There is nothing on television, quite like Netflix’s Wu Assassins. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown–the martial arts fantasy series centers a young chef named Kai Jin (Iko Uwais). Kai reluctantly becomes a Wu Assassin in order to battle a deadly ancient power called, Wu Xing. In Wu Assassins–Li Jun Li stars as Kai’s good friend, Jenny Wah. Jenny is a boss restauranter who is torn between familial obligations and her own aspirations. In addition to the storytelling, the physicality and effects on the series are astounding, but Li–an alum of both Quantico and The Exorcist has never backed down from a fight.
Though Li broke into acting by way of the theater stage– she’s garnered a robust television career that began with roles on beloved TV shows like Blue Bloods and Damages. Still, despite her extensive filmography–Wu Assaisans is something entirely different for Li. Boasting a majority Asian cast–the series is refreshing, authentic and stunning to watch. One of the most incredible things about Wu Assassins is the fact that it’s a completely new story–not based on any comics or previous work.
Coinciding with the series premiere–STYLECASTER sat down to chat with Li about the series, stepping into Jenny’s stilettos and working with her idol.
“Who doesn’t want to play a badass, for one?” Li question when asked about signing on for Wu Assassins. “[Jenny’s] also quite layered and has her own complexities and what she is dealing with in her own life. That includes her burden of expectations of what it means to be a loyal daughter, as well as fulfilling her parents’ wishes and carry out her own dreams. We see how she deals with her suppressed anger.”
To ground herself into the character and the world–Li took inspiration from some unexpected places. “I definitely took inspiration from all the femme fatale characters that I’ve seen in the past,” she revealed. “Since this is one of Netflix first original martial arts and primarily is an Asian American show–we were given a lot of freedom to create the characters ourselves. We were able to collaborate with our showrunner, who though Caucasian, was very clear about the fact that he wanted us to always speak up to make sure that the show was not only authentic on paper but the nuance, the behavior, the little tiny details that you might see on screen are still true to what it means to be Asian American.”
Li is no stranger to physically demanding roles. She’s starred in 2015’s television adaptation of Minority Report and on ABC’s Quantico–so stunts certainly aren’t outside of her wheelhouse. “It’s so funny because I think a lot of shows have the luxury of training their actors and actresses for months before production starts,” she explained. “But my role, in particular, was one of the last ones to be cast. I was flown out pretty much two days after the deal closed. I landed, I had my fitting, and then I went to the studio, met the stunt team and I learned my first fight. I was so sore because I didn’t properly warm up. I was so excited that I forgot to stretch. However, the fact that I come from an extensive dance background helped me learn choreography a lot quicker than the average person. I’ve also trained on my own, obviously not at the extent of my co-stars who are mostly martial artists since they were born. But it was something that I felt was important to keep under my belt just as an actress.”
In Wu Assassins–Jenny is struggling with her own personal ambitions and familial ties which have placed her at the helm of her family’s restaurant. It’s a burden she didn’t ask for. For Li–and many first-generation Americans–it’s a very relatable theme. “These are real struggles that I can relate to,” she expressed. “What it means to be Asian American, what it means to live in a Western country where people don’t necessarily understand your culture and what it means to put your parents’ wishes in front of your own priorities. I think that’s something we can all relate to. People who go into a career that is not exactly what they want. I was very fortunate that my parents were supportive of me going into the arts, but I can’t say the same for my fellow Asian American friends.”
One of the things that stands out in Wu Assassins is how stunning the series is–especially when it comes to the seamless incorporation of computer-generated imagery (CGI). “I didn’t expect it,” Li laughed. “I especially liked the Wu warlords when they all appeared in the very first episode. Netflix was very specific about the show that they wanted. They wanted martial arts, they wanted supernatural elements, and they wanted a chef. Our showrunner did a terrific job of putting this story together. I’m really proud of that. It’s really entertaining. I hope people have a great time watching it because the fights– they truly are incredible. I’m not just saying it because I’m in it. But I hope that they can also take something away from the character development, the stories that take place, the relationships, the identity issues that each one of us struggles with.”
Up next– as the cast and crew of Wu Assassins await news of a Season 2 renewal–Li is shifting gears. “I have a comedy coming out on CBS All Access called Why Women Kill,” she revealed. “I am playing Lucy Liu’s daughter. She’s the real deal. That’s crossing a milestone in my career to be able to work with her. Not to mention the fact that she’s everything you expect your idol to be and more. It’s amazing.”
All episodes of Wu Assassins are currently streaming on Netflix.