Chipo Chung, who plays the Master on AMC’s Into the Badlands, talks about her character's own dark self and the Master's relationship to the Gift.
Q: Miles Millar and Al Gough mentioned how the Master always plays a significant role in the storyline, even when we don’t see her on the screen. What drew you to her when joining the show?
A: I loved Season 1 of the show and I was totally psyched to play the Master. We have that cliff-hanger at the end [of Season 1] when M.K. is abducted and that’s where he’s going – he’s going to her. She is omniscient, right? Even when she’s not there, she could be there. [Laughs] She has the capacity to put her mind in places and sort through where the Dark Ones are. She has these powers that are goddess-like. It’s not every day you get to play a role like this. It was a real treat. I’m a real fan of classical drama and classical mythology and it’s one of the things I love about the show. Minerva is like a futuristic imagining of the goddess Athena and Quinn’s world is so 15th century. I loved that. And, of course, the Master as an archetype is so huge in Chinese mythology and Chinese kung fu. To be asked to play this character is to really create a character who is a legend.
Q: How did you prepare for the fighting aspect of the show? Was anything special required for the scenes where your Gift is turned on?
A: I missed fight camp, which I was devastated by, but I was grateful that prior to Badlands I have trained in kung fu for 10 years in a Shaolin system in the U.K. called Nam Pai Chuan. I hadn’t been training for a while, but I was so grateful that with something like kung fu, it stays in your body. The Master’s style is very classical and circular. As far as the Gift is concerned, really the only special requirement was to use your imagination. Technology is so advanced now that they do all the special effects on sight. They don’t need a green screen for a lot of them, so you just have to go with what’s in your mind. For me, the Master’s practice as a teacher has to do with the internal martial arts, which is dealing with your shadow and subconscious side. We are our own worst enemy. My personal trainer was a kung fu master, but also an expert in tai chi. While I was shooting, that’s what led me to feel authentic in the Master’s meditative style.
Q: Pilgrim and the Master are the most powerful players in the Badlands and they both view the Gift completely differently. What do you make of their differences in perspectives?
A: Badlands is about power and the struggle for power. At its highest level, it’s people who have the power of the gods. The Master has these god-like qualities, like the ability to heal herself. She’s lived a lot longer than anyone else and still looks very young, so somewhere in there she’s found the helix to eternal life. [Laughs] One of the things I love about the show is that it struggles with what makes us human – politics, war, religion, psychology, spirituality. With Pilgrim’s gift, he’s evangelical. He’s converting people and building an army behind him whereas the Master is reclusive. She draws individuals into her world. Pilgrim even says she wasted her gift by hiding on the mountain. To me, they’re yin and yang. He’s really about the outside world and she’s really about the internal world. What do you do with your power? Do you use it to influence and have power over other people or master yourself and teach others to master themselves?
Q: The Master seems somewhat conflicted about her choice to create Sleepers. How do you think she justifies that decision?
A: To be honest, I was really uncertain about her in Season 2. I walked an ambivalent line. Yes, she wants to help the Dark Ones, but it is really a dark part of her decision-making that she does this to young people. M.K. has a point in being really disappointed in her and scared of her. I think there has to be some discomfort around that for her, but I think the resolution is really that this is her shadow side. You see M.K.’s and the Widow’s shadow side in the mirror chamber, but the Master’s shadow is very much in the Monastery and with these kids who have been paralyzed. I guess her Achilles' heel is that she wants to help people, but she’s really a controlling person. This control comes from fear and her own experiences as a child with the dangers of the Gift. That’s really her wound.
A: Bajie and Minerva come back to her. There’s something very whole about that, but I think what really destroys her in the end is M.K. It’s really tragic for her. She’s someone who rescues children and she really failed him. He’s a particularly powerful Dark One. Of all the ones to get away, she really lost him. That weighs on her as it would on any mother or mother superior.
Q: That being said, was it any surprise that M.K. is the one that takes her life in Episode 13?
A: I thought it was a great choice. It’s much more powerful that it’s M.K. that kills her than Pilgrim, who she has no relationship with. She has almost a tenderness towards M.K. because she recognizes there’s something special about this kid. That’s the great tragedy – this kid we’re all rooting for in the beginning turns truly dark. Poetically, I thought it was a beautiful choice.
Q: The Master’s last dying wish is for the Widow to create a world without masters. What brings this request on, coming from a master herself?
A: The Master is quite different in that last scene. It’s not quite the same reality. There seems to be an acknowledgment on her part of her shortcomings. In the unveiling of what she’s done to the Sleepers, she does learn something. She does believe that the way she was constructing her reality was, in some ways, wrong. I do feel there’s something lighter about her. By acknowledging her faults, she transcends. There is a shadow side to her on Earth and in the purgatory space. She’s worked through something. For her to be that zen in the end, she had to have done some inner work.
Q: What will you take from your time on the show and spending so much time in the beautiful Abbot Monastery? Any favorite moments or fights?
A: I have so much love for the show. It’s been a fantasy come true. If there was an Olympics for stunts, the whole team is gold. My fantasy has always been to be on a wire and I got to do that and check that off of my bucket list. My relationships with the other actors are very special. I was a big fan of the Widow since Season 1, so I loved that I got to kick her ass in the Widow-versus-Master scene. This was also my third major job with Babou Ceesay. We came up in London together and he’s one of my best friends. It was hilarious to find ourselves in different outfits and doing kung fu. I’m in awe of the creativity of Miles and Al and their aesthetic tastes and palette for artistry. They’re really artists with a huge canvas. They’ve made a classic.
Read an interview with Ally Ioannides, who plays Tilda.
Into the Badlands airs Mondays at 10/9c.
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