Daniel Wu had to prepare for the physical demands of fighting in every episode of the martial arts drama “Into the Badlands,” but he also did heavy mental preparation.
The six-episode season’s Nov. 15 premiere drew 8.2 million total viewers and was the No. 3 ranked cable series launch of all time among adults 18-49 and adults 25-54. Created by Al Gough and Miles Millar of “Smallville” fame, “Badlands” airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on AMC.
Wu plays Sunny, the deadliest clipper, or warrior, in the post-apocalyptic world of “Badlands.”He works for Quinn (Martin Csokas), the most powerful of the barons who have sliced up the Badlands into their own fiefdoms. Sunny has killed 404 people in his baron’s name, and as is the custom he gets a tattoo on his back for every person he has “clipped.”
As part of his preparation for the role, Wu was tasked by director David Dobkin with drawing all 404 of the tattoos himself and imagining how each of Sunny’s victims was killed.
“It was pretty crazy,” Wu said. “With 404 you have to get creative, first of all. And secondly, you go to a really dark place. Actually you go through a whole weird range of emotions. It starts off being kind of fun and then it gets really dark and you’re kind of not into it. Then you get into this place where you become numb to it.
“I realized that’s what Sunny is; he’s numb to what he’s done.”
In the series premiere, Sunny’s girlfriend, Veil (Madeleine Mantock), assures him that he’s not the sum of those tattoos. That he’s more than a killer.
“But the weight of those tattoos on his back—it’s a metaphor really for what he’s done in his life and it becomes [a burden],” he said. “Originally those tattoos were meant to be a source of pride, but now it’s like getting that monkey off your back.”
Born in Berkeley, Calif., and raised in nearby Orinda, Wu rose to fame in the early 2000s for his work in Hong Kong martial arts films. He’s starred in more than 60 films but remains less well-known in the U.S. than Asia.
“My friends often joke that I am the most famous American actor that most Americans don’t know about,” Wu said.
“Into the Badlands” brings him back to his home country and follows a series of English-speaking roles including “Warcraft” and “Europa Report.”
Wu and I chatted more about how he got into martial arts and into films, as well as his preparation for “Badlands” and how it differs from his experiences in the Hong Kong film industry.
Has it been odd to be more recognized, a bigger star in Hong Kong than in the U.S.?
It’s been nice to be able to straddle between celebrity and anonymity. When the celebrity got too intense in China it was always nice to go back home to the States and be “normal.”
Have you taken on more U.S. projects to change that, or because you are just looking for great projects?
I’ve done a couple of more lower profile projects in the U.S. in the past, but “Badlands” and “Warcraft” are very different. You are right in that I just go where the good work is rather than for the recognition. A billion people in China [recognizing me] is plenty enough. It does feel good, however, to have “Into the Badlands” as a kind of homecoming project.
I read somewhere that you’ve sort of felt like an outsider at times, both as an Asian and as an American. Do you think this helps you in your work?
Yes and no. Being an outsider certainly doesn’t help your confidence at first, but if you stick with it and take pride in your differences, it will help make you stand out. When you are confident with that part of your identity then the work gets better.
Some say AMC is taking a gamble casting you, an Asian-American, in the lead role. How do you feel about that?
The entire show is a gamble but when it comes to creativity, I am a gambler. I’d rather try something that no one has done before than follow the masses. AMC is known for taking gambles. Who knew a show about zombies would take over the world? A drama about a ’60s ad exec? A high school teacher turned meth dealer? They all sound like gambles to me. I applaud AMC for that because it helped make the TV landscape much more interesting.
You rarely have had English-speaking roles in your career. Are you happy to be able to speak English here?
It’s great. It’s very different acting in Chinese versus acting in English. Obviously one is because English is my mother language but also because the way you express yourself via the language is different. Chinese is a very tonal language. In English and most romantic languages we express ourselves through changing the tone [while speaking] the word. But in Chinese, which is a tonal language, you can’t change the tone of the word or it becomes a different word completely.
So it’s a very different way of acting. Although what’s going on internally is the same. The way you express it through your mouth is very different.
Wu on “Into the Badlands”
Tell me about your take on Sunny and what made you want to play him?
I think what attracted me to the role of Sunny was that he’s a character who changes over the course of the whole series. Not just this season, but over the series.
He starts off as this cold-blooded killer and he had been trained that way. When he meets M.K., he finds out that Veil is pregnant and he’s actually created a life instead of taking a life.…
It’s really about this character trying to dig out of his darkness and find his own life and I think that was what attracted me most to wanting to play Sunny.
In TV a lot of times, especially with network shows, the characters don’t change over 10 years of the run of the show. They’re pretty much the same people. I wanted a character whose life actually changes as the seasons go on.
There hasn’t been a show featuring heavy martial arts on TV since “Kung Fu” in the 1970s. Did that add pressure?
Not at all. In fact, it gave us free reign to do what we wanted. I’ve been told that [David] Carradine was on acid for some of the fight scenes in “Kung Fu,” which made the fights interesting. So knowing that was where the bar was set 40 years ago, we were pretty confident that we would be doing a lot better.
You said you’re basic foundation of fighting style is Kung Fu and Wushu. Are you using anything specifically in the show?
