The Cast of ‘Warrior’ Fights for Each Other—And The Future Of One Of TV’s Best Shows

As the cast and showrunners explain, Season 3 of this martial arts standout is more than a job: it's a mission. On the agenda: the legacy of Bruce Lee, a crucial story about America's tarnished history of immigration, and the ongoing battle between artists and bean counters.

Andrew Koji, who performs all of his own fight scenes on ‘Warrior.’ David Bloomer/Max

Each morning during the production of Warrior, the stars and stunt actors gather at the studio of stunt coordinator Brett Chan to train in two distinct martial arts, selected at random from the fight team’s global repertoire. Warrior features at least one elaborate fight sequence in each episode, so the exercise has an immediate application. But it’s also a bonding experience, a challenge that allows the cast and the stunt performers (not all of whom speak a common language) to build trust. It’s one of the rituals that binds the cast of Warrior into a unified company, one that they have struggled — and continue to struggle — to keep together.

“The long arc of this show is that it took 50 years to get it made, and then it got canceled,” says producer Shannon Lee (who, like everyone interviewed for this article, spoke with Observer before the SAG-AFTRA strike). Warrior began as a treatment written by legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, who shopped it unsuccessfully to television networks in the early ‘70s. The series would have starred Lee as a Chinese martial arts prodigy arriving in America in the late 19th century, a time when tensions between recently immigrated Chinese workers and the white establishment were at a boiling point. After his death in 1973, the treatment sat untouched in the archives of Bruce Lee Entertainment, but it remained the stuff of legend within the family and among Bruce Lee aficionados. 

One such fan was Justin Lin, Hollywood producer and director of Star Trek Beyond and five films in the Fast & Furious franchise. In 2014, Lin reached out to Shannon Lee, Bruce’s daughter and CEO of the Bruce Lee Family Companies, and asked to read the mythical treatment. Impressed with its quality, Lin asked for permission to develop it for modern television.

It would take another five years before the series made it to screen, as Lee and Lin recruited the rest of the creative team, which would be led by showrunner Jonathan Tropper, a martial artist himself who had great enthusiasm for Bruce Lee’s work and philosophy. With the blessing and confidence of premium cable channel Cinemax, Warrior constructed nine blocks of stylized 1870s San Francisco at Cape Town Film Studios in South Africa and assembled what is still a rarity for a Hollywood production — a predominantly Asian cast. It didn’t take long for the new team to realize that they were embarking on something extraordinary.

“A lot of the actors who have been in the game a lot longer than me are saying that a job like Warrior doesn’t come along that often,” says star Andrew Koji, “one that’s fulfilling and collaborative and meaningful and fun.” Koji plays Ah Sahm, the lead role Bruce Lee created for himself. It’s a responsibility that Koji takes very seriously, demonstrating a work ethic that has wowed his castmates. Beyond the demands of being number one on the call sheet of an hour-long dramatic series, Koji also performs all of his own fight scenes, even collaborating with the stunt team on the design of the action and helping to shoot the rough “previs” versions of the fights in Brett Chan’s studio whenever possible. When he’s not on set, he’s in Chan’s dojo, training. The work is exhausting, but also deeply fulfilling. “Warrior taught me so much, man, about what I can actually do,” he says.

That’s a feeling shared across the entire Warrior crew. For them, Warrior is not just a job, it’s a mission being carried out in Bruce Lee’s memory.

“We’re all under the guiding light of Bruce Lee’s legacy,” says co-showrunner Josh Stoddard, who took over the writers room with Evan Endicott for Season 3. “I think we all feel the weight of that, but also feel very lucky to be a part of it.”

Olivia Cheng says ‘Warrior’ is not just a job for its actors, it’s also about correcting a slight against Bruce Lee, who created the show some 50 years ago. David Bloomer/Max

“This isn’t just about what we get to do personally as actors,” says Olivia Cheng, who portrays a fictionalized version of Ah Toy, a historical figure who was a sex worker and entrepreneur. “This is also about correcting something in history that was such a slight against a giant in our community whose presence clearly still resonates today.” Bruce Lee did not live to see the impact he would have on global popular culture, nor the widespread understanding of the systemic racism that hindered his career growth in the United States.

For her part, Cheng is outspoken about the importance of Warrior’s depiction of an often ignored chapter in American history, during which the government attempted to legislate Chinese-Americans out of existence. Warrior’s martial-arts action and gangland intrigue take place in the years preceding the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. After the gold rush and railroad boom, Chinese immigrants who had been used as cheap labor were now being muscled out, with harsh legal restrictions on their ability to maintain residence, operate businesses, acquire citizenship, or own property.

As with other waves of immigrants who have been invited, exploited, and then discarded for still-cheaper ones, the new Chinese arrivals had little choice but to organize into gangs. This is the reality from which Warrior extrapolates its own pulpy mobster melodrama, portraying the Chinese Tongs with all the trappings that American audiences associate with gangster movies — sharp suits, filthy mouths, blood, booze, and sex. While showrunners Endicott and Stoddard admit that the effort comes at the expense of total historical accuracy, the effect doesn’t merely make the series more thrilling and sexy. Warrior’s blending of truth and tropes actively de-others the story of early Asian-American immigrants, and by extension, their descendants, who continue to struggle against racism and violent xenophobia a century and a half later.

“​​If I wasn’t on this show,” says Cheng, “you bet your bottom dollar I would be watching this show, for the very same reasons. I would be looking for hope. I would be looking to be inspired. I would be looking to see almost some kind of sociology education to understand why I walk around in this world and there are automatic assumptions about me, or there are things that I face that are so hard to explain to other people who don’t walk in my shoes.”

