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The Martial Arts Show That Is Destroying Asian Stereotypes on Screen

Actor Daniel Wu discusses his new show, 'Into the Badlands' and how Asian actors have to keep fighting for more diversity.

Daniel Wu did not expect to be the star of AMC's Into the Badlands. Starring in the show would require him to take on complex fighting scenes. And in his 40s, he wasn't sure if his body would be up for it.

"I was like, I'm 40 now, and I've already done my martial arts thing. I'm not sure if I want to get back into it again," Wu told me over the phone from South Africa, where he's filming the upcoming Tomb Raider film.

At the time, Wu was set to serve as an executive producer for the show because of his martial arts experience. After all, he had already appeared in Hong Kong action films such as Tai Chi Hero and Naked Weapon while in the US, and he also had roles in The Man with the Iron Fists and Warcraft. But when actor after actor auditioned for the lead role of the mighty warrior Sunny, no one except him seemed right for the part. "[The producers] were like, 'We looked far and wide, and we're either finding great actors who don't know any martial arts, or martial artists who don't know acting. You're one of the few people who can do both. Can you consider doing this?'"

Despite his initial reservations about taking the role, Wu gave the part a second chance. He worked out and trained every day until his body got back into shape. When he saw the results, he decided to commit.

Into the Badlands, which begins its second season on March 19, is loosely based on the Chinese tale Journey to the West. The show takes place in a post-apocalyptic world controlled by feudal barons. Wu plays the skilled lethal fighter—a "clipper"—Sunny, who also has a mysterious past. During the series, he yearns for a future free from his unpredictable and dangerous boss. Along for the ride is an orphan with special powers, M.K. (Aramis Knight), who repeatedly crosses Sunny's path. Together, the two develop a teacher-student relationship and embark on a journey in search of enlightenment.

When the show first premiered in 2015, it received generally positive reviews, with praise especially directed at its fighting scenes. Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter called the show "a bloody, fun and entertaining non-zombie counterpart to The Walking Dead." Maureen Ryan of Variety compared the series to "classic Samurai films and kinetic action fare churned out by Hong Kong maestros of furious fists."

The show's success has given Wu, now 42, recognition among American audiences. But for those who are fans of Asian cinema, he's already a familiar face.

Born and raised in California, Wu traveled to Asia in 1997 to witness the Handover of Hong Kong. At the time, he had just finished university with hopes of coming back to the US to become an architect. But one day, while at a bar, Wu was asked to star in a television commercial. That opportunity led to Wu's first role in a film called Bishonen, where he played a gay police officer. "Once I was on set, I fell in love with the whole process. I was like, 'I gotta keep doing this.'" It was then that he realized that he needed to stay in Hong Kong longer. So, after starring in films like City of Glass and Young and Dangerous: The Prequel, Wu was soon signed on to Jackie Chan's production company,  JC Group.

As a Chinese kid in America, Wu would often watch Kung Fu movies starring Chan, Bruce Lee, and Jet Li. In fact, it was those three actors who inspired him to take up martial arts. "I started learning Kung Fu because of the movies. When I was seven years old, I saw Jet Li's first movie Shaolin Temple, and I was like, 'I gotta learn that stuff,'" Wu said. "Being Chinese American in California, I also felt a connection to my culture doing that stuff. That's what made me want to learn it."

Poster for New Police Story (2004). Courtesy of Emperor Motion Pictures

Wu's ability to do martial arts has served him well on the screen in Asia. He went on to star in action-packed films like New Police Story, House of Fury, and Gen-X Cops. With his success overseas, it wasn't long until people started to encourage him to try and make his way back into the US.

However, getting roles back home was harder than he thought.

"I went to the States, and I went for meetings, but nothing really came of it. Obviously  ten to 15 years ago, I don't think America was diverse as it is now in terms of what you're seeing on television," Wu said.

"I thought, OK, forget it. I got a career going on in Asia. I'm not going to worry about the States. The United States is my home, but if they're not offering me a career there because of my race, then what am I going to do about it?"

Wu continued to act mostly in Asia, taking on a number of different roles to avoid being stereotyped as a martial artist. He played romantic leads, cops, and violent criminals. But in the end, it was his martial arts experience that helped him get back to the US with Into the Badlands.

As an executive producer, Wu played a vital part in making sure the fight scenes in Into the Badlands looked authentic. To ensure this, Wu brought in Hong Kong stunt choreographer Huan-Chiu Ku (a.k.a. Master Dee Dee) and director Stephen Fung to help with the fight scenes.

"The only way you can get this done is with a Hong Kong team because you got to work fast. We have eight days per episode, and there are two fights per episode," Wu said. "I don't think a lot of Western teams could pull it off. Hong Kong teams are used to that."

The authenticity of the show's fight scenes could also be attributed to the cast's grueling workout schedule. Before shooting, Wu trained every day for four to five months. After that, the cast took part in "Fight Camp," which includes eight to nine hours of intensive training every day for five weeks. There, they covered everything from sword fighting, acrobatics, and martial arts such as taekwondo and wushu.

But training for the show is only part of what makes the action on the show so convincing. For Wu, who grew up practicing wushu, there's also an art to making the fights look good on the screen.

