This second part of my in-depth interview with Jason Tobin is a long time coming. I had a wide-ranging conversation with Tobin, who plays Young Jun in Cinemax’s Warrior and is well known for his roles in the groundbreaking Asian-American film Better Luck Tomorrow and the Fast & Furious franchise, in late 2019. Part 1 of our conversation was published earlier this year where Tobin talked about moving to Los Angeles from London at age 18 to pursue acting, what Bruce Lee means to him and the process of landing the role of a lifetime as Young Jun in Cinemax’s Warrior. If you haven’t read part 1 of our conversation, I couldn’t recommend it more.
Due to various issues, I wasn’t able to publish part 2 of our conversation until now. Below, Tobin explains the incredible journey that he went on after his breakout film Better Luck Tomorrow, how he ended up in Argentina and what we can expect from season 2 of Warrior. Plus, he answers the most important question of all – which Warrior cast member is the most badass?
Be sure to catch Tobin on season 2 of Warrior, premiering Friday, October 2nd at 10 PM only on Cinemax!
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness. Some mature language is included in the interview.
POC Culture: So the question that’s been lingering in my head. You were in LA in your youth and went through the struggle. What made you decide to go back to Hong Kong. It must be hard to be a Hollywood actor when you’re not around.
Jason Tobin: Well exactly. When I left Hollywood, I left Hollywood. I came to LA when I was 18 and I really struggled. But it was good training. Some of the great things that came out of that period in my life is that I learned out to be an actor. I studied with great teachers. LA is a great place for learning your craft. I was part of an improv theater company and I learned so much. That was really good because it’s like running in sand. You get better at it quickly and you’re surrounded by people really going for it. I was in LA for about 7 years. Those were tough years and I was not getting a lot of work and I started to feel like my dreams of becoming an actor were imprisoning me. I kinda wanted to use my brain in a different way and change up my life. I didn’t feel like I was getting the opportunities and all the auditioning was taking a toll on me.
Fortunately, those years in LA culminated in Better Luck Tomorrow, which was Justin Lin’s first film as a solo director. It wasn’t his first film. He’d done a film prior to that with Quentin Lee that they co-directed called Shopping for Fangs. When he did Better Luck Tomorrow, I went in and auditioned and it was a dream come true film in that it went to Sundance [Film Festival], became the big hit of Sundance, and it was picked up. When I was in LA back then, you did all this free stuff. You did all these indie films for free; just copy and credit. I went in to do BLT the same way – copy and credit. It’s every actor’s dream to get into an indie film and it goes to Sundance, it’s a big hit and your career is launched. And there we were, we went there and became the toast of the town. Roger Ebert got up on his chair and fought for us! So around this time, this was great but I was actually really frustrated with everything and it was great that Better Luck Tomorrrow was picked up and bought and it was about to be released and now I was on the cusp of my biggest career success.
I decided to go on a vacation right after Sundance. So I went to Buenos Aires for two weeks with my mother. She’s Chinese but she lives in London. Around that time it was Mother’s Day and she loves to dance. So we were like “Let’s go on holiday to learn to dance!” We had an amazing 2 weeks there. We really bonded. I had grown up with my dad, and I had spent my upbringing visiting her for holidays, so it was a nice time. We Tangoed every day. Took Tango and Spanish lessons. After 2 weeks, I flew back to LA and I remember on my flight – I was going to Atlanta first – I remember thinking I really didn’t want to go back to LA. The thought of going back to my apartment really depressed me. Even though I had Better Luck Tomorrow, which had just got bought by MTV films and was going to be released by Paramount, either way I would still be going home to the reality of my apartment and I had this feeling that my dreams were beginning to imprison me. And it’s one of those things where you gotta be careful what you wish for. A Chinese kid who goes to LA to be an actor, nobody’s going to give that kid a visa to work there. So basically all those years while I was learning acting in LA, I was an illegal immigrant. I was not “illegal” but I was on a tourist visa, I was on a business visa and a student visa. I would just leave every 6 months. I had a British passport so I would leave and go back to Hong Kong for a few weeks and come back and I’d have another 6 months on my passport. The idea was that hopefully I’d get a project big enough where they would sponsor me for a visa. So I was playing the system for a bit and it caught up with me.
