AMC’s new action fantasy series Into the Badlands slashed its way to a huge premiere last week, making the most of its lead-in from veteran megahit The Walking Dead to debut with the highest ratings of any new cable or network series this season. The show, which takes place in a dystopian future America ruled by seven ruthless barons, combines ambitiously expansive worldbuilding with breathtakingly elaborate martial arts combat.
This strange and remarkable fusion wouldn’t hold without the stellar performance of protagonist Daniel Wu as Sunny, a lethal human weapon who has taken over 400 lives for his baron, each marked with a tattooed swash on his back. But his years of loyal service are suddenly tested with the arrival of a young man named M.K. (newcomer Aramis Knight), who may hold the key to a brighter world beyond the bloody Badlands.
Born and raised in San Francisco, and now a marquee superstar in Greater China, Wu has been jetting back and forth between his native and adopted homes, bouncing between promotional activities for Badlands and an ongoing movie shoot with legendary Hong Kong action director Ringo Lam.
Slate caught up with Wu on his most recent trip back to the U.S., to discuss the challenges of bringing martial arts to the small screen, righting the wrongs of cinematic history, and how it feels to be that rarest of creatures: an Asian male romantic action lead in Hollywood.
In Into the Badlands, you pretty much stay away from special effects. The action is legit.
That was the whole goal: Bringing legitimate Chinese martial arts cinema to a production with Hollywood-style budgets. When I was a kid, I loved watching kung fu movies—in San Francisco, we had “Kung Fu Theater” on TV on Saturdays, and they’d air old Shaw Brothers movies with English dubbing, things like that. Then one day my grandfather said to me “You want to watch kung fu? Let me show you real kung fu.” And he took me down to the Great Star Theater in Chinatown to watch Jet Li’s first movie, Shaolin Temple. After it was over, he said “That is kung fu.” I was so enamored of it that I wanted to learn it for myself. So at age 11, I started learning wushu.
I was a hyperactive kid, and it took awhile for me to find the right teacher. My master was a Shaolin kung fu teacher, but he also taught tai chi, Chinese medicine, brush painting—he was adept at all facets of Chinese culture. It was great to be a Chinese American kid and absorb all of that. [Orinda,] the town I grew up in, was mostly Caucasian, so learning martial arts really brought me much closer to my roots. And because my master was this renaissance man, I wasn’t just learning a fighting style, I was learning how kung fu permeates all aspects of life, from eating to healthy living to mental state. I learned the philosophy behind it, which is an essential part of martial arts that I think often gets overlooked.
But you never had any intention to become an action star—or even an actor?
Not at all. I took a crazy path to get here. I graduated from university with a degree in architecture, and then ended up doing a series of internships with different firms. And once I was in an office environment, I realized that at school what I was doing was 98 percent creative, 2 percent makework, but in the real world, it was the other way around. I had an older classmate who worked for I.M. Pei. She ended up drawing the same window detail over and over for two years straight.
So I went on a soul-searching mission. It was 1997, and I decided to visit Hong Kong because this historical moment was happening, with the island being handed back to China. I made the mistake of going to Japan first, where I spent all of my money. By the time I got to Hong Kong I was broke. I was in this bar having a drink, depressed that I’d have to go straight back to the U.S., and this guy came up to me and asked if I wanted to be in a TV commercial. I asked how much, and they told me $4,000. And because I wanted to keep traveling, I took the money and did the ad. Well, this director, Yonfan, saw my commercial, and he called me in for an interview, and by the end of the conversation, he asked me to play the lead in his next film. I said to him, “Are you crazy? I don’t act, and I can’t even speak Cantonese!”
That same week, I ran into Jackie Chan at a party, and within a few minutes of talking, he told me he wanted to be my manager. “What, are you serious?” My mind was blown. I went from drinking in a bar to starring in a feature film and having the biggest star in Asia as my manager.
And it would never have happened that way in the United States.
Never. So after things started to take off in Hong Kong, I decided I’d stay there and build my career there as much as possible. I loved the vibe of filmmaking there — it’s much more intimate, you have these passionate people from all walks of life, from blue-collar to highly educated types, all working very closely together. Hong Kong had accepted me, and frankly, I thought I was just going to stay there.
You didn’t think about trying to come back and make it in Hollywood?
I knew from growing up that they wouldn’t put my kind of people onscreen. There were no decent roles for Asians, much less Asian males. Even when Jackie Chan broke through over here and people fell in love with him, they weren’t really seeing him as this iconic, superstar actor—they were seeing him as this cute, funny oriental dude who spoke broken English and did acrobatic tricks. As an Asian American male, what they were in love with is everything you hate, you know?
