There are many joys to be found in the mystical, magical, martial arts world of Wu Assassins, but for us, the series was taken to new heights by one character in particular. Though the Netflix streaming series is packed with all kinds of great actors beating the pulp out of each other, there was something about Byron Mann's performance as Uncle Six that we could not get over.
Mann plays an antagonist in the show, a gangster that flashes you a smile before gunning you down. It was that politeness that stuck out the most, because it meant that you could never know what to expect from him. Throughout the first season of the show, we learned there was much more to him than just being a murdering mafia boss — he wields some of the magical "Wu" of the show's title and had a soft spot for his stepson, Kai, played by Iko Uwais. Unfortunately, the two of them are on opposite sides... and magic eventually clashed.
Mann is a veteran of many genre projects, including Street Fighter, The Man with the Iron Fists, The Expanse, Altered Carbon, and plenty more. SYFY WIRE caught up with him to talk about his role in Wu Assassins, how he latched on to Uncle Six, the Altered Carbon experience, and what the future might hold for him.
**SPOILER WARNING: There will be spoilers ahead for Season 1 of Wu Assassins. If you haven't seen it and do not wish to be spoiled, then look away fast!**
Mann became involved with Wu Assassins after working with producers John Wirth and Chad Oakes on the series Hell on Wheels. He describes that show as a career highlight, adding that the entire series was full of great writing. The Hell on Wheels train led Mann directly to the magical world of Wu.
"Chad Oakes had actually alerted me a couple of months before they started filming that there's something in Wu Assassins," Mann says. "They said we're doing a new series, we'd love to work with you. I said, 'what is it?' They said they can't say right now, but just hang in there.
After about six months, he hammered out a deal, even without much insight into the show or role.
"I kind of said yes before I even read the script," he admits. "I knew that it would be great, and I know John [Wirth] has a really high standard for the writing. I really didn't have much of an idea of who Uncle Six would be, or what the show was. I didn't even know that it had supernatural elements, I kind of got struck with these things as it went along."
With all of that in mind, did they write the role of Uncle Six with Mann in mind? As he says, "Yes, they did, as I understand."
Six is an antagonist for sure, which might make it difficult for an actor to latch onto something that they can relate to in order for the character to become real. Sometimes this begins with something personal that then moves outward, but many great characters have begun with the outward-moving-in approach, such as Ian McShane finding that the perfect coat was the key to Mr. Wednesday on American Gods.
For Mann, there was a journey in both directions — though help initially came from a place we didn't expect.
"Okay, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. I'm going to tell you a little story to preface this," Mann says when asked about his inspiration. "A long time ago I worked with James Foley, who did At Close Range and Glengarry Glen Ross. I did The Corrupter with him. He told me a story about Christopher Walken, the great Christopher Walken. They were shooting At Close Range.
"He said for some reason Chris Walken didn't feel comfortable all day filming. Finally, he said 'hey, what's the problem, Chris?' And Chris said, 'I've got the wrong bowling shoes on. They're just the wrong shoes. You need to give me the right shoe.' They searched for half a day to get him the right bowling shoe, and once he got on the right bowling shoe, he was electric."
This led Mann to tell us what his own bowling shoe is.
"My bowling shoe is actually my hair," Mann reveals. "My gateway into my characters is always the hairdo. If the hair is not right, everything falls apart for me. Everyone wears their hair differently, every character wears their hair differently. It took me a while just to figure it out, and I experimented with the hair department head, Charmaine Clark."
Facial hair was experimented with as well but ultimately wasn't the right fit.
"For whatever reason, that was the gateway into entering Uncle Six. Sometimes it's internal, sometimes it's external," Mann explains. "For me, I think a lot of it had to do with the hair. And we finally had the right hair going, and it set the tone for the whole thing. It just felt right."
Mann had some insight into the character that came from a deeper place, as well.
As he says, "Internally, because I have acquaintances, I have friends who are in this world, who were in this world...these are people that I know, most of them are businessmen, they are family men, they are very loyal, very charismatic, they are leaders of men basically. I did not want to portray a stereotypical mustache-twirling villain, that's the trope.
"What I wanted to do was portray someone who was real, who had dimensions. Luckily, they wrote it that way. They wrote him to be, obviously, a family man. He had a soft spot for his adopted son. Those are the things that organically were in the script, so it wasn't hard to go there, either."
So was the politeness and the effortless status that Mann portrayed (and struck us so much) intentional?
"It's in real life. I know some of these characters, they're very nice people, until you steal money from them, or until you really hurt them. Then you'll feel their wrath," Mann says. "Otherwise, most of these people, or anyone who is in a power position, they don't need to be not-nice. They have people who do not-nice things to you. They are generally nice and cordial, and they are people-people. I've played different types of Triad leaders before, but I think for me, looking back, the challenge, the ambition, was to play someone who was real."
One thing that is a little less real about Uncle Six (as far as we know) is the fiery Wu magic he uses. How did the gestures of the Wu and the magical fight choreography come to be?
Mann explains: "It was a combination of some of John Wirth's thoughts, some from the special effects supervisor, and myself. Before we shot, in rehearsal, we would talk. How would this happen, how would he incinerate these two guys in the first episode? The fight with Iko [Uwais] in Episode 4, how would he send a fireball over?
"During the fights no one thought about it, but during the fight, I have to send this fireball 30 feet away," Mann adds. "How would that happen, what would that look like? I said hey guys, I played a character like twenty years ago who also had a fireball, that was Ryu in Street Fighter. I said 'guys, we need to make sure it doesn't look the same, or else people might get confused.' I said 'just make sure it's a little bit different.'"
Because of their detailed preparation, the finished product was not surprising for Mann, but he still says that it "was very cool to see it."
Because we're huge fans of Altered Carbon (and Mann's work in the first season of it), we had to get into that as well. Mann seems (rightfully) proud of the work they all did on that show.
"It was a monumental challenge, in the best possible way," he says. "It was a very secretive project, it was very ambitious and a very expensive project. I love doing these first shows, first seasons of a show because nobody knows what to expect. You're working in a bubble, nobody's heard of your show when you're doing it, obviously, so in some ways, it's very exciting. So they're no expectations.
"I knew it would be something special, I just didn't know how special it would be," he adds. "It wasn't an easy show to make by any stretch of the imagination."
He likely couldn't tell us if we might see him on the show again, but still — might he be appearing in Season 2 of the show? Unfortunately, Mann's answer to that was, "Not that I know of."
With all of the genre work on his resume, does Mann hope to continue the trend in the future, or did he just accidentally stumble on a niche?
"I've been in this business for 20 years, and in 20 years I'd never done sci-fi, I think the first sci-fi I did was The Expanse, and quickly after that, it was Altered Carbon," Mann says. "I don't seek it out, I'm not a super sci-fi person, it just kind of comes and goes. Am I looking forward to more? I'm very open to it."
"It's all about the story," he adds. "If it's a story that's interesting, a story that's well-told, it kind of doesn't matter if it's sci-fi or action or thriller. A good story is a good story."