Cinemax’s critically acclaimed new series Warrior, based on the writings of Bruce Lee, airs on Fridays at 10pm ET/PT. Set in San Francisco in 1878, Warrior is gritty and smart, with incredible fight choreography that strengthens rather than detracts from the character development. The series focuses on a disturbing time period in American history when Chinese immigrants were treated as vermin and the government actively sought to curb their ability to immigrate with the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Dianne Doan stars as Mai Ling, a Chinese immigrant married to Long Zii (Henry Yuk), leader of one of the most powerful tongs in San Francisco. Mai Ling is a strong, independent woman who refuses to be manipulated or pushed into a subservient role. In our exclusive interview, Dianne Doan discussed delving into the character, Mai Ling’s motivations, and the current state of diversity in Hollywood.
Mai Ling is such an interesting character. The audience doesn’t know a lot about her history. How much of a backstory did you develop for her?
Dianne Doan: “The more I know the better for everything that Jonathan (Tropper’s) writing and all the writers in the writers room. So, I had a chance to sit down with JT and he kind of hashed out what he thought up for Mai Ling’s character. And, of course, throughout the season I would add on or I would ask questions.
Everything is motivated by her past. We’ve watched her through the first four episodes that aired, but we don’t really know much about what’s going on in her head. But I would say I built a whole backstory – where she came from, why she went to San Fran, how she got to San Fran, and just her need to rise to the top of the tong.”
Will we be treated to more of her history this season or in season two?
Dianne Doan: “I can only wish and dream that we see more of that backstory in season two. The hard part I would say is that our whole regular cast is so large and there are so many different characters and storylines going through that it’s kind of hard to get a whole episode based on one character, or a couple of scenes. But, yes, I hope that we would shed some light. I think in episode three we got a look into Bolo’s past. I realize that seeing 11 people’s past is a little tricky, but there’s been scenes like when Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) mentions my past. There’s been little gateways into what happened.”
Do you believe she would be the person she is now if not for her first abusive husband?
Dianne Doan: “No, definitely not. The backstory that I created for Mai Ling is when she was a young girl obviously that marriage to the warlord was abusive and for all the many years I was there, thus the need to escape to San Francisco. And it was that idea that I would never again be abused. So, becoming a prostitute in a brothel in San Francisco wasn’t an option.
Jonathan and I had this idea that when I came to America having English as a weapon in my back pocket, I was able to work in one of the casinos. I started from the bottom and I was able to climb that ladder, whether it was overhearing anything and feeding it back to Long Zii and then they have this relationship.
I think the hard part as an audience member watching the show is I’ve heard a lot of feedback that Mai Ling is ruthless and she kind of sleeps her way to the top. But I didn’t see it that way at all, which kind of broke my heart that on the outside it seems like that. But it was the need for survival. I do believe that Long Zii and Mai Ling do have a relationship. He’s the first man who’s given her any sort of respect as a woman. So, to have that in my life, you cling on to that. I don’t think at all that it’s, ‘I’m just going to sleep with everyone and claw my way to the top.’”
I didn’t view it as her sleeping her way to the top. I saw it as Mai Ling doing what she needs to survive. Did she enter the marriage with Long Zii because she had to?
Dianne Doan: “I don’t think that she had to. I think it was mutual respect between the two. I don’t think that necessarily I married him to somehow take over the tong. It was more so marry him to be protected. I found that to never be abused I needed to find a position of power.
It’s a fine line between being a villain or surviving. I think the main thing throughout season one of filming is that we don’t want to go too far. Sometimes the things that Jonathan writes, if I were to become a certain way it’s almost villainous or mustache-twirling. But the root of it is survival and power, and just never being in that place again in my life. That’s the constant motivation of Mai Ling and I hope it translates to the screen.”
Is that what you latched onto in reading the first script? What about Mai Ling grabbed you and informed you as to who this woman is as a person?
Dianne Doan: “When I first auditioned for the show, I wasn’t really given any information. It was at first a difficult decision whether to sign on. I think in the initial breakdown we turned it down – the audition – because it just worried me. I think the information given was something like, ‘Female, series regular, leading character within the tong.’ It was an HBO/Cinemax show and being a female performer, the kind of red flag for me was when it said, ‘You must be comfortable with nudity or simulated sex.’
I think right away that concerned me because I didn’t want to be another Asian trope. So, it took me getting on a phone call with Jonathan Tropper, the showrunner, and him explaining the whole series because in this situation you never get a full script – you’re lucky if you do. So, I got on a call with him and he just created this world and it was a beautiful story, and the fact that it obviously helped that Bruce Lee dreamt it up. He explained my arc going through. He said, ‘Nothing is set in stone, but this is the idea of Mai Ling’s character.’ And to know that I would have such a long, independent role in the show, that’s what drew me to the role. And then he gave me the first script and I put it on tape the next day.”
Did how Mai Ling was initially described to you by Jonathan play out? Did he fulfill all his promises about your character?
Dianne Doan: “He did. Thankfully, he did. I had three scenes in my audition, and it was initially Mai Ling and Ah Sahm reuniting in the pilot. There was a scene between Li Yong and Mai Ling, and then a scene in episode eight. Those scenes were just every shade on the rainbow of emotion, of power. Not knowing who the character was yet – still not sure after putting something on tape – and then later after filming it on set was just incredible. Yeah, everything that Jonathan in a way promised me came true.”
