Daniel Wu Interview on Reminiscence, Into the Badlands, and Hugh Jackman

Reminiscence is the feature film debut for director Lisa Joy, the co-showrunner for HBO’s sci-fi Westworld series. Set in the future, people can revisit their memories thanks to a machine built by war veteran Nick, played by Hugh Jackman (X-Men). He meets a mysterious woman named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) and falls for her, but when she disappears, Nick is determined to find her at all costs. Daniel Wu (Into the Badlands) is Mae’s previous love interest who runs an underground organization that sells drugs, allowing people to escape. Nerd Reactor had the chance to chat with the actor about the film, his character, working with Hugh Jackman, and understanding his importance as an Asian-American actor in Hollywood.

Nerd Reactor: You’re in Reminiscence. You’re playing a character that has a very interesting past and a very different demeanor. What you did to prepare for a role like this?

Daniel Wu: It was very interesting. Lisa joy and I collaborated together on making this and when you collaborate with someone who’s also Asian American and creating this character, you do end up putting a lot more into the character than what’s written on the page. But first of all, things that were already there were the fact that he speaks English and Chinese together or mixed together. Those things at least had already been created with this character on the page. But things like the Southern accent and all that kind of stuff, we added those things on as we developed the character because Lisa wanted to make this a really memorable character, a character that we’ve not seen an Asian American play before, stuff like that. And there’s some stuff that’s stereotypical about him like he’s a gangster, he’s a bad guy. We’ve seen that before with Asian American characters, but she wanted to make him very three-dimensional, in a fresh way. And so that was our goal. We just kept adding and adding and adding to the character until we got to a point where we felt like this guy was pretty cool to see on screen.

Nerd Reactor: He’s definitely one of my favorite parts of the film, just with your portrayal and the history behind the character. But there’s a lot of stuff that is like, ‘Oh, I want to know more!’

Daniel Wu: There is a lot that you would feel that a white person wouldn’t feel. Like when he says, “People like you were drafted, but people like me, we’re put into camps. We’re interned.” Right? Like that. You think about Japanese Americans being interned – 200,000 of them. And the injustice they went through, and so this character also probably went through crap like that as well. And so he’s got this chip on his shoulder and he’s angry about this shit, but he’s also a survivalist. So he’s going to survive. And that’s how he’s become who he is, a gangster selling this Baka, which is also interesting. This drug that he’s selling for people to escape, which is actually very similar to what Hugh’s character is doing. He’s selling time in this machine for people to live in their past memories escaping from the present also because the present is almost too terrible to have to deal with.

Nerd Reactor: And speaking of Baka, in the movie, it’s an important thing. What was the meaning behind that? Because when I think of that, I think of the Japanese word.

Daniel Wu: The Japanese word that means stupid and foolish, right?

Nerd Reactor: Yeah

Daniel Wu: I’m not actually sure. I asked Lisa because I told her that too. I go, “Did you know Baka means foolish and dumb in Japanese?” She’s like, “Oh, that’s kind of a perfect name for it.” Yeah. And the fact that they look like little boba pearls. We looked at it as this thing. Again, the present is too terrible, like global warming has happened. It’s so hot that you can only be out at night. There’s this massive poverty gap, and the poor are really poor and the rich are really rich. So this Baka exists because people just want to escape. They want to get out of the environment they’re in right now. And I think that’s why a lot of people do drugs because they want to get out of the present shitty situation they’re in and be in some other place. And so he’s successful because a lot of people don’t want to be in the present. So he sells a lot of Baka.

Nerd Reactor: Your character is set in New Orleans. The set, what was that like? Was it recreated with this huge wall in the background with the flood trying to seep in?

Daniel Wu: Yeah, it’s interesting, because we didn’t have to do too much green screen. The way that they used the technology, they didn’t have to put the green screens up. So when we’re filming, it just felt like we were filming on the streets in New Orleans. But we knew from the script that the world was going to be vastly different than the world that we know now. And so all these enhancements were done afterward. That’s why it’s so great to watch the movie after making it because you didn’t know how it’s going to visually turn out. [Lisa] painted a very visual picture in the script, but you didn’t know how it’s going to turn out in the end. And it worked really nice. I mean, it’s really beautiful to see these flooded New Orleans and Miami streets in this warning about the future if we don’t take heed to global warming.

