelength. Lewis would be suggesting things that I felt like—”Oh, wow. Yeah, I didn't think about that. We can build on it”—rather than “Oh, is that what you were thinking?” We were really in tune.
And just to echo what Lewis was saying, it was, from the get-go, a mutual understanding. We've both had to fight to get to where we are. We've had to hang in there to make our way to this point. So we had that understanding.
From my point of view as well, I was learning so much from Lewis, who has been in the business for such a long time. And in terms of just physical dynamism and things like that, it was like every day was a school day. So it was great.
LT: It's funny that you say that because even now, it was so in sync. It was so easy that I never even really thought about how, you know, how horrendous it could have been. Could you imagine? So it's testament to the good casting and Eric [Heisserer] and Daegan [Fryklind], our showrunners, putting together a good cast because we all feel that way about it.
ALB: That’s an interesting question. I think [the twins] have come to a lot more of an accepting place than maybe Alina has. Alina [...] is more in that space of still figuring it out, like—”Do I want to be like them? Do I want to be seen like this?”—and seeing maybe her race as a problem because it has caused her so many problems, you know, from the orphanage onwards. I think, for Tolya and Tamar, because we've always been taught—you know, our backstory is that our mother didn't want us to go into the Second Army, didn't want us to live like that. Our father trained us so that we wouldn't have to. So we've kind of got this family background, this dynamic of going, “We are who we are, and we're not going to apologize for it.” And we have these powers, but no one's going to pigeonhole us into having to say we're either Ravkan or Shu, or Heartrenders [Grisha who can manipulate human bodies]. This is who we are. Take it or leave it.
LT: Yeah, exactly. I can’t say it any better.
ALB: There were a lot of good bits.
LT: There were a lot. It’s such an action-packed show and there's so much that happens. I personally really enjoyed filming in Shu Han, because we got to see that world again. It was so beautiful. And I got to eat all this amazing—Tolya—not me, got to eat these amazing baos and fried squid. I think [Anna’s] character even says that. She's like, “He's over there eating all this food.”
ALB: Actually, that's what I was gonna say. I have a real soft spot for right towards the end of the show when we reunite and I'm like, “Ah, you ate all the snacks, didn't you? You didn't bring me any of the snacks.” I really felt that pain. I was like, “Where is my delicious squid?”
LT: Yes. That's such an Asian cultural thing, too. It's like, you crave that feeling. And when you eat it, you're like, [makes a sound of contentment]. Even when we were in Budapest, there's not a lot of really authentic Chinese food. Anna searched far and long and found the only place and it was 45 minutes out of town, and we were like, “Let's go.”
We brought the whole gang, we ordered for everyone. And then—I'm not going to mention who—but some of them didn't even know what the Lazy Susan was for. They're like, “What does this do?” Like, alright, let us educate you. It's Chinese food. But I went on a tangent.
ALB: We went on a food tangent, surprise.
LT: There were a couple of things that were new. For instance, when I first arrived on set, the prop team had all these different weapons to choose from and they were so cool. They were like, “What do you think is the one for your character?” And I went through all these different swords, and I picked the heaviest one. It was the most beautiful one and I wish you guys could see it because the handle has this dragon that's interwoven in it, and out of the mouth comes the blade, and it's just this beautiful sword. But it was super heavy, and it's on his back practically. And I don't know how familiar you are with pulling swords from your back, but it's quite difficult, especially if it's long. So that and then also, using the gun at the same time was something [different]. Usually you're only using either a sword or a gun in any project. I can't think of anything off my head where you have both. So using that together was really interesting.
And then also fighting with Anna, with my twin—how the twins move together and think together should be very similar to how they respond emotionally, mentally. All of that should be connected to the way that they move. You should feel that in their performance, how they can read each other without even looking, how they can respond without even, you know—they just know, they're just one step ahead of each other, and they're right there. So working that choreography was really cool and very unique. And a lot of fun. Actually, it wasn’t really challenging, it was just fun. I had a great time.
