Leonard Wu is a talented actor with an impressive body of work both in film and television. He’s had roles in series such as Workaholics and Marco Polo, as well as appearances in the films 17 Again and Crush the Skull. Wu caught us up on his latest work, as well as what inspired him to be an actor, and why he loves acting. Make sure to catch him in season two of Marco Polo, which comes to Netflix on July 1.
Cliché: You attended UCLA and received a BA in English. What made you decide to go into the acting field?
Leonard Wu: It’s kind of a strange thing. Acting is something that I had always wanted to do since as far back as I can remember. But growing up in D.C., it was just unheard of among my peers, and so it wasn’t something I really explored. As a teenager, I studied and performed Chinese Opera, and though I wasn’t keen on the singing/speaking roles, the martial arts and acrobatic aspects of it completely fascinated me. That was about the extent of it for me in terms of performing, but it really whet my appetite, and when I graduated high school, it was a pivotal moment where I said to myself, “Okay, I’m gonna get out of D.C. and head to Los Angeles to take a crack at this acting thing.” I think I kind of blindsided my parents with that, but they were supportive and told me to at least major in something that had some semblance of a practical application. So I majored in English, and every single opportunity I got, every free moment I had, I spent it learning and performing on stage productions all over campus.
You have a very diverse body of work featuring both television and film. Is there one you prefer over the other?
I think if you had asked me five years ago where I’d prefer to be working, I would have said “film” without skipping a beat. It’s amazing to see how much the industry has evolved and changed over that time. With the recent renaissance that has happened in TV, it’s just such an exciting space to be in and explore. Basic cable and premium channel shows have really pushed the boundaries in terms of what can be offered, and as a result, there is something for everybody, and at such a high caliber. So for the moment, I’m loving working in the TV arena.
Do you have any projects in the works right now?
I’m currently developing some TV projects, in more of a producing/writing capacity. They’re still in their infancy, but being behind the camera is something that excites me as much as being in front of.
What is your favorite part of being an actor?
This is a tough one. There is so much I love about being an actor, but if I had to pick one thing right now, it would be the characters that I’ve gotten to immerse myself in. It’s always fun to play something that is so far removed from who you are in everyday life, and really explore different aspects of yourself.
Can you tell us a little about your character Orus on Marco Polo?
Orus is a fierce and loyal warrior intent on bringing long-held traditions back to the people of Mongolia. We filmed in Hungary, Slovakia, and Malaysia, and I had to train heavily for the role. Martial arts, weaponry, horseback riding… the whole nine yards. I was very fortunate to be working with stunt coordinator Brett Chan and his amazing Hitz International Stunt Team. They were an integral part of helping me shape Orus.
Your most recent film was Crush the Skull. What experience working on that film did you enjoy most?
My role in Crush the Skull was just a cameo, but I was working with family, so it was an absolute joy to be on set. I had worked with Viet Nguyen (the director/writer) and Chris Dinh (actor/writer) on previous online projects such as Ninja Say What?!, which completely blew up and went viral, and we all had such a great time together that we were always looking for opportunities to collaborate. Fast forward a few years later and Viet and Chris are kicking ass and making their feature debut, and they asked us to come out and play again. I said, “Yes,” with no hesitation. The day we shot, it was like good ol’ times with the buddies. My scene was with Jerry Ying (also in Ninja Say What?!) and Chris, and we were sitting in the back of a car, just riding along this bumpy dirt road in the middle of nowhere, improvising for like three hours straight. I think that’s the thing I love most about being directed by Viet. He’s this master editor, so he’s cutting in his head as he’s filming, so when he knows he’s got what he needs, he lets you just go insane and do whatever. And, for me, I don’t get a whole lot of opportunities to improv in general, so I love it.
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to become an actor?
I think a lot of aspiring actors come into this town with a romantic notion of how they’re going to find success and fame. I totally get it; I think that a part of you always has to maintain that romantic notion, but it has to be tempered with pragmatism. Everyone loves an underdog story about the actress who had $15 left in her pocket when she got that huge role that changed her life forever. But those stories are few and far between, and the reality of it is, living in squalor isn’t particularly fun. So I have a pretty practical approach in terms of how I handle being an actor: if you can’t afford to eat or put a roof over your head, you’re not gonna be able to subsist and you’ll have no choice but to quit acting. If you’re able to do those two things, then you can keep fighting. The rest of it honestly is just details. Success may not happen in a month, a year, or 10 years, but if you are able to survive and continue to maintain a discipline in regards to how you approach acting, then you’ll find yourself making progress.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My acting coach Stan Kirsch has said this to me on a numerous occasions: “Do not ride the highs and lows that come with success.” At the end of the day, I try to always remember that in order to help me stay even keeled. It’s a good way to keep this industry from driving you nuts.
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Leonard Wu Talks His Latest Role in ‘Marco Polo’: Photographed by Quavondo