Not since AMC introduced a little show called The Walking Dead, a bleak comic book adaptation from a genre that had never fared well on TV, has the network taken such a high-profile—and exciting—risk as it will Sunday night with the premiere of Into the Badlands.
The Daniel Wu-fronted martial arts drama, created by Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, brings to life a visually lush, steampunk-infused world in which seven feudal Barons rule what’s left of society after nuclear war devastates the Earth’s population. In the fledgling civilization that emerges, guns are outlawed—making the kung fu and weapon prowess of ruthless assassins called “Clippers” the deciding factor in clashes between power-hungry Barons.
AMC ordered Badlands, which is loosely based on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, straight to series before ever seeing the pilot—a testament of faith in the experienced martial artists who make the show. Martial arts coordinator Huan-Chiu Ku, a.k.a. Master DeeDee, served up stunts for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Romeo Must Die, and both Kill Bill movies, among others. And Wu, a California native who stars in and executive produces the series, rose to stardom in Hong Kong and China as a protégé of Jackie Chan who transitioned fluidly from kung fu-heavy films to dramas, action-thrillers, and indies over the course of his sixty-plus film career.
For Wu, 41, Badlands marks an unexpected return to onscreen martial arts after a number of injuries gave him second thoughts about the genre. “I worked with Jackie Chan for a long time and seeing how much pain he’s in, I realized that that might not be a sustainable career for me,” Wu says.
Despite Wu’s insistence on finding a younger Asian American actor to take on the character of Sunny, a bad-guy-turned-good Clipper, months of searching never unearthed the right actor. The role required a martial arts master with the dramatic chops to carry the show’s romance and intrigue storylines—but unfortunately, Wu says, few of the actors he met had had enough onscreen experience to develop into leading men.
“Asian Americans haven’t had as many opportunities as other people to build their careers in Hollywood, just because there hasn’t been that much of an interest, especially in Asian American males,” Wu says. “It’s not that there aren’t any out there, it’s just that there’s not a lot with a lot of experience because they haven’t been given the opportunity.”
Judging from the first two episodes’ worth of fight scenes, it’s not hard to see why Wu was apprehensive. Each exquisitely choreographed sequence is shot Hong Kong-style in handheld close-ups and luxurious long takes that leave actors uninterrupted for 20 to 30 fight moves at a time. Throw in weapons, wire stunts, and elaborate costumes, and a commitment to pulling off eleven such fight scenes in just four months would be daunting for any actor, let alone a kung fu veteran.
The Daily Beast spoke to Wu about Into the Badlands, being mentored by Jackie Chan, and the forces that keep more Asian actors out of Hollywood.
The series is six episodes long with an average of two fight scenes per episode—on an accelerated TV production schedule, which must have been wildly different from what you’re used to in movies.
Yeah. Most martial arts stars do a movie and it’s three or four fight scenes over six months. I did eleven fight scenes in four months. So prior to getting involved I was like, “You know, we should be looking for someone who’s maybe 25, 30, who can carry the show for six years,” ‘cause I was 40 at the time. AMC was adamant that they wanted the lead to be an Asian. They wanted him to have good acting ability, as well as good martial arts skills. So the number of people that you can search for those qualifications is very limited. So we sent feelers out, we even tried to look for new talent, like martial artists who could potentially be good actors, and we searched and searched for like three, four months and then finally all the executive producers came up to me and were like, “Daniel, we’re not really coming up with anybody, you gotta consider this.”
You hadn’t done any martial arts films for about six years before Badlands. Were you apprehensive about being drawn back into the genre?
You know, I worked with Jackie Chan for a long time and seeing how much pain he’s in, I realized that that might not be a sustainable career for me. [Laughs.] So I started to develop my career as a dramatic actor rather than as an action actor. So once this project came about, I thought about it for a long, long time and the more I read the script and the more I looked at the Sunny character, the more I kind of got into him. So that’s kind of what drew me back into it and finally convinced me to commit myself to it. But I still insisted that I audition for the show and make sure that AMC was happy with me being the lead. So I went through an audition process even though I was already an executive producer.
What does it say to you that you had such a hard time finding a young Asian American actor who might have been fit for the role?
What is says is the obvious, you know: Asian Americans haven’t had as many opportunities as most people to build their careers in Hollywood, because there hasn’t been that much of an interest—especially in Asian American males. It’s not that there aren’t any out there, it’s just that there’s not a lot with a lot of experience because they haven’t been given the opportunity. I’ve been lucky enough to build a career outside of America, where I got 18 years and over 60 films of experience. Whereas a lot of Asian American and contemporary actors that I know have been hoofing it for like ten years and getting one or two small projects a year and not really getting enough time to build experience and become a leading man. And I think that kind of hurts their opportunities in a way because of lack of experience and lack of being able to prove themselves. I was lucky that I didn’t have to grow up in that system. I grew up in the Hong Kong system where race wasn’t an issue, you know?
