If you don’t already know the name Daniel Wu, you soon will. After enjoying an illustrious 18-year career in Hong Kong, the seasoned actor is now bringing his talents stateside. He’s currently starring in and producing Into the Badlands, a new Western-inspired martial arts show that premiered on AMC last month.
Badlands is set years into the future, where the only known civilization is controlled by all-powerful barons. Wu plays main character Sunny, a Clipper—a lethal warrior branded with 400 tattoos, which signifies the number of people he’s killed. And, unsurprisingly, playing the lead and producing the show is no easy job. Working on a major network show demands 12- to 16-hour days, not to mention a lot of running around.
“If I’m not shooting, I’m doing some kind of problem-solving on the production side,” Wu explains. “There’s not much time to rest.”
Wu’s involvement with the show began with an executive producer role; he wasn’t originally slated to play Sunny. While he certainly fits the profile of an Asian thespian with exceptional acting ability and experience, the initial casting strategy was to find a much younger actor who could take on the physical demands of the role.
Wu was skeptical about whether the hours of grueling martial arts training, plus the several elaborate fight scenes per episode, would be sustainable for a 40-year-old—particularly if the show stuck around for a while.
In the end, Wu signed onto the role because he believes that Sunny is an Asian character we haven’t seen before. While Asian and Asian American martial arts characters aren’t novel, he says that with this character, “we’re also seeing a strong Asian male lead who has a girl, who resists [the system]. He’s not just part of a team.”
Moreover, he adds, the show doesn’t suggest that he’s only in this role because he’s an Asian who’s mastered the martial arts. Most members of the cast all have martial arts scenes, Asian or not. And the fact that AMC was “adamant” in adding Badlands to its current lineup—also casting German, East Indian, and Pakistani actor Aramis Knight as Wu’s co-star—is a remarkable milestone for Asian representation in the mainstream media.
Wu agrees that some Asian Americans recoil from associating with the martial arts genre, with some feeling that it generalizes and pigeonholes Asians. But, he argues, “Your culture did create kung fu, so is that a stereotype? No, it’s a part of your history; it’s a part of your culture. So why not embrace it?”
In this way, Badlands reclaims and reboots an age-old, historically significant genre, keeping the classic parts while editing out the hackneyed ones. The role of Sunny doesn’t feel like a stereotype to Wu either. After all, he’s already built a successful career as an action star in Asia, and those roles had nothing to do with race: “Everybody’s Chinese in those films, right?”
Despite a slew of dystopian narratives on the silver screen, this show’s lack of chaos distinguishes it from the rest. No guns exist in this world—a powerful choice on the part of the show’s creators given the growing debate surrounding gun violence in the United States.
“We’re allowed to make real comments about society today,” Wu says. “Whether they’re conscious or subconscious is for the people to decide. In making a show, we’re creating a society that attempts to touch on these topics here and there, but not in an overtly political way.”