Interview with Daniel Wu, Actor and Executive Producer, Into the Badlands

Confession: I don’t watch much TV. There are a lot of new television shows that sound intriguing but none that I personally feel compelled to watch and/or continue to watch….  until Into the Badlands (Premiering Sunday Nov 15 at 10pm).

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At first, I was hesitant. In writing, ““Into the Badlands” is a genre-bending martial arts series very loosely based on the classic Chinese tale “Journey to the West.” In a land controlled by feudal barons, “Badlands” tells the story of a ruthless, well-trained warrior named Sunny (Daniel Wu) and a young boy who embark on a journey across a dangerous land to find enlightenment.”

That didn’t really say much to me but Whoa. What! Daniel Wu? I fell in love with him in the Chinese movie Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. I was pleasantly surprised to see him as the leading actor on this show. Though he’s a Chinese American actor (He was born and raised in the Bay area) he has had a prolific career in Hong Kong. I felt it was a pretty big deal that he was on this. The show looked like a lot of fighting in a dystopian society. Not my usual thing but my interest was piqued and I had to learn more.

Last week I went to a screening for a preview of the pilot of the 6 episode series. Earlier that day, I had the opportunity to interview Daniel. Afterwards there was a Q&A where the audience got to hear from the cast and producers (Alfred Gough and Miles Millar of Smallville) first hand about the idea behind the show. It was pretty clear to me how much thought, love, work, blood sweat and tears (literally) went into this project.

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Daniel Wu in the flesh

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Some highlights of the pilot/first episode:

  1. The badass fighting scenes. There were definitely moments when I cringed in fear but each fight was visually compelling. I couldn’t stop staring. My favorite scene was the one in the rain at the end of the first episode. It reminded me of the scene from The Grandmaster. The East meets West vibes of this show are strong and I love it. It’s a wonderfully smart homage and inspiration. It felt so authentic that at times, I forgot that it was an American TV show. Not only did the cast go through a grueling 6 week fight camp where where they went through training with an elite team from Hong Kong led by Master Dee Dee, martial arts coordinator (Crouching Tiger, Matrix), but also Daniel Wu is a scholar in the Chinese martial arts discipline of wushu.

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Scene from The Grandmaster

2. The opening credits are a work of art that blends East and West masterfully through an animated mix between contemporary comic book drawings and classic scroll paintings. It’s an empowering and beautiful intro that perfectly sums up the vibes of the show, made by none other than Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda.

Video of the opening sequence: http://www.amc.com/shows/into-the-badlands/video-extras/opening-credits-into-the-badlands

3. Watching the show made me feel like I was in art history class again. I was reminded of when we analyzed the influences, style and techniques behind each art piece. The Badlands are like the works of art we analyzed. It’s a dystopian world that I’ve never seen on television before. A mash-up of Asian Cinema, Pre-Edo Japan, Japanese Medieval Society, HK Cinema, Cowboy/Western… It’s hard to categorize but interesting to think about. My advice: stop trying to label it and just enjoy.

I could go on, but I’ll let you watch it for yourself.  Did I mention you get to see both leading men shirtless? They make fighting in leather in 90 degree New Orleans weather look easy.

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With Aramis Knight who plays M.K. on the show. Can you believe he’s only 16? Such a bright future ahead. Rooting for you!

What makes Daniel the perfect person to play Sunny? Excerpts from the interview below.

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The halo behind Daniel’s head was not intentional

What does it mean for you to breakthrough as the lead and executive producer of a show on a major broadcast channel, in front of a very worldwide audience?

Daniel Wu: It’s interesting because I didn’t really think much about that until we were done making it. The process was very organic for me. To start off, I was just the executive producer developing a project for AMC, and that was exciting in itself.

When we went through the audition process it became clear that I was going to be playing the lead role. Originally the idea was to get somebody in their late 20s or early 30s because physically it’s a very, very demanding role. Finding someone with both the acting and martial arts experience proved to be difficult and didn’t work out, so all eyes turned to me and I ended up playing the role. The whole season, my focus was on maintaining the stamina to be a producer and portray the character, so I didn’t really think about the impact of the show and the fact that an Asian American male was playing a lead role in a show for AMC until much later.

                              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. It feels really great to be able to right that wrong.

                              I really respect AMC for being adamant that the role was Asian American. If it wasn’t for that support we wouldn’t have had that. The role was not designed for an Asian specifically but AMC was adamant at making sure that that role was reserved for an Asian male- that’s pretty ground breaking on their part. The world of TV is changing now. You’re seeing a lot more Asians in media nowadays so it’s cool to be part of that.

                              And so the impact of this, you know it starts slowly, starts to seep in, but again at the same time, until the show becomes really successful, it’s too early to call it groundbreaking.

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M.K. played by Aramis Knight

 Mentally where is Sunny, your character at, when the series begins?

He is what he has been for his whole life: a ruthless killer, very smart and quick with his wit and very fiercely loyal to Quinn, his baron.  But as the first episode starts, he runs into MK (Aramis Knight), he finds about (Veil) his girl being pregnant, and things start to change for him because all his life, he’s been kind of conditioned to follow this one sort of cult leader. He’s created a life in killing people, but he sees the purity and innocence of MK and is reminded of what he once was. His world starts to change. What drew me to Sunny was that I could see that this character is going to change over time. As an actor, that was what was interesting- that he’s not just a stoic cold hearted killer all the way through the series but he has a real spiritual transformation.

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Veil (love interest) and Sunny

Is there anybody- either character or person that maybe you were inspired by for this role that informed your portrayal or was it all just kind of from the script?

