Dianne Doan has been in every franchise you love. Love Disney princesses? Check Doan out as Mulan’s daughter in the hit Descendants franchise. Love Marvel? Watch Doan in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If you prefer DC, that’s fine too, as Doan appeared in an episode of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. And of course, if you love Bruce Lee, martial arts, or just flat out great TV, you should be watching Doan as the fierce leader of the Long Zii in Cinemax’s Warrior.
The women in Warrior are truly amazing, which is no surprise considering Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee serves as an Executive Producer for the show, and talked about how important it was for her to have complex women characters on the show. Along with close friend and fellow Asian-Canadian actress Olivia Cheng, Doan plays one of the strongest and most interesting characters on Warrior.
In speaking with Doan, we talked about the family like culture of the Warrior cast, how Doan and co-star Joe Taslim developed such amazing chemistry as an on-screen couple, and how important Southeast Asian representation is to her as a Vietnamese-Canadian actress.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Don’t miss the season 2 finale of Warrior tomorrow on Cinemax and you can catch both seasons on HBO Max. Season 3 of Warrior is still up in the air so we need to support this amazing show!
POCCulture: Mai Ling is one of the most interesting characters on the show because she’s so clearly subverting multiple stereotypes as the leader of the Long Zii. Coming into this season, how did you want to further develop her character?
Dianne Doan: I feel like in season 2, it’s not about where to go, but for Mai Ling, it’s more abouot her decisions and actions from season 1…and a lot of season 2 is dealing with those consequences and a lot of guilt for her. I feel like in season 2, Mai Ling is grasping onto that power that she took in season 1. I feel like as soon as she got a taste of it, she wanted more and more. So it was questionable reading the script if she was going too far. Is she going to get into a position that she can’t get out of? That’s possibly dangerous for her? So a lot of season 2 was an internal battle of emotion. But externally, it’s interesting her dynamic with Li Yong or Ah Sahm. What’s really fun is that I get to meet a lot more characters in the Chinatown world that I’ve never spent time with. Season 2 is a lot. It’s really fun.
POCCulture: It must be so fun to play a character that’s so multifaceted. How fun is it, but also how challenging is it? She’s a leader of a tong, but in a relationship with Li Yong, and Ah Sahm’s sister…how hard is that to juggle?
Dianne Doan: I feel like in playing her I don’t think about that stuff. I just think about deep down her as a human, wanting the best for her people and also the tong as well. Juggling relationships…I feel like with season 2 with Li Yong, the main thing is, can they trust each other? We’ve seen in all of season 1 we’ve stuck by each other. In season 2, in grasping that power that I have now, is that relationship as stable as we think? And with Ah Sahm, yes there’s that guilt and wanting to be a family again, but being so isolated as a leader of a tong in Chinatown, with so much power, I feel like the importance of getting that relationship with Ah Sahm was, if she doesn’t have her brother, who does she have in this world that she created and is so alone in? So yeah, as much as there’s juggling, when you break it down, I feel like it wasn’t too daunting for me as an actor. You’re right, Mai Ling is so multifaceted and there are so many layers. The first couple of episodes of season 2, she’s very new in her powers and I feel like as much as she wants to be strong, there’s the question of, “Are you doing the right thing? Are you taking it too far?”
POCCulture: I love the dynamic that you have with Andrew Koji, that Mai Ling has with Ah Sahm. What’s it like working with Andrew and is there anything you two did two develop that incredible chemistry?
Dianne Doan: In real life Andrew is my brother. I call him “bruv” and he calls me “sis” and I feel like there are so many beautiful relationships taken away from being in Warrior. You hear going on shows that people don’t get along or casts are divided. That just wasn’t the case for Warrior and that’s another thing that made for an incredible experience. With Koji specifically, I love working with him. We’re opponents in the show so we may not get as much screen time as I would like, but when we do, it’s easy and terrifying because we just don’t know what’s going to happen. I was saying in another interview that when we’re together, there are lines on a page but we just never know the outcome when we act it out. That’s the beautiful part of working with Koji. The funny thing is that, watching the show back, I forget how funny our relationship is. We bicker and we give each other attitude and sass and it’s such a fun relationship. I love working with Koji.
POCCulture: I agree it’s really fun and it comes through on screen. Whenever you two are on screen, it’s like, “Here we go!”
Dianne Doan: Watching the screeners [for season 2], I texted Koji and said that you and Jason, that relationship is so hilarious. It’s such a highlight. Because I didn’t notice it in season 1. The writing has changed between the two of them. They’re more on top of each other. They’re more playful. I love the new developments of all the characters in season 2. We’ve come back and we’re more comfortable in our skin as characters and it completely comes alive on screen.
POCCulture: I agree that the two of them have amazing chemistry. All of you do and that’s what makes this show so special. Which brings me to Joe Taslim. Obviously he’s critical to your character. So many people on the show speak about Joe with reverence because of his martial arts. But your relationship with Joe is different because it’s so intimate and so personal. How do you go about making an on-screen relationship so authentic?
