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A shirtless Andrew Koji with ripped abs against a red background in Warrior. Photo: David Bloomer/Max

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Andrew Koji worked for this

We talked to one of Hollywood’s brightest up-and-coming action stars and his biggest fans: the cast and crew of Warrior

Pete Volk (he/they) is Polygon’s curation editor for movies and TV, with a particular love for action and martial arts movies.

Andrew Koji has the weight of an icon on his shoulders.

Ah Sahm, the character Koji plays in Max’s Warrior, was written by Bruce Lee, designed to be played by Bruce Lee, and now lives in a show produced by Bruce Lee’s daughter. An actor hoping to do the martial artist justice could easily fall into another Bruce Lee impression as the easy way out. But that is not Andrew Koji.

While the homages to Lee are certainly present throughout Warrior’s first two seasons — the flick of the nose, the flair of the kicks — Koji enters season 3 having made Ah Sahm his own. Ah Sahm is a martial arts prodigy who travels from China to San Francisco in the late 1870s to look for his sister, but ends up embroiled in the local gang conflict. Koji brings a deep melancholy and an air of uncertainty to a character trying to find his place in a strange new world.

“I knew that there’s no imitating or replicating,” the 35-year-old actor says. “Bruce is a legend, and nobody can be Bruce. But what I believe that he would have wanted me to have done with it, anyone who took on the role, was to bring it to life themselves.”

Koji credits the help of those around him, especially Bruce’s daughter, Shannon Lee, with encouraging him to make the character his own. Lee says she has had “many conversations” with the Warrior star about how to approach her father’s legacy, and encourages Koji to make the character his own.

“The thing that’s beautiful about my father’s legacy is that he really believed in self-actualization. He believed in finding it within yourself and bringing it forward,” Lee says. “And I think that Andrew did an exceptional job this season. I really saw him grow into the role in an all-new way.”

But she can put it even more succinctly than that: “Andrew is a star.”

Andrew Koji, with blood on his white shirt and face, holds a knife in a fighting stance in Warrior. Photo: David Bloomer/Max

Koji was ready to give up acting entirely in 2017.

After leveraging his charm and martial arts training into a series of small parts in the Thai and Japanese movie industries, the actor moved back to his home country of England, working primarily on stage, along with some guest appearances on BBC programs like Call the Midwife and Casualty and occasional stunt work. But when the TV roles dried up, the soon-to-be breakout star of Max’s Warrior was prepared to call his acting career finished. Then he got a call that changed his life.

In 1971, Bruce Lee had an idea for a TV show called Ah Sahm, which followed the adventures of a martial artist in the American Wild West. While he couldn’t convince any studio to pick up the show (his widow Linda Lee Cadwell says the concept was used to make the show Kung Fu starring David Carradine; Warner Bros. disagrees), decades later, his daughter combined forces with filmmaker Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow, the Fast and Furious franchise) to bring the story to life on Cinemax with showrunner Jonathan Tropper (Banshee).

Koji, who had worked with Lin on Fast & Furious 6 as a stunt double for Sung Kang, had received an audition invitation for the lead role in that series. The show was now called Warrior and set in Chinatown in the late 1800s. At first, Koji says he didn’t “think much of it.” But his mom convinced him to give it a shot, helping him film the audition and send it out.

When the Warrior audition came up, Koji had mostly put his martial arts training aside to focus on dramatic work. By his admission, he lacked the combat prowess of other candidates at the time, which made him an unconventional choice for the leading role in TV’s most martial arts-centric show. That was his edge for Warrior’s producers.

“It was not the obvious casting,” Tropper says. “When he came in, we saw a lot of guys with bigger resumes. Guys who were martial artists. Guys who were in better shape, guys who had done big movies or big TV shows. And we really went for the diamond in the rough because we saw something. We saw a kind of smoldering leading man in there that needed to come out.”

“He brought his own life and soul to the character and he had a soulfulness to him,” Shannon Lee says. “And it was because he was an amazing actor more than anything that we chose him. I just remember his audition and his ability to work with the material to really show up and create a life for Ah Sahm. That was not a Bruce Lee imitation. It was him fully embodying the character. And I think that speaks to him as an amazing talent.

“I think we all felt like he was the perfect choice. Because he had this real intelligence and creativity about him that, you know, in an essential way, reminded us of my father, but was very much his own.”

Jason Tobin, Chen Tang, Andrew Koji, and Hoon Lee look cool as shit while leaning on a wooden post in Warrior. Tobin, Tang, and Koji wear black suits with a red handkerchief, while Lee wears a top hate and a grey suit. Photo: David Bloomer/Max

Koji wasn’t content with just being a diamond in the rough when he stepped on the Warrior set. While the actor had put his martial arts experience behind him, the passion was still there. In the six months between his casting and the start of filming in Cape Town, South Africa, he lost 25 pounds, got his body ready to do splits and difficult kicks, and entered filming in the physical shape he needed to be in to play Ah Sahm.