When they were premiering Rush Hour 2, Jackie invited all of the artists his company managed to come to L.A. for the premiere, and at the premiere party a producer came up to me and said, “Oh, you’re an actor in Hong Kong? But your English is amazing!” And I said, “Oh, I was born here.” “Oh, you’re not from Hong Kong?” And he lost interest in me as soon as he knew I was from America, not Asia. He bought into the stereotype that all Asians are foreigners, that we all speak with an accent.
Well, that’s pretty much the only way Asians were depicted in movies in the ’80s and ’90s.
I grew up with 16 Candles, Long Duk Dong, that shit. That character, for our generation, pretty much sealed the idea for a lot of Americans that all Asian people are like that.
Which brings us to Into the Badlands: Sunny is definitely not like that.
It’s a movie that takes place in America. There’s no reason for it. Our goal was to take the typical wuxia film and set it in a future America, giving it a kind of Southern gothic vibe. We wanted to replicate the basic structure—the feudal society, the epic battles, the themes of loyalty and honor—but to do it as a mashup with tropes that people would feel were weirdly familiar.
How did you get involved with the project?
Well, the genesis of project came when Stacey Sher, one of our executive producers, ran into the head of production of AMC [Jason Fisher] at the premiere for the movie The Man with the Iron Fists [Wu Tang Crew rapper RZA and Eli Roth’s homage to classic Chinese martial arts films]. He told her, “Why isn’t anyone doing this on TV? We should try it.” And because I’ve worked with Stacey before, she gave me a call and said, “AMC wants me to do this thing, but I have no idea how. You’ve done it before. Can you really do this kind of action for TV?” And I told her, “Only if you use a Hong Kong team.
Stephen Fung [an executive producer and the series’ fight director] and I wanted to reference everything we liked growing up. Late ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong action movies—Tsui Hark and Jet Li, Jackie Chan. Some old-school Shaw Brothers stuff. And anime, like Fist of the North Star. Samurai films like Shogun Assassin, because we saw the two main characters, Sunny and M.K., as wandering through this world like “Lone Wolf and Cub.” And of course Bruce Lee. In a lot of ways, we saw this as righting the wrong that occurred when Warner Brothers cast David Carradine over Bruce Lee in Kung Fu.
Casting a white guy who didn’t know martial arts over the Chinese guy who was one of the greatest martial artists in the world.
Yeah. From the beginning, we said that Sunny had to be Asian, and to their credit, AMC was totally down with that.
But you weren’t thinking of taking the role yourself .
No, not at all. I had my producer’s hat on, and I told them we had to find someone in their 20s or 30s, because if this show goes on for five or six years, the amount of fighting that has to be done is incredible—you’d need someone in their physical peak. I’m 41 now. I’ve worked with Jackie Chan, and I’ve seen the injuries he’s had, the pain he’s in. I stopped doing martial arts films in Hong Kong years ago, because as much as I love the genre, I tore an ACL, I broke an ankle—I realized it was not sustainable. So strictly for the show’s sake, I told them we really needed to get a young guy to do this.
[But] as we worked on this and the pilot was written and the character got fleshed out, I really fell in love with it. I finally gave in. And then it was training, training, training—it was hell.
Looks like the training worked.
You want to have legitimate action, you have to commit. And we wanted people to be amazed by how kickass the action was. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg — we knew that the fight scenes are what would draw people in, but the layered complexities of the storytelling, even the spiritual aspect of the plot, we wanted those to be clearly expressed in the show as well.
By spiritual aspect, do you mean the elements drawn from Chinese mythology?
Yes, because the plot is loosely, very loosely, inspired by Journey to the West, the story of the Monkey King, who’s this rebellious, ornery character that eventually transforms into a buddha by the end of the story. The Chinese name for the Monkey King is Sun Wukong—Sunny. And the journey of the title has Sun Wukong tasked with guiding a monk to retrieve the wisdom of enlightenment. M.K. stands for Monk. But the parallels don’t get any more literal than that. Journey to the West has been adapted so many times that we didn’t want to rehash it—we just wanted to give our story a solid spiritual core. Sunny and M.K. are on a quest to escape the Badlands to reach this legendary city called Azra. Well, originally the city’s name was Nirvana, but we thought that was a bit too obvious.
For a spiritual story, there are some pretty steamy scenes.
Yeah, the relationships are important to the story. And it felt especially important to show an Asian male as having a sensual side. We all know the story of Romeo Must Die, how Jet Li is the movie’s hero, and the whole time you see this connection developing between him and Aaliyah, who played the female lead. And in the last scene, Li was supposed to kiss her, but when they showed the movie to test audiences, people said they found that disgusting. In the version they released, you just see them give each other a hug. So I don’t want to say this is groundbreaking, because we need to make this a success yet, but it’s cool that we were able to right that wrong too. It’s been 15 years since Romeo Must Die, and 40 years since Kung Fu. That’s just ridiculous. But it’s Hollywood, so I’ll take it.