We designed the action to be based in the Hong Kong kind of Wushu style, but to be able to use techniques from other martial arts as well because we feel like people who are fans of the genre know a lot about other martial arts. We wanted to incorporate that into the fighting scenes as well.
Our idea is that in the future there isn’t necessarily one style. This is kind of stolen from Bruce Lee’s idea about martial arts and his style, Jeet Kune Do, which is the style without style. In this future, Sunny is going to use what’s effective for him. So whether it’s Kung Fu or Muay Thai or whatever he’s going to use that to destroy his opponents.
I understand that you weren’t going to play Sunny at first. What changed your mind about it?
It was really the rest of the producers kind of forcing me to do it. In my mind I kept thinking that Sunny should be somebody in his late 20s or early 30s because of the amount of action that there is in the show.
The first season there are 12 major fights and Sunny is involved in 11 of those 12 fights. We shot that over four months. … This could go on for five or six years in the same way. Definitely we need a young athlete, a young martial artist in order to be able to do that, I thought. So we sent our feelers out for that person and we didn’t come back with anybody compelling enough.
The guy has to be a good actor. He has to be a good martial artist. They also wanted the person to have a bit of name. And so we went out there looking it was either one or the other. We either found great actors that didn’t know any martial arts or good martial artists that couldn’t act.
It’s kind of funny you still had to audition.
I wanted to make sure I auditioned for it to make sure that I was on an even playing field with the guys and that I wasn’t hired just because I’m an executive producer.
How did you prepare?
I started six months out of getting myself ready for this role and getting ready for the physicality of it because you need a tremendous amount of stamina and endurance to pull it off. …
Even a professional fighter goes through a six- to eight-week fight camp and they fight once for that one fight and that could go maybe 30-40 minutes and that’s it, you’re done. This I have to maintain a high level of energy for four months.
So I started off really slowly by doing yoga, then running and doing strength conditioning to get myself ready for the physical side to make sure I don’t get injured. And then working specifically on martial arts stuff, working on my basics, making sure those are solid. Six weeks out we had a fight camp for the rest of the actors. I used that time to work on specific detail things, like the double sword and just how to use it and all the other weapons that can be used. I was making sure I was comfortable with all that stuff and it became really second nature.
Aside from the great fights, what I enjoy about the show is the depth of the characters. Was that something as a producer you were adamant about. I know how action projects can be looked at as only action and nothing more.
Yeah, for sure, because we want to take the genre and elevate it to a level that becomes popular not just for the people that like that genre. To do that you have to have a really compelling story and compelling characters.
Also, [we had to do it] to stand up against the other shows on AMC. We’re on that same roster of shows as “Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” so we have to stand up to that level of dramatic quality. That was a huge part of it.
If you just make an action film or action show that’s got great action and crappy storylines it becomes like porn, you know? You fast forward through the story so you can get to the cool action. And we didn’t want that. We wanted people to be into the story as much as they are into the action. Actually the action is a bonus and the story is what you’re in it for.
I think that’s what’s so successful about “Walking Dead;” it’s not just the zombie genre thing. It’s really this kind of intricate human drama about trying to survive and what is human nature when you’re thrown into a crazy situation like that. That’s why people are into it. They’re not necessarily into it because they love zombies.
Wu on his background
What got you into martial arts in the first place?
As a kid I watched a lot of Kung Fu movies. I watched Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan. But I think it was specifically a movie Jet Li did. It was actually his first film called “Shaolin Temple.” My grandfather took me to Chinatown to see it in a theater. And I totally fell in love with that style of Kung Fu and I wanted to learn that. It took me a few years; I think I was 11 when I finally started learning Kung Fu.
I was like a really hyperactive kid and my mom thought I would get into a lot of fights if I learned too early. … So she found the right teacher for me and that’s when I started learning.
I understand you were an architecture major? How did you end up in acting?
I graduated from architecture at the University of Oregon in 1997. I then internshipped throughout my education and I realized the profession was not necessarily something I wanted to get into. The school environment was 100 percent creative and the office environment was two percent creative. That kind of bummed me out.
I had a friend who worked [in the business] for two years and she drew the same window every day for two years. I was like, “Fuck, I don’t want that to happen to me. I don’t want to become a mechanical draftsman. I want to be a designer because that’s what I was trained to be. To use my creative abilities.”
So I went to Hong Kong in ’97 and was doing some soul searching, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I had this architecture degree but I wanted to do something creative. I happened to be having a drink in a bar one day and someone scouted me to do a TV commercial. I did the commercial and then a month later a director who saw that [wanted to have] a talk. We talked for about an hour and at the end of the conversation he goes, “I want you to be the lead in my movie.”
I’m like, “What are you talking about? I never acted before. I barely speak Cantonese. I grew up speaking Chinese and Mandarin. You’re crazy. You don’t want to cast me for this lead role.”
This was a huge gamble and I turned it down. For a month he kept calling me trying to convince me. At the end I was like, “All right, if you don’t blame me for fucking it up I’ll give it a shot. But I can’t guarantee that I’m going to be any good.”
With that we just dove into it. [The movie was “Bishonen.”]
This wasn’t even because of your martial arts capabilities.
No, not at all. This is the funny thing. The role was a gay character struggling with his sexuality. Nothing related to anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. I wasn’t turned off by the role being gay; I was turned off by the fact that I might not be able to pull it off.