Cinemax’s Warrior is inspired by the writings of Bruce Lee, but in casting the show, series creator Jonathan Tropper and executive producer Shannon Lee wanted to avoid putting an impersonation of Lee on screen. The new Cinemax series premiered last week, with Andrew Koji in the role of Ah Sahm, the protagonist whose confident personality certainly bears some resemblance to the famed martial arts master. But, for the most part, that is where the similarities end, as Koji’s take on Ah Sahm is distinctly his own, something that’s increasingly apparent as the series progresses.
Though he’s appeared in projects like Fast & Furious 6, The Wrong Mans, and in season 2 of Starz’s American Gods, Koji came to the project as something of an unknown quantity, a trait that works out in his and the show’s favor. Because he doesn’t bring a lot of baggage with him from previous roles, Koji tends to surprise in the part of Ah Sahm, both in terms of how he brings the character to life and for his competence when it comes to the show’s primary draw — its depiction of martial arts brawls.
In a recent interview with Screen Rant, Tropper discussed what went in to casting the role of Ah Sahm, and how it was decided early on that the show wouldn’t be casting based on how well an actor could impersonate Bruce Lee. Tropper said:
“What we decided going in were two things. The first thing is we weren't looking for a Bruce Lee impersonation.
We felt that we would only lose trying to do that. It's a losing proposition to get someone who's going to have the grace and the charisma and do matching echoes of Bruce Lee. Instead, we wanted to find someone who brings his own character to it and find ways to pay homage to Bruce Lee doing that. So we ultimately made the decision, we'd rather get a really good actor who needs to be taught martial arts, than get a great martial artist who would be taught to act.
We then went around the world looking at great Asian actors who could portray Ah Sahm. Actually one of the last guys we saw was Koji who is from England and he didn't look like what we had been expecting. He didn't approach the role like what we had been expecting but in pace, there was this raw energy and charisma and darkness that we wall just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This guy's really got something.’ And we flew him in to see it in person and to throw some curve balls at him and we just felt this guy's a leading man… and we then built the character around him.”
For Shannon Lee, the casting process meant going through a lot of audition tapes of actors offering up various kinds of impersonations of her father. Like Tropper, she was impressed with the way Koji approached the role, and felt his onscreen presence outweighed his knowledge and experience with martial arts.
“All I can say is that Andrew [Koji] really came in owning the role. He had this great soulfulness to him, and we were actually a little concerned about whether he could do the martial arts well because he was not the best martial artists that we saw. But more important for us was ‘Could he impart the spirit and essence of the role?’ And of course we made him go through the paces of showing us what he could do physically. And then as soon as he was hired we were like, ‘You need to start training right now.'
He does a great job by the way. He had taken martial arts. He just hadn't done it in awhile, and he was very athletic and physical and had done some stunt work and stuff like that.”
Warrior continues next Friday with ‘John Chinaman’ @10pm on Cinemax.