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Actor Byron Mann on “Wu Assassins” and Expanding Roles for Asian Professionals in Hollywood

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Byron Mann has been around Hollywood long enough to identify two major waves of opportunity for actors of Chinese heritage. The first he calls the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon effect,” an increase in casting opportunities following the success of Ang Lee’s 2000 martial arts classic. At that time Mann was already a decade into his career, having starred in the 1994 big-screen adaptation of Street Fighter along with numerous other film and TV roles.

The Hong Kong-born actor has continued to find steady work in the post-Crouching Tiger landscape. Fans of binge-watching prestige television will probably recognize him from relatively recent turns in gritty AMC Western Hell on Wheels — he portrays the fifth and final season’s primary antihero, Chang — or as O.G. Kovacs from last year’s Netflix original Altered Carbon.

The second major wave of opportunity for actors of Asian heritage is what Mann calls the “Crazy Rich Asians effect,” by which he means that it’s now “OK for Asians to take leading roles in Hollywood films and television series.” Mann is taking his own shot at a leading role with Netflix’s newest original series, a “kung fu meets sci-fi meets Asian street food” drama called Wu Assassins that premiered yesterday.

Mann’s character in Wu Assassins — a San Francisco Chinatown Triad boss named Uncle 6 — can be seen as a spiritual heir to his role in Hell on Wheels. Though ostensibly a villain, Hell on Wheels‘ Chang is also seen to be a staunch advocate for the legal rights and civic dignities of the Chinese immigrants that were instrumental in building the transcontinental railroad. He’s a picture of polish and poise in the context of that hardscrabble world, his three-piece suit and high diction running contrary to what the average person might think when hearing the phrase “19th century rail worker.”

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and Mann’s Uncle 6 shows fruit borne from the efforts of men like Chang — he’s similarly well-dressed, meets with politicians (when he’s not doing less savory behind-the-scenes work), and at one point in the series lectures a clueless Oregonian waitress about the Chinese Exclusion Act and Geary Act.

Mann credits John Wirth — the showrunner of both Hell on Wheels and Wu Asssassins — for building cultural sensitivity into each show, and says that he wants to “hit that spot between the two worlds, the East and the West” with his new leading-man role. RADII spoke with Mann while he was in a car en route to last night’s Wu Assassins premiere about the new show, the “Crazy Rich Asians effect,” and the increasing influence of the Chinese market on Hollywood’s content-producing engine.

RADII: Wu Assassins combines elements of classic kung fu films, Hong Kong crime dramas, and contemporary sci-fi/supernatural elements you see in comic book adaptations. What source material did you go to get inspiration for your portrayal of Uncle 6 in Wu Assassins?

Byron Mann: Uncle 6 is based on an amalgamation of some people that I know. I actually have a friend who was one of the highest-ranking members of one of the Triad organizations in America. He was just a regular guy, I got to know him on film sets and we became really good friends. So my source of inspiration was actually playing him. These are businessmen; Uncle 6 is a businessman. He provides for the people of Chinatown in San Francisco, but as you know, unbeknownst to anyone, he has the power of fire, and he has used that in the past for his own selfish gains — towards the end of Season 1, he has to make redemptive steps to amend for his past.

John Wirth, the showrunner, created this role for me, because I worked with him on [AMC series] Hell on Wheels, on a slightly different — though on the surface similar — character. The character that I played on Hell on Wheels was kind of the godfather of a village around a railroad. For Uncle 6, the primary thrust of the drama for the first season is really his relationship with Kai Jin, played by Iko Uwais. It’s this love/hate relationship — I think Uncle 6 really loves Kai Jin, but Kai Jin feels betrayed by him, feels a little bit antagonistic toward him. I actually had a lot of fun playing this role, because I drew from experiences of friends that I knew who were in this world, but there was a supernatural element, there was a martial arts element. So there were a lot of different dimensions to this character that I really enjoyed.

Byron Mann and Iko Uwais in Wu Assassins (photo courtesy Netflix)

Your recent television roles have navigated various Chinese-American stereotypes. Your well-attired roles both in Wu Assassins and Hell on Wheels, for instance, buck what the typical viewer might have in their head for a Triad boss and 19th century railroad worker, respectively. In both shows you play a complicated anti-hero — to what extent is challenging Asian-American stereotypes a component of your performance?

Well, listen. I’m not there to challenge anything. [laughs] When I get a role, it’s on paper, so what I try to do is find out the truth. I still remember when I got the script to Hell on Wheels. I could not imagine what this guy looked like. It was based on their research, actually. I did not know what [my character] Chang looked like, so I literally had to go online and research, and email the costume designer to send me some photos of guys that could have looked like Chang in that era. So what you saw on-screen was what he looked like.

Byron Mann as Chang in Hell on Wheels (photo: AMC)

It was actually John Wirth, the showrunner, who wanted Chang to look very, very dapper, almost English. Fortunately I had help, I had someone like John Wirth who was very collaborative and very forward-thinking. I don’t think he was trying to challenge anything — we were basically telling the truth of who this guy is. For me, as an actor, every time you go to the truth, you’ll always be surprised at how interesting and how multifaceted the truth really is. It’s much, much better than any stereotype that people can come up with.

With Uncle 6, there was a similar starting point. He’s a very successful businessman, a self-made man, very well-dressed, deals with politicians all day. That’s the type of guy he is, he wears three-piece suits. Earlier in the season [you also see] what he looks like 15 years ago — he was a cheap thug. So we made a conscious effort on his mannerisms, on his speech, and also his clothing, to show that this guy has grown to dress and speak and behave like that.

