From showrunner Jonathan Tropper and executive producers Shannon Lee (the daughter of Bruce Lee, who wrote the original treatment that inspired the series) and Justin Lin, 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 emigrated 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.
Collider got the opportunity to chat with Warrior co-stars Olivia Cheng (who plays Chinatown brothel madame Ah Toy) and Miranda Raison (who plays wealthy widow Nellie Davenport) about what they were most excited about with the second season, what makes the cast a family, finding the relationship between Ah Toy and Nellie, how their bond makes them reflect on their lives, being proud of what they’ve done with this show, and how they feel that this is not the end.
Collider: This show has some of the best female characters on TV. They’re all so complex, interesting, and fascinating, and could each have their own show. Olivia, after the first season and everything that you were able to do with that, in setting up this world and setting up the character, what were you hoping for and looking forward to, with Season 2?
OLIVIA CHENG: That’s a great question. I was so excited about Season 2 because the set up of who we are and the rules of the world were established in Season 1 and the writers really were then able to dig deeper into our psychological portraits and show the cracks. It’s always so much more interesting for the audience when you see the contradictions, the flaws, and the weaknesses of characters who maybe come off a certain way, and then you dig deeper and maybe you understand a little bit about their origin story, what’s shaped them, and what breaks their heart but they hide from the other characters in the world. As the audience, we’re privy to that heartbreak, and that’s something that always makes characters more relatable and helps the audience root for them more.
MIRANDA RAISON: There’s no greater insult for an actor, when you’re a part of a show, then to look at a script and see that you’ve been written nice and that you’re the person that people go to for solid advice. The layering of complexity and having a few scenes where you’re a total nightmare are the things that galvanized actors. That’s when you know that the writers care because of course they enjoy writing that stuff more than they enjoy writing someone who’s really sweet.
CHENG: It’s interesting because, by Season 2, the writers know who they’re writing for, except for the new characters. It’s so different, as a writer, when you have someone’s face, voice and skill set in mind. They were also able to infuse what they wanted to do to, excuse my language, fuck with us, and that’s always fun to play.
Miranda, what was it like to join this show?
RAISON: The day that I arrived, there were drinks for everybody, and I didn’t know who was new and who was old. I didn’t know who was who or what was what, and I hadn’t yet watched what I was joining, so it was [into the] deep end. Everybody was using the word family, which I’ve never had on a show before. Every email from cast is headed “Warrior family.” That’s not a very English sensibility. You arrive and go, “Okay, when’s the arguing and backstabbing gonna start?” Absolutely, not at all. It was the most close-knit, fun, engaging, funny group of people. It was also the only show I’ve done where people stay behind to watch other people shoot their scenes. I’ve never done that. Maybe if there’s a huge stunt scene and you all know it’s the big thing, everybody will watch. But people would not take their car home and be picked up three hours later, so they could hang out and be a part of what was going on, even if they weren’t in the scene. I’ve never seen that before. It was a beautiful thing. It was a brilliant thing to be part of.
CHENG: I miss this experience so badly. There was a real family sensibility. Miranda and I were actually next door neighbors. We were put in the same building and we lived right next door to each other. I think the fact that there was such a family feel, in part, is really credit to Jonathan Tropper. I literally heard that he would call people just to check to see if they were assholes, and if he got a sense that they were then they wouldn’t get the job offer. I think it was really important for him to build a cast with people who were gonna be collaborative and leave their egos at the door. I don’t think there were any big personalities that had to get checked, per se. And then, you’re also dealing with a pretty large Asian cast. What I found, in the two times that I’ve had the opportunity to work with a predominantly Asian cast, it’s our culture to be family. It’s the ultimate way that you can welcome someone. You just immediately treat them like family.
RAISON: And it’s gone on, all through everything that’s been happening, in the last few months. There was a Zoom call with the whole cast. Everybody has been checking in for people’s birthdays. People were checking in on a couple of members of the cast who lost people. I’ve stayed in touch with people from a cast before, but it hasn’t been this dynamic of, we are in each other’s lives now, which is amazing.