I think it was all mostly from the script but the script is influenced by a lot of stuff that we like. Al and Miles (the producers) are very familiar with the martial arts genre. Stephen Fung (Executive Producer and Fight Director) and I have obviously been fans of the genre for many, many years. By osmosis of us being fans of the genre and understanding the sort of tropes of this kind of genre, we were able to make story and character decisions.

We didn’t take anything in particular except for the reference of the Journey to the West, which is a classic Chinese fable. Simply put, it’s about reaching enlightenment. It’s the fable of how Buddhism came to China but really the transformation of the monkey king who starts off as a rebellious, naughty kind of character and becomes an enlightened Buddha at the end because of all the fights and challenges in the way which are allegories for life.  We took that kind of concept and that sub-text and put it into kind of development of the character.

 As an actor and producer how do you hope this will shape (Asians in) media?

Over the years I’ve been auditioning and have been offered roles in the states but a lot of them did fall into that one stereotype.  Things have changed over time with the huge interest in the China market and Hollywood having a huge interest in the China market nowadays with films like Transformers making money – more money over there than here. They’re realizing by injecting Chinese actors into their films now, it kind of gives them extra bonuses in that territory. With that, it’s important to make sure actors are put in the right roles. I feel like that that hasn’t been done properly yet.

I knew that putting an Asian in the martial arts genre show could be very “stereotypical” but I wanted to see what the character would be like and if it was the type of Asian character that we’ve seen before in Asian films. Instead, what we’re seeing is a strong Asian male lead who has a girl, who resists and isn’t just a part of the team but is leading this whole story. He’s stoic but then he opens up and you see his emotional side. That wasn’t intentional, and it just happened organically.

It started with a stereotype and kind of blossomed into something else and that’s why I fell in love with the character and why I decided to do it. We weren’t consciously trying to change the phase of Hollywood by creating more diverse roles for Asian, it just happened to be that way because of the team I work with: people who less close minded than the executives in Hollywood.

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Do you see any of yourself in your character (Sunny)?

I always say, where I’m at now in my life is where I think Sunny is trying to get to. That’s part of what attracted me to the role. I saw that Sunny is going for a place that I know about.

A lot has happened to me in the past few years. I turned 40; I got married, got a kid and my mother passed away. I experienced life and death within one year and my career is starting to blossom. It has been a while and I’m just trying to get a name here in the United States but I’m in a different state of mind. A calm, peaceful state which is different than the path before which felt like a struggle or an uphill battle just to be come better, or do this or to do that.

I feel really comfortable with myself in my own skin now and I think that’s where (Sunny) is trying to get to. He is trying to find who he really is. I think that’s what I really am finally at 40.

In this series, you’re also executive producer as well as the main actor, how did you juggle that?

 It was very, very challenging. Our days are 12 to 16 hours long. I had a trailer that I got into in the morning to put my clothes and once I was on set, I never left. If I’m not shooting, I’m doing some kind of problem solving producing wise or we’re preparing for the next fight or coordinating something between our production people. So it’s schizophrenic and it’s crazy but I’m glad it happened to me in this point of my life. If I was in my 20s or 30s, trying to play two roles like these, that would probably make me crazy. But because I had a lot of experience producing and acting I was able to find that balance.

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You make it a point to share your story or your professional journey in a meaningful way whenever you can, whether it’s an AMA (Ask me anything) thread on Reddit or the HKU (Hong Kong University) visit (a great video you can watch here). If there is one thing or one lesson that someone should be able to take away from your story, what do you hope it would be?

I think the most important thing is finding what you’re passionate about and run with that because that’s what going to drive you to have success in life. If you’re one of the lucky few that get to do a job that you’re passionate about, you’re very, very blessed. Should you have that opportunity, run with it. That’s what happened to me. I mean, I fell into the movie business and it just happened to be what I was passionate about and that is what has driven me to work so hard over the past 20 years. It’s because of that one passion.

                      So I think my advice for anybody, in whatever field they’re getting into… find that passion, stick with it and run with it.

In your experience with Wushu martial arts, are there any life lessons you can draw? 

Yes perseverance. You have to be really disciplined enough to persevere. In my career, in my industry, I started out with a bunch of guys who are no longer actors because they gave up on it, got disheartened or whatever it may be.

Maybe some of them didn’t work on their craft as much as they should have and they worked on other things-  tried to be more of a bigger celebrity rather than being a better actor. So, martial arts helped me to find that focus, discipline and perseverance.

 I learned very early on that if I didn’t practice I wasn’t going to get good at Kung Fu. I couldn’t just go to class 2 days a week and expect to get better. I knew I had to practice on my own and put in that time in order to get better. That’s why I was able to be relatively successful as a martial artist and then able to transfer that discipline and perserverance into school, architecture (which is what I studied), then into the film business. It totally was all one thing.

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After hearing him speak, I’m very happy to have someone like him on TV for guys to watch and look up to. Not only is he handsome, he is articulate, well spoken, thoughtful, talented, generous, intelligent and 100% badass. Just a sexy man inside and out.

There’s already a lot of reviews of the show out there, but I try not to read them because I want to decide for myself. So decide for yourself. Whether it’s out of curiosity, for the strong female characters, the martial arts/fighting/badassery, the dystopian society or because you happened to linger after The Walking Dead, I say you should watch it…  Let me know what you think in the comments!

Follow Into the badlands on facebook for updates. You can find Daniel Wu on instagram and of course follow me for more of my LA adventures on my instagram! (I’m trying to keep up with blog posts!!)

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For those of you interested (or those who don’t know who Daniel Wu is), this reddit thread was fun to read to get to know him.

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