“He just threw himself into it,” Tropper says. “His level of commitment is like that with anything he does.”

Near the wrap of season 1, Koji was filming a big, climatic fight scene in which Ah Sahm faces off against Li Yong, an incredibly skilled fighter portrayed by former Indonesia judo national team athlete Joe Taslim (who has become a prominent martial arts movie star in films like The Raid, Star Trek Beyond, and The Night Comes for Us). Keeping up with an elite athlete like Taslim was particularly difficult on the day, as the weeks of long days of shooting, and the adjustment to his peak physical self, had caught up with Koji.

“He had nothing [left],” says Hoon Lee, who plays the black market salesman Wang Chao and now works as a writer on Warrior season 3. He remembers watching with concern as Koji, after every take, hit the floor out of exhaustion. But hour after hour, he rested, got back up, and never complained about the next take. “My admiration for him really grew in that moment, because that’s a measure of character. That’s not a measure of talent. And I said, This is someone we can follow. This is someone that can make this show come to life and can lead that charge for us.”

Andrew Koji and Joe Taslim clasp each other’s arms while fighting, in an image that makes them look like an extension of each other, in Warrior. Photo: David Bloomer/Max
Andrew Koji and Joe Taslim, both shirtless and drenched in sweat, grasp onto each other in fighting stances as excited onlookers watch in Warrior. Photo: Graham Bartholomew/Cinemax

If you talk to Koji’s castmates, or anybody who works on Warrior, they tell you he’s the hardest-working person they know. He’s constantly setting an example as the show’s number one that trickles down to everyone else on set, to the point where Tropper says they have to tell him to stop working. And it shows in his meticulous and exacting performance as Ah Sahm, whether he’s fending off a group of hatchet-wielding rivals with high kicks and snappy retorts, or deftly navigating the turbulent political climate of Chinatown’s warring Tongs.

“I’ve never worked with someone who trains and works as hard as he does,” executive producer Evan Endicott, promoted to co-showrunner for season 3, says. “He essentially has to be number one on the call sheet for all the drama, and then also does all of his own fights. The guy does not sleep while we’re in Cape Town. And it’s a feat to watch.”

Co-star Jason Tobin (Better Luck Tomorrow, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) has had a front-row seat for Koji’s development as a leading man. Tobin plays Young Jun, the son of a gang leader who quickly becomes best friends with Koji’s Ah Sahm. The two have a similar rapport in real life, constantly joking with each other when they’re not expressing their appreciation for the opportunity to work together.

“This guy just is a consummate professional, works his freakin’ ass off, delivers artistically, and leads off the front foot as the number one on the show,” Tobin says. “You can’t ask for anything more. This is 100% from the heart, and to see his growth as a lead actor from season 1 to season 3 has been incredible. It just makes everyone else’s job easier because we’re working with him.”

Andrew Koji, drenched in sweat and wearing a white top, shares a heated glance with his sister (portrayed by Dianne Doan) in Warrior. Photo: David Bloomer/Cinemax

Dianne Doan, who plays Ah Sahm’s sister and rival gang leader Mai Ling on Warrior, says her sibling connection with Koji extends beyond the show. The siblings have a complicated relationship in Warrior — Ah Sahm initially travels to the United States to “rescue” her, before quickly finding she very much does not need that from him. Soon, they find themselves on opposite sides of a violent conflict, and Koji and Doan both effectively sell the delicate balance of their love for each other and their duties to their respective factions.

“He is my brother,” she says. “I call him ‘bruv,’ he calls me ‘sis.’ Any scene that I’ve gotten to film with him has been so special to me. I feel like it’s that connection in front of the camera that we get that’s so rare. He really is my brother. And that is something that I’m really taking away from this show.”

“It’s been really incredible watching him grow into the leading man that everyone could see that he could be,” says Olivia Cheng, who plays badass brothel madame (and Ah Sahm’s confidant) Ah Toy. “I think we have no doubt that we have only begun to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of Koji’s talent and drive as an artist.”

Storm Shadow (Andrew Koji) stands in the rain
Koji in Snake Eyes
Photo: Ed Araquel/Paramount Pictures

Since Warrior premiered in April 2019 (and was renewed for a second season shortly after), Koji’s career has been on the rise. He landed major roles in the G.I. Joe spinoff Snake Eyes, co-starring alongside Henry Golding, and Bullet Train starring Brad Pitt. He’s due to star in the upcoming Sam Raimi-produced action movie Boy Kills World, alongside Bill Skarsgård, Jessica Rothe, and The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian. And still, Tropper says some of the projects he’s turned down would “blow your mind.”

Three years ago, it seemed like the Warrior part of Koji’s career might come to an end. In January 2020, Cinemax announced it would no longer be producing original programming, with a second and presumably final season of Warrior due to air later that year. But in January 2021, the show’s first two seasons were added to HBO Max, and a few months later, the new streaming network announced it would pick up Warrior for season 3.

