The sophomore season of Warrior premieres tonight on Cinemax and actor Dustin Nguyen returns as a series regular in the role of the big baddie Zing, who was introduced at the end of the first season. For some, this is the first introduction to the actor, but for many — specifically the Asian American community — he is a trailblazer.
In 1987, Nguyen starred in a little show called 21 Jump Street about a group of undercover detectives posing as high school students to investigate crimes and crack down on problematic teens causing trouble at schools. Nguyen, who played Harry Truman Ioki, starred alongside a cast that included Johnny Depp, Holly Robinson Peete, Steven Williams and Peter DeLuise. What started off as a small show turned into a pop-culture phenomenon, running for five seasons on Fox and spawnning two movies in 2012 and 2014 starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum (and if you look closely, you can see Nguyen’s cameo in the first one).
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21 Jump Street was practicing diversity before Hollywood made it a “thing.” More than that, it was groundbreaking in that Nguyen was one of the few Asians seen on TV that didn’t have an accent or wasn’t a stereotype. That said, he became a pioneer for inclusion, playing a nuanced Asian character that wasn’t weak, nerdy or sexually neutered.
Since then, Nguyen starred in various TV series and films before returning to Vietnam where he launched Dreamscape DBS with his wife Bebe Pham. He was directing and producing his own projects in his native country before Justin Lin came calling with Warrior, based on the writings of the iconic Bruce Lee, about the Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 19th century. It was a project Nguyen did not hesitate to board.
In Season 2, his character of Zing begins to unfold more as he stirs up trouble amongst the Tongs, hungry for power and control. More than that, Nguyen brings his skills behind the camera as he directs episode 6 — an episode that is an homage to Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.
Nguyen lives in Vietnam but has temporarily set up shop in Los Angeles due to the pandemic. He talked to Deadline about what to expect with Zing and the new season of Warrior, how 21 Jump Street changed the game when it came to representation on TV, and being a trailblazer for Asian Hollywood.
DEADLINE: In retrospect, you being an Asian American actor starring in a huge primetime TV show like 21 Jump Street was a huge deal. How was it like being one of the few Asians on TV during that time?
DUSTIN NGUYEN: I was relatively young and green in the business and it was one of my very, very first big jobs, and you get a job like that with 13 episodes for, at the time, a fledgling Fox Network. You’re just happy to have a job and you happen to have a great cast that are good people, but we never thought beyond the 13 episodes that were committed. Next thing you know, the show is a hit. Then, questions like this with the press comes up. So then you’d be like, “Oh, you are calling us in a way, one of the few — if not the only — one at the time on a primetime series. It’s a bit overwhelming.”
And again, you get just sort of get caught up in the daily work of making the series. I wasn’t aware of that impact and a certain responsibility in terms of representation. I think it’s not until after I left the show and started traveling around that I realized it. Last year, we were in Cape Town shooting Warrior, and people recognized me from 21 Jump Street which is astounding to me — like years later it’s on a completely different continent.
I mean, it was at the time, I felt very fortunate. It was quite groundbreaking. I remember when I was in casting with a room full of [Latino] actors that potentially could have been Harry Ioki — I mean, it would have been another name. There were also African American and Asian American actors reading for that part as well. I felt very fortunate to be on a show that even though it was an Asian character, it was treated I think in a very cool way. I mean, they incorporated the Asian aspect, but it could have been played by any actor.
DEADLINE: 21 Jump Street was ahead of its time when it came to a diverse cast. It’s just interesting that your character Harry Ioki was Asian, but his ethnicity wasn’t always necessarily front and center. He was an undercover cop that happened to be Asian. That was very unprecedented at that time.
NGUYEN: I mean, you’re absolutely right. That is why I feel, of course in hindsight, I was pretty grateful at the time too, but in hindsight to think about these things… I think about how fortunate I am in my career to come across a few opportunities where the character is richly Asian, but not exoticized.
DEADLINE: Did they set out to make the show diverse or did it just happen to end up that way?
NGUYEN: They did set out with the purpose of making a diverse show and a diverse cast. Once I was cast, there was a constant conversation with the writers about different storylines for Harry Ioki and how to incorporate certain aspects of myself into the character without having it be the driven engine that justified his existence on the show. There were a few episodes that obviously incorporated me being Vietnamese — there was the episode “Christmas in Saigon” where its revealed that he’s actually not Japanese but Vietnamese. That was something that I thought was handled quite elegantly. Because in the beginning, my knee-jerk reaction was, work with it, don’t bother changing. I’m fine with it being Japanese American. I’m an actor. But they convinced me that, with that particular storyline. I went along with it, but it’s just a great opportunity and I had few opportunities like that. When you look back, it’s tricky because even to this day, things have improved a lot obviously, but we’re still always looking for more improvement.
DEADLINE: After 21 Jump Street, how was it like for you when it came to landing jobs in Hollywood and navigating a landscape that was different from your experience on the show?
