One-on-One with Into the Badlands’ Daniel Wu

AMC’s Into the Badlands is in their second season and are going strong with their viewership, storyline, and martial arts. Unlike other series that attempts the martial arts genre, Into the Badlands’ stellar moves can be attributed to executive producer, and star of the series, Daniel Wu.

The Nerds of Color got a chance to sit down and chat with the actor about the second season and what makes the show so appealing to audiences.

LAURA: So, the series is getting a lot of comparisons with another controversial “martial arts” show that was released on the same weekend as season two of your show. Into the Badlands was deemed the cure to your Iron Fist blues and the show that Iron Fist should have been. With the controversy over the Asian American  Iron Fist campaign and critics panning Iron Fist for the lack of martial arts, what are your thoughts regarding these issues?
DANIEL: I think if you’re going to sell a show as a martial arts show and you don’t have martial arts in it or the martial arts sucks, then that’s obviously a problem. When we created this show, Badlands, our main point was to try to bring Hong Kong level martial arts action to American television. That was our goal. That was our main goal. Everything else was trying to make a good show — secondary to that main goal. Of course, we want to have a good show so you have to have a good story, good characters, and all that kind of stuff. But, that’s what we were selling and that’s what we’re going to do. That’s what we did sell in the first season. I think, you know, again with this Marvel property, I don’t know because I haven’t seen it yet. But again, if you’re going to be selling martial arts, you guys should know how to fight well. If they don’t fight well, then that’s a big problem.

In terms of the whitewashing issue, I don’t know if it’s a whitewashing issue because their character was already white to begin with. And, then you talk about cultural appropriation, I think Asian Americans need to chill out a little bit, because that’s like saying “white people can’t rap,” right? That’s like saying “Asian people can’t play American football” or Jeremy Lin shouldn’t be playing basketball. It’s ridiculous to say that white people can’t do martial arts. That’s cultural appropriation. I don’t buy that. That’s not fair. I mean, Bruce Lee, the King of Martial Arts, was key to bringing martial arts to America, not just Asian America. He taught white people. He taught black people. He taught all kinds of people. That’s my philosophy. Martial arts is an equalizer. It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from. If you feel like you’re weak, you can become strong. Martial arts can give that to you. It’s not about your race at all, in any way.

A lot of people had a lot of issues with Iron Fist because it was not whitewashing, but following the white savior trope — where the white guy saves Asian people or the white guys saves them using Asian methods.
Is that’s what happening in the show? I don’t know if he’s saving Asian people in that show. In the comics, it was a white guy who went to Asia to learn martial arts and comes back and becomes a superhero.

There are some awkward moments where he’s speaking Chinese to a girl. There are also moments where he’s better than people who have been training their entire life.
Sure. If you made that character Asian, would all those issues still be a issue? If the character becomes Asian and he becomes better than his master, who has been training for thousands of years. It’s still an issue.

At the same time, if an Asian guy used a language to talk to a girl or study their background, it’s much more acceptable.
Yeah. I haven’t seen the show, so it’s really hard for me to really judge that. I want to be fair. At the same time, they are obviously paying for their mistakes now. I’ve seen the backlash, so I know people are pissed off. I feel, probably what happened is, what you can blame there was an opportunity for Marvel to make it better and they didn’t do it. That’s all I could say there.

Into the Badlands has proven that a series can break away from the Asian martial arts trope with its character development. The character is not defined by their skill and instead is allowed to grow. What elements do you feel that Into the Badlands was able to accomplish with that?
I think what is interesting is that we don’t talk about race in the show at all, but it’s a very diverse show. There’s black, white, Latino, and other Asians, but we don’t talk about race. It’s about their abilities. It’s about what these people are doing. It’s about their stories. So, we don’t make it an issue about race. That’s what I like about it. I don’t know if I could do a show about Asian American issues. That’s kind of boring to me. Having grown up in America as an Asian American and then lived in Asia for twenty years, then come back. I’m not interested in Asian American whining. You know, “we’re not represented enough.” It’s like, go do it. That’s the kind of person I am. I don’t sit around and complain and wish I had better opportunities. I make the opportunities happen for me. I think that’s what we need to do as Asian Americans now. There are no boundaries, especially now with the digital era. If you want to make film and put it on YouTube, you can. Look at all these people who are YouTube stars right now. They’re Asian American. They’re doing it. They found a way to make it work for them. I give all those people a lot of credit for it.

I’m very proud that we’re diverse without having talked about “diversity.” Like, these characters, Sunny and Veil — that relationship — a black woman and an Asian man. You’ve never seen that on anything in the world ever actually before. I think it’s very cool that we’re just people in love. We’re not a black person or Asian person. We’re just people in love. We’re trying to have this baby. It’s very cool. I’m proud of that. We’re being diverse without raising a diversity flag, because that’s not what the show is about. Again, what we’re trying to do is make a good show and if it happens to be diverse. Those are great bonuses to jump along with, but that shouldn’t be the catalyst for the show. That shouldn’t be what makes the show run.