Warrior’s value as both entertainment and polemic wasn’t lost on Cinemax, which ordered a second season before the first had gone to air. Shannon Lee had been pleased with the production’s relationship with the Warner-owned cable network, as its smaller footprint meant that Warrior would be a flagship program rather than just another show on a crowded slate. Though this meant a smaller budget than would have been offered by Cinemax sister network HBO, it proved no obstacle—in fact, according to producer and director Loni Peristere, the limitations brought out the best in the storytellers.

At creative meetings, Peristere notes, a constant topic of discussion was that the same Warner executives watching Game of Thrones would be looking at Warrior. “We have one eighth of their budget, but that doesn’t matter,” Peristere explains. “Our dailies that are coming through need to feel like they have that much behind them. They need to have that scale and energy and passion.” 

However, the partnership with Cinemax came with unforeseen obstacles. One was the difficulty in reaching beyond the viewers for whom the show became an instant favorite. Then, months before the premiere of the show’s second season in October 2020, parent company WarnerMedia not only pulled the plug on all Cinemax original programming, but announced that the canceled shows would not be available on their then-new streaming service, HBO Max.

“We were fully canceled,” says Shannon Lee. “They gave back all our costumes and sets and released everybody from their contracts. It just felt really arbitrary and it felt like there wasn’t any consideration put into the show itself.”

As Team Warrior grieved the show, supporters mobilized to draw attention to what they, reasonably, assumed to be a lost cause. A fan petition drew over 68,000 signatures, and critics such as Vanity Fair’s Maureen Ryan sang the show’s praises in the hope that Warrior would, at least, be remembered. Executives at HBO Max relented and added Warrior to its catalog in January 2021, where it excited a new, broader audience. Finally, that April, in a twist that could only have happened during the peak streaming boom when corporations raced to cultivate the biggest, most prestigious libraries for their subscribers (and stockholders), Warrior received a Season 3 order.

Despite the termination of their contracts, nearly the entire cast and key creatives returned to Cape Town. Unified by the feeling that they’d found, lost, and regained the best gig they’d ever had, the cast once again rallied at Brett Chan’s studio each morning. Despite an ever-tightening purse the team pulled through to produce Warrior’s best season yet. On a production level, it remains indistinguishable from massive franchise installments like Disney’s Star Wars shows—in fact, it’s often superior. 

Nothing about Warrior is permitted to be rote or ordinary. Peristere and Brett Chan insist that no fight scene can be merely a fight scene — they are “dramatic scenes with fighting.” Costume design is expressionistic to the extent that it drove the show’s original, more historically-minded costume designer off of the show, and her successor Moira Anne Meyer creates a new impossibly elegant gown for Olivia Cheng’s Ah Toy in almost every episode. Even the camera crew has curated an individual lens for each of their stars so that they always look their best in close-up. No one on the set of Warrior seems content with simply doing their jobs.

Actor actor Hoon Lee doubled his workload by joining the ‘Warrior’ writer’s room for Season 3. Graham Bartholomew

It’s this atmosphere that inspired actor Hoon Lee—who plays Wang Chao, Chinatown’s freelance weapons dealer and information broker—to double his workload by joining the writer’s room for Season 3.

“I just never had a job that meant so much to me,” says Lee, who goes on to praise the cast, crew, and a list of backstage contributors too long to include here. “They invest themselves clearly above and beyond what they’re asked to do or what they need to do. It matters to them, and I just felt that I needed to be as deep in this show as possible.” 

As the cast and crew of Warrior celebrates the fruits of their collective labor, it’s yet to be seen whether their effort will be rewarded with a fourth season. Producer Shannon Lee was initially assured by HBO Max that Season 3 wouldn’t be their last, but that was before the merger between Warner Bros. and Discovery and the slash-and-burn cost-cutting tactics of new CEO David Zaslav. Now, on the rebranded Max, Warrior once again teeters on the edge of oblivion, and the cast and crew are on pins and needles.

“There seem to be so many people in this industry — not all of them — making TV and films who don’t love TV and films,” says a frustrated Andrew Koji, who’s in the midst of reading the 1998 film history Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, a chronicle of the New Hollywood hay day. “I just want some of these guys to get out of the business and let the artists restore integrity to film and TV.”

Shannon Lee hopes that this time around, with streamer Max’s added promotional muscle behind it, Warrior might finally find a broad audience and the security that comes with it.

“I wish that the show could just get the shackles released from it,” says Lee. “It feels like it’s been dragging an anchor through the sand behind it, and I just want to cut that anchor and let it fly. I hold that hope in my heart that it will get a lot of viewership, that people will love it and be talking about it, and they’ll want more and they’ll get more, and that we’ll be able to make the show really sing all the way through to the end, wherever that may be, on our own terms.”

With half of the new season now streaming on Max and viewership data obscured from the public, Shannon Lee and company can only wait on word from their corporate higher-ups as to whether they’ll fight on for another year. Yes, their jobs are at stake, and none of them relish the thought of looking for work in this volatile business. But alongside that economic dread is the fear of a more personal loss, of having to say goodbye yet again to a place and to a group of people who have transformed each other and given greater meaning to their work. There’s a desire to find themselves once again assembled at Brett Chan’s studio at dawn and, in the spirit of Bruce Lee, combine the best of their skills to create something unique and powerful.

Season 3 of ‘Warrior’ is streaming now on Max.

The Cast of ‘Warrior’ Fights for Each Other—And The Future Of One Of TV’s Best Shows