Daniel Wu didn’t think he would ever play the Monkey King. Having established himself as one of the biggest stars of Asian cinema for the past two decades, the Chinese American actor had previously passed on multiple offers to play derivative interpretations of Sun Wukong, the omnipresent monkey who first appeared in the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West.
But when executive producer Kelvin Yu first approached him about reimagining the role as a disgruntled but loving father in the heavens in the Disney+ adaptation of American Born Chinese, Wu, who was born and raised in the Bay Area before a serendipitous graduation trip to Hong Kong accidentally kick-started his acting career in the East, found himself reflecting on his own fatherhood.
“American Born Chinese, for me, is a huge departure in that I’ve never done a family project before, or a project for kids,” says Wu, who has built a career as a leading man and has starred in more than 60 feature films — including action comedies, crime thrillers, and romantic dramas — in Hong Kong and China. “I want to do something to impress my daughter, and I want to have something that she can watch. She’s 10 years old now, but she’s not able to watch Into the Badlands or any of the other darker, noir-style Hong Kong stuff that I was doing before.”
Loosely based on Gene Luen Yang’s seminal 2006 graphic novel and directed by the likes of Destin Daniel Cretton and Lucy Liu, the action-comedy series, which premiered to rave reviews last month, follows Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a typical teenager who is paired up with a new exchange student named Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) solely on the basis of their shared Chinese heritage. Jin soon discovers that Wei-Chen is the rebellious son of the Monkey King and has personally selected him to help stop an uprising against Heaven. And in doing so, the unlikely friends find themselves embroiled in an epic battle of Chinese mythological gods.
Playing an older iteration of one of the most popular characters in Chinese literature, Wu found himself contemplating his relationship with his own father, who passed away during the filming of the eight-episode first season last year. “I love my dad so much, but I was raised the Chinese way — the tough love way — and there are aspects of it that were hard to deal with and some aspects that I really appreciate now in retrospect,” Wu, now 48, tells Shondaland. “I think that informed how I played Monkey King and Wei-Chen’s relationship. In fact, some of the tone and mannerisms, like the first scene when he’s admonishing Wei-Chen for trying to leave and jump off to Earth, that kind of feeling or vibe definitely comes from my dad.”
Using the idea of being caught between multiple worlds as a metaphor for the cultural struggle that most Asian Americans have faced for generations, American Born Chinese attempts to ground its fantastical, action-packed storytelling with specific details about their everyday experiences — the natural use of Chinese and English in tight-knit households, the clash of Eastern and Western values, and the microaggressions that they face in professional and academic settings (which can be traced back to a painful history of anti-Asian sentiment).
Having grown up in a white suburb and attended schools where he was usually one of the only Asian students, Wu had an unexpectedly visceral reaction to some of the show’s high school scenes, which he had experienced on some level decades ago. “I almost felt like it’s not a story for kids; it’s a story for our generation that grew up that’s maybe in their 30s and above right now,” the actor says. “I also went through that phase of having a crush on the blonde girl when I was in school, because you’re trying to fit in and you want to be the cool guy, and being Chinese doesn’t help with that. So, you’re trying to dismantle that and figure yourself out.”
Wu, who lost his mother to cancer in 2014, was similarly taken aback by the scenes between Jin and his mother, Christine (Yeo Yann Yann), who still exhibits all the signs of a typical Asian mother but remains acutely aware of how people like them are seen in the Western world. “She doesn’t want him to be hurt or make all the wrong decisions,” Wu explains, “but she also knows it’s difficult because they’re not your typical Americans, and they’re [all] trying to find their way.”
Wu, like many of his Asian contemporaries in Hollywood, has been fighting that battle and forging his own path for years. After watching Jet Li’s debut role in Shaolin Temple, Wu began practicing martial arts when he was around 11 or 12 years old — an art form that, he says, “made me proud to be Chinese” and “brought me so much closer to my culture.” But early in his career, his childhood idol and longtime mentor Jackie Chan gave him a crucial piece of advice: “Be careful not to fall into just [martial arts],” Wu recalls him saying. “I’d love to do drama like [Robert] De Niro, but nobody’s gonna finance a movie for me to just do drama, right? I’m basically stuck in this genre. So, if you can do other stuff, do other stuff.”
After being scouted for a modeling gig during a trip to Hong Kong in his early 20s, Wu, who had never acted before and had just graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in architecture, made his acting debut in Chinese director Yonfan’s Bishonen, in which he played a gay cop, and quickly established himself as one of the industry’s most versatile actors — all while hoping to find similar success back in America.
But while he would occasionally return home to star in American movies such as Warcraft and Geostorm, Wu would often be reminded that Hollywood didn’t yet have an appetite for nuanced Asian American stories. “We slowly saw this weird transition from Joy Luck Club that told an Asian American story [in 1993], but then you had [actors like] Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Chow Yun-fat coming over, and these were foreign Asian actors working in American movies, but we weren’t seeing Asian American stories,” he reflects. “You would see some things here and there, like Better Luck Tomorrow, but the American audience, in general, was not seeing Asians as part of the American fabric.”
It wasn’t until Wu starred in and executive produced AMC’s Into the Badlands — the high-octane, post-apocalyptic martial arts drama that ran for three seasons from 2015 to 2019 — that the actor began to work more regularly in the States and see the industry’s shift in attitudes toward Asian-led stories. In fact, having played the lead in dozens of movies in Asia, Wu admits that he didn’t fully realize the significance of his casting on Into the Badlands until he began speaking with Asian American journalists during the press tour for the first season.
“In America, in this context, [being a leading Asian man] means something totally different because it was not happening that often,” he says. “I suddenly had to turn back on the muscle to deal with race in America, because for 20 years in Hong Kong and China, I didn’t have to think about that at all. I was getting roles not based on my race, but based on who I was as a person and my ability to play a role; I wasn’t vying for that one Asian role that was available for all the Asian American actors out there.”
Since then, Wu has starred opposite Alicia Vikander in the Tomb Raider reboot and Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson in the sci-fi film Reminiscence and played a resistance fighter in the fourth and final season of the HBO sci-fi series Westworld. With the cultural tide shifting into a kind of golden era for Asian Americans in entertainment, Wu admits that he is now even more aware of the representation he had missed as a child. (He also plans to resume his original, pre-pandemic plan of shooting one project in Asia and the U.S. every year.)
A couple of months ago, Wu and his daughter, Raven, were watching the moment when Michelle Yeoh, who plays goddess of mercy Guanyin in American Born Chinese, made history at the Academy Awards. “[Michelle] goes, ‘This is for all the little girls out there that look like me,’ and my daughter immediately goes, ‘Is she talking about me?!’ I almost started crying because I didn’t have that growing up at all,” Wu recalls. “And for her to be able to see that on TV, and be excited about it, and feel proud was such a cool moment.”
And what did Raven think of the TV adaptation of American Born Chinese, you may ask? “She goes to a Chinese immersion school, so she’s surrounded by other Chinese kids or hapa [part-Asian] kids, and they all know the book, and she’s super-excited that she can share this with her friends. At one point, she wanted to have a sleepover with everybody binge-watching it, but I was like, ‘I don’t know … that’s too much.’ I don’t want her friends’ parents to think that her dad’s narcissistic and wants all the kids to watch him on-screen,” Wu says with a laugh. “But she loves the show, and she asked to binge-watch it again this weekend.”
The first season of American Born Chinese is now streaming on Disney+.
Max Gao is a freelance entertainment and sports journalist based in Toronto. He has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NBC News, Sports Illustrated, The Daily Beast, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Men's Health, Teen Vogue and W Magazine. Find him on Twitter @MaxJGao.
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