NGUYEN: Towards the end of the show, I enjoyed the success of it, but I was very realistic about the life after. I think I was looking at previous history and examples of actors and series that come and go, and you can’t rest on your laurels. I also prepared myself to the possibility of not working after 21 Jump Street — and it was like that. I think the first year or so after the show, I didn’t work at all. I was okay, luckily I had savings, I was single and I didn’t require a lot to live. I didn’t have the pressure of working.
Eventually, I started doing some feature films here and there, and then eventually ended up on another series, VIP. In a way, it was a bit of a curse coming up on 21 Jump Street. Now every time I get offered Asian characters, I have to measure it up to that standard of Jump Street, in terms of the treatment of the Asian characters. There were things that I just felt wouldn’t be a positive contribution to that. Unfortunately, you have to sidestep that kind of work… then, of course, I want to keep working. That was a bit of a balancing act.
Again, I’m not complaining at all. My character on VIP wasn’t exoticized in a sense where he spoke in an accent. He was kind of like a rock star — so that was just fun to do. And then there were opportunities like Little Fish — a feature I did with Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett. All of these projects were just very ahead of its time in terms of the treatment of Asian American characters. That was just my mind-set.
Eventually, you realize there’s a glass ceiling at that time and that sort of was the journey that brought me to Vietnam, as an attempt to go beyond that glass ceiling.
DEADLINE: When did you move back to Vietnam?
NGUYEN: I remember I just wrapped Little Fish in Australia and that was in 2006 or 2007. I got a call from somebody that was doing this feature film in Vietnam and I’ve never been back to my country in 37 years. It was the film The Rebel. It was an interesting script. They wanted me to play the lead, but the villain part was so delicious, that I said, “Look, I’ll do this project if I get to play the villain.” I never get cast as the villain. I went and did the film for four months there, and just completely fell in love with my motherland again.
The following year, I got an offer to do another film. I went there and met a bunch of people. It was a very small film community that was just starting up and people were just saying, “Hey, you should sort of join us here with this new, sort of Renaissance of the Vietnamese film industry.” It was very tiny at the time and still is now.
I said, “I’ve always wanted to direct and produce films and tell stories that I would like to tell.” And it was very difficult to tell those stories here in the U.S. So I stayed there, I opened my production company, met my wife and then had a lot of success there creatively. That was the journey. It was never an intention to leave Hollywood or anything like that. I thought it was just a progression of my desire to contribute more than just an actor.
DEADLINE: Once things start to subside with the pandemic and things start to inch toward some sort of normalcy, are you going to go back to Vietnam or stay here in Hollywood?
NGUYEN: My agent, who I’ve known for a long time, stuck with me all those years that I was in Vietnam. He’s very happy that I’m here. And of course, Warrior sort of fell in my lap two years ago, and brought me back into mainstream TV. So I’m very open to doing work here. I think these days too, as you will agree, things are getting to be inclusive. I mean, you can actually be an Asian and work. And then there are productions that are very globally put together as a package.
I think those years in Vietnam were invaluable to me as a training ground for me as a director and a producer and really sharpened my craft. I think I can pretty much land anywhere and continue to tell stories.
DEADLINE: Speaking of Warrior, you are now a series regular as Zing. The series is kind of like an Asian Game of Thrones. Is this one of the first all Asian American productions that you have been a part of?
NGUYEN: It is. Because usually, it’s me and when I look around there might be another Asian actor or two. For me, this is the first project with a huge Asian cast. I look around and I’m surrounded by my peers. It’s interesting because, the 10 years that I worked in Vietnam, I’ve gotten so used to stepping on the set and everybody’s Asian — so it’s kind of reverse psychology. I remember walking on the set of Warrior, of course we have a very diverse Asian cast and we also have Caucasian characters too. We’re like a big family but it was actually a bit of an adjustment for me. I would hang out with Joe [Taslim] and Diane [Doan] and then in comes Kieran [Bew] and all these other actors. And we’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s right, they’re on the show too.” (laughs). Again, I’m used to being surrounded by an Asian cast to crew for the last 10 years.
DEADLINE: When you first heard of Warrior, what was your initial reaction and your feeling about Zing? He’s an interesting villain because he’s aligned with Mai Ling but also has his own intentions.
NGUYEN: Wait till you see the first episode and what Zing does. He just runs amok this season and becomes a big problem — I don’t want to give away too much. A lot of so-called people who are normally enemies have to sort of come together to take him down. It’s a lot of fun. It’s great because now that the characters and the world are established, you can really get into all the nuances of the different relationships and the conflicts. That’s what makes Season 2 wonderful. There are some episodes that really move me — and it’s very hard to move me. There are a couple of episodes in Season 2 that I was like, “Wow.” I was emotionally floored.
DEADLINE: How do approach Zing? He’s a complicated baddie.
NGUYEN: All villains are villains to other people but, to them they’re not a villain.
DEADLINE: Usually villains think they’re the heroes, right?
