Warrior's star isn't the next Bruce Lee, he's the first Andrew Koji
"I didn't know where I belonged."
Andrew Koji calls me from his mum’s living room in Epsom, a suburb 13 miles south of London. The 33-year-old actor gives me, a 28-year-old also staying with his mother in New Jersey, a piece of advice: When swinging nunchucks, you’re going to hit yourself.
“Here’s the mindset you need when engaging with nunchucks,” Koji advises over Zoom. He’s soon to star opposite Brad Pitt in Bullet Train, an action-thriller from Hobbs & Shaw director David Leitch. But for now, he’s telling me how to swing around a $14 splurge purchase from Amazon. “You’re gonna hit yourself. There’s no going around that.”
An Okinawan weapon with origins as a farming tool, a nunchaku (“nunchuck” in modern English) is composed of two sticks held by a chain or rope. Though harmful in expert hands, it’s mostly used to exercise dexterity and posture. Nunchucks were made famous on the big screen by Bruce Lee, the Hollywood legend whose boundary-pushing career was cut short by a cerebral edema (brain swelling) at the age of 32.
With feet planted in my office where action figures and movie memorabilia are within reach, I carefully swing the nunchaku to Koji’s approval. “There we go!” he cheers. “Can you flick out?” he asks. I can. “There we go!” he cheers again.
I have to remind myself that Andrew Koji isn’t Bruce Lee. While the actor stars in the Cinemax (and soon to stream on HBO Max) show Warrior, a pulp action series based on Bruce Lee’s manuscripts about a kung fu master named “Ah Sahm" in 1870s San Francisco, Koji is his own man with his own star in the making. But it’s irresistible not to enjoy a moment with someone deemed worthy of Bruce Lee’s mantle.
“He really was a sharp mind,” Koji tells Inverse about a figure who looms large for many second-generation Asians. Koji’s favorite quote by Lee is one of his less popular, but no less insightful words of wisdom: Always be yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.
To become worthy of Bruce Lee’s dream role, Andrew Koji did just that.
“I didn’t think I was right for [Warrior],” Koji says. “But I read Bruce Lee’s philosophies. He wouldn’t have wanted me to do an imitation. An imitation was not worth it. That alleviated pressure.” There’s plenty of homage to Bruce Lee in Warrior, including a moment with nunchucks in Season 2 that evokes a superhero origin story. “I could never be Bruce Lee. I can only do myself. But if I tried and put the training in, what could I bring out in myself?”
“I was in quite a dark place.”
Born 1987, Koji is the only child to a Japanese father and English mother. His parents split at an early age, and Koji stayed with mom. It was an otherwise mundane childhood. “I had a fairly innocent upbringing,” Koji says. “Mom and dad were always there.”
Nothing was out of the ordinary for Koji in these pleasant streets, where the Queen herself likes to watch horses race. In 2019, The Independent ranked Epsom the tenth “happiest place to live in the UK.” But even a pleasant town isn’t without its rough edges.
“I [experienced] racism quite a bit growing up,” says Koji, whose distinct Japanese features made him an outsider in his own hometown. “I stood out like a sore thumb.”
There was never a violent encounter. Just the banal, everyday racism that still cuts deep. “I didn’t know where I belonged,” he says. “I just bought a flat [here] but I don’t know if it’s home. It’s been a long journey still going. A lot of figuring out who you are and your place in the world.”
It was only on screens where Koji saw a reflection of himself. The Tekken video games, with its Asian karate protagonists, and Jackie Chan on cable TV were the first media to give Koji a glimpse of possibilities. “I used to watch Jackie Chan obsessively,” he says. “He was the only person on TV that looked like me.”
Koji adopted filmmaking at a young age. Without a formal education in editing, he came up with his own ingenious, if impractical solutions. To add music to his films, he’d tape a CD player and headphones onto his camcorder and time the shot to pressing play. “I didn’t know anything,” he says now, laughing about it. “At 18, 19, I was like, this is what I want to do.”
While most of his peers went off to college, Koji did what anyone aspiring to make it in Hollywood would do. He packed his bags… and went to Thailand.
