Rising star Leonard Wu battles armies and gangs on-screen and lack of diversity off-screen

Photo by Diana Ragland
Leonard Wu on representation, his geeky dream job, and summer camp-like experience while filming Netflix’s “Marco Polo.”

Leonard Wu is rising as a talented actor in multiple series and films, including Netflix’s Marco Polo, the Martin Scorsese-produced Revenge Of The Green Dragons, and CAAMFest 2016’s Asian American horror/comedy/thriller, Crush The Skull.

Born and raised in D.C., Wu’s passions for Chinese Opera, martial arts, and comics have all given him a unique set of tools for his current craft, as well as a balanced and thoughtful outlook on work and life.

I chatted with Wu via phone to hear about his experiences with many recent projects, his current interests and philanthropy, and his hopes and work towards fixing Hollywood’s diversity gap.

-Brian Ray

Congratulations on your role as Orus in Netflix’s series, Marco Polo. Can you tell us about how you became a fan of the series and what led to your involvement?
I was looked at for season 1 in 2012 and fell in love with creator John Fusco’s work. He was so intelligent, passionate, and understanding of the culture and language, all of which was infused in the script. While timing didn’t work out for that season, I auditioned for season 2. Next thing I knew, I was flying to Hungary.

You’ve got some intense and sometimes gruesome scenes in Marco Polo. Without spoiling anything, can you share a scene that was particularly exciting or intense for you to film?
We had an epic battle in a particular episode that lasted 2-3 weeks of night shoots in Malaysia. It was monsoon season, and we were ankle-deep in mud with weapons, horses, and stuntmen all over the place. The phenomenal action shots involved a lot of practical effects, which helped me feel truly in the elements. The result was full of intense battles, sword fights, and hand-to-hand combat. I’ve never done anything like it. I had such an amazing and incredibly surreal experience.

Marco Polo comes shortly after another large project, Revenge Of The Green Dragons, where you play one of the leaders of a gang. Can you give us some background into joining the cast, preparing for the role, and your overall experiences with the film?
It’s interesting, because the project’s style was opposite of Marco Polo. It was truly a low-budget passion project, shot cinéma vérité-style, running around with handheld cameras -A lot of kinetic energy. I play a volatile and crazy gang leader, which gave me a lot of freedom to move around. With Marco Polo, the size and elements required a different precision.

You were born and grew up in Washington D.C. What can you share with us from your youth and growing up in the area with your family?
My father was a nuclear physicist, and my mother worked at my high school. I had a very normal suburban upbringing in suburbs of D.C., riding bikes, playing outside, and was also a bit of a geek.

Indulge us in your geekiness. What did you enjoy during your youth?
In 7th or 8th grade I was obsessed with comic books and wanted to be an artist. I went to a convention and met my hero, Jim Lee. He’s a Korean American artist who shepherded the entire DC universe, and currently draws Batman. When I met him, I gave him a bunch of my drawings, one of which was from Grifter from Wildcats. They ended up publishing it in one of his comic books.

Is there a dream role in the comic universe for you?
I can’t wait to play something in the Marvel or DC universes. I would be so psyched for that, because they’d capture the nostalgia from childhood. Unfortunately, growing up Asian American, it was hard to identify [with] and embody many of the roles in comics. I didn’t really see where I fit in. Restrictions become very clear.

There has been so much talk about diversity and visibility in the industry, including your positive comments on streaming providing increased opportunity. What do you hope to see in the near future with advancing this important step in representation? Do you see any of the changes already accelerating?
We have seen a lot of advancements with shows like Master Of None, Marco Polo, Fresh Off The Boat, and Dr. Ken. Could it move faster? Of course, but Hollywood is coming around to the idea. We’re seeing Asian Americans as lead actors and stars instead of marginal roles. It’s a brave new world.

We’ve heard that you also write and produce. Can you share any details on upcoming projects you are working on?
I can’t talk about them now because they are in early stages, but I continually write with writing partner and also produce. I am always working to broaden how Asian Americans are seen in the media in an organic way. People, regardless of color and any other differences, should be interested and fascinated by the stories. I want to create a mythology for Asian and Asian Americans similar to The Godfather.

You’ve worked with a variety of directors, including Andrew Lau, Susan Montford, Viet Nguyen, and multiple directors and creators with Marco Polo. Are there any standout experiences you have had with specific ones and do you see yourself in that creative role in the future?
I really enjoy working with Viet [director of Crush The Skull] a lot. His dark comedy is not my norm, but he always invites me to do stuff with him, which I’m very grateful for. He’s an editor as well, so we improv and he knows where to take the story. It’s a fun exercise in acting that I get to do. He’s also very funny. In terms of directing, I don’t see myself doing that anytime soon, as I am still growing to the role of guiding people in that fashion. I currently enjoy producing much more.

Shifting gears from your main profession, tell us about your connections to Chinese Opera, which your parents started you out in during your youth.
It’s very similar to the European equivalent, but combines the singing and elaborate costumes and painted faces with martial arts. I loved the fights, martial arts, and weapons side of it. While I don’t practice anymore, it translated to my interest in martial arts and helped me learn movement much easier. With Marco Polo, for example, the team would walk me through choreography and I’d pick it all up relatively quickly.

We’ve also heard that you are an avid proponent of animals and wildlife, including Marc Ching’s Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation. What shaped your passion for this and how has your career helped you advance your philanthropy?
It’s become a larger passion for me and has been ongoing for the past couple years. I read too many articles and watched videos of slaughterhouses and the animal and agriculture industry. I don’t place judgment upon people as it’s everyone’s personal choice, but I realized how spoiled I was, not knowing where my food came from. I also started to become aware of what happens to animals in general.

Then during filming Marco Polo, Indonesia was on fire, a lot of which was related to the palm oil industry. Wildlife was being decimated every day. I helped by donating to orangutan foundations. Through social media, I came across Marc Ching. This guy was rescuing animals and his cause was amazing, so I donated to his foundation. When I got back to the states, we became friends. Now I volunteer to take care of the many rescues who come in locally and abroad. My life now allows me to help, financially, as well.

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