The COVID-19 pandemic has brought moviemaking to a screeching halt all around the world. For Daniel Wu, who works in both Hollywood and Chinese productions, it’s been about watching and waiting to see which side of the Pacific reopens their studios first.
“For me, it actually just feels like what it feels like between jobs,” says Wu. “It’s just been really long.”
Most Americans know Daniel Wu from his groundbreaking AMC series Into the Badlands. Some might recognize him from his more recent roles in Tomb Raider and Geostorm, and a few may even remember him from Jackie Chan’s Around the World in 80 Days or RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists. But Daniel Wu’s filmography is far more extensive than his Hollywood roles. In Asia, he is an A-list actor with over 70 films under his belt. He amassed numerous nominations from Asia’s most prestigious award ceremonies and won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Jackie Chan’s New Police Story at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. However, Wu’s 20-year-plus movie career was never his plan. He was going to be an architect and was discovered by chance.
Wu was born in California and graduated from University of Oregon with a degree in architecture. “In ‘97 when I graduated, you know Hong Kong was going back to China and I decided OK, I’m going to go see this event—the Handover—and travel around Asia for two or three months and figure out what I was going to do,” Wu recalls. “My first month in Hong Kong, I got scouted to do a TV commercial and that led to the director of my first film, Yonfan, seeing that ad and then calling me into his office.” That film was Bishonen.
Bishonen is a Japanese term meaning “beautiful boy” and the film was a milestone for LGBTQ cinema in Hong Kong. Loosely based on a true story, Wu plays a gay cop entangled in complex affairs. “What I identified with when I first read it was that this was just a coming of age story,” Wu says. “It doesn’t matter that he’s in love with a guy or a girl or whatever. It’s a basic coming of age story. He’s trying to find who he is. So that’s how I kind of tapped into it with no acting background whatsoever. I jumped into this really complicated character and a difficult movie to make as my first role.”
Since his discovery, Wu has taken on a wide range of roles. “A lot of people don’t know that my career is not just Into the Badlands. I’ve done 20 years of all kinds of filmmaking: romantic comedies to action to noir to whatever to art house films, everything. I didn’t want to be cornered into one genre.”
For anyone who hasn’t seen Wu’s Asian films, he has some recommendations. Gen-X Cops is an effects-laden actioner starring Hong Kong’s ‘Brat pack’ at the turn of the millennium, all of whom have gone on to be big celebrities now. Love Undercover is the rom-com that earned him his “heartthrob” cred and spawned a franchise of sequels. One Night in Mongkok is a noir crime thriller that won many Asian film awards and opened the door for Wu to make what he calls “grown-up” films.
Wu won Best New Director for his Cantopop mockumentary Four Heavenly Kings at the coveted Hong Kong Film Awards. This film was like Spinal Tap on steroids with a brilliant unconventional marketing campaign. The four leads, including Wu, led the public into believing they were forming a boy band called “Alive,” fooling fans and the media alike. Alive even played three real major concerts in Hong Kong, Taipei and Shanghai, the last two in front of over 40,000 people. They filmed the entire journey, adding scripted scenes and staging scandals to get more media coverage and heighten the parody. It was a meta-level satire because that sort of packaged celebrity was exactly what Four Heavenly Kings was lampooning. The ruse wasn’t revealed until the film premiered.
After Into the Badlands was cancelled, Wu took some time off to let his body recover from all the stunt work. He read scripts and focused on his hobby of restoring vintage cars. “I was offered a bunch of martial arts stuff and I felt like if I took a martial arts role, that’s all I would ever be doing.” Despite his diverse roles in Asia, as an Asian, he could easily get typecast into Kung Fu roles in Hollywood. And Wu has done plenty of action already. Prior to Badlands, he was managed by Jackie Chan for 11 years, but he left that to broaden his range.
“I’m looking for the right project,” he says. “I haven’t found one yet. I’ve been reading a lot of scripts during this Covid period but I haven’t found one yet that I’m into in terms of acting-wise.”
Nevertheless, Wu had already completed work on two films before the pandemic shutdown. “After Badlands Season 3, I went and did a movie in China called Caught in Time.” Wu says that film is completed but its release was delayed by the outbreak. “I play a character based on a real person in the ‘90s who basically went on a robbing spree for like 10 years. This is before China had any kind of technology – no CCTVs, any kind of stuff. So this guy figured out it’s so easy to run rampant in this kind of system. And he did. It became a game for him.”
Wu also shot another project in November, Reminiscence, which co-stars Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, and Thandie Newton. Reminiscence is written, produced and directed by Lisa Joy, who also writes and produces Westworld. When Joy approached him for the part, he was thrilled. “She was like ‘I want you to play this character. He’s a bad guy but I want him to be evil, but sexy and attractive all at the same time in ways that we’ve never seen in an Asian American male character on screen before.’ And before she even showed me the script I’m like ‘I’m in.’” Reminiscence is a sci-fi film noir, which is Wu’s favorite genre (Bladerunner is one of his all time favorites). More so, he was delighted to be directed by Joy. “It was really cool to see a female person of color, an Asian American sister, just owning it on set.” Reminiscence is scheduled for theatrical release in April 2021.
Wu is also working behind the camera, producing a new TV show based on his 2009 Hong Kong film Overheard. “The first one we did was about three undercover cops who were tapping in on some gangsters and trying to bust this gang. And then they hear some insider trading tips—insider trading stock stuff—that’s not related to their case at all. And so they go ‘Oh, this is not going to hurt anybody if we invest in this’. And they do it and it’s all about this morality of what’s right and wrong.” The plot has been expanded into a TV series and reset in Queens. It was picked up in December by Spectrum. Wu isn’t sure if he’ll appear in the show, but then again, he didn’t intend to appear in Into the Badlands originally either.
What’s more, Wu was pitching his dream project when the pandemic put a stop to everything.
“China hasn’t had a Hoosiers or a Field of Dreams, those kinds of sports feel good movies. And so I wanted to do a movie about basketball, which is my second favorite sport after martial arts.”
China is the second largest film market in the world after Hollywood and it is poised to overtake Hollywood soon. Now with the pandemic eviscerating the global movie industry, who knows what will happen? But now, no matter what, a film must cater to both markets to truly become a global blockbuster. “I went into this trying to crack the code on what is a US China co-production and how can that be successful, right?”
If anyone is positioned to conquer both markets, it’s Daniel Wu. Already, three of his films proved the power of the Chinese market after flopping in the United States: Warcraft, Geostorm and Tomb Raider. Warcraft had a $160 million budget but only earned $47 million in the U.S. In China, it earned $221 million, making it the highest grossing video game movie of all time. It was such a dramatic turnaround that now when U.S. flops succeed in China, insiders call it a “Warcraft Redemption.”
“With these large-scale Hollywood productions, they’re trying to be more global. And so they’re trying to speak to a bigger global audience and that’s why people like me are getting more opportunities because I have a following in the East, you know? And so when you want to stack your cast with people that are pulled from different regions, it makes sense to put someone like me in those movies. And then it doesn’t hurt that I speak fluent English.”
For part one of our interview with Daniel Wu, in which he discusses the legacy of Into the Badlands, click here.