ALB: It was definitely—I knew right away, I was like, “Okay, that is going to be what is really gonna be pushing me out of my comfort zone.” And at first, you're coming into a show like this, you're working with someone like Lewis, and at the beginning, I had a lot of trepidation, impostor syndrome, like, “Oh, I don't want to drag anything down. I want to bring my A game.” And the stunt team was so encouraging. Lewis was nothing but encouraging, which is, again, we were talking [earlier] about what could have been. I can totally imagine a situation where someone was like, “I'm a pro, what is this?” But I was so lucky.
I’ve got to shout out to my cousin as well, because as soon as I booked the job, he was like, “Okay, I'm going to train you.” So he was helping me from the get-go. I had done some training—I used to do some dancing. I know how to move—I felt confident in that sense. But I certainly learnt so much about storytelling through the choreography. It's not just a sequence of movements, just how you’re looking on camera. It's like—”What story are you telling?”—and learning how to layer those things on. It was really the next step and actually freed me up a lot. But I really felt so supported by Lewis and so encouraged. It was a big growing space for me, and I feel really grateful to have been able to do it.
LT: But she was doing things with the axes that I don't even know how to do myself. So I was very impressed.
ALB: Yeah, I mean, Nadia definitely catches Tamar's eye from the get-go. I think there's a lot of parallels with those two characters. They're very close to their brothers. There's a strong family bond, and I think Tamar sees that Nadia really respects it. And also just with someone [like Nadia] who has grown up at the Little Palace [the residence of the Second Army] and has all the trappings of what you might think of as a small-minded, protected, Grisha upbringing, but actually, she’s just really strong-willed and single-minded—definitely aspects that Tamar really admires. So yeah, I think you might see a few sparks flying.
LT: I think that Tolya ends in a place that is very different in the world where he lives in and I think he's learned a lot, as far as growing and working with other people. [...] But I would like to see more of an arc emotionally for Tolya because he's very steadfast in his emotions, he's very concrete in his beliefs. I would like to see a wrench get thrown in there and something to spark a challenge internally with him. He's looked at as [a person who is grounded]. He's going to be there. He's going to be the rock. But it would be nice to explore some different dynamics in his character development in the coming seasons for sure.
ALB: It's so funny, because we're like two sides of the same coin. So in a way, I'm feeling like Tamar can never be pinned down. And she's going to start to form bonds. How is that going to affect the twins’ relationship together? But also, people who are used to being footloose and fancy free don't always take so well to having boundaries and things hemming them in. So it will be interesting to see. I suppose that speaks to the twins' overall journey, because the more they develop lives away from each other, the more they lose that counterbalance in their life, and they have to develop that part of their personality for themselves. They're in a kind of a codependent relationship, for good or for bad. So as they move out of that, what challenges do they end up facing?
LT: Well, that was their relationship for their survival, right? I mean, now things are different in so many different ways, almost more extreme in some ways, too. So yeah, there's a lot to explore in that dynamic. Well put.
ALB: Yeah, I think they cut through a lot of bullshit.
LT: They can suss it out right away. I mean, they’re Heartrenders. So they have the ability to literally have that sixth sense and feel out—
ALB: —take the pulse literally, of what's going on.
LT: Yeah, exactly. Pun intended. And that's the way that they are normally and also the way that they've chosen to live. They've chosen to not be a part of these institutionalized groups. They've chosen to not have any labels. They've chosen to be that way on purpose. So when they do choose a cause, it's deeply rooted in their beliefs and in their heart, and that’s very powerful.
ALB: Yeah, it's not just patriotism, or “I do [it] because they say I should do [it]”. They have to be convinced. And once they're convinced, you have them, but their reasons are very much their own rebel spirit.
LT: They’re very punk rock, but with big hearts.
The second season of Shadow and Bone premieres on Netflix on March 16, 2023.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.