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INTERVIEW – The Legendary Dustin Nguyen Discusses His Path from ’21 Jump Street’ to ‘Warrior’

Dustin Nguyen
Dustin Nguyen

It’s finally 2021 and seasons 1 and 2 of Warrior are finally on WarnerMedia’s HBO Max! The best martial arts show in the history of TV can finally be watched by anyone who has a subscription to HBO Max, and if you don’t already, now’s the time!

I’ve been holding this interview (as well as one other one!) and waiting for Warrior to get on HBO Max. Now’s the time and I can finally publish my conversation with one of the true Asian-American pop culture icons – Dustin Nguyen!

Dustin Nguyen in Warrior TV Series, who many first saw on the iconic show 21 Jump Street, with Johnny Depp, Holly Robinson Peete, Steven Williams and Peter DeLuise, is not only one of the most recognizable Asian-American actors, but he’s also an accomplished filmmaker. Nguyen has spent much of the last decade in Vietnam producing and directing films, including Once Upon a Time in Vietnam (an homage to the spaghetti westerns he loves), Jackpot, I’ll Wait and 789Ten.

Given Nguyen’s pedigree, it was almost his destiny to be a part of Warrior. Although he joined the show mid-way through the first season, his appearance as Zing, head of the Fung Hai tong, was immediately impactful. In season 2, Zing plays a much more significant role, culminating in one of the most incredible on-screen fights in the entire series (if not TV history) in episode 5 with Joe Taslim. Nguyen’s work on Warrior isn’t limited to his on-screen work. Tapping into his filmmaking skills, Nguyen directed episode 6 of Warrior’s second season as well.

Dustin Nguyen Interview With POC Culture

Prior to the premiere of season 2 on Cinemax last fall, I had the opportunity to speak with Nguyen about his experience working with Justin Lin, joining the Warrior cast, and his history on 21 Jump Street. It was somewhat of a surreal moment for me, as Nguyen’s Harry Ioki on 21 Jump Street is my first memory of seeing an Asian-American on my TV screen.

Don’t miss Nguyen and the rest of the incredible Warrior cast on HBO Max. This series deserves a 3rd season and beyond!

Dustin Nguyen
Dustin Nguyen

POC Culture: I’m honored and excited to speak with you. Your work a whole, including what you’ve done on Warrior, is really special, so thanks for taking the time.

Dustin Nguyen: Oh man, thank you. It’s great to hear somebody who’s so enthusiastic about the show for one, and with Asian-American movements in general. So yeah, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure for me too.

POC Culture: I’d like to start with how you came on the show, Warrior. I know you worked with Justin Lin a while back. How did the role of Zing come to you?

Dustin Nguyen: I was very fortunate. I’ve been living in Vietnam for the last 10 years, and pretty much out of the scene here. Justin and I would keep in touch somewhat regularly. He was aware that I was producing and directing movies in Vietnam, and he would ask to watch these things. And through the years we’ve kept in touch, and I got a call from him one day about this show. I didn’t know much about it, I certainly didn’t know much about the character. But it was Justin Lin. All I needed to hear was that it was Justin doing it and it was a concept that was written by Bruce Lee. He said, “I think you’d be terrific as this character. He doesn’t have a lot to do in the first season.” And I came on, as you know now having watched the first season, I came in very late in the game because I was tied up with directing a film in Vietnam. But again, I just said, “Look Justin, I’d love to be involved in any capacity. But I just can’t join the show right away.” And he said, “Look, I want you to meet [Executive Producer] Jonathan Tropper.” So Jonathan and I had a Skype meeting, if you will, and he was just such a gentleman. He was like, one of the first things he said is, “I would really be honored if you would come join us.” And I was like, “What are you talking about ‘honored?'” [Laughing.] It’s a long-winded answer, but that’s how I got on.

I didn’t even read. Jonathan was explaining the arc of the character. He said Zing is the guy that we want to introduce and set up towards the end of the first season, to base out one of the big conflicts in the second season. I just said to Jonathan, “I don’t need to read anything. I’d love to come on,” and that’s how it happened. I finished the film I was doing in Vietnam and flew to Cape Town and here I am. A fantastic way to get invited onto this show.

POC Culture: When Jonathan [Tropper] was telling you about the character and the arc, what was it that really grabbed you and interested you?

Dustin Nguyen: Well, one, it’s…and I use this word loosely, a sort of a villain type character, which I love doing. I think playing the bad guy, the villain, the antagonist, whatever you will, is so much fun. So first and foremost that was the attraction. And again, it was a concept and a show that allowed a lot of Asian-American actors to really stretch their acting muscles. At the same time, it was based on a historical event, the migration of the Chinese coming to The U.S., particularly San Francisco, in the 19th century. These kind of stories have not been told. So those are the things that sold me.

