Daniel Wu has been making headlines for his hit AMC martial arts drama “Into the Badlands”. The great storytelling, drama, and beautifully choreographed fight scenes have created a legion of fans all over the world.
Wu is far from a brand new star. He’s been in the entertainment business for decades and achieved stardom in Hong Kong before ever setting foot in Hollywood. However, acting was not something Wu initially wanted to pursue.
Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Daniel Wu for a quick chat about his story. It was quite eye-opening and interesting for me to hear the thoughts of an Asian-American man who’s found success both overseas and in the mainstream.
In the past, there have certainly been stars from Asia who’ve crossed over to Hollywood — notably Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, and Jackie Chan — however, while they’ve starred as the lead role for most of their Western movies, they’re still emasculated to a certain extent. Chef and writer Eddie Huang probably puts it best in his memoir:
“Yo, you notice Asian people never get any pussy in movies? Jet Li rescued Aliyah, no pussy! Chow Yun-Fat saves Mira Sorvino, no pussy. Chris Tucker gets mu-shu, but Jackie Chan? No pussy!”
On of the other hand, one of the earliest scenes in the first episode of “Into the Badlands” is of Wu’s character Sunny getting intimate with his onscreen girlfriend Veil (played by Madeleine Mantock). This kind of display of an Asian man is so rare in mainstream Hollywood that I can’t remember the last time I saw something like this happen onscreen.
However, making Asian men more “macho” and “desirable” isn’t Wu’s agenda — well, not directly at least. But before getting into that, lets look at his background.
Born in Berkeley, California, Wu was raised in Orinda by parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Shanghai after the communist revolution in 1949.
“We spoke Shanghai-dialect growing up, which nobody spoke here, so it was like a very secret language that we had,” Wu told NextShark. “And then I spoke more Mandarin, because they spoke it to their friends as well as my Kung Fu teacher.”
Growing up, Wu idolized martial arts stars like Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen who inspired him to study Wushu when he was 11. He always wanted to see more Asians onscreen and expressed his disappointment when Russell Wong’s 1994 show “Vanishing Sun” was cancelled after one season.
Despite idolizing stars onscreen, Wu never dreamed of having a career in entertainment. He studied architecture at the University of Oregon and continued his martial arts studies by founding the school’s first Wushu club in 1994. During the summer, he’d intern at various companies pertaining to his major and quickly learned that working a nine-to-five job might not be his cup of tea.
“I love the creative aspect of school, but the profession is not very creative. It’s like 2% creative and then 90% administrative manager or something like that,” he said. “I didn’t want to end up wasting my creativity on something like that.”
From there, he decided not to pursue architecture anymore. He thought about possibly pursuing more creative careers like set-design or graphic design.
As a graduation present, Wu’s parents paid for him to go to Hong Kong in 1997 to witness the city’s handover from British rule back to China. His plans were to travel around Asia then look for a job when he came home.
Wu had around $2,000 to last for three months. However, he had to cut his trip short after spending nearly all his money in Japan. In a stroke of luck, he was scouted and offered $4,000 to do a TV commercial.
“That commercial came out a month later and then the director of my first film saw it, and that’s how he auditioned me for the lead role in his film,” Wu said.
That same week, he was offered the movie role and Wu was invited to a party with an actress friend he was training in martial arts at the time. A group of Hong Kong stars were in attendance, including superstar Jackie Chan, Wu’s childhood idol.
“I just wanted to see him, I’m not that kind of person who’s like, ‘I gotta meet my idol.’ I like to admire from afar,” Wu said.
Eventually, his friend just dragged him over to Chan and she introduced Wu:
“This is my friend. He just arrived in Hong Kong, he’s teaching me martial arts.”
Chan then looked Wu up and down and said, “You have a phone number?”
Wu then gave him his phone number and he took it and walked away. Two days later, he got a call from Willie Chan, Jackie Chan’s manager at the time, and asked him to come down to the office.
“We were having a discussion, he’s like, ‘You know, Jackie really likes you and wants to sign you to the company, but frankly, there are no jobs right now.’ And I go, ‘Well, I have this script. I got this movie.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, okay. We’ll manage you then,'” he said.
Despite having no plans to get into the business, being at the right place at the right time put Wu on the road to becoming one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong. Since debuting in the 1998 romantic drama “Bishonen”, Wu has been featured in over 60 films.
Although things just seemed to fall into place for Wu, his success hasn’t come without challenges. On the outside, he looked just like everyone else in Hong Kong, but he was American on the inside.
“There’s a huge difference between Asian-American and Chinese-American and Chinese. If you’re Asian-American and you go to Asia, they don’t look at you as Asian. You’re white to them,” Wu said
“I remember one time I was eating lunch, and someone looked at me and said, ‘You know how to use chopsticks?’ I go, ‘Yeah, of course.’ He goes, ‘But you’re American.’ I go ‘What are you talking about?’ Then it became, ‘Well, I’m not Asian, I’m not white, what am I then?'”
Wu worked hard to integrate himself into the culture. He taught himself Cantonese by forcing himself to speak it all the time, including to friends who were Asian American.
“If I didn’t know, I’d use the Mandarin word first, and then if I really didn’t know the word, I’d use the English word, but the last choice, I’d inject English into a sentence, but I would try my best to use Cantonese the most,” Wu said.
However, after living in Asia for 20 years and going back to the U.S., Wu found it hard to relate to Asian American issues.
“I didn’t really relate to that anymore because if you look at it all in the bigger scale of things, it’s a small thing,” Wu said.
“What we really should be doing is looking at global issues and global rights, not just this one little thing.
“I’m an actor that wants to be on a good show. If it’s a good Asian-American show, that’s a different thing, but I don’t want to be on a show just because it’s Asian-American.”
Although these words might not sound favorable to some in the Asian-American community, I wouldn’t say that it means Wu doesn’t care about Asian-American issues. It’s undeniable that his role in “Into the Badlands” breaks Asian male stereotypes. He shows that Asian men can not only be smart and good at martial arts, but also sexy and masculine.
What’s also interesting is that Wu was actually not supposed to play Sunny in “Into the Badlands”. He was initially supposed to be signed on as an executive producer in charge of martial arts. However, after auditioning hundreds of candidates, they simply couldn’t find anyone who was the perfect balance of an actor and a martial artist. At that point, the producers knew the role belonged to Wu.
“Up until the point I landed my first gig, I had planned everything in my life,” Wu said “I planned to study architecture. I knew what school to go to. I knew everything. Then fate just took me for a turn I didn’t even expect. I became a true believer in it. I was like, ‘There are some things in the universe that are aligned … and you should follow those guidelines that push you in that direction. So I did.”
When asked what the biggest differences are between working in Hong Kong versus Hollywood, Wu summed everything up to efficiency:
“We don’t waste money in Hong Kong — we do things quickly and fast. In the West, I think they’re spoiled with big budgets, so they drag their feet a lot on a lot of things and overspend. There are certain things where I see a lot of wastage and I feel like, it’s dumb to waste money on that.”
Aside from his hit series, Wu has yet to to slow down. He landed a major role in the 2016 film “Warcraft” and the upcoming “Tomb Raider” reboot set for release in 2018.
As Steve Martin likes to say, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” I think it’s clear Daniel Wu has achieved this. “Into the Badlands” is not an “Asian American show,” it’s a great show with beautiful fight choreography, cinematography, and drama where the leading man just so happens to be Asian — and that is possibly the biggest statement one can make in breaking stereotypes.