Star Daniel Wu talks training actors with zero fighting experience, and what it means to bring back a 'kung fu' show — this time with an Asian actor in the lead

Credit: James Minchin III/AMC
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In the distant future, seven powerful barons have risen out of a dystopian world to recreate a feudal society. In this feudal society, guns have been banned, but swords and spears and white-knuckled fighting are fair game. The barons use assassins named “clippers” to enforce their laws and to protect the resources they control. That law includes the fact that clippers may not start their own family, having devoted their lives to killing.

Got all that? The premise of Into the Badlands, AMC’s highly stylized martial arts drama, sounds far-fetched, but according to executive producer Alfred Gough, who along with EP Miles Millar helmed Smallville, the complexity of the idea is exactly what they wanted in the series. “We remain purposefully vague,” he says, noting that the concept spun out of wanting to do a martial arts series but also ground it in an original, compelling world. “My joke to AMC is that once zombies are done, this is kind of what happens. Zombies led to kung fu.”

And yet, for a kung fu show, it’s the kung fu part that proved to be the biggest challenge. Not only did the series require a separate fight unit to choreograph the impressive sequences, but the producers wanted a team that would be able to create film-level fighting for a television show. Because Gough and Millar had written the Jackie Chan-starring Shanghai Noon, the pair knew what it would take, bringing on martial arts coordinator Master Dee Dee, who previously worked on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix, and Kill Bill. “It’s obviously quite an undertaking,” Gough explains, “but in order to have a Hong Kong style to the fights that we wanted, and that authenticity, that’s how we set it up. It was a very busy shoot.”

Credit: Patti Perret/AMC

Just ask Daniel Wu, who stars as the series protagonist, a clipper named Sunny. The actor, 41, had to juggle filming fight sequences with acting and producing. Having practiced martial arts for 30 years and filmed dozens of Hong Kong films in his career, Wu had no trouble with the former, even though at one point while filming a fight, he cracked a rib — which he says wasn’t too big of a deal. “I had a lot of Advil,” he says with a laugh. “It was quite grueling to do fight scenes that would normally take three weeks and cram them into a six-day schedule.” Besides, he adds, Master Dee Dee and the fight unit had to train much of the cast, as most of the actors had no martial arts experience when they joined the series. “We had to go from zero to making them look like experts on screen,” Wu says. To do so, production spent six weeks training the actors for eight hours each day, teaching basic moves, fighting using a range of weapons, and wirework.

Among the newbies, 16-year-old Aramis Knight, who plays M.K., impressed Wu the most. The young actor quickly picked up the flashier wirework moves, including backflips and back handsprings. “He did them with pure confidence and landed them perfectly,” Wu recalls. “I mean, it’s impossible to turn anybody into an expert in six weeks no matter how hard you train, but you just have to know to give them what they need, to give them the tools they need to be able to perform.”

And judging by what’s on screen, that training has produced some eye-popping, intense fights. Wu’s clipper character fights enemies in the rain in one episode, bulls through more than 30 attackers in another, and, Wu teases, will face off in an epic battle against The Widow (Emily Beecham, below), a ruthless female baron, in which the pair tear through an armory and pick up various weapons to wield. Naturally, all that fighting makes the series pretty bloody. “I think the visual effects crew was pouring a lot of blood around,” Wu says. “Literally gallons on set.”

Credit: James Dimmock/AMC

With all that said, Into the Badlands won’t just be six episodes of gory martial arts sequences, as visually striking as they are. Sunny begins the story as a hardened warrior, but after he meets M.K. and learns of his lover’s pregnancy, he aches to leave the brutal life of the baron-run society behind. “It’s about a journey to enlightenment,” Gough explains. “It’s a godless world, and M.K. and Sunny are going to go on this journey. At its core, it’s a show about these two people.”

It’s also a show that centers on an Asian character played by an Asian actor — a fact Wu acknowledges, but doesn’t think should be the takeaway of the show, even if Into the Badlands adds diversity into the TV landscape. “I’m not the kind of person to pull the race card, just because I think the quality of the show is what matters most,” he says. But, he adds, the story of how Bruce Lee’s idea for the 1970s series Kung Fu was allegedly taken from him (and cast a Caucasian actor as the lead) is one that has stuck with Wu throughout his career. “There was always a sad feeling about the truth of that show, which is that America at that time could not accept an Asian actor in the lead role of a television show,” Wu says. “And what I’m proud of is we’re able to right that wrong. It’s sad that it’s taken over 40 years for that to happen, but I’m glad that that’s happening.” In other words, Wu hopes the show can kick some ass — both on screen and off.

Into the Badlands premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.

Episode Recaps

Into the Badlands

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