Actors are not their characters. I know that’s a rather obvious thing to say, but sometimes when an actor plays a string of roles who all have something in common, you tend to associate that trait with their real personality. Take, for example, Joe Taslim. The Indonesian actor exploded onto the scene playing Sgt. Jaka in 2011’s brutal action masterpiece The Raid and followed that up with roles in the likes of Fast 6, and The Night Comes for Us. And in all of these productions, Taslim played stoic ass-kickers who never said much verbally, as they let their very skilled hands and feet do all the bloody talking. The same is true of Li Yong, Taslim’s fan-favourite Tong enforcer in Warrior, Cinemax’s martial arts drama based on the writings of Bruce Lee.
And so, with all of that in mind, when Nick and I got the opportunity to interview Taslim last week about Warrior’s upcoming second season (which we’ll have the full review for tomorrow!), the very first thing that struck me with the impact of one of his devastating kicks was just how unlike any of his characters Taslim was. Gone was the measured stoicism, instead replaced by a dynamo of friendly energy that really made the actor one of the most vibrant people we’ve ever interviewed!
And that liveliness was there from the word go as Taslim himself geeked out for the new season of Warrior, saying that despite being in it, he was a huge fan while watching it as well.
So good, right? It’s kind of awkward, I mean I’m in the show, but when I watched it, I felt like I’m a fan. I was like “I love this show!”. I’m so proud of it. I texted all the writers like “You guys are amazing! This season’s so amazing! I’m so proud of it. Let’s do another one!”.
Personally, I would love another one, but, as mentioned the other day, Warrior has found itself in a precarious position. With home network Cinemax pulling out of the original series game, the show had nowhere to go. It’s since been picked up by HBO Max who will air both seasons with hopes of building a big enough audience for more. At the time of this interview, this was not known yet, but Taslim was already confident that the quality of Warrior’s second season would be enough to keep it going.
I have not heard anything, but I know for sure when they see season two, when the world sees season two, I have high hopes that the fans are gonna push for it. And then, you know, the bigger players are gonna see it, and then they’ll know it deserves justice. It deserves three more seasons!
And according to Taslim, while a third season has not yet been penned yet, showrunner Jonathan Tropper and his writing team have “awesome ideas” for not just Li Yong, but also Dianne Doan’s Mai Ling. And you’ll already get to see the start of those plans soon as the upcoming season goes much deeper into Li Yong’s characterization. As Taslim says, in season one his character was more like a shadow, who “kicks ass on everybody and then just disappears”.
He was also very much subservient to the hugely ambitious Mai Ling, who is both his Tong boss and his lover. But now the skilled fighter is starting to question her orders and whether or not her cold-hearted approach is correct. An approach that in season one saw her sending Li Yong into a fight to the death with her own brother Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji).
In season one, after the final episode, I was a bit shocked because before the fight I asked her: “You know only one of us is going to get out of this alive?”, and she said, “Yeah, I know”. And then before I was about to break Ah Sahm’s neck, the dilemma, the contemplation of Li Yong… he said, “This is your brother,” and he gave that look to her to make sure.
As Taslim explains, that act sparks a flame of doubt, but one borne out of love and care for Mai Ling who Li Yong wants to protect from her own ruthlessness.
Going to season two, we know Li Yong questions a little bit that ‘Your ambition is very dangerous, my darling. You could get burnt”. And the root of that doubt is love. It’s not like he’s challenging her. He doesn’t want to backstab her or whatever. It’s that the love is so strong that he’s just making sure that… “My darling, your ambition is gonna burn you and if I have to challenge you to save you, I would do that.”
And speaking of stabbing people in the back, front, and whatever profile they presented, Taslim naturally does a whole lot of fighting here. His prodigious martial arts skills is what first brought him to the world’s attention with The Raid, an absolutely bonkers action movie with some of the most intense fighting scenes ever captured on camera. What some people may not know that is that Taslim wasn’t really a practitioner of silat, the Indonesian martial arts featured so heavily in The Raid (he learned some from his co-stars only). In fact, Taslim’s real formal training is in Judo, having represented and even won gold medals for his country as a judoka before transitioning to acting.
