Shannon Lee is an icon in the Asian-American community. She’s runs companies, she runs a foundation, she’s an executive producer, she’s a writer and she’s an advocate for Asian-American issues. Oh she’s also the daughter of Bruce Lee. I can’t fathom how challenging it must be to just discover and develop your own identity while being Bruce Lee’s daughter, but to also make your own substantial impact on society as well. Shannon Lee has done that.
As the Executive Producer of Cinemax’s Warrior, Lee was responsible for bringing her father’s dream and writings to life and creating a show that is one of the shining examples of Asian representation in media. Today, Lee releases her first book, Be Water, My Friend, inspired by the philosophies of her father.
It’s no surprise that Shannon Lee is a personal hero of mine, and having the opportunity to speak with her about her father’s legacy, the development of Warrior, and her own professional journey was definitely a “bucket list” moment for me.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Be Water, My Friend is available now and don’t miss Warrior on Cinemax, Fridays at 10 PM!
POCCulture: Nobody has had the concept of this show Warrior in their minds as long as you have. Now that you’ve been involved for 2 seasons, how has Warrior met your expectations and how has it been different or surpassed your expectations?
Shannon Lee: It’s definitely met and exceeded my expectations. You go into these things always wanting the best and hoping that it’s going to turn out the way you want it to [laughing]. It morphs and changes as you go on, and there were definitely moments when I was like “Should we do that?” but the care, craftsmanship and skill with which this show was executed by everyone involved was really of the highest quality, and because of that, the show is phenomenal. I couldn’t have imagined exactly what it would be like, I just hoped that it would be good, and I have to say that even before we had the pilot episode was written, just from the conversations we were having and level of creativity and dedication and, you know, the producing and writing I’d seen, I just had this sense that we were onto something, and that it was going to turn out well, and it really has. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
Q: I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s really an incredible show and I think it’s very special. What is the creative process like for you working with Executive Producers Jonathan Tropper and Justin Lin and the cast? What’s your role in kind of helping to shape the show?
SL: So Jonathan [Tropper] obviously is the writer and the Showrunner. So he is the one who is presenting us with his ideas, his thoughts, storylines, and scripts. And I think that from the very beginning, there’s definitely been a sense of, we need to make sure that this works with the Bruce Lee legacy. We need to make sure that the action and the characters and the storylines and the things that are important to me and to Bruce Lee are met. And “we need Shannon in order to do that,” you know, and so, I’ve been very involved from the get go, and they come to me just to make sure that all of those things are in line, and that I’m on board with the decisions that are being made. Not just with Bruce Lee, but I think also I’ve been an advocate for the female characters on the show as well, making sure that they’re complex and three-dimensional and not just damsels in distress who are just there to serve the male characters; making sure that they’re all strong in their own way. So there’s been a lot of involvement from my side of things.
Q: I absolutely see that in the characters. I think the women on the show are incredible. Olivia Cheng and Dianne Doan. I see all of them as little bits and pieces of your father. Do you personally have a favorite character on the show?
SL: Oh, it’s so funny, everybody always asks me that. It’s so hard because I really love all the characters, you know? [Laughing] They’re all my babies in a way, right? So it’s hard. It’s hard to say, but I mean there’re so many great performances. I love Olivia, I love Ah Toy. I love Jason Tobin’s character. I love Andrew Koji’s character, Diane does a great job. Oh, I love…Joe Taslim is phenomenal. I mean, I could just go on and on and on. And by the way our non-Asian characters are also phenomenal you know? I really think that all the actors…oh I love Hoon Lee! I love the character Chao. He’s definitely one of my favorites for sure. They’re all so great and there are things about all of them that I love.
Q: Absolutely. You’re kind of like the oracle of Bruce Lee. How is your relationship with the cast? They must be so excited to work with you.
SL: My relationship with the cast is very close, I really love them all. I’ve had numbers of meetings with them personally, phone calls, all that sort of thing. I met with Andrew [Koji] in particular, early on quite a bit because, you know, he’s portraying Ah Sahm, and it was really important that he not try to be a Bruce Lee copy, but to really bring himself to the role, which he did so beautifully. Which is why we chose him, quite frankly.
I think that the cast knows…look, they’re all professionals, they don’t need me to tell them how to do their jobs. But they know that I am here for them whenever they need. They all have my phone number, my email and we meet up and we do keep in touch. So personally and professionally, I just want them to know that if they need me, I’m here.
Q: That’s really fantastic. Every time I talk with anyone from the cast, they get emotional talking about working with you and being able to carry on your father’s legacy.
Is it challenging for you to be the one who has the burden of carrying your father’s legacy? It’s a blessing I’m sure but there must be challenges.
