“They wrote this two years ago now,” Andrew Koji says of season two of the Cinemax series Warrior. “All the relevance is purely coincidental, and that is what makes it scary.”
During my one-on-one phone interview with Andrew Koji, the British actor talked about the unintended parallels between the world of Warrior and 2020’s America where BLM protesters and politicians scapegoating the Chinese for a pandemic have become an everyday reality. “People think, oh, it’s that Hollywood’s got an agenda. They were writing based on things that happened in 1878, San Francisco.”
Koji stars as Ah Sahm, a young Chinese man in 1878, who’s come to San Francisco and is quickly recruited in the Chinatown underworld during The Tong Wars. This was a massive gang war between rival Tong factions that played out in the streets of Chinatowns across America, particularly in San Francisco.
Warrior also depicts the growing racial tensions at the time between the white immigrant labor class and the expanding Chinese immigrant population, giving audiences a glimpse at the lead-up to The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The act, signed into law by President Arthur, prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers.
Some people may watch this show and might get triggered thinking that we were sending out some sort of message for relevance now, but it’s just because we as humans have not learned. I think it’s because history repeats itself. So we actually don’t grow. So all those issues were literally them just writing about facts of the time. And yeah, it’s scary how relevant it is. So hopefully they can watch this show — and it’s probably tough to watch because a lot of the issues are quite fresh — but I think it’s just so important.
I wrote about the show’s origin last year prior to season one. Warrior was conceived by Bruce Lee, who wrote the original treatment in the late 60s and early 70s with the hopes he would be playing the Ah Sahm role. But Koji doesn’t devote much energy to wondering how Bruce would have played it. “He would have wanted me to do my own version of the character rather than do an impression of him or how he’d do the character,” he says.
But with Bruce Lee, there were sign posts to the character, his cockiness, arrogance, you know, the kind of confidence and all that stuff, and his intensity. Those are qualities that were definitely there to go okay, yeah, that sign post where Ah Sahm, the kind of guy he is. So it’s more like sign posts than trying to mimic him. It was bringing out those qualities rather than choreographing a performance to match how Bruce Lee would have done it, if that makes sense.
Koji says he didn’t expect to win the part. The producers asked for an audition tape which included a martial arts demonstration. Koji recorded his in the hotel room he’d been staying. He hadn’t done martial arts for around ten years at that point. “I think I took my iPhone, and I just filmed myself doing a bunch of moves,” he says. “And I think they just trusted me from that really.”
In addition to the fights Ah Sahm finds himself in with the Hop Wei gang, season two finds him engaging in a fair amount of underground prizefighting, which Koji says were often more challenging to perform. “I think one-on-one, for me, is generally harder,” he says.
More technical fights can be harder to remember for me because, if you’re doing group fights, for me, my brain, just how it works, I know that this guy, I’m going to do four moves on, you know? This guy, I’m going to go and do three moves on. This guy, I’m going to do two moves on. So the brain can break it down a bit easier. But where it’s all the fighting beats for that one person, you have to remember the whole assembly. So I found them a bit trickier to do just one-on-one. But still, when you’re working with such great people, it becomes a dance.
Though one of the highlights and thrilling action sequences in season two is an extended fight in the streets of Chinatown where Ah Sahm picks up a pair of nunchucks. “I never picked up nunchucks before Warrior. I started playing around with them between season one because there were talks of potentially using them sometime during season one.” He bought a pair, started practicing near the end of that season, and just kept training with them. “I learned mainly from YouTube,” Koji admits.
I just kept these nunchucks with me and practiced every day for, you know, nearly half an hour to a couple of hours a day sometimes just trying to figure out how they are. So I never picked them up before my whole life. I hit myself several times training. So by the time we got to film that one, I practiced a lot and trained with them. But then there was a different challenge that the nunchucks were prop nunchucks, and they were rubbery, and they were different from the ones I trained with. So then we had to figure that out and adapt.
There’s still no official word on if Warrior will have a season three, but Andrew Koji has a sense of where he’d like to see Ah Sahm by the end. “It’s sort of, for me, a Bruce Lee origin story, in the way. The spirit of Bruce Lee. Ah Sahm’s got very little in the beginning, but he’s got a lot of talent and potential. And it’s about him becoming closer to that warrior figure that’s what Bruce Lee defined as a warrior.”
Warrior Season 2 premieres Friday, October 2nd on Cinemax.