At the time, Koji says, “the Thai industry was booming” with films like Ong-Bak and The Protector, blockbusters with native sensation Tony Jaa. Determined to study in an environment he could make the films he wanted to make, Koji chose to hone his craft in Thailand, and later Japan. “They’re doing films I could be in and do. So I traveled there to figure out the industry.”
When neither worked out, Koji returned home to the UK and zeroed in on acting, sharpening himself in the arena of live theater. Los Angeles was for later down the road. “I had heard L.A. is a tough place. You shouldn’t go until you’re invited,” he says.
It wasn’t until Koji auditioned for Warrior that he found his ticket to L.A. It couldn’t have come at a better time. For Shannon Lee, it was an overdue chance to fulfill her father’s vision. For Cinemax, it was a final attempt at original scripted programming in a heated TV marketplace. For Andrew Koji, it was the last thing he could do before deciding his dreams would be just that — dreams.
“I was ready to call it a day,” Koji says. His most prolific credit was a day’s worth of stunts for Fast & Furious 6, where he observed his future boss, director Justin Lin, from afar. “I knew he was an Asian filmmaker who made it in Hollywood,” he says. “I remember that time on set, thinking, ‘I’m never going to work for him.’ I was anti-industry, because ten, twelve years [of struggle] can change you. Put you in positions where you don’t feel good enough.” The self-doubt was becoming self-destructive. “I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was drinking, partying, eating bad food. I was in quite a dark place.”
On the cusp of 30 sans direction from the universe, Andrew Koji almost left it all behind. “It was borderline Leaving Las Vegas.” He found his choices to be “drink myself to death or become a monk in some mountain. There was no plan.”
But through the encouragement of his mother, who told him it would be “fun,” Koji made a self-tape audition and submitted it to Warrior.
“I realized I had been holding my breath” - executive producer Jonathan Tropper
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, TV producers were banging their heads. “We were having trouble,” says showrunner Jonathan Tropper. With Bruce Lee’s fabled eight-page manuscript on their hands, Tropper (who produced Cinemax's previous hit series Banshee), Justin Lin, and Shannon Lee, struggled to find the one to fill the legend’s giant shoes.
“We weren’t looking for a martial artist who can act,” Tropper says. “We’re looking for an actor who can train. We went around the world looking for Ah Sahm.”
Trooper says Koji’s tape came late. Upon first glance, the room was unimpressed. He didn’t look the part, nor was he in warrior’s shape, but “there was something about his tape we got transfixed on. The intensity of it.” To ensure they weren’t seeing things, the producers flew Koji to Los Angeles for an in-person audition and screen test. “We gave him the role while he was there.”
“He had a soulful quality,” says Shannon Lee. “My father didn’t believe in copying or imitating. He believed in self-actualization. The thing that caught us about [Andrew] is that, while he had the martial arts, he was trying in earnest to bring a sense of authenticity. That is what my father was all about. And that is what Andrew is like.”
Months after Koji’s audition, Tropper realized he was carrying an invisible weight about his lead. “I had never seen him in anything before,” he says. ”We reconvened in Cape Town to start shooting, and he transformed himself in three months. He showed up, camera-ready and in shape. He had been training in martial arts around the clock.”
After a few action scenes, Tropper started sweating with anxiety as the cameras rolled for Koji’s first dramatic scene, set in a brothel. “He had to act. Not just swagger.”
Tropper had made a gamble on a total unknown — and it was about to pay off.
“It was magical,” he says “I realized I had been holding my breath for months because we cast someone we had no idea whether he was going to deliver the goods. We built an entire production around this guy. I was overcome with relief. It was a big moment.”
“He’s a deep, thoughtful guy,” says Jason Tobin, Koji’s co-star as Ah Sham’s best friend and son of a fearsome gangster. “He has an amazing work ethic. He’s a quiet dude, not so quiet you can’t talk to him, but he’s a fun guy to be around and give space. He’s not monk-like, but monk-adjacent.”
“They didn't have any of this in mind.”
