Andrew Koji Won’t Be Boxed In

The star of the martial arts action-drama Warrior is on his way to major movie stardom.

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Andrew Koji standing in a field in a brown shirt, a khaki jacket and a brown hat
Andrew Koji as Jacob Snell from Ozark. Photograph by Andrew Koji for W magazine’s 2021 TV Portfolio. Koji wears a Filson hat, jacket, shirt, and jeans.

For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

Andrew Koji has experienced a banner two years since 2019, when he snagged the lead role of martial arts prodigy Ah Sahm in the Cinemax turned HBO Max series Warrior, based on an original concept and treatment by Bruce Lee that’s being executive-produced by his daughter, Shannon Lee. Soon, Koji will be seen starring alongside Henry Golding in the action hero film Snake Eyes and Brad Pitt in Bullet Train. Ahead of what’s sure to be another whirlwind year, the 33-year-old U.K. native sat down with W to discuss his eye-opening experience with Pitt, what he’s seeking in his next role, and being awestruck by the Netflix series Ozark. (“I haven’t been blown away by actors like that for a long time,” he says.)

Congratulations on Bullet Train. You’ve said in the past that growing up, Brad Pitt was a huge influence for you. What was it like to work with him?

In person, he was such a cool guy, such a lovely person, a genuine, honest actor. He would never stop thinking. I’m like that, too. Once I’m on set, I don’t talk to anyone. I’m just thinking, thinking, thinking, going over it in my head until it’s ready. I saw him doing that and said, Okay, I’m not crazy. It was surreal because I just never put me and him in the same stratosphere.

Did he have any on-set advice or tips, or did you have conversations with him that stuck with you?

We talked about craft a little bit, and we talked about the industry. I told him I’m on my guard with Hollywood, just because there are a lot of dodgy things going on. He said, “Don’t worry about other people around you, just keep doing you and then the good people will win out in the end, eventually.”

I’ve got a funny story: We had to change a scene up that was originally four or five different scenes; we pushed it all into one because we were running low on time. We’ve done the scene, we’ve blocked it out, we filmed most of it. And then we’re doing my [camera] coverage. And I’m expecting, because I’ve heard that certain big stars, once it’s on the other actor’s coverage, they’re nowhere to be seen, but Brad was there every single take just giving it his all, over and over again. He was even trying to make me laugh. He didn’t need to be there, he could have pulled the Hollywood card and said, “I’m too busy, got other stuff to do.” It just made everything so much better, and it was hilarious. They say never meet your heroes, but on this occasion, he was alright.

You’re best known for your role on the show Warrior—a part that you’ve mentioned in previous interviews as exhausting and extremely taxing, physically speaking. How does that translate to your mental health on set?

I’ve got a good support network. It’s a very tight-knit cast and crew—we’re more like a family, really. It’s tough because it’s 10 hours of TV, an action scene each episode, and a lot of topless stuff; I think if there was less topless stuff, it’d probably be easier because I could just hide. Instead, I’ve gotta maintain around seven percent body fat. All of it can be mentally taxing, but my experience is similar to Matthew McConaughey when he lost weight for Dallas Buyers Club. He said in some of his interviews he felt this extreme feeling of focus that he never felt before. And I can say the same thing happened for Warrior.

Shooting scenes without a shirt is certainly part of Bruce Lee’s legend—but more importantly, I find it fascinating that he made it his life’s work to buck myths about Asian men.

Bruce definitely had that on his mind. I think Bruce was and still is this force of nature—I always call him the Mozart of martial arts—and he was a philosopher as well. There are just some brilliant minds and energies that will achieve greatness, whatever circumstance they’re in. I do think he was probably so brilliant and excelled so much that—despite his Asian heritage—along the way, that’s when he started encountering other people’s perceptions and discrimination. But the thing that I take away from Bruce the most is that he never became bitter. He was just so Zen about it. You know that black and white interview with Piers Morgan? He says under the sky we’re all humans. I’m paraphrasing that, but the way he talks about it, there’s no bitterness or remorse, it’s just a current state of society that he’s very aware of. I think that’s the most beautiful element of it. That is the key to positive change—not coming from a place of hatred or bitterness.

