Samantha Win: Can’t Knock Her Down

This actress and martial artist can't be beat—quite literally

Words by Lauren W.

Mixed Asian Media: JoySauce is proud to present something very special—a partnership with the ultra talented team over at Mixed Asian Media. In JoySauce’s mission to cover stories from the Asian American and Pacific Islander diaspora, we’ve always considered it incredibly important to include mixed AA+PI perspectives. Since their team already has that piece on lock, we’re delighted they were willing to join forces to help us share even more fresh, funny, interesting, irreverent stories each week. Take it away, MAM!

Kryptonian. Amazonian. Actual walking lethal weapon. In a world where #StopAsianHate is a necessary movement, Samantha Win is a mixed-Asian actress and martial artist who cannot be knocked down. Recently having starred in her Netflix movie, Army of the Dead, Samantha joined us for an exclusive photoshoot and interview.

For our community meeting you for the first time, what is your ethnic mix?

Lucky for us, I can confirm from my recent 23andMe test that I am very much split 50/50. On my Dad's side I am 50% Chinese Southeast Asian — with my family living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and southern China. On my Mom's side I'm 50% Northwestern European — British, Irish, French and German. However, to keep things simple, and true to what cultures I've grown up with, I identify as a proud Chinese Canadian.

Apart from identifying as Chinese Canadian, you’re a martial artist who represented the Canadian National Wushu Team at the 2008 Olympic Wushu Competition. From our understanding, this was an exhibition of the sport. Can you tell us about your experience and what it meant to you?

First and foremost, I treasure my experiences competing in Wushu because they’re a strong connection to my Chinese roots. Wushu is actually China's national sport, and so I really got to develop a sense of pride in what I was doing, and how it was accepted and appreciated by my community. So from a personal standpoint, Wushu is a huge part of who I am today. When it comes to the Olympics specifically, it was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. Because the 2008 Olympics were hosted by Beijing, China was able to include Wushu in an exhibitionary capacity and only the top athletes, and those who medaled at the 2007 World Championships, would be allowed to compete. We stayed in the Olympic Village with the world's top athletes — and it was a long road to qualify from the National, Pan American, and then World stage to get there, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. I trained until I thought I couldn't do it anymore, but then I overcame those physical and emotional breakdowns and learned that my limits were only in my head. I'll remember that in everything I do now.

I didn’t know that Wushu was China’s national sport. It changes the context for everything I knew about you as an actress with a martial arts background. Given the trajectory of your training from stunt work, to then acting, it shocked me how it’s this beautiful cultural constant in your life. Carrying that with you, even as an actress, you’re always flexing that cultural tie to your ethnicity. Can you speak more on that through the lens of relating to your cultural identity? Are there any other influences that your ethnicity has in your work?

I think uniquely because I’m Hapa, not only do I sometimes have the insecurity on the Caucasian side of, “Oh, I’m part Asian,” but also on the Asian side of, “Oh, I’m part Caucasian” — which is not like the people around me in this environment either. Being able to say that I heavily competed in Wushu, and having it be such a big part of my life that I carry with me, almost feels like a rite of passage, especially in the Wushu environment, where a lot of the other competitors were full Chinese. They would be speaking Cantonese or Mandarin when we were training, and I kind of wouldn’t understand because I grew up in a small town in Canada. I tried to learn Chinese, but apparently it didn’t stick, and so in that environment, I definitely had the insecurities of not knowing where I stood when I wasn’t quite like everyone else. So, moving forward in the industry, I feel like at least being a part of Wushu almost made me feel entitled to identify with being Chinese. I know I am half-Chinese, but it’s allowing yourself to be a part of that group. Especially now with how important it is that the AAPI community stands together, I feel like I can actually be with the community and have a right to be there. I don’t know if it sounds silly, but it’s kind of the internal reality for me.

I think that’s relatable, and I definitely know what you mean. That's part of the reason we have the magazine, to talk about that very niche feeling.

It’s like when someone asks, “Oh, you’re Chinese? Have you eaten crickets off a stick in China?” It’s one of those things where you need to prove how Chinese you are, or how Asian you are, by having done certain landmark things. And because Wushu is so loved, and it’s the national sport in China, I can say I’ve got it.

