The 10-episode Cinemax action-packed drama series Warrior, based on writings from martial arts legend Bruce Lee and set during the brutal Tong Wars of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the second half of the 19th century, follows Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), a young man who’s left China behind for San Francisco under mysterious circumstances, only to realize just how challenging that can be. Now that he’s become a hatchet man for one of Chinatown’s most powerful Chinese organized crime families, violence is erupting all around him and he must decide which boundaries are worth crossing and which might be too dangerous to survive.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, British actor Andrew Koji talked about why he needed to have his mother convince him to audition for Warrior, how close he came to giving up on acting, what it’s like to be living in this world and playing this character, walking onto the incredible sets that were built in South Africa to recreate San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1800s, playing the action hero and romantic lead, getting to do such bad-ass fight scenes, and what he’d still like to see with his character, in future seasons.
Collider: Warrior really is unlike anything else that’s on TV, and I’m just having so much fun watching it. You’ve previously said that, when this show came along, you hadn’t done TV in a while, you were about to turn 30, you were seriously considering a change in career, and you needed your agent and your mother to convince you to submit a tape for the role. How did you get to the point where you needed to have your mother convince you to audition for what seems like it would just be a dream role?
ANDREW KOJI: I left college when I was just about to turn 19, and that’s when I was like, “I want to be in films.” Probably about 11 years ago, I was just trying to get in the industry. And then, there was about 10 years of doing acting stuff, with the first year and a half just being experimentation and trying things. With England being a bit further behind, in terms of representation for black and minority actors, I found it very challenging. Particularly being mixed, half-Asian and half-white, it was very difficult because you’re not Asian enough for these roles, and you’re not Caucasian enough for these other roles. It’s also very difficult ‘cause you’re in this position where you have to wait around for either a TV show that needs a guest Asian, or you’re doing an ethnic Chinese play, and that doesn’t come around that often. A lot of my friends in England, who are very talented actors, still haven’t managed to get a role which gives them a sustainable career. For me, I’m an only child from a single-parent family and I needed to be able to support myself. My mum’s getting old, and I have to be able to make sure she’s okay. She was worried thinking that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. Also, as a creative mind, you get susceptible to depression, and all that stuff, and feeling like you’re never going to make it. So, I was at this point, after being on a bit of a rollercoaster for those past 10 years, up until just before Warrior, where I wanted to jump off of the rollercoaster. I was like, “I’m done with this.” I couldn’t keep doing these ups and downs, where you do a TV job and you think you’re going to be okay and that it will help you get through, but then nothing comes after that. And then, you do a play, but plays, in general, don’t pay well, at all. London is very expensive to live in. And I thought they would want a Chinese guy with loads of Instagram followers, who is a full-on martial arts expert, and that they would end up choosing a Chinese star, or whatever. It was years of me not thinking that I would ever make it and that it would never turn around for me, and also me not thinking I was right for the role.
But then, you auditioned, and here we are. What is it like to actually be living in this world and playing this character? Is Ah Sahm one of those complicated, layered roles that you dream about sinking your teeth into, as an actor?
KOJI: Absolutely! It’s a dream come true. That’s the phrase for the experience. I was about to give up. I didn’t think that, in my lifetime, a role like this would come. I thought maybe I’d leave my mark and make a few little films and do my TV thing, with a few guest roles, and then maybe, in a few generations time, things would change, and that would be my contribution. Up until Warrior, I thought that would be my contribution to acting, and then maybe, at some other point, it would convince other people to carry on. I never thought that this would actually happen to me, to be honest. To play a role like this, is a dream come true. I can’t not get emotional, thinking about it.
The thing about this show is that, even if it might not be 100% accurate, it just feels so real. What’s it like to find yourself on a set in South Africa that’s standing in for San Francisco in the 1800s?
KOJI: When I first got there to shoot the pilot, seeing the scale of it and seeing what they were doing was an eye-opening experience. You read the script for the pilot and you meet Jonathon [Tropper], but you don’t know what it’s going to turn into. You don’t know if the show will continue. As an actor, you learn to think of it like, “When it’s released, that’s when it’s done.” Even if you’re shooting it, you think, “Well, it could get canceled, at the last minute.” That has happened. Seeing the set, and seeing it all come to life, I was like, “This is happening. This is real. Oh, my god!” I ended up turning a lot of that into Ah Sahm. (Executive Producer) Justin Lin called me up and said, “I can see that you’re channeling this.” Ah Sahm is taking in this new world that he’s arrived into. He’s going, “Holy shit! What is this?!” I think it was intentional to not make it completely accurate. The suits are very stylized. It’s not period accurate, but it’s a stylized interpretation of this period. If I was absolutely true to Ah Sahm, he would have the Chinese haircut. For me, Ah Sahm was more of an enigmatic character that I could use my imagination for, rather than having to be completely bound by the period.