Why It Took 20 Years for 'Into the Badlands' Actor Daniel Wu to Make It Here

7 min
California-born actor Daniel Wu at Caffe Strada in Berkeley on June 7, 2018. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

In Asia, Daniel Wu says he can’t walk down the street without being mobbed by fans. "It's like Beatlemania," Wu says. "They want a piece of you."

But here in his native California, the Chinese-American movie star passes more or less unrecognized, even though he has more than 60 big screen credits to his name, including 2014 Chinese action thriller "That Demon Within" and "City of Glass." That film won Wu a "Best New Performer" nomination at the Hong Kong film awards back in 1998, when he was just starting out.

With Hollywood starting to pay more attention to long-sidelined Asian talent, Wu may not be able to lead a normal life in the U.S. for much longer.

These days, Wu stars in the dystopian AMC TV action series "Into the Badlands." It's his first major TV role in the U.S. His character, Sunny, is a lethal warrior on a quest to discover the truth about his past, and he  gets into a lot of fights -- he estimates being involved in more than 30 skirmishes over the course of three seasons.

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At 43, Wu is in fantastic shape: wiry and lean, with the chiseled features of a boy-band frontman. Even so, all those fight scenes take a toll on the body. The actor has dealt with a torn ACL and broken ankle over the years. He doesn’t want to end up like his mentor and former manager, Chinese action hero Jackie Chan.

"I didn't want to be that 60-year-old guy with, like, 'I can't stand up because my discs and my back are crushed,'" Wu says. "And that’s how Jackie is."

So lately, Wu's been changing up his training regimen.

At The Open Matt, a tucked-away dojo in Oakland near Wu's home, the actor practices acrobatic kicks up and down the room with his coach, Matt Lucas.

But they spend more time stretching and doing yoga than they do on hardcore fight moves. "In my 20s, kicking a hundred times was not a problem," Wu says. "In my 40s, it can be a problem. There's only so much tread on those tires, you know. So I'm doing it smarter."

Wu’s career path seems improbable when you consider his sheltered, middle-class, Bay Area upbringing. He shares his story during a tour of the UC Berkeley's East Asian Library, which recently acquired one of the country's most comprehensive archives of Chinese movie memorabilia, the Fonoroff Collection. (Wu is one of the library's new board members, and hadn't seen this collection yet. It includes posters and other artifacts relating to movies he appeared in during the 1990s, among nearly a hundred years of film history.)

A film poster for 'Young and Dangerous The Prequel,' one of Daniel Wu's early movies.
A film poster for 'Young and Dangerous The Prequel,' one of Daniel Wu's early movies. (Photo: Courtesy of the UC Berkeley East Asian Library's Fonoroff Collection)

As we walk through the library, Wu tells me his highly educated, career-driven parents emigrated to the U.S. from Shanghai via Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1950s.

They had two girls, and then a son. But he died, tragically, at the age of two in an auto accident on the UC Berkeley campus.

"They were up at the Lawrence Hall of Science and he was hit by a car in the parking lot," Wu says.

Wu says his parents wouldn’t speak about his older brother, who died before he was born, for years. So when he came along, they were very protective.

"They would not let me play football," Wu says. "They would not let me do a lot of things that were dangerous, where I could get hurt. Of course, I go into martial arts. And then I'm an action star, where danger happens almost on a daily basis."

Wu's passion for martial arts stems from old kung fu movies he saw on TV as a kid.

One day when Wu was seven years old, his grandfather took him to San Francisco’s Chinatown to see the film "Shaolin Temple" starring Jet Li.

"It was just so exciting," Wu says. "I got home, and I was like, 'Mom, I want to learn kung fu!'”

Daniel Wu holds up a poster of one of his films while touring the Fonoroff Collection at UC Berkeley's East Asian Library.
Daniel Wu holds up a poster of one of his films while touring the Fonoroff Collection at UC Berkeley's East Asian Library. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

His mom said no. But after a few years, she caved. From the age of 12, Wu trained locally. As an architecture major at the University of Oregon, he started a club focused on wushu, a non-combative style of kung fu. Wu is proud of the fact that the club he founded is still running today.

