It’s no secret that I love Cinemax’s series Warrior based on the writings of Bruce Lee. The only thing the show is missing is the presence of Bruce Lee himself, who absolutely deserved this kind of starring vehicle during his time in the U.S. What I didn’t expect before watching the show was that Jason Tobin, who I only knew from his role as Virgil Hu in Justin Lin’s 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow, is not only a fantastic actor, but also a certified badass. The guy can really fight, or as they say on the show, scrap. Tobin’s Young Jun quickly became my favorite character on the show and I came away each week impressed by his charisma and consistent ability to snatch every scene he was in. If there’s one episode of Warrior that everyone must watch, it’s S1E5 “The Blood and the Sh*t“. It’s an absolute masterpiece and Tobin shines like a supernova.
Recently, I had a chance to chat with Tobin, who is currently back home in Hong Kong. He was incredibly generous with his time and we talked through his genuinely incredible career journey that’s taken him to Hong Kong, England, the United States and even Argentina.
Last week, Tobin set social media a buzz as it was revealed that he’ll be reprising his role as Earl in the latest film in the Fast & Furious franchise, F9. In part 1 of our interview, Jason talks about what it was like moving to Los Angeles from England at the young age 18 and what it means to have landed a leading role on a show conceived by one of his heroes.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
POC Culture: I’ve heard you talk about your early acting years. You came out to Los Angeles around age 18. What are your best and worst memories of that time?
Jason Tobin: Wow…I’m from Hong Kong and I grew up here. My dad’s English and my mom’s Chinese. I always dreamed of being an actor, and to that end, when I was 18 and graduated high school, I packed up and went to LA. When you ask me the best and worst memories of that time, I look back at that time as bittersweet because, to be honest, I really struggled. When I got there at 18 it was my first time as an adult. It was a new country and I was trying to figure things out. LA was this gigantic universe. I knew nothing about how to break into the industry or anything. For example, today if you move to LA, you could Google and figure out which acting classes to go to…you could do a lot of research before you even get there. Back then I got there and didn’t even know where to start. Because I didn’t know anything about acting, I didn’t even know what I was looking for. I didn’t know what a good teacher looked like. Acting can be kind of a mystery. What is good acting? What is not good acting? It took me a lot of time to just figure things out. This is going to sound silly, but back then what was difficult was just getting anywhere. We had to use Thomas Guide Maps. Now it’s taken for granted with Google maps, but back then everything was difficult. I was a new adult.
In terms of good memories. Obviously the weather and being in LA and thinking “I’m going to be a star!” One of the biggest highlights was training. I found the Inosanto Academy in Marina Del Rey and I started martial arts training and I felt like I was part of the lineage of Bruce Lee and learning martial arts from really top notch people was really cool.
Q: Did being part of the Inosanto Academy give you the community that you must have lacked?
JT: Yeah absolutely. It took me a lot longer to figure out the acting thing, but I knew of Bruce Lee. I knew of Dan Inosanto so it was an easy fit. So I had a place to go, I met a lot of people, I had something to dedicate myself too and obviously I was young and fit too so it was really cool. I spent a lot of time there to the point where I was training morning, afternoon and evening. I got there and a few months later Brandon Lee passed away filming The Crow. One of our head instructors, Chad Stahelski, ended up being the body double for Brandon Lee when they completed The Crow. Fast forward and Chad is now a Hollywood director (Stahelski directed John Wick, John Wick 2 and John Wick 3 – Parabellum). He directed the John Wick films. It’s interesting to have met him then and see where he is now. It’s really cool. Another guy, David Leitch, also directed one of the John Wick films (Leitch co-directed the first John Wick film with Chad Stahelski but was uncredited. He’s since gone on to direct films like Deadpool 2 and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.). There are a lot of people in the business who would go through there, and back then at that age I was so enthralled and “fan boying” them.
I really wish I had met Brandon [Lee]. But I just arrived when he was filming The Crow. That was one of the great disappointments for me that I never got to meet him.
Q: What was the response within the community when that news came out.
