by Momo Chang
Set in a dystopian future, AMC’s new show “Into the Badlands” stars Daniel Wu. Already a huge star 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. He was initially brought on board as an executive producer. Wu says he’s now riding the wave of Asian-American actors getting a chance on the screen—think Randall Park, Constance Wu, Ken Jeong, Aziz Ansari and Kal Penn. People are taking a chance on—even advocating for—Asian-Americans in some major television roles.
While Wu—who trained in martial arts since he was a young boy in the San Francisco suburb where he grew up — 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 also a complicated character and is on a spiritual journey, according to Wu. 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 on what it means to him to break through as the lead actor and executive producer of a show on a major broadcast channel, in front of a very worldwide audience:
"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 on 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 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 [man] 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 groundbreaking 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 reserved for an Asian male, and so that's pretty groundbreaking 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 Asians especially in males up here in TV media nowadays, so it's cool to be part of that.
“Into the Badlands” premieres on November 15 on AMC.
Momo Chang is the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.