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INTERVIEW – The ‘Warrior’ Cast Celebrates Series Debut on Netflix But the Fight Continues

Warrior Interviews min

The action drama Warrior, based on the writings of iconic martial arts superstar Bruce Lee, is one of the best shows on TV. Yet, much like its originator, the series has been largely underappreciated for most of its existence and has had to constantly fight for the respect it deserves.

One would think that a series with Bruce Lee’s name attached, as well as Justin Lin serving as executive producer, would not have a hard time getting the spotlight in this current time of increased Asian representation in pop culture. Yet, the series debuted in 2019 on Cinemax, a premium channel that is relatively overlooked. After two incredible seasons, the fate of the series was in jeopardy, when Cinemax announced in 2020 that it would no longer be producing original programming. Thankfully, the series was renewed for a third season on HBO Max (now known simply as Max), during a time when the streaming platform was continuing to expand its programming options. Yet again, the excitement was short-lived, as Warner Bros. Discovery canceled the series as part of its cost cutting measures.

The one sliver of light that came with the news of Warrior’s cancellation on Max was the fact that Netflix had purchased non-exclusive rights to the series. Netflix, which has a robust library of Asian content, including Squid Game, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Brothers Sun, Beef, Blue Eye Samurai, and Everything Everywhere All At Once, seemed like the ideal new home for the trailblazing series that features some of the best Asian talent in the industry. Visibility on the streaming giant also kept alive the embers of a potential renewal. Warrior premieres on Netflix on February 16th.

Warrior was created by Jonathan Tropper (Banshee), and is executive produced by Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter and the President of the Bruce Lee companies. The cast is loaded with incredible talent, who not only bring the series to life, but also passionately love this project. Following the announcement of the series’ upcoming debut on Netflix, several members of the cast took the rare initiative of making themselves available for interviews to help promote the series and advocate for more seasons.

I had the opportunity to speak with the amazing cast members, including Andrew Koji, Jason Tobin, Joe Taslim, Olivia Cheng, Dianne Doan, Hoon Lee, Chen Tang, Perry Yung, Kieran Bew, Langley Kirkwood, Tom Weston-Jones and Miranda Raison.

Warrior Season 3 Key Art
Warrior Season 3 Key Art

Their affection for the series, and one another, was infectious, and they made it clear that they are eager for the opportunity to continue to work on the series. There was no punches pulled in the message they wanted everyone to know: Stream all three seasons on Netflix, give the series two thumbs up on the app, and spread the word!

Supporters can also take the extra step of completing Netflix’s online request form to ask for more seasons of Warrior.

“It’s definitely been a roller coaster. We started shooting the show at the end of 2017. So just imagine three seasons in six years. We’ve really, really bonded as a cast. We love our show so much,” Dianne Doan said about Warrior’s tumultuous journey and landing on Netflix. “I completely agree with you that Netflix makes perfect sense. I think when we all heard, we let out a sigh of relief. There are so many shows that are aligned or similar, in terms of martial arts or action. So we’re excited to find this new audience that can enjoy our show, all three seasons. It’s really important for everyone to tune in and watch, beginning to end. Binge our show, two thumbs up. We just never know! I think in the world of Netflix, it’s like, if all goes well, maybe you’ll see us for a fourth, maybe there’s a movie, who knows? But just the opportunity to reach millions of more households is really exciting. Our show is so bingable and lovable, as much as it is gory. I’m really, really excited. I just can’t wait to see what people think of our show.”

Doan plays Mai Ling, the ingenious leader of one of the Chinese gangs, or Tongs, in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the late 1800s. Her romantic partner and right-hand man, Li Yong, is played by martial arts star Joe Taslim. Taslim, who has starred in blockbuster films like Mortal Kombat, and cult favorites like The Raid, talked about how special this series is.

“It’s very special because it’s my first TV show ever and then I work with such great, beautiful people. Back in the first season, I was only supposed to be in one season and then I fell in love with everybody, I fell in love with Cape Town,” Taslim said.

“We fell in love with you!” Langley Kirkwood interrupted affectionately.

“And then I had a discussion with the showrunners and writers. ‘Do you want to stay or do you want to go?’ Definitely. Please have me come back and keep me forever. And I got three seasons. It’s not just a show, it’s not just a project for me because the message of the show is important for Asian Americans, Asian people all over the world. Racism and how Asian Americans struggled back in the 1800s. It’s more than just action. It’s more than just drama. This show has a mission. It has a story that everybody needs to watch it and understand and understand the struggle of minorities…For me it’s personal. This show means a lot to me and I want the show to have more seasons and I want everybody on Netflix to watch it.” Taslim said.