SL: You know…I’ve been at it now my whole life! [Laughing] At least being the daughter of, and trying to figure out what that means, if anything, and trying to discover my own identity within that identity. The reason that I took up to do this is because I believe in it. If I didn’t believe in it, if I didn’t believe in who my father was, in his philosophies, in his words, in the way he lived his life, in the impact of his life, I wouldn’t do this. Because just trying to run a business to capitalize off of his image…I’m not interested in that. It’s cool to make cool t-shirts and stuff like that, but the reason I’m inspired to do that is because I’m inspired by him. He and I are a lot alike in that we have an intersection of interest in this notion of how to live our best lives. The philosophy is where we both intersect as well. His words are deeply meaningful to me and have been deeply inspiring and helpful to me. I feel like he continues to help me grow as a human being. I feel that encountering these challenges in my life, head on with his mindset of someone who isn’t afraid to go through whatever they need to go through, it has only made me a better and more compassionate person. And I’m all about it. It’s not easy, but it’s also my life. And it’s the life I’m choosing to lead. Sometimes, definitely, I feel like it’s the life that was thrust upon me, and then when I start to get into that victimhood, I’m like, “No, no, no. This is the life you’re choosing to lead, so choose how you want to lead it.”
Q: Speaking of forging your own identity, I’m inspired by all that you’ve done. You run these companies, the foundation, you’re an executive producer…you’re an inspiration, on your own, to the Asian-American community. To that end, you have a book coming out, Be Water My Friend, what inspired you to write this book?
SL: So we have the Bruce Lee podcast, and I was talking on the reg about my father’s philosophy, with my co host, Sharon Lee. And we were breaking down his philosophies and, not just talking about them, but how can we actually use them in our lives? And how do they apply? And through that I was actually approached by a literary agent who said, “have you ever thought about writing a book?” and I thought, you know, I have actually always wanted to write a book, I just wasn’t sure what book to write. [Laughing] I love to write. I should preface it by saying that. So I just started talking and he was like, “Well, I listen to your podcast all the time,” and it was like, I would love to gift this message in another medium, through another access point. So I started sitting with the notion of writing a book and what exactly…how would I focus it? What would it be? This notion to be like water, and my father’s quotes and thoughts around water, were very pervasive for him. As simple as the phrase “Be water, my friend” is, it’s actually packed full of meaning. There are many different facets to it. I thought, well, this could be a really great theme and entry point into many of his different philosophies; through this notion of what it is to be like water.
Q: I really love the focus that you’ve had on Bruce Lee’s philosophies, because it really shows that your father was not “only” a martial artist. I feel that through you, we’ve learned so much of your father as a more full person. Today, Bruce Lee is as popular as ever. How important is it for you to see his impact on media today?
SL: It’s extremely important. This was actually a stated goal of my father’s in his lifetime. Which was for there to be accurate representation of a Chinese man, a Chinese person, in the media in the West. He had that goal very directly, and he wanted to share himself as an Asian man, and his love, which just happens to be martial arts, and his thoughts, which happen to be extremely deep and meaningful, with the world. Through his stated purpose of self actualization and honest self expression, that’s exactly what he did.
I think it’s what we all want, right? We all want to be seen, we all want to be valued. That starts with seeing and valuing yourself, and then trying to continue to express yourself and be seen in this culture and reflected in culture. And I think that we’re at a point in time where there’s a lot of unrest and a lot of change that is happening, and rightly so, because it’s time for us to stop treating one another so negatively, so divisively, and in such a polarizing fashion, and to understand that our culture, and who we are, is a beautiful embellishment to the humanity that we all share. So I’m so pleased to be able to have representation in media of Asians that other people can see and reflect upon, that are three-dimensional, and to continue my father’s journey in that way.
Q: I completely agree and it’s so impactful. What’s next for you? Is there anything else that you’re working on that we can look forward to? Is there still an official Bruce Lee biopic film in the works?
SL: There is a film in the works, and as soon as I can announce more about it, I will. There are a couple of other film and TV projects in the works as well, that I’m super excited about. We’re finally getting back to a new season of the Bruce Lee podcast, which will debut on October 15. We have my dad’s 80th birthday coming up in November, and we have a lot of great online celebrations and different drops that we’re going to do around that. We have a bunch of museum exhibits…existing exhibits that we’re revamping, as well as new exhibits that we’ll be participating in and creating. We have a number of social initiatives through the foundation that we’re working on, as well as our kids camps. We just have a lot going on. [Laughing] We’re excited. I’m excited that we’re able to keep going and that his impact continues to be so real.
Thank you to Shannon Lee for taking the time to speak with me. It was truly an honor!
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.