Then, in 1997, after graduating, Wu headed for Hong Kong to witness the handover from Britain to China.

He was having a drink in a Hong Kong bar about a month after the handover when a talent scout approached him about appearing in a TV commercial. Wu says he had already given up on a career in architecture, and besides, he needed the money.

"I was a poor student," he recalls.

It just so happened that Hong Kong film director Yonfan caught the ad and gave Wu his first big break. The director tapped the novice to play one of the leads in "Bishonen," his drama about an ill-fated gay romance.

Wu lacked fluency in Cantonese -- he grew up speaking Shanghai dialect and English at home in California. Plus, he had next to no acting experience. So he turned "Yonfan" down at first. But the director was persistent.

"By the end, I said, 'OK, if you don't blame me for screwing it up, I'll give it a shot,'" Wu says. "And then once I got on set the first day, I was like, 'Oh this is what I've been looking for.'"

Wu says it was initially hard for him to break in to the local film industry as an "ABC" -- American-born Chinese. "Even though I'm the same skin color, same hair color, same culture, I was treated differently at first," Wu says.

But after a couple of years, Wu says the Hong Kong film community fully accepted him. He went on to amass major celebrity, wealth and accolades across Asia for his work over two decades.

"You feel a sense of belonging; you feel wanted; you feel like you have value to these people and that what you're doing is making them happy," Wu says. "That's the most touching thing that's happened to me."

Eventually, Wu's name started to become known outside of China. At least, it did among kung fu cognoscenti like hip-hop artist and movie director RZA, who cast the actor in his martial arts film "The Man with the Iron Fists."

RZA shot the movie in 2011 in China with a mixed cast of Asian and Hollywood actors. The project involved big names like Russell Crowe and Quentin Tarantino. But RZA says no one made as much of an impression on the set as Wu did.

"I'm telling you, nobody gave two cents shit about none of us," RZA says. "When Danny came on the set, everybody went crazy. And all of a sudden I was making a movie."

But Hollywood continued largely to ignore Wu. The actor says he returned to California for meetings with movie executives on occasion, and usually came away disappointed.

"They don't really know what they're looking for," he says. "They're just looking for someone 'Chinese' or 'Asian.' I'm not sitting in a room auditioning for a role that's just based on my race."

Recently, however, Wu says things have started to change, thanks to the dynamics of the marketplace. In addition to "Into the Badlands," Wu also appeared in the recent movie "Tomb Raider." That's because China has become a key financial market for Hollywood.

Daniel Wu at Caffe Strada in Berkeley.
Daniel Wu at Caffe Strada in Berkeley. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Earlier this year, China beat North America in box office revenue for the first time, fueling expectations that it might soon become the world’s number one movie market. And according to IMDbPro’s  Box Office Mojo, recent Hollywood blockbusters like "The Mummy," "Ready Player One" and "Transformers: The Last Knight" have done better box office in China than they have in the U.S.

Now, Wu says Hollywood is starting to take the talent pool more seriously after decades of offering Asian actors little more than minor, racially stereotyped character parts.

"They realize that the Chinese audiences are much smarter than that and get pissed off when you do something like that to our beloved actors," Wu says. "And they won’t go see the movie."

Wu points to Sung Kang, known to audiences through "The Fast and the Furious" franchise, Daniel Dae Kim from the "Lost" TV series, and the "Harold and Kumar" films' John Cho as fellow Asian-American actors now making it in the U.S.

"All these guys have been working for so long and finally making it into shows," Wu says. "But it's still not at the point where I'd like it to be."

Daniel Wu and his trainer, Matt Lucas, work out at The Open Matt, a dojo in Oakland.
Daniel Wu and his trainer, Matt Lucas, work out at The Open Matt, a dojo in Oakland. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Wu says a new generation of Hollywood executives that grew up in a more multicultural environment than those previously in charge of the purse strings can now change casting dynamics for the better.

"With the people in power now having that exposure, they are consciously trying to make more diverse films," Wu says. "They're starting to bring in actors of different races and cultures."

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