Koji in ‘Warrior.’ David Bloomer/Cinemax.

Lee talked at length about Warrior in that interview with Piers Morgan. Do you remember anything he said that stuck with you in particular?

A Chinese main lead in a TV show hadn’t been done before in America [at that time]. He just said, “I can understand why these producers are scared, because it hasn’t been done before.” I remember asking Shannon Lee, “What was it like for him when he encountered these obstacles?” Shannon said it would affect him for a little bit, just a little bit, but he’d get up and move and keep going on to the next one. Whereas someone like me, I’d be beating myself up for six months, you know? I would be questioning my whole identity.

Like you, Bruce Lee was of mixed descent. What was your experience growing up half-Japanese, half-English?

My origin story: In England, growing up 33 years ago, it was a less diverse place. I definitely experienced racism, bullying, and felt like the odd one out. It was fascinating: When I was getting into the industry was when I started to realize, I’m going up for all these very Asian roles or I’m in the audition room with fully Asian people. You definitely feel like you wonder where you belong. I never felt like I was English because I was treated differently. And then I moved to Japan and lived there for two years and the same thing happened. I thought maybe Japan would be a home for me, that it might be where I belong. I went there and I was treated differently too.

Why did you choose to portray Ozark? Was it the show that got you through quarantine?

I first started watching the show just before I flew to L.A. to film Bullet Train, about a year ago. I got obsessed with that series and binge-watched it. Ozark stood out because it took its time—the pace was human. I’m not very good at watching TV—once you get into the industry and you see how things are made, it just kind of ruins things. But Ozark—the performances were so beautiful and the time they took to develop it was captivating. I remember timing things out, just going, wow, they’ve done 20 to 30 seconds of just a shot of Julia Garner’s character sleeping. A big blockbuster Hollywood film, of course, has such a faster rhythm and pace. You never get that. Ozark is real actors acting, and pure collaboration. You can feel it.

The work that you do is so different from that of the tone and subject matter on Ozark, but I’m wondering if you, while watching Ozark, made any connections with any of the work that you have done or any of the characters that you’ve portrayed.

Ozark was more a reminder that there is work out there that is inspiring to me. I’m grateful to be working as an actor on these films that I’ve just done. But it’s not the end goal. Seeing work like Ozark reminded me of the level and the quality of what I would want for myself as an actor. It’s funny, we love certain aspects of the craft, and then slowly, as we study it and dissect it, we lose a bit of that. And then hopefully one day it’ll come back and you can get lost again and immerse yourself again.

Was there a particular scene or moment from the show that you especially loved?

One scene stuck in my head in particular: Jacob Snell’s character is talking to Darlene and it’s toward the end of his arc. He’s just in bed talking to her, but he never gets up. Most people would probably get up, start shouting, trying to look tough, but he’s just so still. And I remember Tom Pelphrey in particular, when he came to season 3, that’s one I kept going over and over. It was so refreshing for me because like I said before, the last couple of years, I’ve been kind of numb when I watch films and TV. But I got completely engrossed in and immersed in Ozark. I was like, that’s the bar, that’s what I want to go for. It felt the same way when I used to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger, Daniel Day-Lewis or Marlon Brando back in the day. That’s what Ozark did for me. It rejuvenated my love for acting and the craft. I remember being a younger actor, watching Heath Ledger’s stuff and being blown away by some guy who’s got this amazing energy, but he’s done the work and there’s some depth there, some honesty, he’s channeling something personal. Ozark was like that.

Are there any particular performances or movies of Heath Ledger’s that you enjoy most?

I can reel off most of his films: Candy, an Australian film about two heroin addicts; I loved his performance in Brokeback Mountain, obviously; The Dark Knight. I really like I’m Not There. I think maybe I can relate to him as well. He’s an introverted and rebellious guy. People wanted to put Heath Ledger in a box. And I’m doing my own thing. I’ve got my own thing. He was a real artist as well. I don’t know if I’m that, but I’m trying to be.

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