Warrior star Andrew Koji almost quit. Before landing the role of a lifetime as Ah Sahm, the lead in Cinemax’s series based on the writings of Bruce Lee, Koji was ready to give up acting. As he shares in our interview below, acting hadn’t given him the breakout role that he needed, and he expected the audition for Warrior to be no different. So he figured this audition would be his swan song and he decided to do it his way. Which of course landed him the role. Interestingly enough, Executive Producer and Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, told me that it was very important to her that the actor who plays Ah Sahm not try to be a Bruce Lee clone. Inspired by one of Bruce’s philosophies, Koji decided to be more authentic to himself, and that made him the perfect person to play Ah Sahm.
Full disclosure, I was a bit nervous prior to speaking with the breakout martial arts star. Koji hasn’t done too many interviews to date and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. One thing was for sure, since the debut of Warrior, Koji’s star was skyrocketing. In addition to season 2 of the series, Koji has landed roles as the iconic villain Storm Shadow in the G.I. Joe spin-off film Snake Eyes, and opposite Brad Pitt in the upcoming Bullet Train. That’s certainly not bad for a guy who almost hung it up just a few years ago.
Koji was an absolute pleasure to speak with. Unceasingly thoughtful, incredibly humble and genuinely grateful for his current good fortune (born out of his hard work of course). Below is my conversation with Koji, where he discusses the impact Bruce Lee’s philosophies had on his life, his inspiring pilgrimage to South Korea where he came across the very temple that inspired Bruce Lee’s Game of Death film, and his love and admiration for his fellow Warrior cast members.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Season 2 of Warrior is airing every Friday at 10 PM on Cinemax!
POCCulture: How special is it to star in a show that is an extension of Bruce Lee’s legacy? And especially for you, maybe more than anyone else, to play the role that essentially Bruce would have played?
Andrew Koji: For me it feels like this job is…I don’t know what it’s going to be like in 20 years time from now, but it feels to me like this is a once in a lifetime kind of thing. And I’ve said before that if this was my last job, you know, I’d be okay with it. Because it’s a great experience. Stepping into the Bruce Lee thing, it was interesting because I wasn’t a huge Bruce Lee guy growing up. I did see Asian cinema growing up, and then I went to more Western cinema and then I got drawn into acting. For me, it was more like this role has come into my life, and I’ve been offered this role for…it must be for a reason, and I’ve got to step up to that now. So for me, it was more like, this guy, Bruce Lee, this legend, this icon of a person, it was strange, because I’m thinking this guy helped turn my life around…from beyond the grave. He wrote eight pages on a piece of paper, which is probably just a small percentage of his overall genius, and those eight pages changed my life. I was on my way out as an actor. I grew up with a few of his quotes. I loved more of his philosophies than seeing his films. So for me, it was just, I’ve got to do my absolute best.
For example, the training I found really difficult at first. Your body…you’re throwing up, you’re painful and sore all over, you’re starving, you’re tired because you’re not sleeping well because you’re thinking about the script and how to do a scene differently all the time. But for me, it just the fact that it was for Bruce Lee and for his fans, and for something bigger than me. I felt like it just drove me to really, really work harder than I’ve ever done before and motivated me. I think acting can sometimes be quite a selfish profession. And I think, what we’re doing on a piece like this, getting to tell the story about this part of history that is largely overlooked, or unheard of, I think it meant so much to so many of the cast. None of us took it for granted at all. It kind of just helped us to push through to know that we’re making something bigger than each individual component.
Q: I really feel like it comes through on the screen how much this show means to all of you. You talked about Bruce’s philosophies and how they impacted you. Is there any particular saying of his that really spoke to you?