Your resume is so impressive but is there a character you’ve played who gave you a similar vibe or is she completely different?
Dianne Doan: “Thank you. That’s a very kind compliment. I’ve been really lucky in my career so far. I mean, I’m coming from Disney to I did a History Network show and now HBO/Cinemax. Yeah, a lot of different ranges, I’d say. But you know what? To be honest, a little bit of my…I wouldn’t say they’re similar at all, but I try to make my characters as grounded as possible and never play the victim in a way. So, I would say the background for the most similar character would maybe be Yidu in Vikings.
Yidu was bought as a slave and then my real identity comes through later on in the episodes of me being an emperor’s daughter. So, in that sense, in Vikings I was given no power at all and no chance to rise but yet I claimed my power through – you know, Travis (Fimmel) and I talked about it – through knowledge. Being an emperor’s daughter, I was highly educated. I’m now in this land of Vikings where they’re not the most educated people. (Laughing) But I definitely ground my characters in reality and kind of bring out those characteristics that I think are important for women and young girls to watch.”
Did you end up doing much research into San Francisco in the 1870s? Did you research how Mai Ling would hold herself or her mannerisms, given the era of the series?
Dianne Doan: “I looked up a lot of documentaries with immigration and coming into America and obviously the Exclusion Act, how the Chinese people were treated at that time. A lot of background research. But in terms of mannerisms for Mai Ling, not necessarily because that is part of creating the character is being able to decide how she talks or how she walks. The costume dictates so much and your backstory as a character says something else. But I definitely wanted to make sure that I felt that I knew how women were treated at that time.
And also, there are fourth, fifth generation now living in America and I’m a first generation Asian Canadian, so it was fascinating to me. There are cast members on the show who are fourth generation and I have no idea what that even feels like to have a grandparent who was born in the States and how they grew up in a different way than how I grew up.”
Was there anything you learned about that time period in America’s history that struck you and stayed with you?
Dianne Doan: “The funny thing is, being Canadian we didn’t necessarily learn a lot about America’s history, unfortunately. But now having been living back and forth between the States and Canada the last few years, it was just chilling reading the scripts that Jonathan and everyone else had been writing and kind of seeing the political atmosphere in the States. It’s not necessarily Asian Americans who are suffering right now, but the different (groups). It’s insane and it breaks your heart, but it mirrors…100 years later we’re having the same political issues. I know it’s been said before but it’s like a vicious cycle. Everything kind of repeats itself over and over again.
But the important thing is we’re sharing this Asian immigration story that has never been shared. And how sad is that? A country that has been built from immigrants, their story’s never seen the light of pop culture or media. It was very important to Bruce Lee, and Shannon Lee brought it forward, this story that is in American history books and maybe takes up a paragraph or two about the Exclusion Act.”
That is extremely sad. Obviously now is the right time to tell the story, but why do you think that period was ignored for so many years?
Dianne Doan: “I mean, you’re asking the wrong person because I’m a little bitter towards it. (Laughing) But the blunt way to say it is in people’s eyes, whoever published these books, it’s not important and brushed aside. I think a lot of the times, especially in the entertainment industry right now, we’re seeing this wave of diversity. How long has that taken and why is it now that we’re being trusted to be able to make a profit and be accepted by the public? Why has it taken this long to see that people can relate to diversity? Everything happens in its own time and for a reason, but even being an actor for the last eight, nine years now, we’re finally getting an opportunity for inclusion. I’d say it took long enough for all of us to make noise and to make us be seen.[…] I don’t know if it’s necessarily that they’re writing roles for us, it’s more that the roles that they’re writing they’re open to seeing us audition for them. And I only hope that executives of color and writers of color are now…my hope is that they’re getting opportunities to write specifically for us and not just, ‘Lead character, female, open ethnicity,” but that now it’s specifically for African American or Asian American. It’s been a long time and the ball has just started rolling.”
Were you a fan of Bruce Lee and did this cause you to delve into his life and career?
Dianne Doan: “I was raised on Bruce Lee movies. My mom and dad immigrated from Vietnam in 1984 to Canada. Bruce Lee was a universal icon for everyone. So, I was raised on Bruce Lee movies and then it trickled to Jet Li and Jackie Chan. He played a huge role in my childhood.
My parents, being immigrants, they don’t quite understand the arts. (Laughing) Back then they didn’t understand my choice to be an artist. Not that they don’t care, but I’m working and that’s all that they’re happy about. If I can put food on the table and keep a roof over my head, they’re happy. But as soon as I told my dad about Warrior – I hadn’t booked it yet, but I was just auditioning. I said Bruce Lee and his ears perked right up.
When I actually got the show and we did screenings in LA, I remember him calling me – this was the first time in my whole life he’s ever done this – he called me and told me, ‘When you meet Shannon Lee can you please greet her and just tell her how important her father has been in our lives?’ I think I started crying – it was amazing. And then he saw a picture of Shannon and I in a group cast photo and he texted me and he’s like, ‘Is this Shannon?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, dad, that is.’ He said, ‘I knew it. She has her father’s chin.’ Those things, I died when he said that. He just loves Bruce. Bruce Lee is huge in our household.”