Joe Taslim as Li Yong in Warrior
Joe Taslim as Li Yong in Warrior

For those who have followed Taslim’s career, the former member of Indonesia’s national judo team has done it all. His skills as a genuine martial artist are unquestioned, and he’s worked with some of the most talented actors in the U.S. and around the world. To hear him speak so passionately about his experience on ths series was enthralling; however, he certainly wasn’t alone in his effusiveness.

“Bearing in mind what Joe and Dianne alluded to, there’s so much love and close unity on the set and so much love for the show, and I think everyone is aware that we are serving something that is so much bigger than us and bigger than just a TV show, and I think it is built and made with love and also with the legacy of Bruce Lee,” Kirkwood said. “And I think the intention that everyone has, always keeping that in the back of mind. There’s a lot of love and honor in the making of this. I think everyone wants to bring the best part of themselves to the show and I think everyone does that. We all genuinely love each other a great deal. So we want the journey to continue because it’s kind of like going to work with your family. So binge watch it the first two weeks to a month of its release and who knows, we may come back to fight on.”

Kirkwood plays the villainous Walter Buckley on the show, but is clearly on the same page as the rest of his castmates when it comes to his love for the material.

Andrew Koji, who is not only the main lead of the series, but whose profile has continued to skyrocket since Warrior premiered, shared with me in a past interview that he nearly quit acting before he landed the starring role of Ah Sahm in Warrior. In the last few years, Koji has appeared in a variety of high profile projects, including Bullet Train with Brad Pitt, and Snake Eyes with Henry Golding. I asked Koji to reflect on how much the series means to him.

“A lot. More than words can describe. God that’s a deep question. It’s almost more than words can describe because of the family you get from it, which doesn’t happen on many jobs,” Koji said. “And the deeper meaning of the show. It might be rare and it might be a good couple of years, if a job like this happens again where everything is aligned. I’ll be alright if it doesn’t happen because I’m grateful for this experience. It’s definitely has, since wanting to give up, there are still times when you look at the industry and you think, ‘What am I doing?’ But it’s definitely reinvigorated it and being around good friends and brothers and stuff like that. I’m very grateful that it helped me keep going a little bit longer.”

Andrew Koji as Ah Sahm with Chen Tang as Hong and Jason Tobin as Young Jun in the Background in Warrior
Andrew Koji as Ah Sahm with Chen Tang as Hong and Jason Tobin as Young Jun in the Background in Warrior

Koji’s Ah Sahm shares many scenes with Young Jun, played with zest by Jason Tobin. Young Jun has been my personal favorite character since the series started, and we’ve talked extensively about his history in the industry and his love for Bruce Lee. I asked Tobin about whether he feels the burden of responsibility in being part of a show that carries Bruce Lee’s name and legacy.

“I don’t feel the burden to be honest. In the sense that I’ve been waiting for this for so long, I’ve been working at this for so long. Do I feel a responsibility? Sure. As a professional and as an artist, I want to do my best work and I do obviously want to be a part of this legacy and to extend it. But I don’t feel the pressure of the nerves of it. I feel like I’m in the right place, I’m in the right role. I’m with the right people and everything that I’ve done in my life, all the training, all the heartache, it’s led to this moment. So I feel like I’m in a good place with it,” Tobin said introspectively. “That all being said, if anything, I feel more of a burden, less to Bruce Lee’s legacy, but to people. Asian Americans, or people in general, they watch this show and they’re inspired by it and it’s the fans that I feel more of a burden to. Burden isn’t the right word because I don’t feel the weight of it. It’s more that we’re representing more than just ourselves. And it’s really for them. So if anything, me and Bruce, we’re good. It’s the fans that I want to please.”

Chen Tang, who joined the series in the second season as the hilariously unbothered character Hong, put it simply: “This show, one of the biggest things I’m grateful for, among many things, it’s just this family for life.”

Several of the cast members talked about how, in addition to being a highly entertaining and engaging show with compelling characters and fantastic writing, the show carries an important social message that is relevant for everyone. Few people are as committed to sharing that message as Olivia Cheng, who is an experienced actress and is also highly involved in advocating for social justice issues.

“I have never been part of a show that’s been so loved and respected by our community and beyond. I think the fact that it is part of Bruce Lee’s legacy and story certainly gives it a level of cache and reverence in our community and across Bruce Lee fans. Me personally, as someone who has been in the public eye for over half my life, who’s now speaking to these issues about representation, and really trying to bring my culture forward, bring my community forward, into those conversations, it means a lot to be part of a show that hits on so many relevant social issue topics through the form of art and entertainment,” Cheng said. “That allows people to think ‘Hey did that really happen?’ and then they can go and look into it themselves and learn something about our show or about history that can maybe help them understand our world today. Because I’m a big believer of understanding our history, helps us understand our present and therefore helps us shape our future.”

