Set in a dystopian future, AMC’s new show Into the Badlands features Chinese American international star Daniel Wu. Already hugely popular in Asia, Wu plays the scarred protagonist, Sunny. The series, shot in New Orleans under a rigorous schedule, includes many choreographed fight scenes, drama, and more—an American wuxia (martial arts) show set in the South.
While Wu recognizes that having an Asian American male lead in a major network television show is a big deal, he didn’t always think of it as such. That’s because he was initially brought on board as an Executive Producer, not to star in it. He was eventually cast as the lead. One of the other main characters is M.K., played by teenager Aramis Knight, who is mixed race German, Indian and Pakistani. Several behind-the-scenes key players in addition to Wu are also Asian or Asian American, including Executive Producer Stephen Fung, who is also the show’s fight director. (Fun fact: Wu and Fung starred together in the 1998 Hong Kong film Bishonen, Wu’s first film).
His role comes at a time when TV executives are taking a chance on—even advocating for—Asian Americans in major television roles. Wu says he’s riding the wave alongside other Asian American actors like Randall Park, Constance Wu, Ken Jeong and Aziz Ansari. Kal Penn is developing a show. It seems that finally, there can be more than one, or two, or even whole families, of Asian Americans on TV at the same time.
Wu started training in marital arts in Orinda, CA, the San Francisco Bay Area suburb where he grew up, as a boy. While he recognizes martial arts is one stereotype that Asian actors have been able to play, he says Sunny is a character people haven’t seen before. He kicks ass in martial arts, yes, but is a complicated character and is on a spiritual journey. Wu also compares Into the Badlands to The Walking Dead (another AMC show)—a zombie genre drama that appeals to non-zombie fans alike. “You have to have compelling stories and compelling characters,” Wu said.
Wu chatted with a group of journalists and bloggers in a roundtable interview. Here’s what he said about what it means to him to break through as the lead and Executive Producer of a show on a major broadcast channel:
Yes, it’s interesting because I didn’t really think much about that until we were done making it. Because the process, it was very organic from me. To start off, I was just the Executive Producer developing a project for AMC, and that was exciting in itself.
And then when we went through the audition process and it became clear that I was going to be playing the lead role, because it didn’t start off that way. We wanted, originally, [to have] somebody in their late 20s or early 30s because physically it’s a very, very demanding role.
But eventually that didn’t work out and all eyes turned me and I ended up playing the role. So then I just focus in on maintaining the stamina through the whole season as well as portray the character. And so I didn’t really think about the impact of, you know, what the show is and the type of Asian American male playing a lead role in the show in AMC until much, much later.
And so, I think [when we were] doing a first round of promoting and people started to say, “Hey, this is kind of groundbreaking.” And I said, “Yes, right, that is true.” It’s a great feeling to be able to do this show, knowing the history of Kung Fu, the TV series that Bruce Lee tried to get going but then was stolen from him because studios were not ready to put a Chinese in the lead. And that felt really great to be able to right that wrong.
And so the impact of this, you know it’s slowly starting to seep in, but again at the same time, I don’t think it will be ground breaking until the show becomes a success. I really respect AMC for being adamant that the role was an Asian American role. An Asian American actor to play that role, because if it wasn’t for that support we wouldn’t have had that. And the role is not designed for an Asian necessarily, it could be a white guy, it could be a Black guy, it could be a Latino guy, it could be anybody. But AMC was adamant at making sure that that role was reserve for in Asian male and so that’s pretty ground breaking on their part.
And I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but I think the world of TV is changing now. You’re seeing a lot more Asian especially in males up here in TV media nowadays, so it’s cool to be part of that.
Into the Badlands premieres on AMC this Sunday, November 15 at 10/9c.
This post is made possible by XFinity.