As the actor points out, the grappling-exclusive judo is very much nothing like the brutal silat. Nor is it like the classic Shaolin kung fu approach that Li Yong employs. So how is Taslim pulling off these amazing fights without that formal training? Well, he had a great childhood.
My martial speciality is judo, so I don’t really punch and kick. I grab people, I throw them and I break their neck or their leg or their arm. It’s easy to say I’m a wrestler. But I was so lucky because growing up, when I was a kid, I learned a couple martial arts before judo. I learned wushu for three years and I learned taekwondo for a couple of months and boxing for like a couple of weeks. It’s very short but I got so many influences from other martial arts, so it helped me a lot in my judo career. And then they helped me a lot in my action career as an actor.
When they introduced me to this choreography… which is very kung fu, a combination of jeet kun do, wing chun, a little bit of a silat feel, but the majority is Shaolin kung fu/Chinese traditional martial arts. So it didn’t feel strange, it didn’t feel awkward for me because I learned that when I was a kid. So it was for me to just revive those memories.
Continuing on, Taslim explained that his time competing professionally in judo at the highest levels also left him with limbs that are rather great conversationalists!
I was an athlete for 15 years, so all my muscles are very easy to talk to. I can just be like “Hey, leg. Stretch a little bit”. [laughs] Okay this one, I need to kick this tornado kick but I don’t know how to do it. But you know what? I can learn. So yes, I practice a lot in terms of Li Yong’s discipline of martial arts. I practice with these Chinese fighters who taught me a little bit how the fight needs to be “this” because Li Yong has a combination of wing chun and jeet kun do and then other Shaolin feels. He’s always fluid, changing his fight style depending on the opponent.
It didn’t feel like it’s a new world. It’s just the cousin of judo. It’s the cousin of wushu. We martial artists, we believe that all martial arts in this world come from the Shaolin. So if you’re good in one martial arts… it’s like music. If you’re good in piano, you can learn how to play guitar because you know the essence of it.
All that punching and kicking is pointless though if it’s all for nothing. And echoing what co-star Dean Jagger said, Tropper and fight choreographer Brett Chan make sure that the action is rooted in drama to help raise the stakes.
The powerful thing about action scenes in Warrior is because the story is so strong, the character build-up is really good. So every time we see them fight, we care about the characters. We know the purpose of the fight. It’s not just trying to look badass or trying to look flashy. The violence has reason. All the movements, all the struggles… the dramatic element in the fight is there.
The balance between the dramatic performances and the action scenes is just amazing. You don’t feel this is an action action show because the drama is strong. But this is not a drama drama because the action is super cool. So the balance of action and drama in this show is very rare. It’s so hard to find a show like this… I’m not trying to sell anything, okay! [laughs]
That balance of both action and drama is best exemplified in an absolute monster of a brawl that occurs late in season two and undoubtedly stands out as its highlight. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s a fairly complex set-piece. According to Taslim though, it didn’t take that long to put together, only needing a few days of production. One reason is that shooting over here in Cape Town is very different from shooting in Asia where productions just keep going for days and nobody worries about overtime.
But another key aspect is just how familiar the full cast of Warrior is by now when it comes to kicking ass together.
We bonded really good in season one and chemistry-wise it’s not like we’re working with strangers. You’re working with your brothers. So in terms of technical stuff like choreography and then the shots and everything, that’s the only thing to worry about. The other parts… I know when I go fast, the others are gonna follow me. I believe in them and they believe in me.
The hard part in shooting action movies, especially fight scenes, is when you don’t trust them. When you don’t trust your fighters, no matter what, it’s just hard. You just always feel wrong. You always feel like there’s something missing.
Well, I can’t say there’s anything missing from what I’ve seen so far. You guys will be able to see for yourself when Warrior season two debuts on Cinemax in the US this coming Friday, 2 October, with a local South African release to follow on Showmax in the near future.
Till then, you can check out the full interview with Taslim which includes a couple of extra nugget of info. Yes, we asked him about the gatsby. Also, don’t forget to check out our other Warrior season two interviews with Olivia Cheng who plays Ah Toy, and Dean Jagger who plays Dylan Leary.
Last Updated: September 30, 2020