If you haven’t seen the treat that is Netflix’s “Wu Assassins” yet, the time is ripe to catch the stellar performance of Hong Kong-born American actress and martial artist JuJu Chan, whose growing fan base has aptly hailed her as the “Female Bruce Lee.”
Chan, who is marrying Australian director and producer Antony Szeto this month, recently sat down with NextShark to talk about the show, her love for martial arts and being an Asian actor with a rich cultural background to share.
Born on Feb. 2, 1989, Chan, who has a twin sister, migrated to the U.S. with her parents at the age of 3 and settled in San Francisco, California.
She attended the University of San Francisco, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Mathematics (with honors) before completing a master’s degree in Film and Television at the prestigious New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
A professional martial artist who, for one, represented the Hong Kong Taekwondo (ITF) national team in the 2013 Taekwondo World Championship in Bulgaria, Chan may be best known to audiences for her role as Silver Dart Shi in the 2016 film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny”, the star-studded sequel to the 2000 masterpiece “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
In August 2018, the 30-year-old actress was cast in “Wu Assassins” as the villainous Zan, the Triad’s lieutenant who aspires to lead the criminal group herself.
“I love ‘Wu Assassins’ because this is an English-speaking project with a lot of Asians as the lead, and it’s full of martial arts,” Chan told us from her apartment in Hollywood. “And it doesn’t have just one kickass girl, we have four or five kickass girls, we have a lot of strong female characters in it.”
Chan is referring to the show’s nearly all-Asian lead characters, headed by protagonist Kai Jin (Iko Uwais) and antagonist Uncle Six (Byron Mann). Female actors include Li Jun Li, Celia Au, Katheryn Winnick and guest star Summer Lyn Glau.
“All of us play very different roles that you normally wouldn’t see Asians playing in the mainstream,” Chan says. “It’s a Netflix global original series — they did this for the Asian market and I think it’s great. It’s really special. We are the first TV series for Netflix doing that, with Kung fu martial arts and a lot of Hong Kong culture in it.”
Chan’s extensive kung fu background has prepared her for seamless performance in the show. Growing up, she idolized prominent names in martial arts entertainment.
“[I looked up to] Michelle Yeoh, Kara Wai … there are so many. I’ve watched a lot of their movies,” Chan recalls. “When I was in Hong Kong, you watch TVB and TVB replays a lot of these action films, and at that time I saw all of these amazing women, martial arts actresses. Of course Jackie Chan is definitely my idol, Jet Li, and Bruce Lee, I saw his clips when I was young using nunchucks.”
As a child, Chan mimicked her idols’ moves and improvised whatever she could find to use as nunchucks.
“At home, I would use shoelaces and tie up rulers to make my nunchucks, sometimes Chinese sausages,” Chan shared. “And then when I was watching Jackie Chan’s movies, I would follow his moves.”
“When I was a kid, like 8 or 9 years old, I would be jumping from coffee table to coffee table and onto the dining table, breaking everything at home. It was a little hard for my parents to control me. They put me in a martial arts school, but they’re not martial artists, so to them any style is the same thing. There was a judo school very close by my place at that time, so the first style I learned was judo.”
Aside from judo and taekwondo, Chan has also trained in Shotokan karate, Muay Thai and boxing. She also learned nunchucks, wing chun and hung ga under Sifu Joseph Cheng.
“I personally think that as a martial artist and an action actor, you should know different disciplines, because you never know what role you’re playing and what style the character has,” Chan says. “I like to do all my fight stunts myself. I try to equip myself as much as I can every time, and when I’m not filming, I’ll be learning a new discipline and constantly training myself to perfect my skills to keep it up.
“I think it’s very important because you don’t want to waste an opportunity — once it’s there, you have to be ready. I’m constantly training, practicing and finding new things to learn, and every time when I’m hanging out with action people, stunt coordinators and fight choreographers, even on set, I’ll be grabbing their time to teach me their stuff.
“Recently, I was in the film ‘Jiu Jitsu’ filming in Cyprus, so there were martial artists from different disciplines. There was one guy who was very good in Capoeira, so I asked him to teach me all day. Then one was really good at other weapons, so I’ll be asking them to give me free lessons.”
Having starred in “Sword of Destiny”, Chan spent time working with legendary director and martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, whom she described as “very detail-oriented and very focused.” Because he did not talk much on set, she learned most from observing his work.
“I’ve worked with master Yuen Woo-Ping. He doesn’t really talk much, especially when we are on set. He is very focused in thinking about his moves. I didn’t really learn from asking questions. I learned from just watching him work. He’s very detail-oriented and very focused. I think that’s important for a martial artist. You have to be focused on what you’re learning,” Chan recalled.
