'Wu Assassins' star Lawrence Kao on the need for more Asian American shows: 'We need to start shifting our paradigm' (Exclusive)

Justin Chan

It was Lawrence Kao's senior year of high school, and he was excited. He had landed the role of Athenian nobleman Lysander in his school's adaptation of the Shakespearean play "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and he was about to perform on opening night. He had done improv sketches with classmates before, but this moment felt different — in fact, it was different. Kao was ready for the big stage, and this was his chance to prove it.

Hours before the play was set to begin, things took a dark turn. Police arrested Kao on suspicion of attempted murder.

"I was arrested for something I didn't do," he told In the Know in a recent interview. "It was a pretty huge accusation."

The Southern California native, who attended Glen A. Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights, initially thought he would be released that same day — after all, there was clearly a misunderstanding, and he had a play to perform. Instead, he found himself in a jail cell for nearly a week. To make matters worse, law enforcement told him that they had a strong case against him and that he would face up to 40 years in prison if he was convicted of attempted homicide. Facing uncertainty over his future, Kao dug deep within himself.

"In my head, I was like, 'Man, what am I going to do after I stay in here?'" he said. "I felt in that moment that I was going to be in jail for a very long time. I thought about my life, and I thought about the things that made me happy, and acting was definitely one of them."

Fortunately, authorities released Kao after they determined that an eyewitness had wrongfully placed him at the crime scene. He was let go just in time to perform on closing night, but, by that point, Kao was more determined than ever to make a name for himself, he said.

"While I was on stage, I realized this was something I wanted to for the rest of my life," he said.

Personal roadblocks aside, Kao has a lot more going against him than most. As an Asian-American actor, he is a member of a severely underrepresented demographic in Hollywood. Though Asian-Americans are one of the fastest growing populations in the United States, Asian actors landed just 3.4 percent of all film roles in 2017, according to a Hollywood diversity report published by the University of California, Los Angeles. In broadcast scripted shows and digital scripted shows that aired during the 2016-17 season, the figures were slightly better — Asians made up 4.6 percent and 4.9 percent of the roles, respectively. Still, Asian-Americans remained at the bottom of the pack when it came to on-air visibility.

Photo: Vince Trupsin

While notable Asian-American actors such as Anna May Wong, Bruce Lee and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita have paved the way for Asian-American representation on screen, progress has been slow over the past few decades. Given the lack of Asian-American actors in Hollywood, Kao said that, growing up, he latched onto whatever familiar faces he could find.

"Just any Asian-American actor I saw on screen, I resonated with, regardless of what role they were doing," he said, citing the cast of Justin Lin's 2002 film "Better Luck Tomorrow" as an example. "Just to be able to see someone like that — that looked like me and be able to tell their story — was impactful."

Even though Kao said he wanted to follow the footsteps of those before him, his path was not easy. His parents, like most Asian fathers and mothers, wanted him to have a stable career.

"My parents were not happy in the beginning," he said. "They care so much about me and my future. They want to make sure that I'm okay financially — even okay mentally. At first, they were very skeptical."

Their attitudes slowly changed when Kao, who was also passionate about dancing, appeared in the first season of MTV's "America's Best Dance Crew" in 2008. Although Kao's group, Kaba Modern, ended up placing third overall, it was enough to (somewhat) convince his parents that he had a legitimate shot at working in the film and television industry.

Over the next several years, Kao landed a number of small roles in shows like AMC's "The Walking Dead" and CBS's "Hawaii 5-0." But his big break came this year, when he was cast as a series regular on Netflix's "Wu Assassins," a fantasy-like crime drama based in San Francisco's Chinatown. Released earlier this month, the show has received positive reviews (one critic, for example, said "it shines when it comes to character development and fight choreography," according to Rotten Tomatoes). More importantly, however, it comes at a time when Asian-American stories are gaining steam on screen.

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Just last year, the highly anticipated film "Crazy Rich Asians," based on Kevin Kwan's 2013 bestselling novel, came out to rave reviews. In fact, the movie was such a hit among critics and the audience alike that it made more than $238 million at the box office. Two days after the film's initial release in August 2018, Netflix released "To All the Boys I've Loved Before," a movie starring Lana Condor, a Vietnamese-American, in the lead role.

What has followed since has been a number of similarly successful Asian-American-centric movies— from Ali Wong's "Always Be My Maybe" to Lulu Wang's highly praised dramedy "The Farewell." Amid the growing number of conversations revolving around the importance of Asian-American stories, Kao said "Wu Assassins," which combines elements of martial arts with intense gang-related drama, differs in one important aspect from many of its predecessors: the show, like ABC's "Fresh off the Boat," challenges typical perceptions of the Asian-American identity.

"What's interesting about 'Wu Assassins' is that on the exterior, it's a martial arts TV series with a lot of '90s vibes and cool special effects," he said. "But if you were to dive in and really pay attention, there are a lot of underlying things that are happening."

In "Wu Assassins," Kao plays Tommy Wah, a struggling heroin addict who attempts to redeem himself as he lives in his sister's shadow. His character is unforgettable. It runs counter to what most people believe Asian-Americans are: a model minority.

"Just being able to play a heroin addict is a juxtaposition against the idea that people have about Asian-Americans," Kao said.

Amongst sequences of jaw-dropping fights, "Wu Assassins" reclaims the Asian-American self in ways that other Asian-American or Asian-based films don't. For years, many of those movies have reinforced the idea that Asians and Asian-Americans are the "other" — a foreign community whose struggles are dramatically different from those of the average person's. In some of those cases, a white person (Tom Cruise's character Capt. Nathan Algren in "The Last Samurai," for instance) has stepped in to save the day.

But Kao, who has come a long way since a high school arrest nearly derailed his acting dreams, said he takes pride in his role in "Wu Assassins" for the simple reason that his character is relatable, regardless of whether the show's audience is actually Asian or Asian-American.

"I think it'll definitely push the conversation forward," he said. "I think any show with Asian-Americans on it just proves that we're all just human."

Ultimately, the role has allowed Kao to not only raise his profile as an actor but also shape a narrative that is true to him and his community.

"We need to start shifting our paradigm about storytelling," he said. "We're so programmed to seeing a story a specific way. Let's change it up."