"To be a screen martial artist, you need to know all the aspects of martial arts, plus weapons, plus tumbling and gymnastics to be a really good mover," he said. "I've seen really good on-screen martial artists who have never learned martial arts. They just happen to be really good, athletic people, and they understand how it needs to look on screen and are amazing at it."

But while many watch Into the Badlands for the action, the show also breaks new ground with an Asian American male lead. On the show, Wu's character is complicated; he has a good heart but is one of the most brutal killers alive. A former assassin, his character struggles to break away from his dark past.

Wu says the role allows him to play someone he's never been before: the antihero. "Most of the characters I've played are more straight, clear-cut, good guys or bad guys. This character, he's got a really dirty bad past, but he's trying to become good," he explained.

The complexity of Wu's character is groundbreaking, according to Keith Chow, the founder of pop culture website the Nerds of Color. He says Asian actors are often stereotyped into martial arts roles with little depth to their characters. "Ultimately, they're there to be the mentor to teach the white guy, like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. Mr. Miyagi is kind of a trope, the wise old Asian man who teaches the white hero to be heroic," he said.

While Wu does indeed play a martial artist on Into the Badlands, Chow says the role of Sunny has many layers. In the past, he adds, Asian actors have mostly been depicted as one-dimensional. Moreover, they're often portrayed in a non-romantic way.

"There was a point in the 90s where you had a bunch of Hong Kong movie stars come [to America]. Chow Yun Fat had a couple of movies, Jet Li did a couple of movies," Chow said, adding that this took place after the success of Rush Hour, which starred Jackie Chan. "They would definitely desexualize the male action star. Usually in Western action movies, the hero kisses the girl at the end, but Jet Li gets a chaste hug. There was a barrier to how you could depict an Asian action star."

Madeleine Mantock and Daniel Wu in Into the Badlands. Courtesy of Patti Perret/AMC

In Into the Badlands, Wu gets to play the romantic lead. His character Sunny gets involved in an interracial relationship with Veil (played by Madeleine Mantock), which fans of the show praised online with the Twitter hashtag #ColorMeBadlands. "I think it's amazing that it just so happens to be an Asian male with a black girl on the show," said Wu. "I don't think that's ever happened on television before."

Chow says the role of Sunny is a rarity in Hollywood. Oftentimes, Asian American actors are asked to play "the nerd, the Fu Manchu, the dragon lady, the perpetual foreigner, and the martial artist." In Into the Badlands, however, "Daniel Wu['s character] has a love life, and he has complicated feelings. He's the deadliest assassin, but he's also kind-hearted," Chow said. "Usually, Asian characters have been defined solely by their ability to do martial arts. They've never been able to be beyond that."

The role of Sunny is one of a handful of action roles given to Asian American actors in recent years. Right now, a live-action Mulan film is in the works with plans to feature an all-Asian cast. Another show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, also features Asian American talent like Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennett.

This is certainly a shift from stereotypical and whitewashed portrayals of Asian characters in the past. In Breakfast at Tiffany's, Mr. Yunioshi (portrayed by Mickey Rooney) was accused of yellowface for wearing makeup and a prosthetic mouthpiece to look like a caricatured version of a Japanese person. In Sixteen Candles, the character Long Duk Dong (played by Gedde Watanabe) was also criticized for being racially insensitive to Asians when his stilted English was used for comedic effect. And more recently in the film Cloud Atlas, Jim Sturgess's character takes the form of an Asian man—to which Media Action Network for Asian Americans president Guy Aoki responded to by saying, "It's a double standard: White actors are allowed to play anything—except black characters—and have the dominant roles; Asian male actors are nonexistent. And Pacific Islanders are played by blacks."

And the fight for more diversity still persists today. In a recent episode of comedian Bobby Lee's podcast TigerBelly, he talks about his experience running into The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun at an audition for a role that only had five lines because of the few opportunities offered to Asian actors in the business. In another opinion piece, actor Justin Chon recounts his experience at an audition where he was asked to perform with "an Asian accent." And, of course, there's the new film The Great Wall, which has been accused of casting Matt Damon in a "white savior" role.

Wu acknowledges, however, that there has been a lot of progress in television and film when it comes to including more diverse actors. With Into the Badlands as an example, Wu says producers consciously made the roles open to people of all races: "Producers just have to cast more diverse," he said. "When you become race-specific, you almost can't avoid stereotypes in some ways. So, you have to fight against that."

Wu says he also didn't realize how progressive his character was until the show came out. "I didn't really think about it because I've been in Hong Kong for 20 years for my career where I didn't think about race at all because everybody was Chinese in movies," he explained. "Being one of the few Asian American leads on a show on television, there's only a handful. When I looked at it from that perspective, I go, 'Wow. That is quite progressive.'"

But even though Wu is proud of his involvement with Into the Badlands, he says he's being careful not to be stereotyped into martial arts roles. "America may know me as Sunny, the martial arts actor… but I've done more than 70 films in Asia that range from being a nerd to being a company boss to being a gangster," he said, before adding that he'd like to film a comedy next.

As for his advice for other actors? Wu says they should keep fighting for more diversity. "As an actor, you're much more passive about the whole selection process. So all you have to do is be strong and turn down the roles that you think are not right for you and go for the roles that you think are really great," he said.

"It's a sacrifice, and it's really hard to do when you're trying to make a living off of it. But you also have to stand your ground as well."

Follow Samantha Lui on Twitter.