“It really is why I’m doing this (series) now,” shares actor Daniel Wu. “As we’ve talked about the importance of representation, it’s the next generation of actors that are going to get the chance to represent our stories to the kids of tomorrow.”
In “American Born Chinese”, Wu takes on the legendary character Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Dating back to the 16th century, the Monkey King has heavenly, magical powers which are showcased to great effect in the new Disney+ series. In this current adaptation, Wu’s Monkey King takes on the challenge of raising a rebellious teenage son in an American High School.
Originally born in the Bay Area of California, Wu moved overseas to start his career as an Asian American actor. Wu often reflects on the changing landscape of the entertainment industry in America and the increasing opportunities for diverse storytelling.
Wu is hopeful that his new series can ride the wave of other recent successful Asian American film and television projects in continuing to break down stereotypes and promote cultural exchanges.
Wu anchors a predominantly Asian cast that includes rising talents Ben Wang (Jin Wang), Jimmy Liu (Wei-Chen) and Sydney Taylor(Amelia) as well as Academy Award winners Michelle Yeoh (the Goddess of Mercy) and Ke Huy Quan (Freddy Wong).
All eight episodes of “American Born Chinese” are currently available on Disney+, adapted from the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name by Gene Luen Yung. The graphic novel intertwines three storylines including the mythological story of the “Monkey King”, who first appeared in the classic novel, Journey to the West.
Speaking with Awards Focus, Wu shares his process into crafting his version of the Monkey King, the cultural impact of Disney+ producing such a high profile series, and work with acclaimed actress Michelle Yeoh.
Awards Focus: When did you learn about the series, “American Born Chinese” and the character of the Monkey King?
Daniel Wu: Melvin Mars, one of our Executive Producers, and someone I’ve known for a while now, called me up one day and said, “I want you to play Monkey King.” At first, I didn’t know what he was talking about but then he added, “I’m making ‘American Born Chinese.’”
That caught my attention as I had been fascinated by the book since finding it on my nephew’s desk several years ago when he was studying it at school. I’d been asked to play the Monkey King many times in the past, but I always turned it down because it was usually the traditional “Journey to the West” story we’ve already seen many times.
However, this new take on the Monkey King, being a father and having a teenage son, that Gene and Melvin had worked out, I thought was really interesting and a challenge.
AF: You were drawn to this interpretation of the Monkey King and particularly him being a father of a teenage son. Any parallels to your real life journey as a father?
Wu: Oh, totally. Absolutely. I had gotten really close with my daughter during Covid as we were all stuck at home and I was in charge of the distance learning stuff. However, I noticed that I was mirroring my father’s behavior and saying things he used to say to me.
I had to learn to hold back and adapt my approach because it’s a different generation, and my child needs to be spoken to differently. At the same time, I realized I have to give her the room to grow and make her own mistakes.
When I read the script, I deeply related to the Monkey King because his son was engaging in behavior he disapproved of. In Episode 4, we see how the Monkey King himself, as a teenager, had a rebellious streak, but it was his willingness to challenge the norm that led to his success.
Through this reflection, the Monkey King realizes his son is on a similar path and must let him pursue his own crazy ideas to become his own person.These were all themes I was dealing with over the past two, three years at home with my own daughter.
AF: To play the role, there must have been an intense amount of makeup and prosthetics. What did that look like on a day-to-day basis?
Wu: Yeah, that was one thing I totally didn’t think about. I often had to show up to work over three hours before everybody else. There was one morning where we were the opening scene and started shooting at 7:00 am. That meant I had to go into work at 2:30 am.
Also, I was often the last actor to leave because it would take an hour or so to get off all the makeup. So there were some rough days here and there. But, I think it was all worth it. The VX makeup team did an incredible job. I would sit in my trailer, examining myself in the mirror, experimenting with different expressions to test the makeup’s quality. The results were simply astonishing.
The seams were invisible, the skin texture was meticulously crafted and the overall appearance was incredibly realistic. It was a remarkable transformation that greatly aided me in embodying the character.
AF: You grew up in the Bay Area of California, but most of your early work came from films in Asia, especially Hong Kong. Over the last 10 years, you’ve been getting more consistent work here in America, including “American Born Chinese”. Do you see more opportunities opening up for you here in Hollywood?
Wu: Well, you can never be sure about anything in this business, but I think things have definitely changed over the past five years, for sure. I remember when I was still in the States before leaving for Hong Kong, “Joy Luck Club” came out and I remember thinking there would be an opening for Asian American projects after that. But then there wasn’t really anything.
It wasn’t until twenty-something years later that “Crazy Rich Asians” came out and that showed that there is a successful pathway for Asian Americans and Asian American stories. And then you start to see more projects like “The Farewell”, “Beef “and “Menari”. With the success of projects like these, I think they are showing that there’s an actual market for Asian American stories after all.
