From showrunner Jonathan Tropper and executive producers Justin Lin and Shannon Lee, the daughter of Bruce Lee, who wrote the original treatment that inspired the series, the Cinemax drama series Warrior is an action-packed story set during the Tong Wars of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 19th century. The show follows martial arts prodigy Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), who emigrates from China and is trying to find his place in a new country while making a name for himself, but quickly finds the bonds of family, both blood and chosen, pushed to the limits in this new world.
In this 1-on-1 phone interview, Collider spoke with Dianne Doan, who plays Mai Ling, the new leader of the Long Zii, the rival Tong to the Hop Wei. Over the course of our interview, Doan spoke about why she was terrified to shoot Season 1, how different Season 2 felt, what makes this such a messy season for her, what she enjoys about working with co-star Andrew Koji, joining the final season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and much more.
COLLIDER: What was the hardest aspect of making the first season and finding your footing in this world, and did that help in making Season 2?
DIANNE DOAN: Yeah. To be talking frank here, I was terrified in Season 1, having never played a character quite like Mai Ling. But going into Season 2, I just felt like every single returning character had such an ease to them. We’d been in these bodies for two years and we knew what our characters would say and how they would say it. I just felt like everything was so much yummier and smoother than in Season 1. Everyone was incredible this season. And the new people coming on, those storylines were so fun. Overall, it’s such a big season.
Mai Ling is such an interesting character because, especially this season, she’s really trying to figure out how to exert her dominance. What was that like to figure out?
DOAN: Mai Ling is figuring out how to maintain this power that she’s taken from people. That’s the main thing. It’s not about overstepping because she’s already done that. She’s burning bridges. It’s a messy season for her.
She’s a character that can’t show her cards to many people, if anyone at all, because any either she or someone else could end up dead, as a result. What do you think it’s like for her to know that and to have to live that way, every second of the day?
DOAN: The only person she’s had, throughout the two seasons, is Li Yong. The tricky thing is, in Season 1, they were very much equals, but at the end of Season 1, she rose above him to take over the Tong. So, as isolating as her life is in Season 2, there’s conflict between her and Li Young because she now is above him. She doesn’t have a man at her level. Her whole focus in Season 2 is on how to bring her brother back into her life because he’s the only one that she feels is her equal. The only person who could be a female confidante is Ah Toy, who’s neutral, but is arguably the other Tong. Mai Ling is very alone, and I feel like she always has been. She’s so hungry for power that she’s doing things that I don’t think she normally would. Her motives are very clear, but she’s a little lost in how to get there.
How would you say her journey parallels Ah Sahm’s journey?
DOAN: That’s a great question. I never thought of it like that. With what happened and what Mai Ling chose to do to him, I don’t think their storylines are parallel because, even though she’s reaching out and making it possible that they can reunite, whether or not they do, the only time that they’re really on the same page is in the fight against San Francisco and protecting our people and our Chinatown. That’s really the one thing that they have in common.
Do you think there’s a world that they could actually mend what’s happened between them, or is that impossible?
DOAN: In a world like this, with the divided Tongs, it’s impossible. We’re on different sides. I don’t know what it would take for them to reunite and be on the same side.
What have you most enjoyed about exploring that dynamic with Andrew Koji?
DOAN: I call him my brother. Over these past few years, watching him work, he’s so dedicated to what he does. He completely transformed his body. We have rigorous stunts and he’s done most of it on his own. He’s such a powerhouse to work off of. The few times that we are in scenes together, we never know what to expect, going into it. A lot of the times, even the directors are surprised. The lines on the page are one thing, but when you’re in the scene, it’s just magic. He’s incredible.
This world is so big in scope and it’s populated by so many characters. What’s it been like to move throughout that world, become more and more a part of it, and interact with the various people that she crosses paths with?
DOAN: I wish I got to interact with more people. Mai Ling, being who she is as the leader of a Tong, is very isolated. As myself, Dianne, I would go onto set whenever I could, if I was at the studio, just to see what other people were doing. To see other people in their own world, it’s so different and it feels so far away from my world on the show because there are so many characters. I just wish that Mai Ling was able to interact with more people.
What was the biggest challenge of Season 2 for you? Was it something about the season, overall? Was it a specific scene or moment that you had?
DOAN: That’s a great question. There were a lot of things. The emotions of guilt were difficult for me. There was one scene with Ah Sahm in the bar, and another with Li Yong earlier that day. That was a hard episode for me. Overall, there was the challenge of getting to set at 3:45 in the morning and spending two hours in hair and make-up.
How do you feel about the way things are left, by the end of the season? If that’s the end of the series, how will you feel about it and how do you think fans will feel about it?
DOAN: Wrapping up the season, we didn’t know if it was gonna be the end, so there are a lot of loose ends. With Cinemax no longer making original content, it’s a blow. We’re all sad because it’s a family that we’ve grown to love. But both seasons are gonna move to HBO Max, so you just never know. Crazier things have happened. Shows have been resurrected from the dead. I don’t think Warrior is done. I don’t think that this is how the characters are supposed to end. I feel like there’s one more thing, whether it’s a movie or a limited series. I don’t know, but I have hope that it’s not dead. There’s not enough time to get through all of the characters and the story behind them, so I don’t think any of us are satisfied with it being done with Season 2, to be honest.
What has it meant to you to be a part of this series, and not only have a hand in bringing visibility like this to the screen but also helping teach an audience that there’s so much more to the world and the history of the world that they’re aware of?
DOAN: This show is a lot of things. Luckily, over the years, there has been Asian representation in comedies. But to have Warrior come out, I think it’s destined for bigger things. I feel like we were trusted enough to tell these tales. A lot of studios haven’t put money into seeing Asian faces as leads. The fact that it’s telling our story – the Chinese immigration story into America – is another thing that a lot of people don’t even know about. In history books, we don’t even get half a page. This show, beyond its writing, beyond its scope, beyond what it looks like, meant so much to all of us. At the Episode 1 table read, all of us were in Cape Town, sitting at a table that was 90% Asian, and I’ve never had that before, in my career. That, alone, was just very emotional. The show means so much to me. Whether or not people saw the show, that movement keeps going. COVID stalled things, but there are projects being made now that are giving us a spotlight. It’s exciting to be a part of that movement, for sure.
Along with Warrior, you were also on the final season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. What was it like to get to join the Marvel universe?
DOAN: It was such a whirlwind. We were shooting Season 2 of Warrior in Cape Town and I remember getting that audition very near the end of the season. I dragged Joe Taslim into a green room to help me tape it, and then I booked it that day. On my last day of shooting, I booked it, I was on a plane two days later, I landed in L.A. and went straight to a fitting, and then I shot the next day. It was just a whirlwind. The crazier part, on top of that, was that I didn’t really know what to expect going into it. It was a great character on paper, but I didn’t know that I was gonna have superpowers. It wasn’t really clear, because it was all in the past, if I was ever gonna meet Chloe [Bennet] or what being sisters meant. It was a two and a half month whirlwind for me. Everyone on that show was so welcoming and are dear friends, to this day. It was such a lovely experience.
The Warrior Season 2 finale airs on Friday, December 4, on Cinemax.
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