Would you say it’s given you lifelong confidence as well? It sounds like that was a foundation for your confidence, and you still carry it with you.

Yeah, I think in a more general sense when it comes to my confidence as a human being, and my strength and knowing who I am, that has been the foundation for probably my entire personality. In a cultural sense, it helped, but on a personal level it was probably even greater. Any kind of physical training like that at such a young age really teaches kids work ethic and perseverance. Once you’re an adult, in hindsight, you’re like, “Wow, it’s probably because my mom made me hold a plank position for 20 minutes as a punishment instead of sending me to time out.” True story.

Being an athlete for functionally your entire life, and moving away from stunt acting, how does that background inform your process and your day-to-day? Have you kept up your regimens? How much of that is still in your current lifestyle?

It has certainly informed the way I treat challenges in life. I think it's so valuable that when it comes to physical challenges, you have to train to get stronger and better. There's no way around it. You have to do the work. So even though my challenges are more creative and emotional now, it's become a healthy habit of mine to "do the work." In acting, that means reading plays, watching films, reading about psychology, rehearsing, experimenting. When it comes to keeping my old training regimens though, guilty as charged! There's no way I could have kept that up. My training will fluctuate along with the kinds of characters I'm playing. I think I've accepted that I no longer have to be in the best shape of my life, and that along with new goals, I'll have new priorities. Staying healthy and active is definitely a priority... but that is shared with acting, training, studying, and good ol' living! Life experience is an actor's best friend.

Can you tell us about your dynamic transitions from martial artist to professional stunt woman to Blockbuster movie star?

It feels like such a compliment to have my career characterized as having "dynamic transitions." Thank you! Along with all of the changes, came a lot of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure. The first transition from martial arts into stunt work was easier, in the sense that it was more typical for stunt coordinators to find fresh athletes, and so the jobs were there... just my skills were not! I had a lot to learn when it came to dancing with the camera and learning set etiquette. So this transition consisted of constant worrying about how I was doing and if my bosses were happy, in addition to being a vulnerable 18 year old out on her own and finding herself. The transitions from stunt work to acting were quite the opposite. I felt I had a solid base of set experience and confidence in myself from my time doing stunts, but the fear of security was very strong. I had carried with me that "all or nothing" attitude from my training days, and so I decided that I would stop stunt work altogether. I had a lot of fear that I may not be able to establish myself all over again and accepted that I may not be able to make my financial living through the industry anymore. Add in a divorce, and I don't know how I kept the faith. But due to a lot of help and support from friends and colleagues along the way — Damon Caro, Zack Snyder, Tim Rigby, Kristy Carlson and many more — I was gifted the opportunity to show my work as an actress. Many people don't know that I actually started acting and auditioning when I was 11, so it has been a long, slow grind. But luckily, I'm no stranger to putting in the work.

While your bonafides speak for themselves, an interesting throughline to the last ten years of your career is your friendship with director Zack Snyder, you even starred in a personal project of his, the short film Snow Steam Iron, a few years ago. How did that relationship cultivate? Also, we have to highlight, we’re very fortunate to have two members of the Snyder family involved in this feature, as Willow Snyder also contributed makeup to your photoshoot!

I had first met Zack on his film Suckerpunch. I was hired by Damon Caro to be the stunt double for Jena Malone's "Rocket," and I was fresh out of high school. I actually completed my Canadian high school exams while in L.A, prepping. My relationship for the first many projects was through Damon Caro, and so I'm sure I was more shy and looked up to Zack in a more mystical super-idol kind of way. Though he graciously wrote me a letter when I was applying for my permanent residence, I didn't have any other communication outside of filming. I've always valued, beyond words, everything I was learning on his and Debbie's sets, and so I think they felt that love when they learned I was interested in acting and began to allow me opportunities to perform in that new capacity. Snow Steam Iron was the first project Zack reached out directly for, and I quite literally cried tears of joy, feeling so grateful and honored — I hope he doesn't see this! I'm sure he knows though. From there, the opportunities have grown, along with my immeasurable love and respect for the Snyders. And I mean all of them! You mentioned Willow, who is an extraordinary makeup artist and collaborated for our shoot. It's a very family oriented work environment, and you can feel the love.