And I think Hollywood’s quite simple. If you can show that a lot of people will watch it, and that they can make some money, then there’s a room for it. We’re showing that there is that pathway now. It’s a very different time than when I started out in the nineties. At the time, I would’ve never thought that there was a place for me in American show business.
I started learning my craft in Hong Kong where I didn’t have to deal with the race issue at all. If I had been like my colleagues like Sung Kang or any of the other Asian American actors trying to make it in America, going to the same auditions for that one Asian role, it would’ve been really heartbreaking for me.
I don’t think I would’ve stuck with it. And so I was able to grow and mature on my own as an actor and develop my own craft, without the limitations of race at all. That was like the beautiful gift of being able to work there over a twenty year span and not have to deal with any of that.
AF: You’ve always been an advocate for inclusivity, how do you believe this series has contributed to fostering understanding and the breaking down of traditional stereotypes?
Wu: Well, I think at the very least, it shows how, even though we all come from different backgrounds, that we do go through a lot of the same things in life. As an example, being a 15 year old student is probably one of the worst things ever growing up, right?
Trying to find your identity. What part of your culture do you embrace? What part do you turn away from? How do you assimilate? How do you fit in? I think every high school kid, no matter what race you are, goes through that. And so I think this storytelling, although it is shown through the Asian American immigrant story, has a lot of universal moments in it that everyone can relate to. I hope people see this and realize that we’re not that different after all.
It was also great to be able to introduce elements of our culture, like the Monkey King and the Goddess of Mercy (played by Michelle Yeoh) to a greater American audience. And if they’re interested, if they like the show, maybe they’ll delve deeper and, and go read “Journey to the West” and get a better understanding of our culture.
It’s all about this cultural exchange and sharing and respect for each other because we’re all here and in this together. We can’t avoid the fact that we are all from different backgrounds and that for us to be successful as a country, we need to all get along and have mutual understanding. So shows like this on platforms like this, help tremendously.
AF: This is the first time you’ve worked with Michelle Yeoh, correct? How did that factor in your decision to join the cast and what was the experience like?
Wu: Working with Michelle was amazing. I’ve known her for many, many years from our Hong Kong days, and we’ve always tried to work together, but never really quite made it work. When Melvin asked me to play Monkey King and told me that Michelle was in it, I texted her, “Hey, are you doing this? Because if you are, I’ll do it. And she replied, “I am. Get your butt down here.”
She’s a lovely and great person. She’s almost like the Goddess of Mercy herself in that she’s a legend and everyone respects her. When she walks into the room, there’s this whole different energy. And so in “American Born Chinese,” she’s almost playing a version of herself. And she’s so caring.
I think one key thing about this project is that all of us more experienced actors came in to support the young core of actors, Ben, Jimmy and Sydney. It was such a pleasure watching them and being able to support their growth as actors. It really is why I’m doing this now. As we’ve talked about the importance of representation, it’s the next generation of actors that are going to get the chance to represent our stories to the kids of tomorrow.
AF: In Episode 4, you get to tell the backstory of this version of the “Monkey King” and in the episode, you’re joined by Asian American comedians, Ronny Chieng (Ji Gong) and Jimmy O. Yang (Ao Goang) whom naturally play over-the-top characters. What was it like shooting that episode?
Wu: That was my favorite episode because Ronny and Jimmy were there every day. And so just having them around, being the people that they are, was fun. I’m a big comedy fan already, so just to be around them was great.
AF: You got to work with some great and up and coming Directors on American Born Chinese that are somewhat legends in the Asian American entertainment business? What was that like?
Wu: I think it was awesome working with Destin [Daniel Crettin]. He’s such a great filmmaker and he’s such a great director. He was able to take this wacky story where there are three different storylines and three different kinds of worlds and make it all work together.
Then working with Lucy [Liu] was great because I always find working with directors that have been actors before is very enriching because they understand what it’s like for us and they understand our process.
AF: You’ve been a producer and director as well in your career. How do those experiences influence your creative process as an actor and do you approach acting differently than you did earlier in your career?
Wu: Having the experience of producing and directing tremendously helps because you understand the whole process of making a film or a project, especially in the editing room.
You learn how a performance can really be shaped through editing and that as an actor, it’s really important for you to just let go and give everything so that there are some choices in the editing room.
Earlier in my career, I would try to shape a perfect performance but now I just really let loose and try to give a lot of choices for the director when they get into the editing room.
AF: What can we expect from you in the near future and any news yet about a season two of American Born Chinese?
Wu: Yeah, hopefully we get a season two. It looks, the momentum is heading that way and so I’d really like to focus on that in the near future. Aside from that, it’s been a while since I’ve been back to Asia to work on a project, so I’d like to go back there someday soon.
“American Born Chinese” Is Available to Stream on Disney+.