With years in between seasons filled by filming blockbuster action movies, it would have been easy for Koji to come back as hot shit, bigger than the show that launched his career — there’s an argument that he didn’t even need Warrior anymore. But Koji came back more determined than ever, and was rewarded with a third season of Warrior that gives him an even greater chance to shine, building up his bona fides as a star.

“He wasn’t changed in any way except he had a different focus now,” Tropper said. “He’d been around a little bit more, he had a little more confidence. And he pushed himself harder.”

“We had a catch-up Zoom [before season 3], and he’d been training with kung fu masters, getting his game back on,” Endicott says. “He showed us a whole diary he had made with Bruce Lee poses. He’d been doing studies, you know, about how he wants to embody this character, how he wants to carry on this legacy.”

Jason Tobin, sitting, and Andrew Koji, standing with his arms crossed, wear black suits with red handkerchiefs in the pocket in front of a wooden wall in Warrior. Photo: David Bloomer/Cinemax
Andrew Koji and Jason Tobin exit a stagecoach wearing black suits in the desert in Warrior. Photo: David Bloomer/Max
Andrew Koji and Jason Tobin, wearing red vests with white long-sleeved shirts, sit on low chairs and talk over a table in Warrior. Photo: David Bloomer/Cinemax

My call with Koji and Tobin started with Koji putting his face right up against the screen and screaming in excitement about a poster for Jackie Chan’s Wheels on Meals that hangs behind my desk. I was struck by his balance of passion, focus, and humility. There was also a sense of humor about the whole thing; when Tobin spoke highly of him as a co-star, Koji asked if he could get that in writing.

Despite what he called the “whirlwind” of the past few years, Koji remains down to earth, and still carries the struggles that got him here, well aware it could all change again in a moment.

“Going from being in the red and really struggling, and emotional uncertainty and insecurity and financial insecurity,” he reflects, “my only goal ever as an actor was just to be able to survive and live off acting. It wasn’t anything too highfalutin, like ‘become an A-lister’-style nonsense. So I’m happy that I’m doing that. There’s still challenges, there’s still things to overcome. There’s still problems, and as I’m starting to see behind the curtain now, there’s a few things that still need to change. But I’m happy, and Warrior gave me the belief and faith again, as an actor, that I guess I should be doing this, for now.”

That’s something we can all be grateful for. Koji brings an earnestness and deep yearning for connection to Ah Sahm, which elevates the otherwise pulpy fun of Warrior into truly captivating television.

“He’s not just an action star,” says Endicott. “There’s a thoughtfulness and an intensity to what he does. And the camera really soaks that up.”

Andrew Koji looks over his shoulder, wearing a black suit and red handkerchief, in Warrior. Photo: David Bloomer/Max

In season 3, Koji remains laser-focused on the details. His choices can be seen very clearly in how he has approached Warrior’s fight scenes, which are incredibly demanding and rarely see the lead actors doubled for stunt performers. In the third season, Ah Sahm has a newfound status as a local cult hero. It’s one of those wonderful opportunities that feels like destiny — as Ah Sahm’s star has risen in the world of Warrior, so too has Koji’s in the real world. With Shannon Lee’s guidance, Koji brings new swagger to his physical performance as Ah Sahm, adding more flourishes to his kicks while simultaneously making his form more and more methodical as Ah Sahm’s (and Koji’s) skill grows.

“He’s very keen on having his physical presence evolve as his character does,” executive producer Josh Stoddard, also promoted to co-showrunner for season 3, says. “It’s gradual, and you may not register it on anything other than a subconscious level. But it’s something very top of mind for Andrew as he evolves his character.”

Tobin recalls the day they first met on set in Cape Town. While just two years older than Koji, Tobin got his big break in the industry when he was a teenager in a starring role in Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, and it’s easy to pick up the mentorship role he has taken on with his friend and co-star. In their first conversation, Tobin reinforced the importance of Koji staying true to himself as Ah Sahm as a way of honoring Bruce Lee’s legacy.

“I knew that whoever got this role would have a massive responsibility and pressure upon their shoulders,” Tobin says. “Because it wasn’t just a fictitious character written on a page. This was Bruce Lee! And I remember our very first conversation, because everyone’s like, You’re Bruce Lee, you’re playing Bruce, and I said to Andrew, ‘No, man. You’re not Bruce Lee. You are Ah Sahm. And if you want to live the Bruce Lee philosophy, you need to express yourself, Andrew Koji, in this role. You’re not mimicking, you’re not copying, you are you.’

“Bruce Lee to me has always been like that,” Tobin adds. “He’s been known as the Little Dragon. To me Andrew is not a dragon… He’s a wolf.”

As Tobin says this, Koji, sitting next to him, howls like a wolf. No matter how hard he works, no matter how seriously he takes his craft, and no matter what pressure there is to be someone else, Koji will always be Koji: talented, diligent, and effortlessly charming. And for Warrior, that’s enough.

Warrior season 3 premieres on Max on June 29, with three new episodes.