In Season 2 of Warrior, Ah Sahm is now an established muscle among the tongs of 1870s Chinatown. Whilst feuding with his sister, the leader of a rival faction, the white police of San Francisco struggle to keep order as bodies pile up on narrow streets. Politicians race to enact strict immigration reforms, to the disdain of white capitalists who rely on cheap Chinese labor.
In a world like Warrior, what’s a kung fu master to do? Fight, of course. “He’s a small fish in a big pond,” Koji says of Ah Sahm in Season 2, which premiered October 2 on Cinemax. “Season 2 is him understanding who is really there for him, which is no one, and doing his best to get out of that world but also try to make a [positive] change.”
Warrior debuted in 2019, in the climate of still-ongoing abhorrent immigrant detention. It returns in the climate of Covid-19, a pandemic with Chinese origins that led to resurgent discrimination against people of Asian descent. In July 2020, Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of Asian adults have experienced slurs or jokes because of their ethnicity since the outbreak. Wikipedia has a dedicated page chronicling incidents of xenophobic and racist violence toward East and Southeast Asians stemming from Covid-19. You can Ctrl+F for keywords like “beaten,” “punched,” and “hospitalized” and find multiple instances.
There are no outbreaks or Trump-like figures in Warrior. But paranoia, fearmongering, and racist violence are as prominent in the show as they are on the news.
“They wrote this in 2018. They didn’t have any of this mind,” Koji says, “[They didn’t know] Covid was going to happen. When you see this show, based on stuff a hundred years ago, it’s a shame. It’s like, ‘Come on, we can do better than this.’”
“It is an unfortunate commentary,” says Shannon Lee, “Yes, we have better technology and faster cars, but how we treat one another, not much has changed.”
“It would be a career goal to finish the story.”
With so much going for Warrior, a series that is insightful as it is gripping, sexy, and violent, it’s befuddling to see it lost in the zeitgeist. Vanity Fair recently mapped out its struggle for Season 3 renewal amid a cultural moment it seems especially suited for. Stuck in Cinemax limbo, the show won’t reach a wider audience on HBO Max until after Season 2 airs in its entirety.
Depending on who you ask, Warrior is or isn’t over. Aside from restrictions making production in a pandemic difficult and costly (Netflix just canceled its popular wrestling comedy GLOW for such reasons), most of Warrior’s cast have moved on to other projects, Koji included. But the face of Warrior isn’t ready to let go just yet.
“It would be a career goal to finish the story,” he says. “If it’s like Deadwood where they revive it and finish the story with a miniseries or film, that is one of my goals. What Bruce and Shannon Lee have given me, I want the opportunity to close it properly.”
He adds, “Ah Sahm taught me so many things. Warrior pushed me more than I pushed before. It’s done so many things aside from the doors it opened.” In late 2019, Koji landed his first major movie role in 2021’s Snake Eyes, a franchise prequel starring Henry Golding. Koji plays Golding’s rival and brother “Storm Shadow,” a white-clad ninja assassin for Cobra Command.
The movie is due in theaters next October, although the pandemic continues to push back movie release dates across the board. While Koji is tight-lipped about details, he teases Snake Eyes as “something different” than previous G.I. Joe movies.
“I didn’t vibe with the first films,” he says. “I liked the actors. But I didn’t vibe. I remember when I saw G.I. Joe like ten years ago. I saw Storm Shadow and I thought, really? Is that our place, Asians in western screens? We take our tops off and say exposition? I don’t want that. With this, we tried to make a real, grounded [story]. We obey the laws of G.I. Joe. But I hope this is the most interesting, layered Storm Shadow we’ve seen.”
He adds, “I want younger Asian actors to go, ‘Yeah, there’s a place for us.’”
Though Andrew Koji is stuck at home, a place he never felt welcomed, he at least has a sense of where to go next. His name wouldn’t be a headline if it wasn’t for Warrior.
“I wasn’t getting offers left and right,” Koji is careful to say. He still suffered rejection. “But Warrior made me go, ‘If that can happen, it’s worth it.’”
Warrior airs on Fridays at 10 p.m. Eastern on Cinemax.