Dianne Doan: Oh thank you! No one has said that! I didn’t know what to expect. Obviously I’ve watched his films, and he’s this big actor in Indonesia and Asia, but everything that everyone says about Joe is 100% correct. He is the sweetest man you will ever come across. He’s so respectful. He gets in the nitty gritty of the show. Koji and Joe…everyone…but them specifically being these martial arts experts, they had to put in the time in stunt training. I tried to be there as much as I could. In season 1 I joked that I was the only woman in there with the guys, but Joe is just someone who takes his work so seriously and you have to respect that; you’d be crazy if you didn’t. And in terms of our relationship on screen, I’ve never had to do this. I’ve never had a relationship like the one that Joe and I have on screen. And I don’t know if I could have done that with anyone else besides Joe Taslim. The way we approached it was very artistic. The biggest thing I would say is that he and I have so much respect for each other. We listen to each other. We’re partners in this. If someone has an idea or wants to do something different, we listen to each other. Ultimately, I spend all of my time on set with Joe. There isn’t a day I go to work and he’s not there. I have nothing but amazing things to say about Joe Taslim. He’s my favorite. We walked out of there lifelong friends! It’s him and I and that’s it. Mai Ling and Li Yong, that’s it.
POCCulture: I love how you describe your relationship because I feel like that’s Mai Ling’s relationship with Li Yong. Joe’s character doesn’t talk much, but when he does talk, it’s with you and it’s very intimate. There’s such a mutual respect between the characters.
Dianne Doan: The thing with Joe is…the air, the essence…he walks into a room and the attention is on him. He doesn’t need to say much. And Li Yong as well, the character, everything is in his posturing, his eyes, his mannerisms. That character is so hard to play. But you’re right, those intimate scenes, I don’t know what it would be like with someone else. Him and I, we trust each other and work very well together. I love him. He’s Joe Taslim.
POCCulture: What’s it like with the cast filming in Cape Town? They built a whole world for you. I imagine there’s almost like a college dorm dynamic to it.
Dianne Doan: The first time I saw the Chinatown that they built, I’d never seen anything like it and it’s very emotional! This is our world and they put in so much time and money…I think it was like a 4 or 5 block radius. It was huge. When we lived in Cape Town, we got to choose our own apartments, but there were a few of us that always chose to live near each other. It was like summer camp away from home! My fiancé Manny [Jacinto] would come and visit me. He shot The Good Place in LA, and he would come to Cape Town and laugh at me because after 12 hours a day on set shooting, we would go in to each others’ trailers and be like, “Where are we eating dinner?” and Manny would be like, “You’re going to meet them for dinner? Aren’t you tired? You guys see each other all day and now you want to spend the night together?” It just goes to show that we really are a huge family and we have so much love for each other. As much as most of us had never been to Cape Town and it’s isolating, we found a family within each other and I think it speaks wonders about our relationship and our dynamic as a cast.
POCCulture: I love that. I would love to see a behind-the-scenes documentary on Warrior. Do you have a favorite episode of season 2?
Dianne Doan: Yes but I’m biased because they’re my episodes! [Laughing.] I love episode 4 because I get to meet Ah Toy. There’s this scene between Mai Ling and Ah Toy within this world that we’ve been in presumably for years, but we’ve never met each other. It was such a fun day on set. Olivia [Cheng] and I are actually very close and the characters…it’s awkward, it’s passive aggressive, it’s intense, it’s such a fun scene. I have favorite scenes, I wouldn’t say favorite episodes.
POCCulture: You mentioned Olivia, did you have an existing friendship prior to this show?
Dianne Doan: No oddly enough. We’re both from Vancouver but I left and I go back and forth from LA. And I’d heard so much about her but we just never crossed paths, even though Vancouver is such a small scene. It was actually at a CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) event and she was so lovely. It’s so funny, that was October and then November we both booked Warrior and we were shooting a month later. The kismet of it all was so beautiful, it was meant to be. The show is predominantly male, and the women on the show cling together. So yeah, she’s a close friend of mine.
POCCulture: There’s this growing group of talented, up and coming Asian actors from Canada. What’s the Asian-Canadian acting community like?
Dianne Doan: The community is so small in Vancouver but I never really found the Asian community in Vancouver. I didn’t work much in Vancouver, so to be around other Asian actors, I just didn’t get the opportunity. It wasn’t until I came to LA, in this much bigger pool, when I went to CAPE and I became part of this community that’s so thriving and huge. The first time I went to the gala, I just stood in the back and I was in awe. I feel like I didn’t find my community until I was in LA. But you’re right, there is such a thriving Asian community like Simu [Liu] and Manny Jacinto, but we didn’t get close until we got to LA! [Laughing.]
POCCulture: Speaking of Asian representation, we’re in an era of increased awareness, but the Southeast Asian community is often overlooked. How important is it for you to represent Southeast Asians?
Dianne Doan: Oh absolutely. You’re right in saying that there are more opportunities for us, but we still have so far to go. When big production companies can take what they call a “risk” on our faces, voices and stories, it’s not happening at a rate that’s fair. In terms of Southeast Asian voices, I’m so prideful of being a Vietnamese-Canadian actress. Unfortunately I haven’t read many stories for us. Further along in my career, would I love to be a writer/producer? Writing is a little scary, but yes! The novel by Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is…I can’t even finish that book because every time I read it, I burst into tears because it’s my parents’ story. I believe they’re going to be making that into a feature film. I try to keep track of these stories that I want to be heard or seen. I will forever push our stories and our voices 100%.
POCCulture: You’re doing amazing work and I definitely hope to see your voice in writing or producing so we can see more authentic Southeast Asian stories, and Asian stories overall. Finally, my daughter would kill me if I didn’t tell you that she loved you in Descendants.
Dianne Doan: Please tell your daughter thank you so much! I’m so grateful that she loved those movies. Those were a big part of how I got to LA so thank you for watching Descendants. That means so much.
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.