And now you’re making your Netflix debut alongside Zack Snyder with Army of the Dead, which releases this week. This is your first lead role. What was it like for you?

Preparing to film was fantastically fun for me. I got to experience a lot of firsts when it came to my involvement in certain character decisions — like style, hair, and relationships. Also, the training for the zombie slaying turned us all into over-excited 12 years olds, role-playing and falling into fits of laughter. The filming itself presented me with some nerves. We had such a diversely talented cast, it was difficult to ignore a serious case of imposter syndrome in the first few days. Standing before Hiroyuki Sanada paralyzed me just a tad! But the entire cast was so supportive to each other, that feeling quickly went away. I do believe it starts at the top, and Zack consistently creates a positive environment that feels safe to explore and grow in. I felt myself grow tremendously on this project and am excited to tackle the next chapter.

Can you tease anything fun about the movie? Anything in particular you are most excited for people to see?

One thing I quite enjoyed was the film's unfettered, opening credits sequence. I'll let you all watch to see what I mean!

As for the Netflix of it all, was there anything unique about this production being under their banner?

One thing about Army of the Dead, aside from it being a film that crosses so many different genres — zombie, action, heist, thriller, comedy — is that it also crosses so many international barriers, and I think it’s thanks to Netflix and its global brand. It’s really made such an effort to include a wide, diverse view of people when it comes to nationalities and ethnicities. Each person actually has their moment too. It’s not like we cast these minorities, or people from a foreign country, and then they’re barely seen, but we use them for marketing purposes. It very much is a true ensemble film where everyone is highlighted and felt included, and there was a lot of love on set between the cast because of that.

So now that you have transitioned into a leading actress, what’s on your horizon? What are you looking forward to?

For the time being, I'm looking forward to tackling these more substantial roles and would like to play in this world for a while. I'd love to use more of these tools I've been sharpening and dive into more characters. If we're talking long game, I do enjoy writing and creating in a “behind the camera” sense as well, so I've been experimenting and trying on new hats with smaller budgets. I just released a short film titled Unwelcome that I co-wrote and produced with my partner, Shahaub Roudbari, and plan on creating more under our Prime Mate Films banner.

It feels like poetry to meet someone like you — someone who has played literal heroes and warriors on screen — during this time, when there’s a lot of sorrow in the API community because of all these race-driven hate crimes. How are you coping throughout this? How are you affected as a person of Asian descent? What is giving you energy in spite of it all?

I suppose I'm coping in the heartbeat of our API community. In my strong moments, I feel so proud of our community for coming together, supporting each other, speaking out, and organizing to make real change. In the harder moments, I feel scared for my family, for our elderly, and for our future as a united nation. My heart is broken over and over again, but I know that in this moment, our strength is needed. Continuing to educate and lead those who are misguided and finding the courage to post, speak, and spread our message is paramount. Now is not the time to stay silent. And I gain my strength in the growing number of [non API] supporters who have joined the mission with compassion and humanity. Thank you.

Lastly, is there anything you wish people would ask you?

I wish someone would ask me about my parents! I get asked about Zack a lot, but I'd love to take the opportunity to share a bit about them. When they met, my mom was a gorgeous blonde-haired, blue-eyed, identical twin, librarian cheerleader, and my dad was an immigrant drummer with too-tight pants, a killer mustache, a thick Chinese accent, and confidence. They were the first of their families to marry outside of their cultures, and I'm so proud of them and who they are today. My Mom is the most loving, supportive, black-belt badass, and my Dad is her rock and our family's silly bone. I haven't been able to travel back to Canada to visit since the pandemic hit, so they're on my mind and in my heart everyday. I love you Mom and Dad!

This story was originally published on Mixed Asian Media in June 2021. 

Published on August 25, 2022

Words by Lauren W.

Lauren W. is a contributor for Mixed Asian Media.

Photography by Patrik Giardino