Journey to the West
Daniel Wu is an A-list celebrity in much of Asia and is burgeoning in America. He’s often talked about as the star who can amalgamate a film in two continents— a feat thus far proving to be elusive for everyone. Originally from Oakland, CA, he went on an epic journey to Hong Kong in the 90s where he was discovered and became a superstar.
He’s now back stateside starring in his own television show, Into the Badlands, a post apocalyptic martial arts tale that’s in it’s second season on AMC. The action drama showcases his martial arts skill and philosophy through his character, Sunny, whose conflicts stretch Daniel’s acting role.
Meanwhile, Daniel, who is also known as “Wuyanzu” (吳彥祖) to his Chinese fans, continues his work in huge Hong Kong films and appears as an Orc in Warcraft. You’ll see him soon in Tomb Raider. His career is just beginning in the US and he’s working on being a multi-faceted actor who may end up being that multi-continental star. We caught up with Daniel in Los Angeles during a press day and he talks about his background, martial arts, and where he’s at today.
Audio recording of our interview with Daniel Wu.
By Eric Nakamura, Editor in Chief
Photos and Video by George Ko
GR: What’s the best part of 'Into the Badlands' in general. Just for you.
DW: The best part of working in 'Into the Badlands' is making a show that we know is different than anything out there and being kind of original because it's a weird show. It's a mash-up of a whole bunch of different genres but our main goal was to bring Hong Kong style action to American television and I think we did that obviously in Season 1, really well. And so what's really fun working on it is to be able to do that. It's just consistently shocking and amazing people with every episode. That’s the fun thing especially when I've been doing this for 20 years now, and you kind of get jaded. You do genres and they're kind of the same. People have seen it before, and when you do something really special and original, and you build up a cool fan base, and a really different diverse fan base that you never really had before, it's really interesting, exciting and fun. You just get more passion working on it.
GR: Would you say that the biggest contribution is the fact that you're bringing actual martial arts, Hong Kong style martial arts to TV?
DW: Yeah, I think that was our main goal and I think that's still one of our main focuses, but of course we're still trying to make a good show and an original show. So it being a genre mash-up, you've got kind of cowboy elements, you've got martial arts movie elements, you've got the steampunk stuff, you've got this post-apocalyptic thing, and it's all jammed together. We've seen all these things separately before but not jammed together. And I would say first season, we were getting our leggings and it didn't necessarily click together, but I think season 2, we figured out what the mistakes were and we moved on from there. I think we were able to up the game a lot this season so that was really exciting part about doing it. But what was the original question again?
GR: The contribution to bringing martial arts?
DW: That's the really fun part is that we know that we're doing all this stuff that most people haven't seen on television before. There are people of course who watch the wuxia films and they've been watching that their whole lives, but I think there are people in middle America that’s never seen this in their lives. And so to be able to blow their minds with this really dynamic hyper action. It's cool. It's fun.
GR: You mentioned some mistakes from the first season. What were those?
DW: Well I think one of them, we were very limited with our location because we were in New Orleans, and the show really wants to be really epic and grand because we’re talking about world building, right? And we're talking about a world that’s inside the Badlands and the world outside the Badlands but because we were in New Orleans, it’s very limiting in terms of the geography because everywhere you go, it's just fucking swamp and more swamp, right? There's no mountains, there's nothing. And so moving our whole crew to Ireland this season changed everything for us because you have mountains, rivers, everything within a half an hour from our base camp. So you can get a whole lot of bunch of different looks and you can make it more epic. We can do much wider cinematography. Ah, what am I trying to say? We can do much wider cinema. Much, much grander shots with the locations we had, and we're not limited by the locations so that was one thing.
I think with costume design, we really upped the game this season. I think last season they weren't really sure what it was we're going for. This season, they really knew what they're going for. And then also character development stories this season. I always knew what the show was but I think the writers kind of weren’t sure. And so now, this season, by breaking up the characters, separating them, we have multiple storylines but all heading towards one main goal. You feel the momentum of the show's going to a certain climax at the end of the season. That helped also with the storytelling a lot. I think, a lot of the times last season, there were characters that weren't fully developed or fully fleshed out. I think this season we do that with all the characters. Plus having 10 episodes makes it much more room to do that stuff.
