For nearly two decades, Daniel Wu has been one of Hong Kong’s hottest actors. But now, he’s breaking down barriers in the countryof his birth – the US.
Currently shooting its third season, Wu’s Into the Badlands is among a handful of Asian-American-led shows that have found success on mainstream American TV, where Asian-American actors rarely land leading roles. For every Fresh Off the Boat or Master of None (which even mocked the typecasting of Indian men on American TV) there have been indifferent performers like Dr Ken, the TV adaptation of Rush Hour and Martial Law. Wu’s success in the US – which also extends to appearances in forthcoming movie blockbusters Geostorm and the Tomb Raider reboot – is another milestone in the long journey of Asian-American actors to mainstream acceptance.
Wu’s career has a telling parallel with the man who, over 40 years on, still bestrides the field like a colossus. Like Bruce Lee, Wu was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and found success in the country of his birth via an extended detour in Hong Kong.
Wu also began studying martial arts from an early age, taking up Shaolin kung fu in the Bay Area when he was 11. By his late teens he was training with Beijing-born Zhang Hongmei and her American husband Phillip Wong, both wushu masters.
That childhood training has definitely paid off for Into the Badlands, a Journey to the West-inspired martial arts series set in a dystopian civilisation. Ruling barons battle for power in a feudal society, while marauding bandits roam the landscape reigning terror over the weak. Wu stars as Sunny, a warrior leading a band of fighters under the command of one of the barons.
Wu’s winding path from Hong Kong actor to American TV star began with his debut role in the 1998 Hong Kong film Bishonen, a gay romantic drama co-starring Stephen Fung and Shu Qi. Since then, Wu has become one of Asia’s top leading men, starring in hits such as the Overheard police thriller trilogy; the rom-com Don’t Go Breaking My Heart; Jackie Chan crime drama Shinjuku Incident; and Inseparable, an offbeat English-language comedy set in China with House of Cards star Kevin Spacey.
Wu’s film career, aside from a few exceptions, has been largely devoid of roles calling for kung fu: that’s where the Bruce Lee parallels come to an abrupt halt. ‘I never really did a full-on martial arts movie,’ he says. ‘People forgot – or didn’t even know – that I had a martial arts background.’ Part of that was by design: he didn’t want to be typecast.
His role in Into the Badlands almost didn’t happen. ‘Originally, I was brought onboard as an executive producer to oversee the show’s fight sequences,’ Wu says. ‘I wasn’t planning on being in it.’
That was for two reasons. First, he’d never done a TV show – and wasn’t sure he wanted to move in that direction. Second, he wondered whether his 40-year-old body could meet the physical demands of a long-running series.
‘I wasn’t sure if I would actually be up to it,’ says Wu, who turns 43 this month, thinking the show needed a younger actor. It was a reasonable conclusion: each 45-minute episode usually includes two big fight sequences, and his character Sunny is in nearly all of them.
‘They either found a great actor that didn’t know any martial arts, or the other way around – martial artists that weren’t actors,’ he says. That presented a problem: Sunny, as the pivotal character, carries the weight of the show and serves as its moral compass in a lawless land.
By the time the producers had narrowed the field of candidates from over 100 to just a handful, they were still less than satisfied. Finally, they turned to Wu. ‘I was, like, okay,’ he laughs. ‘I’m not sure I can handle it physically, but I’ll give it a shot. The foundation is there, the skills are there, the basics are all there.’
The first season was shot in the American state of Louisiana and the second season in Ireland, where the third season began filming last month. With a Hong Kong crew used for the martial arts scenes, the set is familiar territory for Wu, regardless of location. ‘Everyone speaks Cantonese and Mandarin. It feels like I’m on a Hong Kong set, I feel really at home,’ Wu says. ‘And then you jump over to the drama side and it’s completely different – it’s like an American TV drama.’
But Badlands, along with Wu’s other projects, means that he is now spending less and less time in Hong Kong. He was in Ireland for most of the second half of 2016 filming season two of Badlands. Before returning to Ireland last month to begin work on the third season, which will keep him there until April, he also filmed a reality show on the Chinese mainland over the summer.
So where’s home? ‘Right now, it’s pretty much California and Ireland,’ he says. Wu, his wife, the model Lisa S, and their young daughter have adapted to life in Ireland. They live in the Dublin neighbourhood of Ranelagh, which he calls a ‘trendy, hipster neighbourhood’, a short walk from the city centre. When he has a break from an otherwise gruelling six-day-a-week shooting schedule, they explore the country, from the nearby Wicklow Mountains to drives along Ireland’s coast. ‘It’s a really gorgeous country,’ he says.
During the show’s off-season break, Wu spent four months in Cape Town, filming the Tomb Raider reboot, starring Alicia Vikander in the title role and due to be released next March. He knows South Africa well. Lisa already had a home in Free State province, in a valley surrounded by rural farmland, caves and waterfalls, three hours’ drive south of Johannesburg, before the two met. ‘I fell in love with the place,’ Wu says, and the secluded area meant they could ‘totally disconnect’.
When he’s not working, Wu is most likely in California – although there are things he misses about Hong Kong: paddleboarding in Sai Kung’s Clearwater Bay and eating seafood at Po Toi O being at the top of the list. ‘I like the mentality of the people,’ he says. ‘I miss the speed and efficiency at which people can get things done.’