RZA speaks about his new office-bound lifestyle with reverence — the grind and mundanity, structure and camaraderie. The writers’ room for Hulu’s new original series, Wu-Tang: An American Saga, is, in his words, a utopian ideal. He describes working on the show with words like “sacred” and “therapy.” From October 2018 to January 2019, he traded in the 10-member brotherhood of the Wu-Tang Clan for a 10-person writing staff writing a 10-episode season of television. And what RZA cherished most of all were the coffee runs.
“The Starbucks guy would be like, ‘What the fuck is RZA doing over there with all these motherfuckers?'” he says, laughing. “But that was one of the beautiful things, that daily walk to Starbucks. We were all was just who we were. After we come back into the room, we keep cracking it.”
It’s a sticky, humid June day outside of a vacant Staten Island prison (I’m told it’s where Orange Is The New Black was partially filmed). In a cavernous cell block sits a recreation of RZA’s childhood home. It’s the same as it was when he was still Bobby Diggs, covered in the pop-culture ephemera — tattered copies of Marvel’s Heroes for Hire comics on the floor; posters for kung-fu movies that may or may not be real (Imposter Jaguar, Gilded Samurai), hung next to a period-specific TV — that would inform 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), launching his career. Nestled in a back room, the 50-year-old architect of the Wu lounges on a couch and reminisces about reminiscing. It took four months, to crack the initial story as RZA and the Wu detailed their mistakes, trauma, and eventual triumphs to a writers’ room tasked with condensing six years into a single season of TV.
“I was telling them one story about one of my first girlfriends I fell in love with, and everything about her,” RZA says. “I’m getting really serious about it. I was 14, first crush, first love… She end up moving to Portland, Oregon, with her family. I was planning on going out to see her. I became the RZA, and I was passing through town. I thought I would hook up with her and shit, and they found her dead in a ditch. Unsolved murder.”
“The whole fucking room laughed,” he says in disbelief, almost laughing himself. “I said, ‘Hold on. What the fuck?’ They said, ‘Nah, man. We didn’t expect that ending of your fucking story.’ I said, ‘Y’all fucked up.’ But that’s the kind of room it is.”
Wu-Tang Clan: American Saga was a decade in the making and caps off a year of self-mythologizing for the iconic group that’s included a Showtime documentary and a 25th anniversary tour. Co-created by RZA and Alex Tse and based on 2009’s The Tao of Wu — an autobiographical, philosophy book centered on RZA’s formation of the Wu — it arrives at a time when music biopics and Wu-Tang nostalgia are both at their peak. Initially envisioned as a four-part series, the project quickly ballooned into a Sisyphean effort to condense and dramatize years of complex relationships into a cohesive, season-long narrative. At the beginning of American Saga, the members of the Wu are enemies navigating the crack epidemic and the small, competitive drug-dealing territory of Staten Island. Between the shootouts and feuds, there are small moments featuring the members’ childhood abuse, bouts with homelessness, and the death of close friends. For a group that built their personas on kung-fu movie villains and comic-book superheroes, it’s a heartrending portrait of the men without their masks.
Throughout the day, the young actors meant to represent Wu-Tang’s past cycle in and out of a cramped room: Ashton Sanders (RZA), Shameik Moore (Raekwon), Siddiq Saunderson (Ghostface Killah), Julian Elijah Martinez (Divine). Very few of these men look like the members of the Wu-Tang Clan they’re portraying. Moore’s slender face and prominent jaw are the complete opposite of Raekwon’s meaty and imposing scowl. Similarly, Saunderson looks more like a Nineties Calvin Klein model than the menacing visage of Ghostface Killah. Apparently, one of the spoils of victory after 25 years as rap legends is the ability to rewrite history — at least aesthetically.
But even between scenes, each actor mirrors the characteristics of the Wu-Tang members they portray while in conversation. Sanders exudes RZA’s zen-like calm, Saunderson deploys a disarming charm worthy of Ghostface, and Moore definitely has Raekwon’s intimidating competitive streak.
“The most challenging thing, if anything, is being number three on the call sheet,” Moore says. “It’s like I’m a supporting role. The most challenging thing is being OK with the role that I play.” He starred in the upcoming RZA-directed film Cut Throat City and says he developed an “uncle-nephew” relationship with the musician and director, which eventually led to his role on American Saga.
“I steal the scene every time,” Moore says. “I’m saying that humbly, because it’s what I do. Also, try to make sure I’m not acting. I think the best actor is the one that’s not acting.” He explains, “They put me in the fat suit. I make sure I have the side waves like Raekwon. I have to move like Raekwon. They gave me the grills like Raekwon. I met Raekwon. So I make sure I have how he handles himself down. Then I stick to the lines. I have my New York accent. I know the Wu slang. All of it put together allows me to just exist on camera instead of pretend. A lot of actors are pretending.”
At the heart of Wu-Tang: An American Saga is the dichotomy of the Wu, the tightrope between their familial loyalty and unflinching brutality. In the span of a few episodes, Dennis “Ghostface Killah” Coles transitions from lovingly taking care of his brothers with muscular dystrophy to burning part of a man’s face off in anger. It’s all played with a smoldering menace by Saunderson. “I met [Ghostface] one time. We had a dinner with production,” Saunderson says, “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Make sure they don’t make me look corny.’ That’s all he kept saying. ‘I don’t want to be off no corny shit.'”
Ghostface was one of the members hellbent on not shaving the edges off his character. Next to RZA, his role is the most integral — often the most violent — in American Saga’s opening episodes. To get approval for the show, members of the Wu ran through an internal procedure to fact-check the parts of their life that make up the season. That presented its own challenges. After experiencing the process for himself, RZA needed to coach an unsure Ghostface through how it would go.
“I called like, ‘Listen, we got this lady gon’ call you. I want to give you a little pre-empting. It’s going to feel like a cop,'” RZA says, before dipping into a perfect Ghostface impression. “She called him, and he called me back like, ‘Yo, man, that bitch was cop. I didn’t know what to say, yo. She started asking me shit, man… Yo, son, I was like, “Yo, that shit is real,” you know what I mean? But I ain’t tell her all the other bad shit I was doing.’”
“He wanted his character to be worse,” RZA continues. “‘I fucked that nigga up. I did that.’ I’m like, ‘Listen, man. Cool out. We’re not trying to make you the worst guy in the world, because nobody gonna fucking roll with you… I know what you did, nigga, I was right there. But we don’t want every bit of your dirt.'”
Surprisingly, it’s the act of RZA, Alex Tse, the writers, and actors mixing fact with fiction that ultimately provided one of the most humanizing looks at the Wu. “Certain things you don’t talk about,” RZA says of the personal history that peppers some of American Saga’s darkest moments. “I think as you get older that if you don’t say it, it dies with you. Let it out.”