Andrew Koji, Olivia Cheng and Dianne Doan Take Us Inside the Legacy and Relevancy of Cinemax’s ‘Warrior’

Cinemax’s “Warrior” is back for a second season of stylish grit, exploring the history of early Chinatown and the underworld of 19th century San Francisco. Of course, the original appeal of the show is that it is also based on a concept first put together by screen icon Bruce Lee over 50 years ago. The significance of Lee’s idea and how it injects needed diversity, and history lessons, into American television is not lost on its cast. Still leading the show’s gang of lovers and fighters is Andrew Koji as Ah Sahm, last season a just-arrived immigrant from China, now fully embedded in the Tong mafia underworld while fighting local, racist thugs. Olivia Cheng is back as well for more intrigue as brothel madam Ah Toy, a brothel madam also entrenched in the ongoing gang wars. Vital to the storyline remains Dianne Doan as Ah Sahm’s sibling Mai Ling, still working for the Tong outfit led by Father Jun (Perry Yung) and his son, Young Jun, played by Jason Tobin.

Even more than in its inaugural season, this new season of “Warrior” deals with the obstacles faced by Chinese immigrants. As Sahm and Young Jun try to devise ways to start their own contraband trade under Father Jun’s nose, racist gangs of armed white workers begin assaulting Chinese migrants also working in the factories and railroads. Koji, Cheng, Doan and Tobin recently spoke with Entertainment Voice about the continued significance and even sudden relevancy of “Warrior.”

“Season one was a lot of figuring things out, figuring the tone of the world is and what it’s stamp is. It was a backstory. For season two we know all the relationships, so going into it was a different experience,” said Koji. “We knew what we were doing. Now An Sahm is firmly here, in the U.S., and knows he can make it work. It just has a different energy. Everyone felt they had a chance to truly craft their characters. As an actor I feel like sometimes a character sometimes always feels out of reach, so this felt like getting another crack at it.”

“Even the crew members commented on how we, the cast members, slid into our characters so much easier,” said Cheng. “For all of us season one it took a few episodes to find how our own spirits could merge with the characters. And how our sense of racism and fighting the good fight could be seen in the show. For season two, it’s weird I know to say, but there was no prep necessary aside from learning the lines and showing up ready to play and be open. Andrew is one of my favorite actors to ever work with. He’s so alive and kinetic. But that could be said of all the actors in this. It’s so well cast.” 

As with season one, Koji had some preparation to do, but of a different sort. “With season one I only had four months to prepare, and I mean everything, even physically, understanding the scripts, the world. But now we had more time. Since now I’ve gotten to know An Sahm, the challenge is now what I want to do with the character. I want to up the physique while also showing another side to the character. You employ different techniques. Every actor’s got their own technique. It’s like a growing organism in a way. Ok, I’m getting a bit pretentious (laughs).”

For Koji, as for the rest of the cast, always hovering over everything involving the show is the ghost of the great Bruce Lee. “Shannon Lee, daughter of Bruce Lee, has been amazing to me. She’s real warm and she gave me her stamp of approval. At some point I asked her what I could change in the character for season two and said, ‘just keep doing what you’re doing.’ I was hoping for a key to better tap into the character and she goes, ‘just keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t worry about bringing Ah Sahm too close to Bruce Lee.’ But she’s always been supportive on the whole journey. But no one else specifically from his world, aside from Shannon, has contacted me or anything. The reaction from audiences has also shown me how important it is to them in terms of representation. People I know who love the shadow, and its darker take on things, all happen to be Bruce Lee fans. Obviously you can’t please everyone, but for the most part we have the spirit of Bruce Lee in the telling of the story.”

More than a mere action series, “Warrior” also stands out for how it champions the expansion of diverse stories in contemporary television. “When I came onboard this show I was really excited, because I could never imagine I would be in an Asian American period piece and then on top of that it’s a Bruce Lee concept and at the same time it has such raw humor,” said Cheng. “It has an ear for really great dialogue. Then you have this period piece that is the most untraditional period piece I’ve ever seen, it’s melded with pulp, with action, it’s melded with the great spaghetti western. At the heart of it you then have these characters who represent part of the Asian American story that is never represented fully, let alone in a complicated, complex way that it has so needed and deserved for such a long time. Just on its own, ‘Warrior’ is an important show for Asians who live outside of Asia, who recognize so many of the themes and the Sinophobia, and what it’s like to be immigrants. To see that blueprint of what it looks like to be proud and be defiant and fight for your loved ones and against the system that wants to hurt you is so important. If I wasn’t on the show you’d bet I’d be a fan of it.”