AK: Yeah, I mean, there are a few. The predominant one that keeps coming back to me, a lot of people know it, is, “Have faith in yourself. Trust yourself. Do not go out there and find a successful personality and duplicate it.” That has always been something that meant so much to me. I think the moment that I tried personally to stop being other people…I think as an actor, growing up as a kid, you know, mixed race, not knowing where you are in the world, a sense of belonging, who you should be, and all that stuff…that one resonated with me. When I was about to quit the acting thing, as I was walking into this audition for Warrior, I kind of wrote myself off thinking I’m not right for this, I’m not gonna get this thing, it’s not gonna work out, so I’ll just be me. I’ll just do my interpretation of this character, and I’ll do the best I can. This will be my swan song for auditions. And then that got me the role. And then it made me kind of go, maybe that’s what it’s about. It’s not trying to be this, or that, it’s about how do I bring this out of myself. All the acting greats, I always wanted to be like them, and instead of trying to be like them, just go for what they were going for, which is working really hard, immersing themselves, doing the absolute best that they can. But yeah, it was incredibly meaningful for all of us, I think.
Q: I talked with Jason Tobin a while back and he mentioned that between season one and two, you in particular, really stepped up your game in terms of your martial arts. I know you went to Korea in between seasons, and I saw a picture of you at the temple that inspired Bruce Lee’s Game of Death. It seemed like that was a pilgrimage of sorts. Could you talk about what you really wanted to focus on between seasons and what that experience of traveling and training was like?
AK: That was…okay. I’ll share that with you. That was kind of freaky for me. All I knew was, we did know that we were going back for season 2 early on, and all I knew was that I wanted to do better. There were things that I felt like I didn’t quite manage to do, or that I had to learn the hard way, and I just knew that I wanted to do better, and thankfully, I had more time now because I think before we did season one I maybe had two months total after I got the role, before cameras start rolling in the pilot to prepare, and that’s not that much time to brush up on your martial arts and your physique, to try to get into lean Bruce Lee shape. So, one there was like this massive learning curve, especially with fitness. Because Warrior is not like a huge, glossy, huge budget, big Hollywood production. I didn’t have all that access to the things that maybe top A-listers have. So I had to learn a lot of it myself, with the help of [Stunt Coordinator] Brett Chan. I basically wanted to get my physique to a point where I didn’t have to really think about it so much. You know, it’s like a habit rather than an extra skill that I’m learning. I was kind of aiming for Brad Pitt Fight Club kind of imagery, like a really strong image. I don’t know if I got there but…[laughing] Then the martial arts, I kept studying how they were filming stuff as well. In season one, I started with Wing Chun to kind of get that form down, but for season two, we knew that we wanted to adapt and evolve the style a bit more. I spoke to Brett Chan and I kept training with nunchuck type stuff in the meantime, and by the time we were gearing up for season two to shoot, I was like, let me just do a month-long training camp in Korea before I do the training camp in South Africa. The idea was to get my kicks a lot better, to get a Bruce Lee style, really snapping, beautiful, effortless kind of kicks, which is…very difficult. If you look at him, he doesn’t do that flashy, jumping moves that a lot of people do nowadays, but his basics are absolutely out of this world. Like his basic front snapping kicks…the control and accuracy he’s got is amazing.
So I went to Korea and this guy called JJ, a stunt guy, he basically took me to the WTF, the World Taekwondo Federation, to train with some of these top, amazing, Taekwondo experts. And it just so happened that they were doing a little pilgrimage, for New Year’s, to the temple, which is a Korean tradition. They call it a temple stay, and people just go and stay in a temple for like four or five days over the New Year’s period. And so we went there, and it just so happened, I was like, “That temple looks familiar,” and then I just found out, I spoke to some people, that is the temple that Bruce Lee based his idea for the Game of Death. And it just felt really weird! I was just like…yeah, it just felt like I’m on the right track. It was just a really weird feeling. He might have seen this, he might have been here himself. So yeah, that was a strange experience. That was just such a great time before…the whole craziness of the world happened. The amount of amazing people I met, I think because of the idea of Bruce Lee and bringing his vision to life and how he affected everyone, all these martial artists even in Korea. I think they all were just there to help because, I’m just a cog in this wheel, and I was surprised by the amount of people that was so willing to help and offer their time to help and train. It was painful man! I tell you that! It was painful. My hips and my back was hurting for a long time because of the kicks. That is a hard skill to keep up.
