Daniel Wu was hesitant at first about playing the lead in the action-packed AMC drama Into The Badlands.
This wasn’t only because of the intense physical training he would be required to do to prepare for his role as Sunny, but also because it would be his first foray into television.
As the popular show moves into its third season, the actor is glad that he didn’t sit out on this opportunity.
“Being able to experience a character over a longer period of time is quite an interesting process. It’s very different from a movie, where you need to show your character within an hour and a half,” Wu says.
“I’ve had 16 episodes so far, solely developing Sunny and figuring out who he is. It’s been an interesting process.”
It’s not news that more Asian stars are joining Hollywood film productions, thanks to lucrative Chinese box offices that are too big to ignore.
But it’s still rare for Asian talents, especially male actors who began their career in Hong Kong or mainland China, to take on prominent roles in US prime time television on such a level.
The last notable instance was perhaps the CBS kung fu satire Martial Law starring action veteran Sammo Hung, which ran for two seasons from 1998 to 2000.
In addition to Wu’s breakthrough, other Asian actors have also been making headway in US television. For example, Daniel Henney recently landed a role in the long-running show, Criminal Minds.
“It has changed a lot obviously,” Wu agrees. “When I grew up in the US, I never (saw) Asians on TV. (It was) more white men pretending to be Chinese, and they got away with it. Nowadays, if someone tried to do that, (they’d) never get away with it.”
Asian female protagonists are even more commonly seen on US television now. After a brief stint as a model and an actress in Hong Kong, Maggie Q is now a familiar face on US television. After landing the lead role in the long-running thriller Nikita (2010), she starred in Stalker in 2015.
More recently, she played FBI agent Hannah Wells on ABC’s Designated Survivor.
Hong Kong actress Celina Jade has had a recurring role in Arrow. Veteran actress Michelle Yeoh starred in the Netflix original Marco Polo. She will be joining the new sci-fi series Star Trek: Discovery, scheduled to premiere in September.
Yeoh, known for blockbusters such as The Lady and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, says her foray into television was about having a different experience.
“I’m always eager to try something new, and the quality of TV productions is looking so good and compelling,” she says.
US television series are now casting Asian actors in more in-depth and prime roles.
This is in stark contrast to what co-production films have been doing over the years, which is to feature Asian actors in “guest appearances” or “token roles”.
The aim is either to get a familiar face for the local market or to bypass the quota for foreign films shown in China.
“While co-production films cast Asian actors for the Chinese box office, television shows feature Asian actors as they reflect people’s lives today,” says Andrew Ooi, producer of Open Grave, Dream Home and Dragon Boys. “It all comes down to the audiences’ demands.”
Wu adds: “TV doesn’t require a box office so more risks can be taken, and they can try different things. (Often in films,) it’s more of a financial decision rather than a (race-based one).”
The turning tide of Asian representation on US television has much to do with audiences’ demand for more cultural diversity.
“There’s more Asian representation on American TV now, but stories and roles for Asians are still limited,” Yeoh says. “I’d like to see more TV series that are about Asian stories.”
Jade of Arrow fame says: “In Arrow, we have Asian characters, Chinese dialogues and even philosophy. This is great, as it shows how globalisation has (led to) an integration of cultures. People want to see more cultures and differences because that’s what makes the world beautiful.”
Wu, who doubles as one of Into The Badlands’ executive producers, also reckons that the show owes its success to filling a gap on US TV.
“Audiences were shocked to see the level of (Hong Kong-style) action we were able to execute on TV shows,” he says.
Golden age of TV
In the past few years, film actors have been embracing the smaller screen in greater numbers. HBO’s Westworld stars Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins, while Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman star in Big Little Lies. Kevin Spacey lights up the screen in House Of Cards.
The stigma once associated with a film actor “taking a step down” to appear on TV has disappeared. “The stigma is definitely gone,” says Witherspoon, who also produced Big Little Lies.
James Marsden of X-Men fame agrees when asked about his role in the sci-fi thriller Westworld. “I’ve never subscribed to any sort of snobbery about one format being better than the other,” he says.
“Today, we see a lot more adult-themed, intelligent shows on TV. In film these days, you have your (big) superhero films and small-budget festival movies and nothing in between. All those movies that used to be made in the middle ground are going to television.”
Financially speaking, stars also get a more lucrative deal out of appearing in television shows than they do from films.
“Actors get similar pay, if not more, starring in TV series compared to starring in films,” Cui says. Meryl Streep reportedly made US$5mil (RM21mil) for her 2015 comedy Ricki And The Flash. However, she was said to have asked for US$825,000 (RM3.5mil) per episode to star in the TV mini-series The Nix, by Warner Bros.
“And sometimes, they get an even bigger influence out of TV series. The market potential is quite promising. Studios are willing to invest, and audiences are willing to pay for premium content,” Cui adds. – South China Morning Post/Vivian Chen
* This story has been edited for length and clarity. The full article can be found on the South China Morning Post website.