GR: So you started off the first season as basically as The Terminator, right?
GR: But was there a plan to develop your character more or did it change over time?
DW: No, I mean it was always meant to be a journey for Sunny’s character. I mean, it's very loosely based on Journey to the West, and what we mean by loosely based is the Monkey King is given this mission to take the Buddhist scriptures from India to China. It's not just about that. It's about this journey that he goes on. The way with this group of people and they're in charge of doing this. And each bit of adversity that they run into is a metaphor for life, and it's a journey that by the end of it, the Monkey King himself changes. In the beginning, he's a petulant, rebellious character, and by the end he becomes enlightened. And so what we wanted to have that same kind of character arc for Sunny. So the first season, unlike the Monkey King, Sunny's more of a cold hearted killer with not much feelings, but the fact that his wife, his girlfriend is about to have a baby, that changes everything. Because all he's done his whole life is take lives and suddenly he's created a life and that's kind of emotionally changed something in his head. That starts his little seed that creates his journey path for him. And this season it's all about getting back into the Badlands. He's been taken out of the Badlands, and is getting back into the Badlands, and finding his girl who’s been kidnapped. He doesn't even know if it's been born yet. And so to make the family union, to get away from what he was, being a cold-hearted killer, and becoming a better person. Can he even achieve that? And so that's really the change for Sunny, and I think last season was a setup of what Sunny was like before and this season you see the change happening within him.
GR: You think being a dad helped your character a little bit to understand what to do?
DW: Oh, totally. And I think the writers maybe even, because of my personal life, know that and put that element in there. But yeah, if I didn't have a kid, I don't know if I would be able to play the character with this much emotion as I would have if it was 10 years ago. The idea of having a kid versus actually having a real kid and dealing with that every day. And the fact that, I would literally kill for my kid. I mean, this is me Daniel Wu saying, I've done certain things that happened with her that's not typically in my personality, because you have a family and as a male of the family, you're the protector. Naturally these things happen to you, and you wouldn't be able to recreate that necessarily as an actor on your own— a true feeling of that.
If I didn't have a kid, I don't know if I would be able to play the character with this much emotion as I would have if it was 10 years ago.
GR: So I guess, backing up a little bit, can you talk about martial arts? I heard a little bit, you did martial arts since you were a little kid but can you talk about that and how it relates to what you're doing today?
DW: I started Shaolin Kung Fu when I was 11 and that was because when I was 7, I saw Shaolin Temple which was Jet Li’s first movie. And that blew me out of the water. I remember my grandfather took me to Chinatown, the Great Star theater in San Francisco and he was like, you know all that stuff you've been watching? Before I used to watch Kung Fu theater every Sunday when I was a kid. That stuff was fake. This is the real deal. And so I saw the amazing thing in that movie which was the training scene where like they're doing all these weapons and all that stuff and I remember that scene very clearly. I was like, that's what I want to do. They're doing the preying mantis, they were doing all different styles within this 5 minute scene, and I was a hyperactive kid. My parents thought I'd get in fights and stuff in school so they didn't want me to learn. It wasn't until my mom found my first teacher, YC Chiang in El Cerrito, California and he became my first teacher. He wasn't just a Kung Fu Teacher. He was a Qi Gong master, Tai Chi master, Chinese brush painter, calligrapher, Chinese medicine doctor, as well as lawyer, so he was a very well-rounded renaissance man. And so I think that really pulled me into learning martial arts and learning more about my culture, I think. I trained with him for many years, and he wasn't into competition at all, and I wanted at 17 or 18, you know you want to prove yourself. So I wanted to start competing, and so then I switched over. I still trained with him but I also trained with another coach, a Wu Shu coach. I switched over to Wu Shu with a coach named Zhang Hong Mei and she was a women's national champion when Jet Li was the men's national champion, and then she married an American Philip Wong, who’s also a really great Wu Shu practitioner on the US team. They started a school so I started training with them for many years. And so that was the basis of the foundation of my martial arts. And then over time, I've learned boxing, Muay Thai and a bunch of other things. Krav Maga, Jiu Jitsu a little bit but I'm more of a striker, so I'm not really a grappling kind of guy. But yeah martial arts has been a part of my life whether it's been in the movie business or not. In fact, when I first started the movie business, I actually tried to keep it out of my career because I didn't want it to be pigeonholed as just a martial arts guy. And then eventually worked it back in and so that there we have it with Badlands, it's back in my life.