JT: It was really…truly, deeply sad. It was such a great loss. Although I personally never knew him, everyone at the studio knew him and you could really feel it. I was deeply saddened because I was a huge Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee fan. I loved Rapid Fire and was excited to see where his career would have gone. That’s why for so many reasons, working on Warrior today is such a…I’m not a religious person but the word “blessing” feels really appropriate because I feel so fortunate to have crossed paths with the Lee family, and that I have an opportunity to be a part of Bruce Lee’s legacy and play a small part in it. I didn’t get a chance to meet Shannon Lee during season 1 because she was busy, but during season 2 she came down to Cape Town [South Africa, where Warrior is filmed] and we got to hang out and talk about her father and brother and what all this means to all of us. I just feel like a fan who was let into the party you know what I mean?
Q: That’s well put. We’re all fans, but you carry on his legacy in such an important way. Going to Warrior, your character to me is actually the closest to what we hear Bruce Lee might have been like! He’s brash and complicated and he has a big heart too. I’ve heard you talk about the process of landing this role. You first auditioned for the role of Ah Sahm. What was it about that character that you felt like wasn’t the right fit?
JT: You know…when I read it I liked it obviously and I tried my best for that role. I put all my effort into that auditon but I just felt after that it didn’t spark the…there are just some roles that somehow click on all cylinders, and I just felt like I wasn’t Ah Sahm. I could play him, but I didn’t feel like I would have cast myself in that role. Andrew [Koji] is perfect for Ah Sahm. So I don’t know if I could pinpoint exactly what it was, but I just knew that there was another role in this script that I was just right for. I felt I might have been right for Ah Sahm back in my early days. I felt like I was a different person now and I could bring different strengths to the party. And when I got the auditon for Young Jun, I was like “Ah hah! Here we go.”
It’s funny what you mentioned about Bruce Lee…I feel the same way! I feel like Young Jun is the “bad” Bruce Lee in some ways. Ah Sahm is a certain side of Bruce Lee, but I am very much Bruce Lee as well in Young Jun’s way. As an actor, sometimes we feel we want to be anything the audience or producer or director wants. And to me, at the end of the day, you have to be yourself. You have to bring your own flavor to it. And this jives in line with what Bruce Lee talked about, which is to honestly express yourself. And with Young Jun I felt like I could really go for it and use everything in my tool box, and every bit of experience, and sometimes I hear Bruce Lee’s voice when he says “when you’re training for a street fight you better train every part of your body. It’s not a sport.” I feel like with Young Jun I get to use every piece of me in that role whether it’s the sociopath, the heartbreaking lover, the loyal friend, the comic relief or the instigator. I get to do everything. And in that way I really feel like that’s my way to thank Bruce Lee. The best thing I can do to honor him is to honestly express myself as an artist. And it’s ironic because for so many years I’ve been such a Bruce Lee fan. It’s every actor’s dream to play Bruce Lee. It’s the dream role. But as I started to adopt more of the philosophy of honestly expressing myself, I realized I need to be Jason Tobin. At the end of the day, I’m greatly influenced by Bruce Lee, but I’m also who I am and I need to bring that to the table.
I was watching an interview with Seinfeld on Netflix and he’s talking to Jamie Foxx and he talks about how Bruce Lee was a big influence on him, along with Muhammad Ali, and I look back and think “that’s totally me.” I really identified with 3 men from when I was growing up – Bruce Lee, Elvis and Muhammad Ali. There was just something about their swagger. How they’re so freaking cool and badass. And as Young Jun I get to walk around like this dude…I can’t walk around like that in real life! I’d get punched in the face! I had a couple of friends come visit me during the shooting of season 2 and they said “you walk differently in Cape Town!”
Q: I totally see those 3 inspirations in your character. Young Jun is my favorite character on Warrior. You play him with such zest! And like you said, your character brings so much to the show – whether it’s the romance, swagger, bromance, comedic – he’s one of the most multifaceted characters on the show and you bring that out.