Director and stunt woman extraordinaire Lexi Alexander has highly praised Into the Badlands as a whole. Many of the cast and creatives have also interacted with her on Twitter. Is there any chance of a collaboration with Into the Badlands or even outside of the series?
Yeah, I think we’re open to all kinds of possibilities for our show, especially with television directors. We switch out directors every two episodes. So with a ten-episode season, that means there are five directors per season. So there’s a lot of opportunities to work with great people. So if they’re a good storyteller, then I’m definitely open to the fact to bring them in.

Into the Badlands has been praised for its strong female characters. Aside from Veil, there were few WOCs on the show last season, but this year we have The Master and Baron Chau. Was it a conscious decision to include more WOC characters?
I would say it was a conscious decision to add more characters of color, I think, to be more diverse. Yeah. So you see it this season in the first episode, you see a lot of the Butterflies in the background, there’s all kinds of girls there. That is a conscious decision to reflect upon what we think American society would be in the future and what it is now. I think most people, when you talk about the post-apocalyptic genre, it’s not really about the future, it’s reflecting on what’s happening right now. So, to reflect on now, you have to be true to that. So, we definitely made the decision to cast more diverse with all the roles, whether it’s female or male. You’ll see the other barons. There are a few other barons that are different races and different sexes. We’re trying to make a world that everyone can understand and relate to.

In an article last year, you made a statement that you would have to wait a bit to see what impact Into the Badlands has made for people, whether it’d be in the Asian American community or the martial arts world. Since this is the second season, and it has been highly praised, what impact do you feel the series has made?
I mean, I think we made a little blip on the pop culture meter for sure. I mean, in multiple levels. One, we have a martial arts show that is successful on television right now. There aren’t many martial arts shows, so that was one of our main points. Then secondly, to have the action lauded as it is. People love the action. People come back for the action. Then to have a great story that happens to be with a very diverse cast. That’s also a great thing that people are in to. There are characters that people can get into, whether you want to follow Sunny’s storyline or not. Some people just like the Widow. The #ColorMeBadlands Twitter people just love Sunny and Veil and that relationship. So that’s what I think is great about the show.

It doesn’t just follow one person or one storyline. There are multiple storylines. As an audience, if you’re a teenager or a twelve-year-old, you might be really into MK and Tilda and their storyline. If you’re a full grown adult, you might be into the Sunny storyline. You might be into Quinn’s storyline. There are so many different things there for everyone to relate to. Then, [you’ll see] what these characters and storylines represent in the real world. What are they trying to say? And, that’s all in the subtext. I think we slide all that stuff in there for the audience trying to figure out what we’re talking about. You’ll see references. You’ve seen episode two with the wall. There are all these references that we’re talking about and we’re putting them in there as kind of Easter eggs, but also to get people thinking a bit more. This is a show about the future and about how the world got fucked up and how it ended up this way. We’re putting in things about how that happened. You have to be careful as a human race, as Americans, and how we run this country in the future. It could end up like the Badlands and we don’t want that to happen.

It’s almost time to wrap up, but what can you tell us more about your role in the new Tomb Raider film starring Alicia Vikander since you’ve entered production for the film?
I can’t talk too much, but the character is named Lu Ren. Lara Croft comes to Hong Kong after she finds some clues about [her father]. It’s an origin story, so it goes back to the very beginning before she becomes Lara Croft: Tomb Raider that you know from the game. She’s looking for her dad. The story is that her dad has disappeared for seven years. She thinks he’s dead, but she finds some clues [showing] that he may still be alive. That leads her to Hong Kong and that’s where she finds me and enlists me to help her along this journey to go to this place where her father might be. So I’m there to help her along with her journey.

Is there a potential love interest or friendship?
It’s more of a partnership because there is something that I’m also looking for as well. I wouldn’t say it’s a love relationship. It’s more of a partnership.

5 thoughts on “One-on-One with Into the Badlands’ Daniel Wu

  1. a bit disappointed that daniel wu doesn’t really consider asian american and other racial issues to be a real emotional thread, even though stuff like ms marvel can connect to wide untapped audiences. as gwillow said, it’s not about the appearance of diversity; it’s just about writing real characters with real struggles.

    1. I hear ya, I’m a tad disappointed too but I know where he’s coming from. If any POC has a great idea for a film or TV series, then to hell with Hollywood and just get a decent budget, great people to work with and an excellent team-ethic and just make it. YouTube can very well be the new Hollywood and may put it to shame in more ways than one in the future. I think Daniel’s this way because he’s a decent star in Asia and he already made that decision long ago not to deal with the U.S. showbusiness culture here. However, he’s got to realize that he’s in a great and fortunate position here and that seriously, lots of others aren’t afforded the same opportunity.

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