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A Fine Balance


A Fine Balance

James Dolan

Daniel Wu’s acting talents have been well-known in Hong Kong for almost 20 years. Now the rest of the world seems to be taking notice.Photo by Wing Shya

Daniel Wu is a busy guy. Really busy.

For starters, there’s his work: a veteran of over 60 films, Wu stars in several per year, a career that takes him from Hong Kong to South Africa to Ireland to Louisiana and back again, often all in the space of a few short months. Then there’s his hit TV show Into the Badlands, where he not only plays the lead role, but produces as well. And, most importantly, there’s family: his supermodel wife Lisa S. and their 4-year-old daughter Raven.

“After doing it for 20 years, you figure out a way to balance it all together,” Wu says calmly. He’s on the phone from Cape Town, South Africa, where he’s shooting the most recent iteration of the long-running Tomb Raider action-movie franchise. While others might burn out with the busy schedule, Wu sounds unruffled by all the busy-ness of the film business. “The great thing about my job is that it’s very intense for a short period of time,” he says. “And then when you’re done, you can relax.”

It’s that constant balance between intensity and calm that defines not only what Wu does, but who he is. “If I had to keep a regular pace, like a steady job all the way through, I don’t know if I could handle that as much,” he says. “But I think these short spurts like this are much more tolerable for me personally. I do enjoy working in this way. So I may not see my family that much when I’m shooting, but then I’ll see them every day for three months, so I have some time between.” 

Wu and his supermodel wife, Lisa S., were married in 2010 in South Africa. The couple have a 4-year-old daughter, Raven. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Originally, Wu intended to be an architect, but once he got a taste of acting, he never looked back. “The first day on set of my first movie, I just fell in love with the whole process of making films and the creative energy that’s on a set.” Photo courtesy of Daniel Wu

The son of Mandarin-speaking parents who emigrated across the Pacific from Shanghai to San Francisco, Wu’s life has always been something of a balancing act: between two cultures, two languages, two worlds. Even in his career, Wu has always been more than just an actor — he’s an actor who’s also a martial-arts action hero, the natural successor to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen, a master of kicks and punches, a fantasy fighter tasked with creating the illusion of superhuman skill in every scene.

“I equate it to being a professional athlete,” Wu says. “It’s a very serious physical commitment. You do all this acting preparation, but you also have this whole physical component where you have to get your body ready for the shoot, and then be able to endure the entire length of the shoot.”

It’s this training that Wu credits as helping him to maintain his balance through the turbulence that naturally accompanies life in the spotlight. “I believe martial arts training has made me who I am as a person,” he says. “The ability to persevere, endure through things, to push back on things. When you’re in a ring sparring with someone, and your back is in a corner, and it’s just you and him, you have to figure out a way to get out of it. So if you’re facing adversity at work, or adversity in life, those lessons you learn help you with that.”

With that kind of mentality, it’s somewhat surprising to hear that Wu’s career was as much about being in the right place at the right time as it was about hard work and determination. “When I [first] went to Hong Kong, I wasn’t expecting to stay that long,” he says. “It was a college graduation trip — to see the handover. I was going to travel around for two or three months and then head back home and look for a job. The movie business found me while I was there and I never left.”


“A two to three-month trip ended up being this 20-year stay in Hong Kong. And then it’s been this kind of never-ending journey, which has been amazing. Definitely a blessing.” Photo courtesy of Daniel Wu


Twenty years later, Wu acknowledges that staying was a good choice, not only from a career perspective, but from a cultural one as well. “I think going to Hong Kong and being there — it’s the motherland, the homeland — and I was able to go back and be Chinese, not even just Chinese American, be Chinese, and absorb my culture that way.”

Now, however, Wu feels his life is less about East or West, and more about East and West. “My mom always used to say, ‘You’re a person of the world,’” he says. “I feel I can go anywhere and get along with any culture because I respect other cultures. And so it’s not just an East-West thing. I think the East-West thing made me find a balance in life, but it made me realize how beautiful this world is, and how beautiful other cultures and peoples are, and I wanted to go out and explore that and absorb it.”

Indeed, much of Wu’s work can be viewed as a kind of reflection of this central idea: that if you take the best of East and West, China and America, drama and action, English and Mandarin, you can blend it into something fresh, new, and completely engrossing.

Wu shows off his mastery of traditional wushu and other martial arts in an episode from season two of Into the Badlands. Before the season started, Wu and other actors attended a five-week training camp to prepare for the show’s arduous fighting scenes.  Carlos Serrao/AMC

A still shot from Into the Badlands. One of the show’s executive producers, Wu also plays Sunny, a deadly assassin who longs for a different life. Carlos Serrao/AMC

Carlos Serrao/AMC

Case in point: Into the Badlands. Wu plays Sunny, a reluctant martial-arts assassin who’s the deadliest killer in a world chock full of them. “It’s meant to be a mashup of different kinds of cult genres,” Wu says. Among the most obvious: steampunk, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style worlds, a smorgasbord of martial arts from various parts of Asia. There’s even a dash of horror now and then — just enough to keep the audience wondering what’s going to happen next.

“It’s a very difficult balance,” Wu says. “[But] it’s all kind of seamless — it kind of flows really perfectly into all these different things. So it’s constantly changing and morphing. And that was one of our goals of the show, to try and take all those elements, to push the envelope with it, and create our own genre.”

Creating something of his own has become a lot more important lately, as Wu enjoys fatherhood and family life. “That’s the most important priority for me, making sure they’re all good,” he says. “Being a father [became] the most important thing to me and the career took a back seat for the first time in my life.” 

As a result, balance has taken on a new definition. “I’ve calmed down with age, and also with having a kid,” Wu says. “I’ve realized you have to enjoy life and be in the moment. I’m just kind of organically letting life come to me and when the right time comes and it feels right, I’ll go for it. But I’m not trying to plan or predict the path anymore.”

Chinese Text by Cherry Chen  English Text by James Dolan