Every time you go to the truth, you’ll always be surprised at how interesting and multifaceted the truth really is — it’s much, much better than any stereotype

Side note: I read that you trained in martial arts with Bruce Fontaine, a legend of Hong Kong kung fu cinema, early in your career, and you bring that skill set to your portrayal of Uncle 6. Do you keep up with your wushu training?

Very much. He actually trained me early on in my career, on wushu, and through the years I’ve also worked with a lot of different wushu practitioners. I am still in it. As of last week, I was working with someone in Hong Kong on wushu. It’s just a fantastic exercise — it connects me back to Chinese heritage. Wushu derives from traditional martial arts, plus gymnastics. So you’re really learning traditional Chinese martial arts, we’re talking thousands of years of knowledge that’s being passed down. That’s really cool. So yeah, I’m still very active. I keep up with it, and I have to use it more often than not in my work.

Uncle Six (Byron Mann) and Iko Uwais square off in an early episode of Wu Assassins (photo courtesy Netflix)

In both shows you co-star with Tzi Ma, who’s also in currently screening film The Farewell, and the upcoming Mulan reboot. You are both actors with Chinese heritage that are firmly established in the world of Hollywood, and hold continued relevance as there are more and more roles available for Asian/Chinese actors. Can you comment on your working relationship with Tzi Ma, and more generally about how the landscape of opportunity for Asian or Chinese/Chinese-American actors has changed over the course of your acting career?

Tzi Ma is an old friend, I love working with him. It’s always fun. In the ’90s, there was what I call the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon effect. That affected Chinese actors and Chinese-American actors in Hollywood. That was 20 years ago.

Recently, we call it the Crazy Rich Asians effect. There is an effect off of that movie, meaning it’s OK for Asians to take leading roles in Hollywood films and television series. That change is not wholesale, it’s not 100% — it’s very gradual, very subtle. But I do know that it’s opening up, and that’s a good thing.

Recently, we call it the Crazy Rich Asians effect… it’s OK for Asians to take leading roles in Hollywood films and television series

I would also say that there’s a China effect. Eight to ten years ago, the emergence of the mainland Chinese market — that has an effect. About eight years ago Hollywood started taking note that, wait a minute, [mainland China] is a growing market. And as the years go by, it’s like, wait a minute, this market is actually bigger than the US domestic market. And now, it’s like, OK, it’s actually the world’s biggest market. America has 300 million people — China is four times that. So what is the effect? In my humble opinion, everyone wants to get their product into the mainland China market to be distributed. So you create characters, you create projects that will appeal, that could potentially be distributed there.

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How have tastes among filmmakers and producers changed over the same period? Has there been a “Crazy Rich Asians effect” for more than just actors and actresses?

I don’t know whether it’s because of the success of Crazy Rich Asians, that could be it. Or that it’s just about time. I think #OscarsSoWhite actually had an effect on Hollywood. I think people felt embarrassed. When you do projects now in Hollywood, there’s always talk of optics. What looks good or what doesn’t look good.

For Wu Assassins, for instance, it was right that we had a person of Chinese origin to direct the first two episodes, Stephen Fung from Hong Kong. That’s the more pronounced change that I’ve seen. In today’s landscape, if you’re going to do an all-Asian project, who’s going to direct this, who’s going to be the right person? 20 years ago, it’d be whoever. But today, it’s like, if it’s [upcoming Marvel film] Shang-Chi, you better get someone of Asian descent to direct it. So that is very much in the zeitgeist right now. Which I think is a good thing.

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Within Hollywood, Chinese production companies are investing in projects that aren’t even necessarily aimed at the Chinese market. Have you noticed any change in the American film/TV industry brought about by the increasing purchasing power and presence of Chinese production companies?

Yes. About, six, seven years ago, China was flush with cash, and they were coming in and buying everything, investing in everything. And then about two years ago, it tightened. It’s good and bad. The bad is that there were a lot of companies that for whatever reason couldn’t deliver. Recently, the film industry [in China] is going through some changes in terms of what’s allowed to be filmed and what’s not allowed to be filmed, and also, the outflow of money, that’s tightened as well.

There’s an incredibly big desire and appetite in mainland China to work, invest in, develop things with Hollywood. I don’t know of any Chinese company that wouldn’t want that. And the reverse is also true — there’s an incredible appetite among American studios to work with Chinese companies. The biggest barrier is culture. And culture spans everything: it’s language, how you work, how you approach deals, how you execute deals. I’ve seen many deals or situations break down because ultimately the culture is incompatible.

What kind of audience are you hoping to reach with Wu Assassins?

I want to reach everybody. I’m on Instagram, people write me, and they’re not necessarily Asians, they could be anybody. Anybody who enjoys action, anybody who enjoys supernatural shows, they are the audience for this. It’s what the show is designed for. It’s not just for Asian audiences, it’s for everybody.

Byron Mann as Uncle 6 on Wu Assassins (photo courtesy Netflix)

Anything else you want to add about the show, or your character, Uncle 6?

I’m very proud of this show, and I’ll tell you why. It deals with Chinese culture in the United States. John Wirth is someone I’ve worked with [before], and he’s extremely culturally sensitive and knowledgeable. [For Hell on Wheels] he actually knew more about the building of the railroads than I did, much more. This time around, he’s already knowledgeable about Chinese culture, so we dug deep. I contributed, and he made a point to hire two Chinese-American writers in the writers’ room, and we got Stephen Fung to direct.

I think this show is very culturally sensitive, and that it strikes a good balance, it puts a spotlight into this world. This is a Netflix original, it’s not an acquisition, and I think it’s the only show on the Netflix platform that features an all-Asian lead cast. So that’s pretty remarkable. I’m very proud of the show, I think it hits that spot between the two worlds, the East and the West.

The first season of Wu Assassins is currently streaming on Netflix.

Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.