Definitely. Hollywood has been frustratingly slow to catch up to its changing audience demographics, though there’s been a small, but encouraging increase in diversity on TV over the past year.
Yeah, you’re starting to see it more on television now and I think movies will start to change as well. Honestly, I think it’s more financial reasoning why Hollywood is so interested in getting Asians in their films now because of the Chinese box office, and how a film like Transformers made more money in China than in the U.S. and things like that. So obviously it’s coming from a financial perspective, but it’s still good for people like us.
I think so too. How did you go about getting back into shape for the kinds of intricate stunts you see in Badlands?
Oh, wow. [Laughs.] I took a really slow route. I started about six months out [from the start of shooting]. Being 40 is a little different from my 20s, you know? In my 20s, I could just power through stuff and be fine but now, in your 40s? It’s kind of like Kobe Bryant. He plays basketball a little bit differently than he did when he first started out. So I had to ease my way back into this. I started out with really simple things like yoga and stretching, and then I started working on the martial arts stuff. We had a six-week training camp right before the shoot, and I used that period to fine tune the martial arts stuff. Sunny uses double swords and I hadn’t touched a weapon in a while, even though I’d still been doing martial arts on the side as a lifestyle thing. So I focused mainly on the intricacies of using the double sword, which is quite complicated and quite tough. Just trying to get my left hand coordinated again was a little bit difficult.
You mentioned that seeing the physical pain Jackie Chan is in after a career in martial arts deterred you from going down the same path. In what other ways did he set an example for you?
I mean, he was my manager for 11 years. When I first got to Hong Kong right after I got my first movie, within a week I signed to his management company, so I’ve been in a couple films with him as well as just being around him a lot. And just seeing his work ethic is one amazing thing. Like, even though he’s in tremendous pain a lot of the time, he pushes through it. He’s a workaholic, really. And that kind of rubbed off on me. He’s an amazing mentor in that way and you learn by example. It’s not like he’s teaching me lessons here and there, but I just watched the way he works and realized how hard he works to get to where he is. He truly deserves his international status. It’s amazing, I’ve been to Africa and really far corners of the world and everybody knows Jackie Chan. Whether they speak English or not, whether they understand Asian culture—when they think of martial arts, they think of Jackie Chan.
What are some of your other ambitions for Into the Badlands, besides its fight scenes?
If you don’t have a compelling story and compelling characters to drive this whole series through its life, then it becomes like pornography, you know? The acting is so bad, you just skip over those parts to get to the action. Even big Hollywood movies—I won’t mention any, but there are tremendous action scenes with very thin plotlines and very poorly written characters. I think the thing about Badlands that I like is there’s more to it than martial art—-like the political intrigue that’s happening with all the Barons and Emily Beecham’s character, The Widow, showing up and being this really strong female character who’s coming to try and take her power in that land. In some ways it’s like why Crouching Tiger was so successful. It’s not because the martial arts scenes were so beautiful, it was because there was this really compelling love story in there, this love triangle. That’s why housewives in Kansas loved it and were able to watch a movie with subtitles and get behind it and make it such a huge international success.
The fight scenes in Badlands are also so different from any of the action on TV right now. No shaky camera movements, no heavy editing.
Yeah, or really tight close-ups where you just see some moves but you don’t really know what’s going on. And that, you know, I understand why it’s done that way. In Hollywood, most of the performers are not fighters and so you kind of have to mask that with editing. A lot of times, it’s one punch and then cut, then second punch and cut. In our project, one of the main goals was to bring the Hong Kong action style to American television. It’s long takes, and jaw-dropping stuff that makes people go, “Oh my god, that was like 30 seconds straight of fighting—20 or 30 moves in a row without cutting away.” But on top of that we also have this amazing close-up system with MoVI Cameras that are like mini-Steadicams, so that creates a point-of-view dynamic like you’re in the fight with the fighter. In order to do that, the cameraman has to be up in the action, whereas in Hollywood, a lot of times they set the camera down, it doesn’t move, it’s a big wide shot, and then they follow up with some close-ups and that’s it. And there’s no dynamic camera movement going along with the action. And that’s really, really important because it reveals the beauty of the action. You can go in close, you can pull out wide, you can do all these things while the action’s going on and really make the most of it, and make it look really, really cool.