Q: What an incredible experience. Not just physically, but it sounds like spiritually and emotionally. Going to your character, Ah Sahm, for season two, beyond the fact that he’s a badass, what I love is that he’s really a layered character. He’s a developed character. He’s sarcastic, he’s a love interest, there’s a brotherhood dynamic with Young Jun. Going into season two, you’ve gotten to live in the character for a bit. What did you want to develop and highlight about his personality and his character?
AK: It’s interesting as an actor, it felt like in season one he’s on his back foot, and he had to be because he was just a complete fish out of the water. So he was very reactive and whatever direction the wind blows, he’s going with it. In season one he’s like the ultimate drifter character. It’s like a Western on a bigger scale. In a Western, you’ve got the stranger, the drifter character that comes from out of town, and then gets to know the town and their plight. And in the middle of act two he maybe decides to help the town. So I saw season one as him coming to town and seeing the world around him. So season two is like now he’s going “Okay, what can I do? How can I change things? Now I know the game, now I know what’s going on, and the relationships and where I stand. This is what I can do.” So I definitely felt, and spoke to [Executive Producer and Showrunner] Jonathan [Tropper] about making him more on his front foot, actually creating change instead of just reacting to things around him. So this is like that second act of a Western. You know, they start to become invested in the town, invested in their struggles. And you’re pulling strings and doing things. I didn’t expect the slight kind of..like Iago from Shakespeare kind of thing…because he’s not the top dog yet, and Young Jun is kind of the obvious next heir to the throne. He’s very much pulling the strings behind that, so I didn’t expect that. That’s a really interesting way to take it. Like he’s backing Young Jun, but also serving his own agenda, which is another layer.
Q: I love the dynamic between you and Jason Tobin. I think you guys have incredible chemistry. The cast as a whole, your chemistry is absolutely incredible, and it seems like you all really, genuinely enjoy each other, too. To what do you attribute the chemistry being so so strong? And who among the cast are you personally really close with?
AK: Well, I’m super close friends with the Dean Jagger, ironically when we’re playing enemies on screen. And Joe, I call him “Joe Joe”, Joe Taslim, I respect that guy so much because I think his physicality is so beautiful, and I really like his approach to characters, and he’s such a cool guy. So Joe and Dean, we become very close friends. Jason is very good friend. I know he’s got a big family, so we didn’t have as much time to hang out. This is interesting, because I’ve thought about it, a lot of the people on Warrior are underdogs. We’ve all felt like we were underdogs. I hadn’t had a life changing gig or something that showed promise that I could survive as an actor for 10 years. And I think the main thing is, we’re all really really appreciative of the gig, of the writing, of the characters in the show as a whole, and the meaning behind the show and the connection to Bruce Lee. There was no…it was absolutely minimal ego on the set. I haven’t got much to compare it to, but it felt like everyone there was an artist, and not really just in it for themselves. Some sets, some people just want to care about how they look, they want to look cool, but not many of them are just happy to serve their character or serve the story. And they were all doing that, and that’s what I thought was the most valuable thing. I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen again man.
Q: It really feels like you caught lightning in a bottle, which is amazing. And by the way, it’s funny because almost anyone I talked to speaks about Joe Taslim with such a reverence.
AK: He really is…I just want to share with you, a quick story…he really is the real deal. I still chat with him over this lockdown period, I’ve been talking with him and Dean. I was always intimidated by Joe because he was the guy from The Raid that I remembered. I remembered Iko [Uwais] too, but Joe Taslim…and I’ve seen him in a few other things since. I was intimidated by him at first because I put him on a pedestal. And then he’s just the most sweetest, gentlest, most…my mum met him and my mum’s very picky with people, and she said he’s a real…he’s a real special person, because he’s just the most beautiful soul. He really is that, it’s not just people doing PR stuff, it’s really the case. He’s a star I think.
Q: I’ve heard it echoed numerous times, but especially you and him on the show have such an important kind of dynamic, so it’s great to see that you have that personal connection off screen. Going into this season, is there an episode that really stands out and that you love?