That day I landed in Atlanta and they put me in a cell. They called it a “waiting room” but it’s not a waiting room when you’re not allowed to take anything in there with you, and when they close the door, the desk is drilled to the floor, the bed is drilled to the floor, the toilet has no moving parts..it’s a cell. And I was in there for 14 hours and you do a lot of thinking in that time. At one point some guy came in and sat down next to me and asks “So what prison are you from?” and I think “Oh god…” I became a prisoner. I was walking back and forth in that little space. I’d do push-ups. 14 hours is a heck of along time when you don’t know how long you’ll be in there for. So they said you can go back to your country. I could have gone back to the UK or Hong Kong but neither seemed interesting to me at the moment and I’d just had a great time in Argentina, so I thought fuck it, send me back to Buenos Aires. So I went back to Buenos Aires and I spent a year there. I called my friends in LA and said everything in my apartment is all yours – my car, my TV, my computer. All I had left was me and my backpack and it was liberating.
In the end it was a really great year for me because…in many ways a lot of people were upset with me because I couldn’t be there for Better Luck Tomorrow. When the film came out and they were doing all the press, the premieres, taking photos for the poster, I wasn’t there for any of it. My agent and my parents were like “What are you doing? Get back to work!” But I needed it. It was a sabbatical that I really needed. I wanted to use my brain in a new way. Every day I took 3 hours of private Spanish lessons and I just started to live a little bit. I just felt really restricted like I said. It’s ironic because a lot of people didn’t understand that and some people were really upset with me. But then fast forward to now, and my movie Sonora is playing on Netflix. This movie is a Mexican movie and I speak Spanish throughout the whole film. It’s an all Spanish language film. It’s written by John Sayles. And it’s set in the 1930s and I play a young Chinese immigrant who has a Mexican wife and a half-Chinese, half-Mexican daughter, which was illegal at the time because racism was on the rise in Mexico in that era and the Chinese were excluded and expelled. Their businesses were taken from them, and they were pushed out into the dessert, many to their deaths. It’s just real interesting how life works out that all these years later…that the sabbatical paid off so many years later. After that year, I didn’t have a visa to return to the States, which was bad because I had the biggest success of my career but couldn’t take advantage of any of it. So I went to London and worked for about a year as an actor but found that I was fighting the same fight that I was fighting in the U.S. – I still a Chinese guy trying to break into an industry that was a predominantly Caucasian business. And I was frustrated that I had to wait to get permission from others to let me to act. So then it dawned on me that I needed to go back to Hong Kong and make my own films.
Q: Just like Bruce Lee!
JT: Exactly! I had to be my own person. And to that end I learned how to write, produce, shoot, edit and I started directing music videos, commercials and anything I could get my hands on. And then I got together with a friend and produced, wrote and starred in my own film that was set in Hong Kong and set in my subculture. Hong Kong is a Cantonese speaking society and Hong Kong films are about local people, rightly so. But there’s a massive subculture of people like me that speak English, since we were a British colony for many years, and so I wanted to make films within my subculture. In America I’m not American enough, in Hong Kong I’m not Chinese enough, in England I’m not British enough, and in this regard I really relate to Bruce Lee and Young Jun (from Warrior). And I thought I would continue to make my own films and that would lead me back to Hollywood. I was in the middle of writing my next script that I got the call for Warrior.
Q: Wow…that’s quite the spiritual journey of self discovery that you walked.
JT: Yeah. It makes me very emotional talking about this stuff. There’s this mixture of pain and this glory too about it. There’s struggle. There’s these awesome successful moments too. There’s so many people struggling out there that I can’t compare myself to what others are going through, but it was definitely a roller coaster ride and this is the best place I’ve ever been.
Q: I’m emotional just hearing you talk about it. I’ve heard you talk about your journey but you’ve made it really clear what it took to get to where you are now. And it wasn’t easy.
Q: So you got the role, spent absurd amounts of money with your wife, and then the work begins. What did you do to prep?