Nerd Reactor: How excited were you when tackling this role?

Daniel Wu: Yeah, I was really excited. Honestly speaking, I had taken like eight or nine months off of work after doing Badlands season three. It’s very easy as a person of color when you do something like Badlands to be stereotyped, right? And so I was stereotyped as a martial arts guy, always being offered with martial arts stuff, when in fact, in my career of over 60-something movies, I’ve only done two or three martial arts things. And so I was waiting for the next project to come along that wasn’t that and that was interesting and that was innovative for an Asian American character. I realized my career is very different here than in Asia. In Asia, I’m just playing characters, right? Everyone’s Asian, we’re playing characters. It doesn’t matter. Whereas here, I had to actually think about what kind of impact that character has on us as Asian Americans. It’s a whole different responsibility. I felt it was my responsibility for my career and for others to not fall into a stereotype and be stuck there, to be playing other types of characters, and also show my breath as an actor. And so when this came along, I was so stoked, because it was perfectly the character that I was searching for that I didn’t know about. And the fact that Lisa Joy is also Asian American, and that she was looking out for me and looking out for this character was an added bonus.

Nerd Reactor: When you talk about doing stuff for Hong Kong films and then this, switching to that mentality, I don’t know how difficult that is for you. Or is it a case-by-case basis?

Daniel Wu: It’s difficult. Like when I first came back, I wasn’t ready for that. I didn’t think about it. When I was doing Into the Badlands, I was like, “I play a lead role in Hong Kong, I play a lead role here.” And I’d be walking around on set, “Oh, number one!” Like it’s a big deal for a Chinese guy to be the number one on the call sheet, to be the lead of a show, and I didn’t understand what was happening. And now I realized that it might be considered microaggressions. People are just not used to seeing an Asian male leading a show or a movie. And so that was interesting to wake up to that. And then when I was doing press for it, like all the Asian American press were trying to put me on this pedestal going, “Oh, you know, you’re the only Asian American actor, male actor leading a TV show right now.” I didn’t think about it that way. And so I kind of didn’t really get used to that right away, but then I slowly started to understand the importance. Because being away for 20 years, that muscle just went to sleep in my brain, to have to think of things in that way, in terms of race all the time. And then to come back here and to have to think that way, that muscle in the past year has gotten really strong, because of all the stuff we’d had to deal with all the stop Asian hate stuff. It took time for me to get used to it and understand the importance of that responsibility.

Nerd Reactor: You’re acting opposite Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson. What was that like working with them? Did you have any preconceived notions before? For Hugh Jackman, aka Wolverine?

Daniel Wu: No, that was cool. It was Wolverine versus Sunny, right? I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas. I was just hoping this would be a fun group to work with. And they really were. Hugh, people say this all the time about him, but it’s really true. He’s just a really nice guy. He’s so good at what he does. Most people that are very, very good at what they do, there’s something quirky or weird or diva-ish about them. But he has none of that. He’s so normal. And he’s just like a regular dude that likes to hang out and loves being on set and loves doing the work. And then Rebecca was awesome because she brings us whole levels of intensity. I don’t know what it is about her. Maybe it’s her eyes or something, but very intense. Do you know that scene where I see her for the first time in that bar singing? I didn’t really have to act in that scene because she’s just bringing it. She’s bringing this really seductive allure, and it made it really easy for me to work with her.

Nerd Reactor: This movie is sci-fi, and Into the Badlands is also the future. Is this your favorite type of genre, or are you the type of actor who’s like, “I’m down to do whatever it is as long as it’s good for me as an actor?

I just love working in the genre and then trying to elevate it. And that’s what I think Lisa’s done. Yeah, she’s really good at that. Like, that’s what Westworld is. It is sci-fi and elevating it to this whole other intellectual meditation on AI and what that means, right? And then this one, again the same thing. It seems like a simple film-noir sci-fi movie, but there are so many other layers to it other than that, right? And so that’s what makes it really interesting, successful and fresh as well. And because it’s not something you’ve seen before. It’s like you recognize certain elements, but then she’s matched them up in a way that you’ve never really experienced that before in a film. And so it’s a real testament to Lisa’s ability as a writer and director.

Check out the full video interview below:

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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