And so I saw the amazing thing in that movie which was the training scene where like they're doing all these weapons and all that stuff and I remember that scene very clearly. I was like, that's what I want to do.
GR: Can you talk about the philosophy angle of martial arts? You probably have to be a certain age to get that angle.
DW: Yeah it actually really depends on your teacher because now I think with MMA and UFC and all that stuff, people just totally drop the spirituality side of martial arts completely. It's all about training and the physical side and winning and that's not what martial arts is about at all. It's about the spirit of cultivation. And so the philosophy all goes along with that and I got the philosophy side really early on because my first teacher Y.C. Chiang, he was a devout Buddhist. He studied a lot of that philosophy and so every Sunday, he would give lectures on martial arts philosophy, on health, because he was a Chinese, practiced traditional Chinese medicine as well so like, what to eat in different seasons, blah blah blah, all that kind of stuff. How to do tea ceremonies, everything. I mean everything that was culturally related to the martial arts, he would teach us and so that's where I got that. And then when I was 14, I got into the Carlos Castaneda books. Those books were not anything to do with martial arts, but the teacher-student relationship and the spiritual journey. I saw the parallels between that and martial arts, and so that was something that I got into. And then funny enough, that’s the stuff we're actually using in Badlands now. The things that M.K goes through in the training and dealing with his dark Chi and all that stuff are ideas that I took from way back then. One of our goals is like, yes, it's really fucking cool that we kick a lot of ass in the show, and there's blood flying everywhere and blah blah blah but we also want to keep the spiritual element in there as well. We want to kind of undo what MMA is doing which is just the fighting. So the spiritual journeys that the characters go in tandem or parallel with their martial arts journey as well. And it may not be as obvious but it's there in the subtext so at least, responsibly we've been doing that but I think it's really important. I think it's important for people to understand martial arts that it's a whole system and it's not just a one-sided thing. It's not just about fighting.
We want to kind of undo what MMA is doing which is just the fighting. So the spiritual journeys that the characters go in tandem or parallel with their martial arts journey as well.
GR: It looks really complicated when I watch the fight scenes and I know that you had to probably bring in additional help from Asia to do this? Is that something that's normal or is that very irregular for American television?
DW: No, it's totally different. The only way we knew we could pull this off is bringing in a Hong Kong team, so Master Didi (Huan-Chiu Ku) who's our choreographer, he worked on hundreds of great, classic, Chinese films but he's known in the West for working on Matrix, Crouching Tiger, and all that other stuff. And so he has a lot of experience working in the East and West. He brought his team of stuntmen and then we have our action crew, director Stephen Fung who directed all the visuals of the fight scenes. So the whole system is really a Hong Kong system that we plugged into the American television system. The reason why it has to be a Hong Kong system is because we do it fast. Americans, especially shooting action is a bit slow but what they do is, you do the choreography, then the DP separately does the coverage. So you got to do the same scene, the same whole full action scene, over and over again while he covers it. And then the editor then assembles the fight in the editing room and a lot of the times it may not coordinate properly. What you're seeing on screen is actually not the choreography. It's been re-edited and put out in a way. We're doing the complete opposite. Every shot is a specific shot made for that bit of action. And we go through the fight chronologically, and we go from shot to shot to shot like it's a storyboard but we have no storyboard, and it's all designed for that specific shot so there's no switching of shots. It has to be that way and then in fact, we edit it ourselves and then turn it into the editor as a reference for them to, how to put it, assemble it basically. And so we do the whole package. Every fight scene is done by our fight unit and then we hand it off to the main unit to plug into the rest of the story.
GR: What's your general feeling about your career now because you've, it's, I don't know if it's an experiment that you moved from Hong Kong or China, what, you know what all that Asian film jobs are getting to America, right?
DW: Well, no, I still do both. I go back and forth.
GR: How do you feel about your career here though? Like is this kind of going the route you kind of expected or is this kind of different?