It needs to be said too that the people involved are important. So chances are quite good that it’s going to be done right, or at least done with good intentions. People like Justin Lin and Jonathan Tropper, who is a wonderful writer. And speaking to him, he won me over from the very beginning. He was just such a gentleman and he was so generous with the offer to have me come on. So these are the things that made me jump on with no hesitancy. I didn’t really have a concern how big my character was going to be or anything like that, because again, it was just a chance to be involved in something that potentially could be groundbreaking, if I can use those words.

Dustin Nguyen as Zing in Warrior
Dustin Nguyen as Zing in Warrior

POC Culture: You’re a groundbreaking Asian-American actor yourself. What does it mean to you to be on this show based on the writings of maybe the groundbreaking Asian-American actor in Bruce Lee and working with his daughter Shannon?

Dustin Nguyen: It means a lot, of course, and I’m sure you heard the same thing from other cast members. But for me, it means a lot because I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m not a political animal, I believe in a good image and good portrayal of Asian-Americans in the media. I try to just let my work speak for itself and I try to pick roles to the best of my ability to support the Asian-American image or Asians in general. But it means a lot to me to be involved because, even though being away from the scene for 10 years living in Vietnam, I do have an awareness that shows like this don’t come around a lot. So that’s why it means a lot to me.

And like I mentioned earlier, the chances are pretty decent that it’s going to be done right, with the people involved. The flip side of it is, you have this tremendous pressure, because it’s Bruce Lee and because it was something that he really wanted to do, and he didn’t get the opportunity to do it. So are we going to be able to do it justice? Or is he gonna roll over in his grave? I think that’s on everybody’s mind in one way or another. So all of these things you have to sort of take into consideration because when it comes to Bruce Lee, it can go wrong pretty badly and pretty quickly, as we’ve seen through the years. This is probably like my fourth…connection, if you will, with Bruce Lee in my career and it’s all been great so far.

POC Culture: You directed episode six of the season. It’s kind of like a standalone episode and it’s incredible. How did the directing opportunity come about and what was it like for you to get behind the camera with this cast?

Dustin Nguyen: Well very early on, when I was speaking to Justin and Jonathan when I first joined the show, I think it was towards the end of the season…Justin kept in touch with me for years because we worked together on Finishing the Game. Justin kept in touch with me and has seen films that I’ve directed and produced in Vietnam and he’s really been a supporter. When Justin asked me to come on, he also said that the one of the things that they would like to do is to have some Asian-American or Asian directors on the show as well. So I said to him, of course, I would love to be considered. I know that there are a lot of choices out there, and HBO has many choices when it comes to directors, but they were just generous enough that after the first season they let me direct.

And even better, like you said, I got to do this sort of the stand-alone episode, which I was so excited to do because it gets away from San Francisco a little bit and you get a chance to, on production design…we built brand new sets for Mexico. To be involved from scratch, building that set and the costumes and the look of it. You stay consistent to what Warrior is, but at the same time, you’re introducing some different color palettes and things like that. It’s basically the Wild Wild West. I was just so happy that they decided to trust me with that episode because it’s actually not a small episode if you really look at it. The scope of it is quite…it’s not an easy show to do. There are a lot of locations, and they were all real locations, all the exterior stuff that we went all over South Africa to shoot.

I was very honored that they trusted me with it. And of course, having your cast-mates really trust you…I think they trust me [laughing]…they had no choice, I was the director! No, we had a great time. When you’re directing and you know that everyone has got your back, from the cast, to the DP, to the costume design and set design…some of the crew was just so excited when they heard that I was going to direct…that kind of support really gives you so much motivation and energy. It was just a great time doing it. You learn a lot because it’s TV and it’s a whole different format versus doing feature films that I did in Vietnam. So it was also a great learning experience, how to work within that particular medium, but I had the time of my life.

It was really kind of sad when we wrapped it up because episode six was scheduled as the last episode in the season, and we always do that because it only requires a few of the main cast members, so everyone else has wrapped up the season and we stayed behind to do this stand-alone episode, and that was a bit sad when we wrapped it up and everybody started going on their own ways.

POC Culture: I talked with Jason [Tobin] and he definitely had a great time on that episode. He said that it was one of those episodes where you all went all out and you wish you had more time, more budget, all of that, but everybody went for it. He was definitely glowing about his experience with that episode.

Dustin Nguyen: Yeah, it was just fun because again, we all know each other and of course they knew I was a director, and professionally they gave me space to work that way. But it was fun because used to working in Vietnam. When I’m directing there, I do everything, only because I love it. I move the props, if I want something in the frame, I move it myself, and that can get a little bit…you have to be careful when you’re working in a western production because there are a lot of people more capable than you who are doing those kinds of jobs. But sometimes you have to make adjustments, that that kind of thing. Sometimes I’ll be like…I want to move the table six inches and I’m like, “Hey Jason [Tobin], Andrew [Koji], Chen [Tang]! Let’s move this thing!” and we move it ourselves. I make them work and do stuff they don’t normally do, but it seems that they love it. You know, it’s sort of that feeling of a family…everybody pitching in, making it work and racing against time.

