Warrior star Jason Tobin talks Season 2, Covid-19 racism, and Fast 9
"There's never been a show like this, ever."
Jason Tobin has a closet full of Bruce Lee t-shirts. At 10:25 p.m. in Hong Kong, the 36-year-old British Chinese actor logs onto Zoom wearing one of many pieces from his collection: A soft gray tee with an image of Lee from the 1973 classic Enter the Dragon. Knowing he was talking to Inverse about Warrior, the TV show Bruce Lee never made, he jokes it was an intentional outfit.
"This is the promise fulfilled," Tobin tells Inverse about Warrior, the pulp action series based on the iconic actor's failed TV pitch. "We bring Bruce Lee's passion project to life after 50 years. It's a period piece that's about today. There's never been a show like this, ever."
It's been an uphill battle for Warrior to get the attention that Tobin — and others from the cast and crew — feel the show deserves.
"How often do you get great martial arts coupled with great acting and writing and acting? That doesn't happen," Tobin says. "It upset me that this show didn’t look like it was going to have a future."
On October 2, Warrior premieres its second season on Cinemax. The show continues the story of Ah Sahm, played by Andrew Koji, a Chinese martial artist who navigates the criminal underworld of San Francisco in search of his lost sister. Tobin returns as Ah Sahm's best friend, "Young Jun," the brash and arrogant son to Father Jun, a fearsome gangster who oversees one of Chinatown's many immigrant gangs, called "tongs."
Tobin teases a big change for Young Jun in Season 2. "He's an ambitious person and he wants to make moves in Chinatown and in his own tong," Tobin teases. "As a result, he’s starting to feel the weight of responsibility as he progresses up the chain of command."
Despite Young Jun's reputation as a violent scrapper -- two knives are Young Jun's preferred arsenal on the streets -- Tobin feels Young Jun is unhappy with his image.
"People fear him and understand he's dangerous, but they do underestimate him frequently. 'Oh, he can never be the boss, he's never ready.' Young Jun is deeper than people give him credit for," Tobin explains. "He's a product of his environment. He comes across the way he does because he needed to survive. He's more capable than people credit him for."
While the story of Warrior is fictional, its period setting and depiction of racial tensions between whites and minorities were inspired by the very real socio-political dynamics of 1870s San Francisco. As the first wave of Chinese immigrants came to America, affluent whites relied on them as a cheap labor force, to the ire of working-class Irish. In Warrior, the everyday violence and prejudice against Chinese is a portent to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to this day the only law to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States.
Though Warrior is a pulp action series set 150 years ago, Tobin observes that anti-Chinese sentiments spurred by Covid-19 elevates Warrior's subject matter far beyond a typical history class.
"Even before Covid, this show was timely," he says. "The idea of those in power pitting people of lower economic means against each other, and blaming each other. Add on top of that Covid [and how people] laid the blame on a certain ethnicity, it becomes that much more powerful."
In an abstract way, Warrior is like Young Jun himself: Capable and deadly, yet terribly overlooked. "On the surface it's a pulpy martial arts period piece. But who would have thought a martial arts show would speak volumes about the history we find ourselves in?"
As one of the last scripted shows from Cinemax, Warrior will not be available to a bigger audience on the streaming service HBO Max until the Season 2 finale airs on cable. Producers and cast tell Inverse they're crossing their fingers for a Season 3 renewal, but right now, it's looking slim.
"I am cautiously optimistic," Tobin says. "But who knows?"
At least there's F9 to look forward to. Originally scheduled for a theatrical release back in April, the ninth movie in the Fast & Furious franchise was delayed to 2021 due to the pandemic. In F9, Tobin reprises his role of Earl, a drift master from 2006's The Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift. (Fun fact: Tobin says Earl had the nickname "Drift Nazi" in an early draft of Tokyo Drift.)
"He was this guy so pure about drifting and was disgusted by Sean Boswell," Tobin says. Both Tokyo Drift and F9 are directed by Justin Lin, who also produces Warrior.
Tobin says that by the time he learned he was coming back to the franchise after 15 years, he'd forgotten his character's name. "When we wrapped Season 2, [Justin Lin] shot me a quick email, 'Hey, we're trying to get Earl back in Fast 9.' My reaction was, 'Who the eff is Earl?'"
While it's an open secret that F9 rockets into outer space, Tobin is unable to reveal more. But he does call attention to what's visible in the trailer. "I'm standing next to a Fiero, with a rocket engine attached to it. And if you look at what I'm wearing, I look like Marty McFly." Great Scott!
Between Warrior and F9, it's been a long road for Tobin. When he was ten years old, Tobin suffered his first rejection from a play at his majority-white boarding school.
"I was the only Chinese kid and I didn't get cast. One of my friends said, 'Well, Jason, of course they didn't cast you. Look at you.' This play was an old 18th-century play. When I went to bed, I said, wait a second, we're ten-year-olds playing adults."
Fast forward to F9, and the characters of Tokyo Drift are the same teens they were in the 2006 film. "I said to Justin, of all the acting challenges, I'm going to act younger?"
Warrior Season 2 premieres October 2 on Cinemax.