DW: I don't know, actually. I can't complain. I really like Badlands and what it's doing for me and you know, it's getting me other jobs on Tomb Raider and other stuff as well. But it's interesting. I've built a 20-year career in Asia and I'm looking at this career now in the States as something very different. It's almost like an extension of that career and in some ways it runs parallel and I'm trying to do the same thing as well as not to be pigeonholed as just a martial arts actor but to try and do other things. So Tomb Raider's interesting because they hired me on in not an action role at all. It's a strictly dramatic role so I'll be able to prove that in that. I just did a movie Geostorm where I play a totally different character than Sunny. That's going to be out in October. So it's going. Will it be the same as in Asia? I don't know. Will I be able to do a leading man to lead films here? I don't know. I mean, it's still a very un-diverse America at this moment, so we'll see. But I'm very happy now with the projects I've been working but I'll always have my Asia career which I'll never forget. I think everything I have now today is because of my Hong Kong career and I owe everything to that, and so it's not something I'll ever give up. Hong Kong films are special to me. I've always been a Hong Kong movie fan so being able to work on Hong Kong films has been a dream come true, and now working with the high level people that I work with. I recently was working with Ringo Lam and all these people. It's just amazing and I think we're the best at making movies. Seriously, having been around the world and seeing how other people work, how other different cultures work, I think Hong Kong is a mix of the best. We work really fast. We do high quality and we don't waste money. I see a lot of money wasted on big American productions. As a producer, I look at that and I go, this is horrible. And we're able to do an equal amount, especially nowadays with CGI work, we're able to do equal level work now with a lot lower budget. And why is that? I'm not sure, but I think we're more efficient and I just like working in more efficient systems.
Will I be able to do a leading man to lead films here? I don't know. I mean, it's still a very un-diverse America at this moment, so we'll see.
Seriously, having been around the world and seeing how other people work, how other different cultures work, I think Hong Kong is a mix of the best. We work really fast. We do high quality and we don't waste money.
GR: There was that thing maybe five years ago, but Hollywood's trying to put an Asian actor in their Hollywood movies and vice versa, a Chinese production might put a white star in their movies. Is that experiment kind of working?
DW: I have mixed feelings about that. I do believe that there are opportunities for global movies. I don't think every movie can be. And especially when you're talking about two completely different cultures and trying to mix it together. I mean, you can do that every once in awhile. You know you've had, let's say Black Rain way back in the day, right? Where you were able to successfully do Japanese culture with American culture. I think that was a great movie. I really liked that movie with a sort of American pop culture with this Yakuza culture but that was once in the 80's, and then maybe you have one in the 90's and whatever. But they're trying to do it in every single movie. I don't know if that's totally viable or not. I understand that financially, it makes the most sense to have a globally successful movie, but with other products you can do that. Like an iPhone, you can sell globally around the world, but movies are tied into a culture of a place, and it just so happens that American movies are a global culture. I don't know if Asian movies are a global culture yet, so it doesn't work necessarily both ways. So we'll have to see. Some people can be successful and then some not. What it would take is savvy, smart directors and producers that have experience in both places or understand both cultures to do it. Maybe someone like me in the future but really, someone that understands both cultures instead of going okay, how do we make this more Asian or how do we make this more Western? No. You have to organically do it from the very beginning. It has to be some subject or topic that lends itself to being really global instead of forcing or shoehorning it in.
Like an iPhone, you can sell globally around the world, but movies are tied into a culture of a place, and it just so happens that American movies are a global culture. I don't know if Asian movies are a global culture yet, so it doesn't work necessarily both ways.
GR: I noticed that a little too much. It seems so obvious, right?
DW: But at the same, I'm not complaining because that's probably why I'm in Tomb Raider. I'm getting paid for that, so I'm not going to complain about it. And it gave me a great opportunity. It's a role that could have been a really stereotype Asian accented role who is passive to the main character, but I'm not at all and it's a great character. And so I'm taking these opportunities and trying to twist it my way and make it work. Because I'm in a unique position too. I'm very Asian. I'm not your typical Asian-American that grew up here and only knows Asian-American culture. I lived in Hong Kong for 20 years and I feel more Chinese now than I've ever felt in my life. And so, I'm in a really weird position that way in that, I'm really not of any culture anymore. Because I'm not fully accepted into Asian culture because I was born in the States. I'm not fully accepted into American mainstream culture because I'm Asian. And then Asian-American culture is very different as well, like I'm kind of all over it. And then now, I'm filming this movie in Africa where I have a home there. I don't care now it's like I'm just a person in this world. I'm just going to do what I'm going to do.