Miranda, what was it like to come in with this character and find her place in this world, but then also find this relationship with Nellie and Ah Toy?
RAISON: It wasn’t actually written, specifically, but we made the decision that Nellie, certainly, was comfortable in her sexuality. There was no such thing, in those days, as being out, but she was a gay woman who had relationships with women before. Not a woman like Ah Toy, because there are no women like Ah Toy, and that was actually quite an important thing. As she’s introduced in the first dinner scene, where she’s having dinner with the mayor, you get the sense that she’s used to being top dog, as a wealthy widow from an affluent background, and then she suddenly finds her match in a relationship. For Nellie, the fact that it’s a same sex relationship is neither here nor there, but she’s met her match with somebody who’s incredibly strong and has gone through the same things as the girls that Nellie is helping – these girls who were damaged in untold ways – and this woman has risen to the top and become this warrior, in every sense. I loved our whole storyline.
Olivia, Nellie is a disruptor for Ah Toy, and it’s the first time that it’s forced Ah Toy to really question herself. What was that like to explore?
CHENG: I loved that. I really loved that, in this season, you see Ah Toy’s humanity in a much more profound and vulnerable way. Miranda’s character was such an important piece to that, and Miranda and I talked about it. She actually sent me some information about a hip-hop artist who talked about not being gay by her natural sexual orientation, but because of the trauma that she suffered around sexual assault, deliberately choosing women as her partners. Whether Ah Toy is someone who gravitates naturally toward men or women, or whether she’s choosing Nellie because we start to understand the trauma she’s been through, it was a springboard for an interesting conversation where Miranda and I really decided that it was important for us to portray that you see submission from Ah Toy, specifically to Nellie. Even in the way that the love scenes are shot, we wanted Nellie to be more of the dominant personality because we felt like it was important to show that here’s where Ah Toy feels safe to leave the alpha energy aside and just submit and allow herself to be led by somebody else.
Do you feel that Ah Toy had been getting tired of this image of herself before this, or is it Nellie that brought that out?
CHENG: I think someone like Nellie forced her to confront it, but it’s not like it was a new question for Ah Toy. So many people can relate to justifying choices because you don’t feel like you have more choices. A character like Ah Toy, in a different time and in a different world, would have maybe been a politician or the CEO of some Fortune 500 company. But instead, she finds herself in a hostile America, where Chinese immigrants and other Asians are not welcome and are pawns in this huge political game. There’s only so many things Ah Toy can do to survive. I don’t think Ah Toy came to America thinking that this is where her life would take her. It would have been too painful for her to look at that, every single day, because then how do you move forward and do what you have to do to survive? But someone like Nellie confronts her with such compassion and such non-judgmental love and understanding that that’s what disarms Ah Toy enough to go back to a place where she questions herself and can connect with that vulnerability and do what she can to atone.
What was it like to take these characters out of the center of this world and get to do the episode at the vineyard, getting a bit of a change of scenery from what we’re used to on this show?
RAISON: For me, those few days that we filmed, I was out there with my husband and our daughter, who was one and a half then, and he had to fly back to England for work, so my mother-in-law had come out. It was so intense because we were getting picked up at half past two in the morning to drive a long way away. It was the most stunning place. The set was incredible. You know when sets are so good is when you don’t know they’re a set. I was like, “My God, this kitchen is perfect. How did you find this?” And they were like, “No, this is us.” It was a miraculous place. And then, there was the vineyards themselves.
CHENG: For me, I was so excited. In Season 1, most of my life as Ah Toy was on a soundstage because Ah Toy’s brothel is built on a soundstage. I would step out of the incredibly bright sunshine of Cape Town and into this dark cave of Hollywood illusion for 12 hours. So, to actually get a field trip to go on location, I was so excited. I was so happy to have a scene out in Chinatown with Dianne Doan, so to actually get to even leave the studio, it was great.
