In China, Daniel Wu is a huge celebrity. In his hometown, he’s just like everyone else.
The actor Daniel Wu is posing gamely inside the Art Deco movie house where he watched films as a teenager. He used to ride his skateboard to the theater, which is just as he remembered it — though smaller, he says. As he stretches in the doorway for a photographer, a pair of customers approach, and he politely steps aside to let them buy tickets. Not once during our afternoon in his hometown of Orinda, a posh suburb east of San Francisco, does anyone recognize him.
In Hong Kong, Wu has starred in more than 60 films as well as advertisements for Seiko, L’Oréal, Canon, Cadillac, Ermenegildo Zegna, and Adidas. He can’t ride the subway because of the crush of fans who swarm to snap photos of him, his toddler daughter, and his wife, model Lisa S., an American expat of French-Chinese-Jewish extraction. “It’s funny; I live a dual life,” says the 41-year-old Wu. In Hong Kong and China, he feels “like a caged bird. Having had that success over there and coming back here every year to visit my family and being able to walk down the street and basically be who I was before — it’s a very freeing feeling.”
In November, Wu may be giving up this oasis of anonymity with the premiere of the AMC martial arts series Into the Badlands, in which he has landed the rarest of roles: an Asian male lead. Armed with a saber and roundhouse kicks, Wu plays an assassin in a feudal, post-apocalyptic future. The show, which was shot in New Orleans against a backdrop of Southern plantations and steampunk saloons, will air in more than 125 countries as a part of the cable and satellite television network’s push abroad.
Today at the bar at Casa Orinda, a dimly lit, 83-year-old cowboy roadhouse with vintage pistols mounted on the walls, Wu tells the owner, John Goyak, “I used to come here a lot when I was a kid.”
Goyak, who took over the business from his father, laughs. “I used to come here a lot when I was a kid.”
I’m meeting Wu in Orinda, population 19,003, because it is also my hometown — though we didn’t know each other. We went to rival schools a grade apart in a place that hits the headlines every few years for its competition and classism: the murder of a high school cheerleader by a less popular classmate (Rolling Stone and a made-for-TV movie starring Tori Spelling), a battle over leaf blowers (The New Yorker), and a fee squabble at a tony swim club (The Wall Street Journal).
Growing up in Orinda, Wu always felt different. At the time, Asians accounted for 3 percent of the population; his father, an engineer, and his mother, a business professor, said he should never forget that he is Chinese. He took an interest in martial arts after seeing Jet Li in The Shaolin Temple and started training at the age of 11 with an herbalist–painter–lawyer–acupuncturist–martial arts teacher. Jackie Chan, who today is a mentor, was a childhood hero.
In 1997, after graduating from the University of Oregon, Wu traveled to Hong Kong to witness its transfer from British to Chinese sovereignty. One night, he was having a drink in the Lan Kwai Fong bar district when he was invited to appear in a bank commercial, a $4,000 windfall that paid for a backpacking trip through Asia. Indie filmmaker Yonfan spotted Wu in the ad and, thinking that his upbringing in the West would make him willing to take on a controversial role, cast him as a lead in Bishonen, a love story between a gay hustler and a cop.
Although Wu understood Cantonese from watching kung fu movies, he spoke little of it. He recorded all of his lines and played them over and over, even while he slept, in the hope that he might absorb the dialect through “osmosis.” He began appearing in upward of six movies a year — “a blur,” he says, and an impressively rapid pace compared to stars of his stature in the U.S., who may make one or two movies a year. Wu has a cross-cultural appeal in China: He’s Chinese and yet not, American and yet not. “I don’t fit in anywhere, nor do I feel uncomfortable anywhere,” he tells me. “I’ve been through the experience of living here, and people assuming I was a foreigner” — as happened when he attempted to vote in his first presidential election. Then he moved to Hong Kong, only to have locals tell him, “You’re not our people. You’re white!”
Martial arts movies eventually took a toll on Wu, who tore his ACL and broke his ankle. He left those roles for swords-and-slippers historical epics and police procedurals. He also tried directing, and he won best new director at the 2006 Hong Kong Film Awards for his first movie, a mockumentary about a boy band. For Badlands, the producer Stacey Sher initially tapped Wu as an executive producer for his martial arts expertise, and Wu suggested casting a young actor who could handle the rigors of fighting sequences. Producers, however, wanted an actor skilled in martial arts but also fluent in English. Wu was hired, and in the six months before filming began, he added 18 pounds of muscle to his lean build.
Wu’s first roles in English felt jarring, he says, because he had to figure out acting, pacing, and tone in his native tongue. “The first day on set, speaking English, I thought, Whoa, this is weird,” Wu says. “Then all of a sudden I realized I had so much freedom in dialogue” — he was able to improvise.
For decades, actors and singers of Chinese descent raised in the U.S. and Canada have sought out roles overseas that are still lacking in Hollywood. Of last year’s 100 top-grossing films released in the United States, only about 5 percent of speaking characters were Asian, and more than 40 of the movies had none at all. But a generation of viewers who came of age watching martial arts moves in the Matrix trilogy, Mission Impossible, and other action flicks may now be primed for change, and television shows such as Badlands and Netflix’s forthcoming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are aimed at them. Martial arts entertainment, Wu adds, sells well globally, in part because viewers don’t have to understand the story to enjoy the action.
More than 40 years ago, Bruce Lee pitched a show in which he would star as a martial arts warrior wandering the American Old West. David Carradine got the part, going yellowface in the iconic television hit Kung Fu. “Bruce Lee’s idea got stolen from him because the studios weren’t confident putting an Asian guy in the role,” Wu tells me. AMC is taking a gamble by casting Wu as the lead — not the comic relief and not the foreigner with the cute accent who never gets the girl. It’s a gamble, Wu says, that “rights that wrong.”