JT: I really appreciate you saying that. On top of all that, how often do you get to see great actors in great roles that ALSO do martial arts? Very rarely do those two things intersect. So I get to do amazing acting work and I get to be a martial artist! It’s LITERALY a dream come true!
Q: What was your first reaction when you learned that you got the role and what did you do to prepare?
JT: I was in Hong Kong and I did all my auditions on tape and sent them in. I auditioned twice for Young Jun. The first time I auditioned having spoken to [Executive Producer] Justin Lin, [Executive Producer] Jonathan Tropper and Alexa [Fogel] our Casting Director, and they’d all given me notes. They wanted to talk to me so that I would not go over the top. They all told me to play it chill and calm. Don’t go crazy. Later on I figured out that all these actors had come in and played him crazy but not grounded. So the first time I auditioned for it, I did what they said. When three of your bosses tell you what to do, you take their notes. So I basically auditioned like I was Marlon Brando on The Godfather. One day I’m gonna release that auditon because now it’s hilarious. I sent it in and I went home, it was late at night, and I sat in my kitchen and my wife walked in and asked “what’s wrong with you?” I just didn’t feel good about the audition. And of course Jonathan watched it and he then contacted me and he said we need to see the energy of this guy. That’s when I thought, if they’re gonna give me the opportunity to do this again, I’m gonna go with my instincts. If I’m going to have this opportunity and play this guy, I gotta have fun with it. I have to enjoy it and honestly express myself in this role. So I did it again and did one take and I just took it by the horns and ran with it. I even improvised because I felt so confident. I knew who this person was and I instantly got it in my body. I sent the tape in and then the turnaround was so quick. I think within hours they said I got it.
To answer you question about how I felt after I got it – Man…I’ve been an actor for a long time and I’ve had so many ups and downs, and there were so many times when I thought I was never to going to achieve…I felt so far away from my dreams on multiple occassions. I didn’t get knocked down once. I got knocked down so many times. To the point where – this is crazy – I didn’t have an agent for 10 years prior to Warrior. That means for 10 years I didn’t go out on an audition until Warrior. Every film job that I did as an actor during that time was through word of mouth or because they knew me from Better Luck Tomorrow or something. I had not been in the Hollywood game, going out for pilots. I wasn’t part of that world. So to get Warrior when I got it was really huge because…I have 3 young kids. I’m married. I live in the most expensive city in the world. To be honest, it was a struggle. No shit, I was working like 10 jobs. Everything from freelance editor, shooter, producer, director, I was producing cool stuff like my feature film Jasmine, but also producing things just to pay the bills like corporate vidoes and training. I would go into banks and law firms and pretend to be a lawyer or banker and play out these scenarios with the employees there. Oftentimes, one day I would play the asshole, racist, homophobic guy and the next day I was the gay guy getting persecuted at work. I was even doing police lineups! If they needed someone to line up next to a suspect for 800 Hong Kong dollars, I’d be there. I was still acting, getting a role here or there. I was doing everything to pay the bills. When I finally did get Warrior, I turned to my wife and felt this unbelievable calmness. This sense of achievement. Even though I hadn’t even shot it. I felt “this is where I’m supposed to be.” Finally the patience paid off. So I took my wife out to dinner. We were struggling and then I took her out to THE most expensive dinner in the world. It was ridiculous.
Q: [Laughing] Where did you go?
JT: We went to this super fancy restaurant in the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong. The bill was like 7,000 HK dollars. That’s like $800 or $900. It was ridiculous. Cavier and everything…it was like “whooo!” [laughing]
Q: You hadn’t even been paid yet! [Laughing]
JT: We just took it out of the kids’ tuition fund [laughing]. I felt this real calmness. Serenity.
Q: I love that story. It’s like you finally came home.
JT: Yes! Exactly! I always worked hard, but I feel like I’m at my best when I’m on set working as an actor. When I’m doing Warrior, playing Young Jun, I feel at home. I really feel like the best sides of me come out when I’m doing that work. I feel like I’m the best version of myself. So that’s a good way to express it. I’m home. I’m back.
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.