Q&A: How ‘American Born Chinese’ Brought a Fresh Outlook to Daniel Wu’s Parenting

There’s nothing quite like the adolescent years. Both children and parents alike are met with a storm of raging hormones, chaotic mood swings and a tumultuous family dynamic. And this is the case for “American Born Chinese,” where even heroes of beloved figures of Chinese folk legend are faced with rebelling teenagers. 

Based on Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel, the series tells the story of Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a normal Chinese American teenager who is suddenly thrust into the world of gods, magic and myths when a seemingly normal transfer student Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) enters his life.

Daniel Wu plays Sun Wukong (yes, that Sun Wukong) from the beloved “Journey to the West” story. But instead of the boisterous warrior most know the Monkey King as, he’s the cautious father of Wei-Chen who has come to bring his wayward son back to the Heavens. Wu connected with Character Media to chat about how he prepared for the role, how the series affected his real-life parenting style and what he hopes the next generation learns from the show. 

Character Media: For your role as Sun Wukong, what was your first experience when you saw yourself in the full Monkey King costume?

Daniel Wu: It was pretty amazing. First of all, shout out to the special effects makeup team because even close up in the mirror, it looked really good. I’ve had various experiences with prosthetic makeup over the years and it’s really evolved to a point now where it looks so realistic. I was just staring at myself in the mirror making all kinds of different facial expressions because it’s really transformative. Almost every actor talks about wishing they could disappear into a role and this is one way you can certainly do that.

CM: How did you get inspiration from this role? Did you watch any monkey videos?

DW: I was looking at inspirations for the hair because we went through different versions of how the hair should be. We were looking at different types of monkeys because the Monkey King is actually not based on a chimpanzee. He’s more based on the Asian type of monkey — a smaller monkey, a golden hair monkey. And so that’s kind of where the gold hair comes from [in] our look. And then I looked at some of [the] behavior like little kicks and movement — but we decided to tone that down a little bit for this version of the Monkey King. So it’s not [a] caricature, but there are homages to the monkey’s movement.

CM: I really enjoyed episode four where we got to see Sun Wukong in his rebellious era. What was your favorite part of playing that younger version of him?

DW: I really like that episode because it really allows people to see what Sun was like before he became a father. Because the Monkey King I’m playing is very different from the “Journey to the West” Monkey King. He’s more mature, he’s a father, he’s got responsibilities. He’s no longer the young, wild, rambunctious kid that he was. But episode four shows who he used to be. That makes the kind of relationship between him and Chen even more poignant because his son is going off on this mission on his own. The Monkey King doesn’t like this but is reminded by the Goddess of Mercy that he was once that way. You have to give him the space to grow on his own.

CM: Your role as Sun Wukong in “American Born Chinese” was deeply connected to fatherhood. Has the part affected the way you parent your daughter as well as your thoughts about your own parents/upbringing?

DW: It’s interesting because I didn’t expect that, but it made me rethink how I was brought up. Because the way the Monkey King treats his son, Wei-Chen, in some of the scenes mirrors the way my dad used to speak to me. And then, [when it comes to my parenting] instead of being a helicopter parent and trying to shield them from making mistakes, you have to go: “Okay, well look, she made a mistake on her homework here. Do I tell her to correct it or do I let her make that mistake and then realize she did it wrong?” I was dealing with that, especially during COVID and distance learning. I had to reel it back because I was being too overbearing and it was hurting our relationship. And it really reflected on what’s happening with these characters; when I read the script, I was like, “I totally get what’s happening here with this guy and his son.”

CM: For most of your career, you’ve split your time between the Hong Kong and American movie industries; what was it like balancing the two? How has that changed in the 25 years since you started?

DW: These are two very different industries and the biggest difference in working in the Chinese film industry (Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan), is that I’m Chinese, so race wasn’t an issue at all. There was never “going for that Chinese role,” or never “going for that one Asian role,” because every role is Asian. I didn’t have to think about that at all. It is so weird because when I first came back [to the States], I had not thought about it, so when I was doing “Into the Badlands,” all the Asian American media members would be like, “Wow, this is such a great moment.” And I was like, “What’s so good about it? I’m just doing the same thing I’ve been doing, being a leading man.” To me, that wasn’t anything special because I’ve been doing it for 20 years. But you have to look at a different lens for Americans — it’s rare to see an Asian American male leading a TV show. Then slowly, I started to understand that it was a totally different way of thinking for Asian Americans. We haven’t had representation. And I had forgotten that because I was in a place where representation wasn’t an issue. Then coming back here and slowly realizing the importance of that, especially for the next generation for my daughter to be able to see Asians on screen — that’s why I’m doing the work.