When the going gets tough, the tough gets going. And for Andrew Koji, once in a while, he would read up on the philosophies of Bruce Lee for spiritual sustenance. "He had such a great mind," says Koji. "His teachings taught me to keep going and keep doing your best."
Koji, 33, is the star of Warrior, the Cinemax series based on a concept by Bruce Lee and executive produced by the martial arts legend’s daughter Shannon and Fast & Furious director Justin Lin. He plays Ah Sahm, a Chinese migrant in 19th century San Francisco, where he’s embroiled in Chinatown’s gangland disputes and the shenanigans of racist politicians.
Filmed in South Africa, the 10-ep action-drama — which also stars Jason Tobin, Olivia Cheng and Joe Taslim — started its second season last Saturday.
Speaking to 8days.sg via video call from his London home, the half-Japanese, half-British actor/stuntman/martial artist said he was initially skeptical about playing an ethnic Chinese. “I didn’t think I was right for it at first,” says Koji. “Part of me did think, ‘Maybe they should’ve given the role to a Chinese guy.’”
Then again, he reckons that If Tom Cruise, an American, can play a German in Valkyrie, why can’t he play a Chinese? “We are actors and we should be able to play different roles and certain races, depending on the project,” he says.
Koji believes he’s the right guy to play Ah Sahm: Like his alter-ego, he’s a person of mixed ancestry. “I know what it feels like that you don’t belong wherever you go.”
When it comes to race and identity, Koji found enlightenment in Lee’s teachings. “He once said, ‘Do you know how I like to think of myself? As a human being. Under the heavens, under the sky, there is but one family’,” he continues. “That quote helped me get through the dilemma.”
There’s another Lee tenet which Koji lives by: “Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.” If anything, that quote inspired him to become resilient. “He taught me to keep going even when I wanted to quit [acting],” says Koji whose other credits include Peaky Blinders and American Gods.
It was also the mantra for his Season 2 training regimen, which included a gruelling month-long “self-imposed boot camp” at the World Taekwondo Federation in South Korea. "They basically 'destroy' my legs", he says. "You got these hip muscles and you have to strengthen them to do the multiple kicks."
He also devoted a lot of time on the nunchucks, Lee’s signature weapon of choice. "Doing nunchucks for screen is different than in real life," says Koji who studied YouTube tutorials to get his moves right. "You have to be flashier, and some of the more practical nunchucks moves don’t look good on screen."
“When you are learning the nunchucks, you just gotta accept that you’re going to smack yourself a lot,” says Koji who gets to show off them in Episode 9. That episode and the season finale are the ones to look out for, he points out. “Because they felt like everything was building up to those episodes.”
One highlight is a physically and emotionally demanding sequence based on the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles. “It was pretty harrowing filming that,” Koji recalls. “We all knew that scenes like that have happened in the world and much worse too, so there was a sensitivity and profoundness to being part of putting that onscreen.”
Koji says the best part of being in a serialised drama is that it helps to stretch his acting muscles. “As an actor, you never feel like you’ve cracked a character the first time round, so to get another chance to play Ah Sahm again is a blessing.”
He’s a work-in-progress, just like Ah Sahm. “In Season 1, he's a fighter, but he hasn’t got that warrior spirit yet.” Koji says. “In Season 2, he’s slowly transitioning into someone who’s fighting for a purpose that greater than himself. If the story continues after Season 2, I think he would be more of a warrior.”
Whether Season 3 happens or not, Koji is grateful that Warrior has helped open many doors for him in Hollywood. Next on Koji’s slate, Snake Eyes, the G.I. Joe spin-off he’s starring alongside Henry Golding and Iko Uwais. He’s also onboard Bullet Train, the Brad Pitt-led action thriller with Hobbs & Shaw director David Leitch.
“The main change is that my parents can relax now,” says Koji. “They were worrying for a long time that I was an actor, which is a tough job if things aren’t going your way. Now, I can treat them to dinner, pay for them this and that. I’m now more at peace knowing that they’re not worrying about me.”
Warrior airs Sat, Cinemax (Singtel TV Ch 424 & StarHub Ch 611), 10am (same day as the US); it’s also streaming on HBO Go. If you want to be inspired by Bruce Lee, pick up Shannon Lee's new book, Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee, now out in stores.
Photos: Cinemax, UIP