When it comes to a legendary character like the Monkey King, expectations are always high. Daniel Wu knocks it out of the park in the first season of American Born Chinese. HollywoodLife spoke EXCLUSIVELY with Daniel about his journey as the Monkey King and the show’s different approach to the character.
“It was a little intimidating at first because in this story the Monkey King is at a different stage than what most people are familiar with in terms of Journey to the West. In Journey to the West, he’s a really young monkey. He’s rebellious and rambunctious. He’s being punished all the time for his misbehaving. He goes on this journey to go on a path of enlightenment, and then he changes, and that’s kind of the end of the story. He becomes a god at the end of the story.”
He continued, “But in this story, it’s like 20-something thousand years later. He’s a father now. He’s got responsibilities. He got a job up in heaven where he’s got to make sure everyone’s safe. But also, there’s a war going on. He’s got to make sure that doesn’t get out of control. He’s got a son, who now thinks he can solve this problem, and he’s going to run off and go on this mission on his own. So that version of the Monkey King no one’s ever seen that before. It’s a fresh take. I really appreciated Kelvin [Yu] writing that take on the character.”
Episode 4 takes us back to the Monkey King’s early days and explores the Journey to the West story. “We get to give people who are familiar with Monkey King that version of the Monkey King to satisfy that desire to see that Monkey King, but also allow people who don’t know anything about Journey to the West to see a little snippet of the Journey to the West story,” Daniel noted.
In American Born Chinese, the Monkey King has a son named Wei-Chen, played by Jimmy Liu. The complex father-son dynamic is explored over the course of the first season. “It was really cool because it allowed me to reflect on my own upbringing in some ways, like my father and how he treated me,” Daniel told HollywoodLife. “I definitely grew up in a family of tough love. A lot of times there was negative reinforcement, all that kind of stuff. I don’t have any negative feelings about that. I feel like that pushed me to become better in myself. I feel like that made me the successful person that I am because my dad pushed me and pushed me to the point of not being satisfied with just being mediocre, to keep going and try to push yourself to the extreme. A lot of what was going on with this character I felt reflected on how I was raised in some ways, so I reflected on that relationship with my father and me. And then, I’m also going through it myself with a daughter of my own.”
Daniel revealed that his daughter was a major reason why he wanted to do the show because “most of the work I’ve done is not stuff that she can watch most of the time. It’s really dark and violent. This is the first thing that she was really excited about that I was doing. It’s funny because I tell my wife, I feel like I’ve been trying to impress girls my whole life, and now that I have a daughter it’s still not stopping. I’m trying to impress her. I was really happy that she was into it. She followed the whole journey of me making it and was really excited for it to come out. We binged it together. She really, really enjoyed it and really got a lot out of it.”
American Born Chinese producer Melvin Mar called Daniel up to ask him personally if he’d play the Monkey King. Daniel admitted that he’d been familiar with the graphic novel prior to being cast. He was thoroughly impressed with how “well-adapted” the story was from page to screen.
“The book is a closed-ended book that could be a movie, but this is a TV show, which is open-ended. So you got to kind of not only have it open-ended but fill in some areas. I thought the family element with a father and mother — with Yeo Yann and Chin Han playing those characters — and then that relationship with Ben Wang, the Jin character, all that enhancement was so great because it just made it so much more real and less of an abstract study of like Asian American experience but a real study of an emerging Asian American experience,” Daniel said.
The actor added, “I think the final factor was Michelle [Yeoh] being in it. We’ve known each other for a long time and tried to work together many times. But this time, when I found out she was doing it, I texted her right away. I go, ‘Are you really doing it?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah.’ I’m like, ‘Alright, cool. Let’s do it. Let’s just go for it.’ That was the third factor of me wanting to do it.”
Daniel also reflected on how American Born Chinese showcases Chinese culture and heritage in a beautiful way. “I think it does it in a way that’s not so in your face either,” he said. “It’s not screaming any of this stuff. It tells you the story and goes through this incredible journey, and it just happens to be Chinese American. You can also look at it as just a coming-of-age story, and it has action, kung fu, and all this stuff, too. A lot of people of my generation especially feel like this show specifically speaks to them and their upbringing. Everything about it from the Monkey King element because growing up that was always part of our upbringing and our heritage, but then that same feeling of being an outsider in school, trying to fit in, how much of my culture do I share with people? How much do I assimilate with mainstream American culture? How much do I embrace my own culture? Those were harder things to deal with growing up in the ’80s and ’90s than it is now I would say. I feel like it speaks to multiple generations on multiple levels, and then to all kinds of people whether you’re Asian American or not because I think all that awkward high school stuff in it is very kind of John Hughes in some ways.”
The ending of American Born Chinese’s first season sets the stage for an exciting second season, especially with the introduction of Princess Iron Fan. Daniel opened up about the show’s future.
“It’s perfect. I love it because I want a second season for sure,” Daniel told HollywoodLife. “I think it’s great to set up the next chapter and what that journey is going to be for all the characters involved. I’m excited. I have no idea what’s in store at all. Nobody’s told me anything yet. And then obviously with this writers’ strike, we’re on pause for a minute, but I’m really eager to jump back into this because it was a really beautiful project to work on with an amazing cast and crew. The fact that it’s getting the warm reception is like an extra incentive to want to do a second season.”