The location adds such a different feel to the show.
RAISON: And there are some colors that just are not in the palette of the show. I think they were very conscious of that, to suddenly have that look. My costumes were in these baby blues that just were not a part of the visual for the rest of the story.
CHENG: That’s something that really impacted me, as well. Suddenly, you’re in this environment that’s so beautiful and you have thoughts as the character. How long has it been since Ah Toy has stepped out of the ghetto of Chinatown? Back then, the Chinese were only allowed to live in certain areas and were not allowed to move into other areas, so how long has it been since she’s been out of the noise and the congestion and the griminess of Chinatown, and been around the healing forces and the healing feeling of earth and nature and green. It was a really beautiful transition to show a certain healing that would start to happen because of Nellie’s presence. It’s a really vulnerable thing, to connect to something softer and to see beauty again, when you’ve been so hardened against ugliness. That really gave me something to play against, with that push-pull of there being a certain mask, but that mask doesn’t really make sense out here because there’s nothing but softness and love and safety, and not really knowing what to do with that until it just gets to be a little too much and not even understanding everything that’s going on.
Nellie, in that moment, recognizing trauma, is really gentle about it. That was one of my favorite scenes, the metaphor of transformation through the winery process. I don’t know if the writers intended it, but I’ve been thinking a lot, the last six months with the racial reckoning that’s happening in America, about how trauma that is not transformed is transferred. It’s such a beautiful scene, where you see Nellie understand that the trauma in Ah Toy has never been transformed, and she’s trying to help her with that. And Ah Toy is so enamoured with this beauty that she just goes for it.
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 do you think fans will feel about it?
CHENG: I’m personally heartbroken. I’m so proud of this show. I’ve done shows before where, no offense, it’s a check. God bless and thank you for helping me pay my bills, but I know what it is. I also know what this is. I think this show is not only phenomenal television and one of the only shows that really centers Asian stories so upfront and in such a innovative way that makes it relatable, complex and funny, but we also end on such extraordinary cliffhangers for everyone. On top of it, given the time that we’re in, with racism and the uptick in xenophobia, this show means a lot to me. It’s so important to see heroes on screen for the Asian diaspora around the world right now, who are living in the Western part of the world outside of the homogenous population of Asia. Having a show like this right now, that so reflects what is going on in the streets and for us politically, is almost divine timing of art marrying with life. It means a lot to me to not only be a part of the Bruce Lee legacy, but to be a part of something that can speak to something that I think needs a lot of speaking to right now, for people that look like me.
RAISON: This is probably something that actors love to say, but there is a feeling that it’s not the end. There are other ways to tell a story. Also, everything is being derailed right now. Some things that thought they were going into production six months ago, didn’t. Releases are being delayed. Time frames and goalposts are changing. And there are those stories, like Deadwood, where the audience gets the last word, and that’s an incredibly powerful thing. I have a strong feeling that there’ll be more. I really do.
This show is so epic that I constantly marvel at how you’ve all been able to pull this off.
RAISON: Jonathan [Tropper] is unusual. The tip-top person is usually relatively inaccessible, or you might get a monthly phone call. But he is incredibly hands-on. He’ll send messages that say, “How are you? Are you happy with how things are going?” My agent did actually say to me, “They want you to play the part, but Jonathan Tropper wants to meet you over Skype, just to make sure you’re not a nightmare.” It wasn’t just so that there weren’t stamping feet and egos on set. It was also because he wanted to have clear lines of communication. That’s one of the reasons for the family vibe and the feeling that there’s this story to tell. We are there to tell these stories that we care so much about and there is clear communication and transparency. He is transparent, and that was passed down through everybody.
Warrior airs on Friday nights on Cinemax. You can also watch it on Cinemax Go, and you’ll be able to find it soon on HBO Max.
All of WB’s 2021 slate will be released on HBO Max at the same time as they hit theaters — but with one major catch.
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