JT: The turnaround was really quick. By the time I auditioned and got the job and signed contracts, it was within a week, maybe 2, before I was on a flight to Cape Town. I didn’t have a lot of time to physically prepare. You can’t get in shape in 2 weeks. When I came back to Hong Kong [previously], martial arts and training took a back seat to working and hustling. So by the time I got to Cape Town for season 1 of Warrior, I had a real “dad bod.” At that time, the thought of training and paying for martial arts classes…I would have felt guilty. But once I got Warrior and got to Cape Town, this whole world of training opened up to me. Warrior has given me so much, and another thing it gave me was falling in love with martial arts again. And of course once I met Brett Chan and the stunt team, they were super welcoming and helped me train. When I got the job and called [Executive Producer] Jonathan Tropper, I asked him what the situation was with training. Can I train with the stunt team? And he said I can train as little as I want or as much as I want. Essentially he was saying to me that he hired me for my acting. And actually they didn’t even know what my martial arts background was. It wasn’t part of the analysis. But dude…there is no way I’m gonna be in a TV show that was written by Bruce Lee and not train. That just sounds ludicrous. I was so grateful because martial arts was such a huge part of my life and I think people might have known me from Better Luck Tomorrow and other films and had no idea about my martial arts background, which is great and what I wanted. But now that I could express myself through my martial arts, it was just a dream come true. So basically I got fit over the course of the season. And if you look really closely, if you watch my first sex scene in episode 1, if you look at my shoulders and chest, you think “Okay…” but by episode 5, which we did shoot at the very end of season 1, by then you think “Oh yeah he’s been working out.”
Q: Yeah you are shredded!
JT: Yeah that’s 5-6 months of training by that point. Then after season 1 wrapped, I came back to Hong Kong and I kept training. So it’s been a real gift. This show has been a gift on so many levels. To give me permission to begin training again and fall in love with martial arts…it’s like – thank you Bruce! Of course it’s Bruce Lee who would give me this opportunity again.
Q: From a martial arts perspective, have you taken up any specific forms?
JT: Growing up my first martial art was Judo. Then I got into Tae Kwon Do and I did that for years. When I moved to LA at the Inosanto Academy and learned a whole bunch of stuff. I took every class from Jun Fan Kung Fu, Muay Thai, Kali, Escrima, everything. Specifically for Warrior, we have the training we do for choreography, but for my own training I stick to Muay Thai, western Boxing and Jiu Jitsu. So basically what makes up MMA these days. With Young Jun, he uses knives, so I’ve been wanting to do more Silat and work on knife skills. At the moment the way I fight with knives it’s almost like I’m a boxer but with knives, and then it’s kind of like Wing Chun with the straight blasts with knives. I incorporate anything I’ve ever learned. That’s what’s so amazing about this role. On an acting level and a physical martial arts level, I get to do everything. So when we talk about how to express myself, all the fights on Warrior are pre-viz. So all the fight scenes on Warrior, all the stunt guys literally shoot the fight scene ahead of time. They choreograph it and shoot it and they show it to the actors and we basically replicate it on set. So my stunt double and my teacher, Hai Yang, he plays me in the pre-viz. So I see him do it and he’s an unbelievable martial artist. He has a Wushu background so he moves the way he moves. So even if I’m doing the same choreography, he moves the way he moves and I move the way I move. We, as the actor, can infuse moments into the fight. Find beats when we can add more acting. The way I move, I have what I like to think of as a street, dirty viciousness that I bring into it. So even though the pre-viz is the same movements, I bring myself into it. I love to see those differences. When you see Andrew’s double do it and then Andrew does it. It’s lovely. It’s nice to see people expressing themselves.
Q: You really get to see the personality come through in their martial arts.
So you have this incredible and impressive martial arts cast. Joe Taslim, Andrew Koji, Olivia Cheng can hold her own. Who among the cast has really impressed you?
JT: Obviously Andrew is a badass and he’s just a really gifted athlete. He’s got great gymnastics, martial arts background and work ethic. He was great in season 1 but came into season 2 even stronger. He went to Korea and trained with top notch Tae Kwon Do people to really refine and hone his kicking. And man it really…his kicks got even better in season 2. But out of all of us, the true badass of the whole freaking cast is Joe Taslim. That guy is not faking it! [laughing]. He’s a real fighter. He’s just so silky smooth and powerful. You can really tell in his movements how good he is. I love watching him. I was a fan of his before from The Raid, so watching him fight is just so cool. With me you guys get to see the finished product. You don’t get to see my mistakes. With Joe, he never screws up. He’s just awesome every take.
By the way, Dustin Nguyen is fucking awesome too. I really enjoy his fight scene with Tom in Chinatown. It’s not flashy but it’s so great. He’s so so good. I’m surrounded by all these badasses so I’m playing catch up again.
Q: But you hold your own. You fit right in. So what’s it like working with Dustin? He’s a legend as an Asian actor in the US. So what was it like working with him?