(L-R) Olivia Cheng as Ah Toy and Miranda Raison and Nellie Davenport in Warrior
(L-R) Olivia Cheng as Ah Toy and Miranda Raison and Nellie Davenport in Warrior

Like Cheng, Perry Yung is a fierce advocate for the Asian American community. And while Yung is well aware of how important Bruce Lee is to Asian Americans, Yung emphasized that it’s important to remember that a show like Warrior is great entertainment that everyone can enjoy.

“This show is entertainment. Bruce Lee was an entertainer. All the work that he did, movies, he was a movie star. It’s all about entertainment and you tell the best story you can. And we’re now at a precipice with Netflix coming that, we love our show. Again, it’s so special that once I got on this set, I realized that we’re all on the same page. We all understand how important this moment is. We all understand how Bruce Lee wrote this 50 years ago. It took this long to get it produced…and now Netflix is coming in and that’s going to blow open the doors for how people are going to enjoy this show on the overt level of entertainment. You have martial arts, action, drama, beautiful people, and I’m not talking about myself but you other beautiful people. It’s a new world and Netflix is going to really allow Bruce’s story to be heard and felt and his legacy of solidarity and his legacy of everybody under one sky. It’s a moment. It’s a really special moment and that’s what I want everyone to experience, that we’re all in this together,” Yung said.

To Yung’s point about entertainment, another element that makes Warrior unique is that it is truly an ensemble cast, where the various characters have their own arcs and depth of storytelling. That includes the villains of the story, including Kieran Bew’s Bill O’Hara.

“We’re very lucky on the show, it’s not just my character that’s given those layers and opportunities. That’s something that [series creator] Jonathan Tropper does really well. He makes sure that everybody is the lead in their own show. Which is why, you’ve got so many actors who would delight in making another season and want to come to work and be challenged,” Bew said.

Kieran Bew's Bill O'Hara Looks on as Hoon Lee's Chao is Harassed by the Police in Warrior
Kieran Bew’s Bill O’Hara Looks on as Hoon Lee’s Chao is Harassed by the Police in Warrior

Bew’s Bill O’Hara is regularly paired with Tom Weston-Jones’ Richard Lee, who echoed Bew’s sentiments about the way their characters have depth and richness.

“It’s rare that, as an actor, you really get to do something that you feel does more than allow people to just switch off and relax. Which, I know this show does, it is entertaining. But it carries a different weight, and it means something to a hell of a lot of people. And [Bruce Lee’s] legacy is something, I wouldn’t call myself a die hard fan from the beginning, pre this show, but I’ve certainly enjoyed so many of his films. Weirdly enough, he was actually my mum’s crush when she was a teenager. She loved him and had posters of him everywhere,” Weston-Jones said.

“Why is that weird?” Hoon Lee interrupted with a wry smile.

“It’s not weird, but strangely enough now that I’m part of it!” Weston-Jones explained. “As soon as we all got the audition, it was clear to me that there was something here that really had a history to it. Just the whole attempt that he made to get it made, and that whole story. That just spoke to me straight away so I’m really pleased to be a part of it. And also the fact that we all get on so well is a hell of a bonus.”

Lee, who plays the exceedingly clever Wang Chao and also hosted the official Warrior podcast that ran in conjunction with the third season, perfectly summarized why he is confident that the show will gain broader appreciation on Netflix.

“One way that I think all of us also identify with Bruce Lee, is that Bruce Lee was an actor. Bruce Lee was an artist trying to tell a story. And no matter where you’re from, if you have that impulse, you understand how frustrating it can be to have a story to share that people close the door on. And I think that over the course of the seasons, if people do what we hope they do and binge all of the seasons and watch the entire thing and double thumbs up and all of that, what I think they will find revealed to them is that the people they thought of as villains, they’ll come to think of as people. And the people they saw as heroes they’ll come to see as flawed. And that there are no good guys and there are no bad guys. And if we are doing our job, everybody comes out of this as a human being, and you’ll find out that that complexity of feeling about the entire universe that we’re trying to make here, we hope you carry that forward. We hope that you just have that in your heart as you come and deal with the many challenges of the real world. I think that’s the most that any show can hope to do. And if we get anywhere close to it, I think we’ll have done something great,” Lee said.

Watch all three seasons of Warrior on Netflix and don’t forget to give it the double thumbs up on the app.

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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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