Dustin Nguyen
Dustin Nguyen

POC Culture: You mentioned that the episode had a Wild Wild West feel. I know you’re a big fan of Sergio Leone and Once Upon a Time in the West, did you draw inspiration from that film, in directing this episode?

Dustin Nguyen: Very much. Very much. Once Upon a Time in the West was something that I drew a lot of inspiration from visually, as well as some of the humor that’s been there. You know, there were a couple of westerns that I watched that I drew inspiration from, but Sergio Leone’s definitely. And then, of course, the classic The Searchers with John Wayne way back then. I just wanted to sort of pay homage to that, that genre that I love so much.

POC Culture: It really came through and I loved that episode. I have to ask you a little bit about 21 Jump Street. For your birthday, I saw that Holly Robinson Peete wished you happy birthday on social media.

Dustin Nguyen: That was just a sweet, sweet thing she did you keep in touch?

POC Culture: Do you keep in touch with her or anyone else from the show?

Dustin Nguyen: I do. Not regularly, but now that I’m on this side of the world, the last few months, we’ve been talking quite regularly. Before that it was just, you know, an email every once in a while. Peter DeLuise, same thing. He’s been living in Canada for years, so occasionally we email each other. Steven Williams not so much. Lately, a couple weeks ago, he reached out to me so I reconnected with him. Johnny [Depp], I haven’t seen him. We used to see each other at film festivals whenever he had a film and I had a film. I think the last time I saw him was probably 10 years ago. I had a film at the Toronto International Film Festival, and he did, and we connected and it was just like old times. It didn’t seem like all this time had gone by. But we don’t keep in touch as regularly as we would like to. Everyone has children and things that require their attention. But I adore those people.

Dustin Nguyen and Holly Robison Peete from their 21 Jump Street Days Photo from Holly Robinson Peete's Instagram
Dustin Nguyen and Holly Robison Peete from their 21 Jump Street Days
Photo from Holly Robinson Peete’s Instagram

POC Culture: It’s almost hard to believe that show existed, especially when it did. If that show came on now, people would be losing their minds about the diversity. Your character was very much not an Asian-American or Asian stereotype. Harry Ioki was cool. He was a fashion icon.

Dustin Nguyen: I don’t know if you know, but what you just said is mostly because that character…I remember going to into casting for that. There were just so many people reading for it. There were Hispanic actors, African-American actors, Asian-American actors…They knew they wanted it to be ethnically diverse, but it was that kind of a character and in the end became an Asian-American character. But because of that, I think it kind of broke the mold or was ahead of its time. Because actually, if you were to look at all four characters on that show, every given week, it was interchangeable in terms of who you can focus on. If one storyline was written for Harry Ioki, it could easily have been for Tom Hanson, and vice versa. So I was very lucky to get on a show like that. And, of course, the writers and the producers were also very, very open minded.

POC Culture: That’s amazing. Last question for you. You’re one of the most visible and well known Southeast Asian, Vietnamese-American actors. How important is it for you to be that representative for that community, especially given that Southeast Asian roles are few and far between in Hollywood?

Dustin Nguyen: Well, to say that it’s not important, I think would be a lie. How important is it to me? It’s important to me enough that throughout my career, to the best of my abilities, I’ve been somewhat picky or choosy in terms of the kind of roles that I take on. The first thing I always say is, “What can I do with this role, that that would elevate it from just being stereotypical?” or if I can’t do that then I won’t take the role. And I’ve been blessed enough where financially I didn’t have to take on work just to survive. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that as well, because that’s what being an actor is, you work and you want to keep working. But I’ve been fortunate enough where I’ve been in situations with different shows and films that I never felt like I had to do anything that I felt was demeaning to the Asian-American image. I’m not a political animal. I think that’s an arena that I’m not real comfortable with. I think the best I can do is to do the best work I can and let the work speak for itself. The roles that I don’t do are just as important as the roles that I do, do. Because inevitably, whenever you take on something, you can always say “That’s a really good role for Asian-Americans,” and in the same breath, someone can argue, “Well, that’s kind of a stereotypical role.” I think it’s what you do with the role, to the best of your ability, and your intention is important, and that’s what I try to live with.

POC Culture: Well you do it well and you’ve done it well for a long time. My earliest memory of seeing Asian-Americans on TV is you! So thank you for what you’ve meant to all of us as a community and for your continued work. I really appreciated our conversation.

Dustin Nguyen: My pleasure. Thank you.

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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.

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