Lawrence Kao on Why Netflix's 'Wu Assassins' Isn't Just Any Martial Arts Series

Scott Fishman
Preview

When viewers watch the first trailer for the upcoming Netflix series Wu Assassins, they might peg Lawrence Kao’s character Tommy Wah as comic relief. However, much like everything else in the supernatural martial arts series, things are not always as they seem. 

And that’s what excited the actor, musician, and dancer to join the cast of the series, which centers around Kai Jin (producer and The Raid actor Iko Uwais), a chef in San Francisco's Chinatown dubbed a "Chosen One" and empowered by the sacrifice of one thousand monks. He faces the threat of the Chinese Triad, which appears to be led by his own father (played by Byron Mann).

Kai is tasked with recovering supernatural powers from five modern day criminals in order to save the world. Of course, like all heroes, he can’t do it alone and counts on some friends. 

Kao’s onscreen career so far has been made up of booking regular TV gigs on shows like The Walking Dead, The Originals, and The Purge. These parts prepared him to take on the opportunity of Wu Assassins.

(Photo: Netflix)

“I feel like playing Tommy Wah, I get to explore a character with deeper layers,” he says. “In most other projects I’ve been a part of, there were surface understandings on who the person was in the types of people I would play. I feel like Tommy was really fun because it helped me dig into the nature of this character. He wasn’t just black or white. There is a gray area about the character that is represented in all kinds of people.”

On the surface, Tommy is the black sheep of the family, living in the shadows of his sister Jenny (Li Jun Li), a successful businesswomen. And with the character battling drug addiction, Kao’s research took him to a dark place mentally. He looked into the reasoning why addicts used and, in the end, the Californian found it’s not just about the drugs and trying to feel better — there are deep-rooted issues at the core, which he kept in mind while on set. 

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“Tommy carried this burden of something from the past. People view him as a screw-up. When people start seeing you a certain way, you start believing it,” he explains. “So it’s hard for Tommy as a character to redeem himself throughout the show. That’s his struggles. He turns to heroine to escape life. People usually take drugs to feel something. For Tommy, he is trying to not feel anything. 

"It’s me imagining I didn’t want to be that person anymore and wanted to feel nothing. It’s spinning on the fact that, if I can end my life for a short amount of time, but not necessarily kill myself, then it would be better than me being alive.” 

(Photo: Netflix)

Given his dance background, the America’s Best Dance Crew alum marveled watching the choreography in the fight scenes of the 10-episode first season. On days Kao wasn’t shooting, he’d find himself on set observing. Even though Kao admits he doesn’t too much physicality, if there is a second round, he’d be up for getting in the fight. 

“We all had such a fun time filming. It felt like family. Everyone is so supportive,” he gushes of his fellow cast members. “I feel like everyone is super comfortable. We had the freedom of playing it all the way through with the character and bringing things to the table. The environment was so loving. We all had a good time.”

(Photo: Netflix)

Kao is proud of the recent success of projects like Crazy Rich Asians, featuring strong Asian-American leads, and the doors that have been opened. With Disney tackling a live-action Mulan and Marvel bringing Shang-Chi to the big screen, he hopes this momentum will only continue. For Kao, Wu Assassins is doing its part. 

“This series is not just a martial arts show,” he reasons. “It’s about the relationships and bonds that develop between the characters. Even though there are supernatural elements, it’s set in San Francisco and Chinatown. I still feel like all the characters are deeply layered. 

“It’s awesome to be able to see this many Asian Americans on screen, which isn’t the case a lot of the time. Even for Tommy, who is a heroine addict. I don’t think there has ever been an Asian-American heroine addict in American television. I’m excited for what Wu Assassins will do and to have that kind of representation. I feel like everything is a small stepping stone toward something bigger and another level of understanding. That an Asian person can play normal human beings, people can understand that.”

(Photo: Vince Trupsin)

Wu Assassins, Premieres, Thursday, August 8, Netflix