I'm in a really weird position that way in that, I'm really not of any culture anymore. Because I'm not fully accepted into Asian culture because I was born in the States. I'm not fully accepted into American mainstream culture because I'm Asian. And then Asian-American culture is very different as well, like I'm kind of all over it.
GR: How do you feel about the Asian-American kind of film culture or acting culture that's here? There is kind of a small world of it.
DW: Yeah. It's very angry isn't it? I have mixed feelings about it. I think it's great to do stories for us, by us but you have to realize that it's a niche market. It's a very small market. We're only 5% of the population of this country, right? So if you want to have higher success, you’ve got to start doing stuff that is more mainstream and I think there are ways to do that. There are ways to incorporate that but what I do have a problem with is the complaints about stuff. Like constantly whining about your situation. Just do it, man. Stop whining. I can't stand it. Since I was in college when ‘Yellow’ came out, that movie. Until now people are saying the same crap they've been saying for 20 years. Just forget it. Just do what you want to do, and go do it, and forget about what The Man is doing to you or whatever. Just do what you want to do. There's so many opportunities especially with digital cameras and the internet and all that stuff to get yourself out there, to get your work out there, whether it's Asian American themed or not Asian American themed. There's so many more outlets there so there's nobody holding you back except your own ego or your own psyche, so get rid of all that crap and just go do what you want to do.
Until now people are saying the same crap they've been saying for 20 years. Just forget it. Just do what you want to do, and go do it, and forget about what The Man is doing to you or whatever. Just do what you want to do.
GR: Is it getting any better?
DW: No, it's not really. It's not. It's the same. It's interesting because I remember like when I was in college, we had an Asian-American Student Union and we had that speaker come over talking about Asian-American art and Asian-American artists and how they should be doing galleries if it's for Asian-Americans blah blah blah. And I raise this one question, well if I was an Asian-American artist, I want to be respected as an artist, not just an Asian-American artist. I mean it's good to have that also, but you want to be recognized on a global scale or a bigger scale, right? And so when I said that, everyone looked at me like I was an asshole right? I was like, but no! I was studying architecture at that time. I don't want to be just a Chinese architect. I want to be a great architect. I don't want to be a great Chinese architect. I don't think Denzel Washington walks around going I want to be a great black actor. No. He wants to be a great actor and he's a great actor and that's it, that's how he is. So, we can complain all we want but we just got to do it like Denzel, or somebody like that. Just do it. Lead by example and make the rest of the world that's not coming along change because of what your actions are. I mean, it's like Gandhi says, if you want to see the world change, you got to be that change. What's the exact quote? It's like, You have be the change you want to see in the world. And if you just sit around, complain, and whine and blah blah blah, it doesn't do anybody any good.
I don't want to be just a Chinese architect. I want to be a great architect. I don't want to be a great Chinese architect. I don't think Denzel Washington walks around going I want to be a great black actor. No. He wants to be a great actor and he's a great actor and that's it, that's how he is. So, we can complain all we want but we just got to do it like Denzel, or somebody like that. Just do it.
GR: I guess that's a nice negative-good way to end this.
DW: Well, I'm coming from a perspective that I spent my career, 20 years in Asia because I couldn't have ever had a career here in the States. I'd probably be still going to audition sessions in the room with 20 guys who look exactly, but not exactly like me. Same color of skin, same color of hair, to this day. So, I was embraced by my own culture in Hong Kong, and I was lucky that I had that opportunity, but they allowed me to look at it as a bigger picture and not tiny little Asian-American niche thing.
Check out Into the Badlands here.
There are episodes of Season 2 already out online for free, so definitely go watch them.
The music in the video and podcast is Jianzhong Wang's Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon.
It's a piano rendition of a famous Chinese folk song.
Played by George Ko, CEO of Giant Robot Media