JT: It’s been amazing working with him. I really love the man. He’s one of the sweetest, nicest people in the world. He’s been through a lot and he deserves everything that he has. I actually met him many many years ago on a commercial. I don’t think it played in America but it was for Levis jeans. It was shot in SF and LA. It’s this extended commercial and Dustin basically plays Bruce Lee! There’s all this fighting all over Chinatown and it was directed by Jonathan Glazer. I auditioned for the same role but Dustin got it. I was a pretty young actor at the time and I met Dustin and he was a real gentleman. I essentially get beat up by him. All these years later to cross paths with him again, it has been really nice. We’re also dads now and we get along and we can talk about stuff. In season 2, not only does he play a huge role but he’s also one of our directors. He directed the stand-alone episode of season 2. So I got to work with him as an actor, as a friend and as a director. What I really love about him…obviously he brings his own life experience, but he’s also a very cinematic director. Working with him in that regard was great. His episode was crazy because it was one of those where we had not enough money or time but big ambition and we’re flying by the seat of our pants…which I enjoy! To hell with keeping it under control. A bit of wildness is right up my alley.
Q: I can tell!
Q: I can’t wait for season 2. What can you tease us about season 2? No spoilers, but what can you tell us about what to expect and what you’re excited about?
JT: Without giving away any spoilers, I would say that I feel like season 1 sets the tone. You’re introduced to the world and characters. Season 2, we already know the world, so they just crank up the conflict, the tension and the drama. So much happens. The writers just took it up another notch. I won’t say too much other than I think it’s pretty obvious that Young Jun is a very ambitious person. How many seasons can they go without answering that question? People make moves. Some are successful and some aren’t. I’m really excited for season 2. Every time a new script came in, I was so excited. We’re the first audience when we get that script and in many ways we’re no different than someone who’s watching it. We’re like “Wow! Really?! No way!” [laughing]
Q: They definitely planted the seeds of Young Jun’s ambition in season 1. Have your daughters seen you in the show?
JT: I have twins that are 3 and a daughter who is 5. They’re quite young. So they haven’t watched a full episode because they’re not into that. They like their own programs! But I’m not a parent who shirks away from letting them see that stuff. There was a lot of blood and gore, but I explain that it’s daddy and it’s not real. And they’ve been on set with me. I’m not hiding them from it. I’d rather share what I do with them and explain to them than hide from it. It doesn’t look like they’re scarred [laughing]. Sometimes they want to play with ketchup and put “blood” on my face so they’re having fun with it.
Q: How much is your life different now? Your life must be significantly different.
JT: I’m in a 100% better position than I’ve ever been in. There are more people in the industry interested in meeting and talking to me. And that’s wonderful since I’ve been out of the game for quite a long time. Recently I’ve managed to put a really good team together, including my publicist! [laughing]
Q: Who seems wonderful! [laughing]
JT: Yes exactly! I’ve got a manager now. I’m repped in LA, I’m repped in London. All of a sudden I’m back in the game with a great team and I’m working with wonderful people on Warrior. I’ve shot two seasons of Warrior so I’ve worked with 10 different directors, working with a whole bunch of writers, great technicians and producers. I’m making a lot of contacts and I’m able to show them that I’m worth their time. I think as the show gets more eyes and I get to do more seasons, I hope things will go up. But life goes on. Things have changed in the sense that Warrior is the most visible thing. So I get recognized more. And that’s cool right now. When fans that like Warrior come up to me, I can tell they really love it and so do I, so we have something in common. But it’s funny because everything’s changed but also nothing changes. I’m still “dad.” I still have my family. The one thing I’ll say, the biggest change is that when I went to Sundance with Better Luck Tomorrow, and we were the toast of the town, I felt vindicated after all those years of struggle and people not believing in me, and finally I had this success, we were getting good reviews and I personally was getting good reviews…there was a part of me that wished I wished I could share that with someone. The biggest difference now is that I’m so unbelievably grateful for what Warrior has given me because I can share it with my family. I do it for my kids now. This success would be completely hallow without them. To be able to take my family to Cape Town and see a safari and see this amazing part of the world, and to have the means to do that, it really satisfies me. There was a time when I didn’t think I would be able to do that.
Q: That’s awesome to hear you sound so fulfilled in what you’re doing. I can’t thank you enough for the conversation. You really took us on your life’s journey! I hope we can connect again, because we didn’t even get a chance to talk in-depth about Better Luck Tomorrow, which is a film that means a lot to me and had a big impact on me.
JT: I really appreciate your time. We should talk about BLT some time because this is one of the questions that comes up. People are like “What the hell happened to that guy?” [laughing] So now people see Warrior and are like “There he is!”
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.