AK: I probably got, off the top of my head. I probably got three. I’ve got episode one. I really like it because it was Jonathan Tropper. He directed it. And he helped us ease into it for the rest of the show. I think if you notice episode one, the shots are a little bit longer, he likes to linger. I think he could be a really good director if he really went for it. But I don’t know, there’s something about that that I really like. And then obviously there’s Dustin [Nguyen’s] episode, which is episode six, which is like the standalone kind of thing. I didn’t know it was going to turn out like that, I didn’t think it would turn out very well because it was so such a tough shoot that one, because our schedule is jam packed. I think we went over a few shooting days. It was very, very hectic. And I thought, “Uh oh, this one could fall apart.” But I think it turned out really well. People who watched it seem to really like that one, so I’m happy with that.
And then filming wise…there’s like in my career I’ve had two of these really special moments. One was making my own short film. It was close to me and it felt like we were doing something important. And another thing was the fight scene I was doing with Dean [Jagger]. The feeling that we had…I was on my last legs when we were doing that fight scene. In fact, the first day of filming, I collapsed. I didn’t lose consciousness, but I couldn’t film any longer because my body just stopped working, I couldn’t bring my legs up to kick, I was so in pain, because we scheduled too many fights together at the same time. So I thought I thought I’d screwed it up at that point. We knew this fight was coming, it meant so much for us, to us, and we’d rehearsed it so much, talked about the acting moments and then we got to the first day filming and I was, I think I cried in the makeup chair after they wrapped me. And Brett [Chan], he clocked me out that day, he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll pick it up again tomorrow.’ And then we had a choice to make – to pick the fight scene up after we’d wrapped everything, or plow ahead and go ahead and do it. I spoke to the producers and I just rested and I think I slept really well, and the next day we came back and we did 63 setups in one night. So 63 different shots. Which I think for Brett was a record as well. Because everyone has to be on point. When you’ve got extras, crowds all around, if they’re not invested, if they’re not going for it, then we have to do it again. So all of us were on the same page and there was magic in there air on that night. Everyone was shorthand. We were all there for each other. We were just knocking them out of the park and I didn’t think I could do that. And yeah, that’s probably the second highlight of my whole career life. So that episode has always been special to me because of that.
Q: That sounds absolutely epic. Last question, It’s been an exciting road for you since season one. You’re Storm Shadow in Snake Eyes. You’re working with Brad Pitt in Bullet Train. How does it feel to play such an iconic character like Storm Shadow, and then of course, to be working within a real life icon like Brad Pitt?
AK: It’s surreal for sure. Firstly, I’m just glad I’m working as an actor because I’ve got so many talented friends who aren’t working as much. Storm Shadow was a tough gig because it was just a very tough shoot, but I used every bit that I had learned on Warrior and brought that to Storm Shadow and did my absolute best for that. And then to get to work with Brad Pitt, someone…he’s always been just like a Hollywood figure. And he’s been in countless, and produced countless, films that have inspired me. I keep seeing Plan B Entertainment on all these films I’m watching, like Fruitvale Station and 12 Years a Slave and all these beautiful films. And the contribution that that guy has made to Hollywood. Like Fight Club was a film that I absolutely loved growing up. And I get to work with that dude!? I’m like, “What!? What’s going on here?” That wasn’t even in the cards for me. He was just this figure that inspired me on my journey. So, my only thing is going, “Okay, I got to do my absolute best.” I think maybe each job is going to be like that. But I’ve got to do it for Brad. I just got to keep doing my best. There’s going to be a time in 5-10 years time when work might not be coming my way, or when I’m no longer necessarily in the spotlight, but while the work’s coming in I’m just going to do my absolute best. It’s indescribable. I can be at peace too, my mom and dad can relax as well. They’re always worried about me. So it’s a feeling that I didn’t think I’d feel in my life and I’m blessed to do that. And for my part in Asian representation, I’m just going to keep doing my absolute best for that while I can.
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.