NGUYEN: Yeah. With Zing, I have to say, and this is not a put down at all of my character or the writing, but his complexity, compared to the other characters, hasn’t been presented yet. So on the surface, he’s a lot more simple, but he’s driven by power in terms of taking control of the heroin business and he’s using Mai Ling as a way in. As you see in the second season, she realizes that.
But for me, it’s no different from the other characters like Mai Ling, Ah Sahm, Young Jun, and Jun with his desire to have a foothold in a society where you are a second-class citizen. The only way for him is that power earns respect and possibly even move you beyond the constraints of society because then you are basically self-sufficient, so I approach him in that way. I never really sort of approach him as a bad guy with bad motives. Now, of course, try to have fun with the character, so he’s not so stern and evil all the time. Whether that is appealing to the audience I have yet to see, but in the second season, I get to do more of that. This is a time in society where these people are struggling to have a foothold in the world that they’re in and try to gain some respect. You can buy respect with money or buy with power. For Zing it’s about the power.
DEADLINE: When you first read Warrior, what was your reaction to how this show addressed modern-day issues through this fantastical lens?
NGUYEN: Well, first of all, to be transparent, I agreed to come on the show before I even read anything about it. When Justin Lin approached me on this, they already started shooting the first season. I was in Vietnam when he called me and told me about the show conceptually. Of course, Shannon Lee was involved because Bruce Lee originated the idea, and then he asked me. So, that’s all I knew about it. He said there’s this character Zing that he wants to bring in toward the end of the season and set him up as an antagonist for the second season. And immediately I said, “I’m in.” I didn’t need to read anything.
For one, I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that actually told the stories of the Chinese Exclusion Act and how the Chinese American experience coming to America, in the 19th century.” Secondly, it’s Bruce Lee and Justin Lin. So the chances of it being done right is pretty high. And then, Justin said he wanted me to meet Jonathan Tropper. He arranged a Skype meeting and of course, I looked up Jonathan and I haven’t seen Banshee, but I was aware of the kind of show that it is and the accolades and Jonathan just won me over. I think he said something like, “It would be a real honor if you joined us on the show.” And I remember thinking, it was an honor to join. This guy is such a gentleman and so gracious.
Jonathan went into some details about Zing and after reading some of the scripts, it was a no-brainer. And as soon as I finished with my obligations in Vietnam, I was in Cape Town right away. That’s how it started. It’s all about the people involved, the subject matter and luckily for all of us, for me, I was right, in terms of it being handled right. The show received some criticism here and there, but hey, you know everybody’s got an opinion. I think all in all, my hunch about the show was correct. I’m very proud of it.
DEADLINE: You’ve been on this amazing journey from 21 Jump Street to Warrior and in between, you’ve done so much. I mean, you walked so many Asian American actors could run today. Was there a point in your career where you felt a shift in representation for Asians and Asian Americans in film and TV?
NGUYEN: That’s the first time I heard it put that way.
DEADLINE: Well, it’s true.
NGUYEN: I’ll tell you a little story. My very first gig ever was a two-hour special of Magnum P.I. and I remember coming onto the set green as can be. I had the opportunity to meet a wonderful actor, Clyde Kusatsu. I looked up to him. They were the ones that walked before me: Clyde Kusatsu, Pat Morita, James Hong, et cetera. I was so happy to meet with them and hear about their experiences. Clyde was just amazingly supportive. So now to be in that position where you have younger actors, and who, like you, possibly look up to me as someone who came before them, I never really thought about it.
Sometimes I still think they are putting me on. I remember, Joe Taslim came to me on the first day on the set, and he had such reverence about meeting me. I thought he was maybe pulling my leg. He said, “You don’t understand, I was just a bored kid in Indonesia, that really wanted to be in the movies and I remember seeing you. Then I said, if he can do it, then I can do it.” So when you hear these kinds of things, it’s… I wouldn’t say flattering, I would say it’s quite emotional in a way, where you feel like, “Wow, is it that big of a struggle? Is it that big of a struggle for Asian performers? Is it that tough for them to have role models and inspiration?” And so if I can be in some small way an inspiration to the younger generation I’m over the moon, but I don’t think about it often until you talked about it now.
About that second question… a couple of years ago, I was in Vietnam, and I don’t stay up to date there, but of course, I knew about Crazy Rich Asians and the success that came with that out of nowhere, because it’s been awhile. Then shortly after, you have The Farewell, Wu Assassins and then, of course, Warrior. They all came out around the same time. I was sitting on the set of Warrior one day, and then we were sending something to some of the cast in Wu Assassins. I remember thinking, “Wait a minute, this is crazy.” I can’t remember the last time in my own personal experience, where you had two TV shows that are fully Asian-centric on the air or in production at the same time. That was the moment for me, it’s that, and it’s The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians. I’m sure there’s a bunch of things going on now that I’m not aware of, but that was the moment for me.
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