From executive producers Shannon Lee and Justin Lin, and showrunner Jonathan Tropper (Banshee), 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, actor Hoon Lee (who plays Chinatown fixer and profiteer Wang Chao) talked about playing a role that was written specifically for him, the similarities between Job (his character on Banshee) and Wang Chao, the extra level of weight to the responsibility of tackling material that’s based on the writings of Bruce Lee, being immersed in the environment created by such detailed sets, how the costumes help inform the character, trusting where the writers will take things, and whether we’ll have a better understanding of who his character is, by the end of the season.
Collider: First of all, congrats on Season 2!
HOON LEE: Thanks!
Your showrunner, Jonathan Tropper, wrote this character specifically for you. How long ago did he tell you that he was developing this show and that he was writing you a character, and what was your reaction to learning that he was doing that?
LEE: He first mentioned the genesis of the project in the last season of Banshee. At that point, there had been conversations about it, but it was hard to know how far along things had gotten because it’s a business where you don’t want to count chickens. He had mentioned that there was a part there that he was thinking of for me, and I was very flattered by that. I had a very good working relationship with Jonathan on Banshee, but you never want to take anything for granted. I just assumed it would be the sort of thing where, when the time came, I would ask him to have a crack at it. He was pretty forthcoming that Wang Chao was going to be an interesting character for me to try on. I was just hoping it would all come to fruition, and was fortunate that it worked out the way it did. Schedules are always in flux, on both ends, and you never quite know if things are going to all come together and interlock the way that you would hope, but I did try to keep myself available for this project because I thought it was going to be pretty special, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to work with Jonathan again. I’m glad it happened.
After playing a character as memorable as Job was in Banshee, did you want to be very careful and selective about the types of roles that you would do, following that?
LEE: Yes and no. I guess you look for similar traits, in any role. You want something that excites you. If it’s a character that had superficial similarities to Job, but had different core values, or functioned in a different way, I wouldn’t have said no, out of hand. It’s much more important to feel challenged, feel like you’re growing, and feel like you’re excited about the story that you want to tell with the character. Most importantly, you want to feel excited about the team you’re going to work with, and the possibilities of having a really good work experience. That’s really important to me. I wasn’t running away from any particular quadrant. On some level, it’s as big a mistake to do that, as it is to stay within a specific wheelhouse. You just have to evaluate each thing on its own merits.
It also would probably be very difficult to come across another character that’s anything like Job.
LEE: I think there are certain similarities between Wang Chao and Job, certainly with the level of intelligence of the characters, their wittiness, and the fact that both characters keep their values quite close to them. They’re also naturally suspicious people. So, I do see some similarities there, and I think that’s part of the reason Jonathan had me in mind. Obviously, I would also fit into this world and the ethnic make-up of the world pretty easily. But I enjoy playing smart characters, and I’ve had the good fortune of having Jonathan write smart characters that I get to play.
For fans of Banshee, Job was definitely a very special character to them. Is he a character that will always hold a special place in your heart, as well?
LEE: Job is a real iconic role for me. I can’t really speak to how other people received him. I was happy that people seemed to enjoy him, as much as I enjoyed playing him. I didn’t often hear that people hated him. I tended to hear a lot of good things, but you never know if there’s some other portion of the population that just couldn’t stand him. He was so challenging and interesting and fun, and he was also a very principled character actually, in many ways, at his core. I had no complaints about playing him, ever. I just felt that he was a complete gift. He made me a better actor, and kept me stimulated and focused and challenged, for the entire rest of the show. There’s really not much more you can ask for, from a job or from a character, than that.
When you do a show like Warrior, that’s taken this 50-year journey to actually finally get made, is there an extra level of weight to the responsibility of tackling material that’s based on the writings of Bruce Lee?
LEE: Bruce Lee being the icon that he is, there’s an inevitable amount of weight, as you say, but it’s our job to ignore that. I think we serve it best by trying to make the most entertaining show that we can. If there’s one core philosophy that Bruce Lee espouses, in many different ways and forms, it’s the idea of expressing individuality and expressing one’s self honestly. As a general concept, that’s something that the show needs to continue to try to do. If we fall into the trap of becoming a tribute show, or some strange imitation show, we’ll be working in exact opposition to a lot of the core philosophy that people think of, when they think of Bruce Lee. In many ways, the nature, his own philosophy and the nature of his life gives us permission to pursue this show on its own merits and its own terms. That’s the way that we actually honor his memory best, and it’s also the way that we honor our own work the best.