“We got screeners of the first season and it was almost hilarious but I didn’t realize how sassy I was,” said Doan with a laugh. “I didn’t realize Ah Sahm and Young Jun were also so funny together…I feel like if anything, we’ve gotten closer as a cast. We are a big family. I haven’t been on a show where the cast don’t get along, but in ‘Warrior’ we don’t work hard to get the chemistry. Season two gave us more time to grow closer. I call Koji ‘bro’ and he calls me ‘sis,’ we really are that close.”

Yet a show like “Warrior” still makes quite the physical demands on its stars. “A lot of what Bruce Lee was doing back in the day was quite revolutionary, his training techniques in stuff. For me what really ended up working, and I carry it with me now all the time, is itinerant fasting, the calorie control, which is not fun (laughs). Diet is the most important part. You can get a pretty excellent physique if you train three or four days out of the week. But for me it had more to do with diet, some fasting and cardio in the morning.”

“I’m very honest about it, I’m not a martial artist,” said Cheng. “I was a gymnast growing up and I didn’t want to take martial arts because I was already in gymnastics 20 hours a week as a kid. I didn’t start doing martial arts until I was in ‘Marco Polo.’ I already had so much respect for stunt people because they are the one department that constantly puts their lives on the line to tell the story. Stepping into this I kept training, because to swing a sword and make it look easy and second nature took a lot of training. I didn’t want to think about it.” 

“Season one really set the bar and the stunt choreographer wanted to do better for season two. We train every day on set. A bus picks us up and then we would all train from I believe 9:30 till noon,” said Doan. “I always ask if they’re writing me a fight scene (laughs).” 

In a sense Tobin was the least prepared for personal reasons. “When I was offered season one I was in full dad mode. Even though I’ve been a life-long martial artist, I hadn’t done any martial arts as a priority for a while. But ‘Warrior’ came as a gift that gave me permission to fall in love with martial arts again. I kind of got my fitness and training during the shooting of season one. When it ended, I went home to Hong Kong and had this profound feeling of, ‘I need to step up in every aspect of my game for season two.’ I wanted to be in the best shape that I could be. I mean, hey, I’m in a Bruce Lee TV show, if I’m not in the best shape of my life now, when?” 

“This has changed my life,” added Tobin. “The actor’s life is full of ups and downs and I’ve had my fair share of both. There’ve been many times when I’ve been totally out for the count and felt a million miles from my dream. Now I feel like a kid from Hong Kong living the dream. In the middle of season two I looked at my wife, and we have three kids and I’ve done every kind of gig and hustle, and I turned to her and said, ‘I’ve achieved all my dreams.’ I had a delayed reaction where after season two I just remembered being a Hong Kong kid on the school bus dreaming of being an actor. Now I’m in the most fantastic show with a great character, and I raised my fist like, ‘yeah motherfucker!’”

“Warrior” also gains a sudden potency as pop entertainment about the past but with shades of the present. “They wrote the show way back before Covid or any of that,” said Koji when discussing the show’s relevance in times of renewed social conflict and even emerging Sinophobia. “The showrunners originally wrote it more from a place of history at the time. It just so happens, which is the freaky part about it, it just so happens relevant. Nobody was making the show thinking, ‘yeah, we’ll shine a light on everything that’s happening nowadays. They just wanted to make a good show and tell the stories based on what actually happened at the time, in the 1800s. It just so happens to have this sudden relevance. That’s what’s scary. Ok, we might not be committing such levels of racism like what led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, but it just shows that history still repeats itself. Our attitudes deep down still need work. Hopefully, people don’t feel lectured to but they will look around and think, ‘oh shit, things haven’t changed that much, or at least attitudes.” 

“At this time, when blatant Sinophobia and an uptick of violence against the Asian community around the world is at this heartbreaking level, I think this show is more timely and important,” said Cheng. “Yes, we’re set in 1878, but it’s frightening how the playbook of racism is very much reflected in our show and right now in 2020.”

Warrior” season two premieres Oct. 2 and airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on Cinemax.