“That’s why when I’m going for a taekwondo fight, for that whole three or four months, I’ll just be training taekwondo because focusing is important. If I know I’m prepping for a film with a lot of Chinese kung fu, then I would just do Chinese kung fu for a period of time.
“When I’m watching master Yuen Woo-ping, although he was like 70-something years old when he was filming the second ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ he was smoking and waving his sword and thinking about all the moves. It’s just great watching him work and thinking about choreography, and every time, when you look at his films, each will definitely have iconic action scenes that people will remember.”
Learning from observing, Chan stressed the importance of knowing a variety of styles and being quick enough to pick up choreography.
“I think it’s important to be observant, especially when you want to be an action star because a lot of times, we learn the choreography at the very last minute,” she says. “We don’t always have the luxury of time to learn all the moves and practice months in advance. I’ve never had that opportunity. Most of the time, if we have a month in advance to train, that would be great, but usually they don’t come up with the moves yet. We usually learn all the moves on the day [of filming].”
Chan also revealed how there is very little time to prepare for the stunts in action films:
“When I was doing a Hong Kong movie, it’s like you have 15 minutes to learn and you have to do it,” she says. “That’s why they like to find actors who can do martial arts and perform. If you can’t perform the choreography immediately, they would just ask the stunt double to come in and take your place, and then you just have to step aside.
“That’s not me. For me, I do all my own stunts and I like to give the director the ability to film long takes and wide shots to see all the moves, instead of close ups of just your face. That’s why every time when I film an action film, I tell the director and the fight choreographer that I have to do my own stunts.
“I don’t mind putting more time in it if they need, or even if at the last minute they need me to learn something, I pick it up very quickly. As an action actress, I have to do it myself. It’s what I’m passionate about and I want to show the audience my skills.”
However, Chan points out that action scenes are in no way a solo performance. Instead, they require teamwork.
“You’re fighting with another person, no matter if you are a co-star or other bad guys or stunt actors,” she says. “You aren’t just fighting yourself. The fight choreographer choreographs the moves, the actors, the performers, the stunt people, they all work together. Then there’s the timing, the beats, and the camera has to capture it correctly — otherwise, whatever you do, they won’t see it. Then there’s editing and sound everything, so it’s a teamwork. I love teamwork.”
Working with her co-stars in “Wu Assassins” has also kept Chan in touch with her Asian identity. Apparently, the cast spent their time enjoying hotpot after work.
“I’m Asian. Very Asian,” Chan says. “Every time I take on a role, I will bring in some Asian culture in it. People who see me, they know I’m Chinese and Asian. People who hire me to play a role are not going to ask me to act like I’m not Asian. I have mannerisms in which sometimes I’ll add in words — Chinese words if I can — when it’s appropriate. And generally speaking, when I’m on set filming, we love bringing in our culture to the crew because we always do hotpot after work. We welcome people to our home to eat together.
“So we’re bringing that culture to our Western crew. A lot of the crew members, even on ‘Wu Assassins,’ they have never had hotpot before. So Celia, Lewis [Tan], Lily [Ling], Tzi Ma, me and Lawrence [Kao], we love putting on dim sum trips and hotpot nights and invite everyone over to our apartment and just eat and cook for each other.
“It’s very family-oriented. We created our own family and bring in other Western crew members into our Asian family.”
Chan admits that she is pushed to work harder as fans hail her the “Female Bruce Lee.” However, she points out that the kung fu legend cannot be replaced.
“It’s a big title! I don’t think anyone can be called ‘Bruce Lee,’” she says. “Bruce Lee is Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee is my idol, but being called that [name], it actually pushed me to work harder to live up to that expectation. To me, no one can replace Bruce Lee, but it’s definitely a motivation for me to work harder, and I don’t want to disappoint people who call me or give me that name. I work harder, train harder, and that’s why for all my moves in my movies or projects or TV shows, I will put in extra effort and communicate with the director, choreographer, and my action partner because I want to make sure that the moves coming out will be great.”
Chan, who also happens to be a singer — and has released an album in Hong Kong — dreams of starring in a “mainstream action musical, almost like what Bollywood is like.” But while she has always been inclined to martial arts, acting will always be her first love.
“I’m an actress. I’m an actress who was good at martial arts, not the other way around. My passion is always in acting. Acting is most important to me, to get a role of a character I would want to play,” she says.
Netflix is yet to renew “Wu Assassins,” which ended on a cliffhanger, for Season 2.
“I would say we have an amazing cast,” Chan says. “We all support each other. It’s hard to find [something like this] because people usually go their separate ways after a shoot, but we are still really connected. We have group chats. We talk to each other a lot and we even go on trips together. When we were shooting ‘Wu Assassins,’ we all rented an AirBnB house and spent a weekend there drinking wine, hitting up all the vineyards. I’m very grateful and thankful to this ‘Wu’ family that we have created.”
Images via NextShark / JuJu Chan