In 1971, Bruce Lee pitched a series called The Warrior, in which he would star as a martial artist navigating the Old West, but studios passed, unable to envision a show around an Asian lead. The next year, Warner Bros. aired a series called Kung Fu, starring white actor David Carradine as an Asian martial artist in the Old West — a premise that raised eyebrows, though the studio denied it had anything to do with Lee’s concept.
Director Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow, the Fast and Furious franchise) remembers being 8 years old when he first saw Kung Fu and couldn’t understand why Carradine was in the role. “I was confused,” he tells EW. “I didn’t know why he was speaking in broken English.”
When he learned that Lee originally had an idea just like Kung Fu, he knew he had to bring it to screen — and to do it with an un-whitewashed cast that would honor Lee’s story. Lin teamed up with Lee’s daughter, Shannon, who “brought eight pages of the original notes from Bruce,” he says, and together they brought those pages to small-screen life.
The result is Cinemax’s new series Warrior, a drama EW can exclusively reveal will debut on April 5. The show stars Andrew Koji (The Innocents) as a martial arts prodigy who departs China for San Francisco in the late 1800s on a mission, only to get entangled in Chinatown’s brutal Tong Wars. (Lin and Shannon Lee serve as executive producers.)
Making Warrior happen wasn’t easy; in fact, Lin admits, finding an Asian lead and rounding out the cast with Asian actors like Jason Tobin (Better Luck Tomorrow) and Olivia Cheng (Arrow) was “still very difficult.” “Casting directors, when they read ‘Asian-American,’ kind of go to the same pool,” he explains. “It was important to us to find a casting director that would really be open to us going around the world [for the search]. It took a while…I think there wasn’t any rocks left unturned, and I think that’s the right way [to do it].”
Plus, the team needed to make Lee’s story, now nearly 50 years old, resonate with modern audiences. That meant tweaking Lee’s ideas while retaining his core characters and themes. “There were a lot of changes in pacing, in how we were going to explore certain issues,” Lin says. “[We were] trying to honor the essence of what he was doing, but at the same time, cinema and TV and storytelling have really evolved.”
Lin, obviously, has had a front seat to that evolution. He’s been busy recently — he’s set to return for the next installments in The Fast and Furious franchise, is reportedly moving forward with Space Jam 2, and has an overall deal with Apple to develop TV — but to him, Warrior means more than just getting another project off the ground. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to try everything,” he says. “But I have to say Warrior has been my pride and joy.”
EW can share four first look images from Warrior above and below:
Warrior hits Cinemax on April 5.