Daniel Wu, the star of AMC’s genre-busting Into the Badlands, originally wanted nothing to do with the lead role.
Granted, it’s a great character: The ironically named Sunny is a stoic killer who finds new meaning when he embarks on a cross-country quest of spiritual enlightenment.
But it’s also a physically demanding role — and Wu, who’s widely known in Asia for his martial-arts movies, was reluctant to take on the challenge.
The show, which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, is a poetically frenetic kung fu Western — East meets West! — and the hero is required to kick butt in a dizzying series of showstopping fight scenes.
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There are so many dust-ups that Wu, a native Californian, was initially content to stay behind the scenes as an executive producer.
“In the kung fu movies that we do in Asia, there are three or four fights per movie and you do that over a six-month period, so you can maintain stamina and have time to recover,” Wu says. “But in this, we were going back to back to back on all the fights. No down time, no time for rest.
“There are basically two fights per episode. We’ve done six episodes and I’m in 11 of those 12 fights. To do 11 fights in four months of filming is pretty crazy.
“And I’m 40! What if I get injured? What if we’re successful and we go for four or five years?”
Taking the lead
So what made the old man decide to tackle the role?
“Here’s the thing,” he says. “We wanted our Sunny to have good acting ability and experience. We wanted the guy to be a good martial artist. We wanted the person to have some name.”
But the Badlands production team couldn’t find anyone with acting chops to match the karate chops.
“What we found were people who were strong actors but no martial-arts experience or they were great martial artists who weren’t very good actors,” Wu says. “That was frustrating to the other producers, who eventually came to me and said, ‘You are that package. You know that, right?’ ”
Now, with production of the debut season complete and Wu still in one piece, only one broken rib to complain about, the actor is thrilled with the finished product and eager to see what viewers think.
He believes the show achieves the right combination of action and drama that will appeal to a mainstream audience as well as to hardcore martial-arts enthusiasts.
“We want to give viewers a compelling story and solid actors playing compelling characters,” Wu says, “not just filler that people will fast-forward through to get to the next fight scene.”
Days of future past
Into the Badlands is a series in which many genres have been tossed into a mixing bowl to create something familiar yet unique.
The show is set in a post-apocalyptic future, a second Dark Age in which government and democracy have been replaced by feudal barons, each ruling his territory with an iron fist.
It’s also worth noting that there are no guns in the Badlands — the barons did away with them years ago — but it’s still an ultra-violent world.
Sunny, who has notched more than 400 kills, is the main enforcer, or “Clipper,” for the ruthless baron named Quinn (played by Marton Csokas). But as a turf war heats up with a rival baron (Emily Beecham as the Widow), Sunny begins to question the system and his role within it.
One of the show’s primary themes is the inequity that exists between the elite 1 percent vs. the powerless 99 percent.
“This dystopian future that we’ve created allows us to make comments about American society today,” Wu says. “I think that’s pretty interesting.”
Another thing that Wu takes pride in is that the acting in Into the Badlands is top-notch.
“We were adamant that the actors were good actors first,” he says. “We could have gone out to martial artists and got back crummy acting, but that would hurt the show, I think.
“So we went after the right actors first,” he says. “If they knew martial arts, that was a bonus. If they were good athletes, that was a bonus.
“But our main goal is to create a great martial-arts drama for American television. Look at what’s successful about our sister show on AMC, The Walking Dead. They’ve taken the zombie genre and elevated it. Viewers are so into that show, because the stories are about people and not just about zombies.
“The same applies to what we’re trying to do with Badlands.”
Into the Badlands
- 9 p.m. Sunday