American Born Chinese has given plenty to talk about since it premiered on Disney+ earlier this summer, taking audiences through the journey Jin (Ben Wang) had to face when his regular high school life gets thrown in the middle of a mythological war. Having to find strength within himself, Jin can do anything, proving to the world that he’s the hero they need.
One of the defining factors within the mythological elements of the series was the inclusion of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu), a legendary Chinese figure. Awards Radar had the opportunity to interview Wu, who went through a very detailed process in order to become the best version of a character he had admired since he was young.
Awards Radar: Congratulations on a beautiful show. What was your first impression of American Born Chinese. Did you audition for it? Was it pitched to you?
Daniel Wu: It was pitched to me through our producer, Melvin Mar. My first thought was: “How are they going to adapt the book?” Because I was familiar with the book. My nephew had studied it at school, so I came across it when I went to their house one day. I saw on the desk, picked it up and read it. I thought it was interesting, but abstract. Not necessarily screen ready. There’s three very distinct storylines. Some of them are very strange. I was very curious to see what the adaptation was going to be like.
AR: What was your experience with the Monkey King before you joined the show?
DW: I grew up with the Monkey King! I think most kids of Asian descent know the story. The Journey to the West is a very famous fable in Chinese culture. It’s about how Buddhism came to China. The Monkey King is a pivotal character in that. He’s almost representative of a child’s personality amd throughout his journey, he becomes enlightened and matures along the way. He becomes an adult, a different person.
I grew up watching cartoons. My dad was a Chinese opera perfomer, so we watched the Chinese opera version on video tape. Television, movies and the Stephen Chow version. I’ve seen many versions of it. When I was in Asia, I was asked to play the Monkey King a couple of times, but I turned it down because I thought there wasn’t anything new I could bring to the table.
But this version is a different Monkey King, we’re taking that story and making him older, a father, and we wanted to see how he would deal with that. It coincided with how I’m a father now, I have a young kid. Everything he went through, I’m currently going through.
AR: Why do you think immigrant stories like American Born Chinese are so important for young people to see?
DW: Our country is a country of immigrants. Unless you’re Native-American, you’re an immigrant here. What’s so great about this one is that it’s very universal. Most immigrant kids are going through the same thing. Trying to fit in the American education system. Trying to figure out who they are and what parts of their culture they will embrace.
All that’s happening while you’re also a hormonal teenager who’s going through all kinds of crazy changes. It’s very relatable to anyone who is growing up in this country. Everyone goes through that awkward stage in high school.
AR: Why do you think the Monkey King is important as a mentor for the kids?
DW: His story is a good mirror for life in general. In every moment along the way he runs into some kind of adversity. And he has to figure out how to get over it. He never gives upm and that’s a great allegory for life. Life isn’t easy. If someone says it’s all fun and games, they’re lying to you. It’s all about facing challenges and how you deal with them.
The Monkey King faces adversity with joy and child-like energy. Not losing that innocence while dealing with adversity is a cool thing to look up to. In this version, he has to make the right decisions. He’s got a tremendous amount of responsibility dealing with the war. But he also has to be a responsible father. How does he balance those things? As a parent, how do you find success while raising a happy family?
AR: I completely understand! The costume looks great, by the way! Could you tell me more about it? Did you like it? Was it comfortable?
DW: It was designed by Phillip Lim. He made it very iconic, because it needed to look like the legendary Monkey King. But it also had to look like what was illustrated in the graphic novel. Both of those worlds had to be brought together in a functional costume. I’ve done a lot of action films and television shows, and non-functional wardrobe can be the bane of an actor’s existence.
If you have to fight in a costume that doesn’t fit you well, it’s the worst thing ever. I’d rather be punched in the face than having to deal with an uncomfortable costume. This one, we made sure from the very beginning that it was comfortable. Even if it looks complicated, it was actually quite easy. I could put it on in twenty minutes and going to the bathroom was really easy. The only complicated thing was the cape, but I didn’t have to wear it that much. If I could kick in it, I was okay.
AR: If you had full creative control, what would be Daniel Wu’s dream project?
DW: There’s one I’d like to do about the Army Batallion 442. They were the Japanese-Americans who were interned, but they still fought for the U.S. in World War II, and they were one of the most decorated in Asian-American groups at the time. A lot of people don’t know about their history. There would be another one about Montana Joe. He was an Asian-American in the Italian mafia in the 80’s. He was of the only non-Italians involed with the group. It’s a true story and a fascinating one to learn about. I’d love to do those two projects at some point.