“To hell with circumstances. I create opportunities.” Bruce Lee
Max’s Warrior began as an eight-page TV treatment by Bruce Lee which was completely rejected by the networks. Nearly a half-century later, Shannon Lee revitalized her father’s idea for development by Cinemax and enlisted noted director Justin Lin and screenwriter Jonathan Tropper to create the pilot. In 2019 Cinemax picked up Warrior for one season and its freshman outing won many accolades for its inclusivity and representation, coupled with kick ass action. Warrior was hailed as a rare homegrown tentpole series for Cinemax and got renewed for a second season.
But then in early 2020, Cinemax announced it would no longer commission original shows due to the switch to new streaming platform, HBO Max. Season two was already in the can so it was televised in late 2020. But when Director Justin Lin asked about the possibility of a third season, HBO Max said that Warrior “didn’t fit the brand.”
“Long story short, Cinemax went away,” says Josh Stoddard, executive producer, writer, and co-showrunner for Warrior. “We thought we were gone – no way forward.” After the show got put on HBO Max, it found an even larger audience despite the inevitable cancellation.
“Then there was this rise,” adds Stoddard, “this terrible rise in anti-Asian violence that suddenly made our show seemingly relevant once again.”
The second season finale of Warrior was broadcast on Dec. 4, 2020. Despite its cliffhanger ending and its newfound audience, a third season of Warrior was doubtful. An online petition began circulating under the hashtag #savewarrior. Then after being shuffled around by the streaming wars, there was the pandemic which shut down productions everywhere causing long delays for many series.
Miraculously, HBO Max renewed Warrior for a third season. Filming began in spring 2022 when the cast and crew returned once again to Cape Town, South Africa.
“We’re very grateful to be back,” says Andrew Koji, who plays the lead role of Ah Sahm.
“It’s what, three years since the last season?” adds Dianne Doan, who plays Mai Ling, Ah Sahm’s older sister and the leader of the rival Long Zii Tong. “To be reunited and to have everyone back, it’s really special.”
But it had been a long break and there were these “ridiculous challenges” as Stoddard puts it. Everything was gone. After season two wrapped, the cast dispersed, and none of the sets, costumes, and props were kept.
“Everything had been destroyed,” says Hoon Lee, who plays the Chinatown hustler Wang Chao.
It was like starting over, but the audience couldn’t see that. In the world of Warrior, there hasn’t been too much time between seasons two and Three. “We’re two months after the end of season two,” says Tropper. “We had to build all of that from the ground up” adds Stoddard, “and make it feel like a continuation.”
Reassembling a disbanded cast is a daunting task, especially for a TV show that demands committing months to production. But executive producer, writer, and co-showrunner Evan Endicott says it wasn’t so for Warrior.
“Usually nowadays, everyone has moved on, but this show is really personal to everyone who makes it.”
Warrior exposes the hardships of immigration in a way that every non-native feels seen. It’s the ultimate outsider story, as each character struggles to find identity and acceptance in a brutal poverty-stricken world. Although it’s fiction, Warrior is based on history. The government oppression of Chinatown, the riot, and several of the characters are based on actual events and people. Beyond that, everyone on the cast idolizes Bruce Lee and wants to do justice to his legacy.
“We had an advantage where the whole cast was incredibly passionate,” Endicott says, “so even though it had been a while, they all agreed to come back.”
Getting back into character was another challenge. “We were all very rusty,” admits Doan, “but it was kind of like riding a bike.” Fortunately, they had a few weeks to reunite and prepare. “I feel like that first episode is like our getting back into costume and re-armoring.”
If anything, the challenges that the cast and crew of Warrior faced to restart the show fortified their resolve to tell this story. Jason Tobin, who plays Young Jun, thought it gave the cast and crew the courage to really go for it.
“Having lost the show or getting canceled so to speak, it kind of gave us this attitude of ‘we’ve been canceled once before – what else could happen?” Tobin felt everyone wanted to make season three how they wanted it, on their own terms. “You can’t hurt us anymore now.”
Lee concurs. “There are pluses and minuses to that layoff because sometimes when the show runs for a while, you can fall into the trap of getting a little comfortable and not pushing.” Lee felt that the pragmatic changes in how the show was made felt like they were starting in season one again. It forced them to approach their characters in a bold new way. “We had to dig deep in that energy.”
“One department head who we were so fortunate enough to have back was Moira (Anne Meyer) our costume designer,” says Olivia Cheng, who plays the brothel madame Ah Toy. When Ah Toy isn’t secretly fighting oppressors as a vengeful vigilante, she’s wearing absolutely fabulous dresses. Cheng felt the break gave Meyer extra time to think about the costumes, which are even more flamboyant than in previous seasons.
“Maura and her whole team had to go into overdrive to remake all of the background artists, all the Long Zii suits,” adds Doan. “It was a true ‘all hands on deck’ this third season coming back.” Meyer struggled to recover what original costumes she could find. She discovered a cache in Spain that still had the cast’s names written in them. “I found my original hat,” says Lee, “which is crazy.”
For fans of Bruce Lee, Warrior is laden with Easter eggs that pay homage to the Little Dragon’s legacy. “I’ve been really enjoying these fan-made memes cut frame per frame for reference whether it’s Enter the Dragon versus Warrior of Bruce Lee and Andrew,” says Doan. “I just think it’s so fun that everyone’s caught on.”
But for those that know the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown, there are even better Easter eggs in Warrior. Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger), Nellie Davenport (Miranda Raison), and the Chinatown race riot were based on actual events. Season three continues that tradition. Tropper explains. “Shannon (Lee) had spoken to me in the writers’ room and said that she really wanted to incorporate the Page Act into the show.” The Page Act of 1875 prohibited the recruitment to the United States of unfree laborers and women for “immoral purposes” but was enforced primarily against Chinese. “The government was trying to call any Chinese woman who came to the United States a prostitute and use that to deport them.”
There are also nods to the Secret Service which was a brand new institution and had a completely different job description back then. There are references to the Sanitary Ordinance law passed in San Francisco in 1870. This was ostensibly enforced to keep Chinatown from becoming an unsafe tenement but was leveled at the Chinese as another means of oppression.
“We’ve done what we can to pick pieces of history that lent themselves to creating the atmosphere of what Chinatown was like then,” adds Tropper. Although Warrior is fictional, it is rooted in history. And retelling these stories makes the series profoundly meaningful to everyone working on it.
Since season two, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 has been looming large for Warrior. This act provided an absolute 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States. The real Chinatown riot happened in 1877. That event concluded season two and Tropper has already revealed that season three begins within that year, so it’s still a while away. “We’ve always liked the fact that it’s still looming, that you’re seeing the racial strife that informed it,” adds Tropper. “I don’t know how much bang we would get from being there when it actually happened.”
“We’ve always been the little show that could and this season was definitely the miracle season,” says Cheng. Koji agrees. “We’ve always been a bit of an underdog show,” he adds.
In lieu of what Warrior has endured, will it get a fourth season? The cast and crew are hopeful. Season three is far from conclusive. Like the seasons before it, Season three raises the stakes even more, leveling up on the action and dramatic intensity.
Koji hopes that Warrior will finish on its own terms and “I believe that deserves that for Bruce. for the legacy, for Asian representation, for the immigration story,” he says. “I would like to do a couple more seasons, four years, five years,” he adds with a laugh. “Six, seven,” chimes in Tobin, “I’ll be Old Jun.”
The first two episodes of Warrior season 3 are available to stream on Max now.