Ashton Sanders, Zolee Griggs, Johnell Young & cast – Reliving Wu-Tang Forever
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Ashton Sanders, Zolee Griggs, Johnell Young, Siddiq Saunderson, Marcus Callender, Uyoata Udi, Shameik Moore, Damani Sease & Julian Elijah Martinez
Reliving Wu-Tang Forever
By Kayla Marra
Iconic rap group The Wu-Tang Clan took the 90s by storm with classic songs such as “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Da Mystery of Cheeseboxin’,” “Duck Seazon,” and many more.
The group was formed in 1991 in Staten Island, New York. It comprised of GZA, RZA, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and Masta Killa.
All these year later, Hulu’s original series Wu-Tang: An American Saga highlights the trials and tribulations the members of the group went through amid the cocaine epidemic in the 1990s. During the first season, we saw how Bobby Diggs’ (RZA’s) passion for music drives him. That same passion finally brings the members of The Wu-Tang Clan together in the second season, streaming on Hulu starting September 8, 2021.
We were lucky enough to speak with most of the cast on Zoom leading up to the new episodes. These co-stars included Ashton Sanders playing Bobby Diggs (RZA), Julian Elijah Martinez playing Mitchell Diggs (Divine, RZA’s brother), Marcus Callender playing Oliver Grant (Power), Uyoata Udi playing Jason Richard Hunter (Inspectah Deck), Zolee Griggs playing Shurrie Diggs (RZA’s sister), Shameik Moore playing Corey Woods (Raekwon), Damani Sease playing Lamont Jody Hawkins (U-God), Siddiq Saunderson playing Dennis Coles (Ghostface Killah), and Johnell Young playing Gary Earl Rice (GZA). They discussed how they prepared for their roles, how they got involved with a hit series, what it was like working with Wu-Tang member RZA, and much more.
Congratulations on the tremendous success of Wu-Tang: An American Saga, as well as the second season coming out in just a couple of weeks. How did you get involved with such a popular series?
Ashton Sanders: That is a great question, Kayla. It's a throwback question, actually. I initially had a meeting with RZA in Los Angeles. It was RZA and one of the producing partners on the show, Alex Tse. RZA brought me in. He had just seen me in Equalizer 2 with Denzel Washington. He essentially was like, "Yo, there's something about that character, that I feel. I see a lot of a lot of Bobby. I would love for you to come in and make this happen.” So that happened, the show happened. And yeah, now we're here. It's all been a very crazy ride. It's all been very special. Like you said, the group is very iconic. I'm 25. At the time, when I got the part, I was 23. I had to really dive in and really get into the group. I only knew so much. When you do [get to know the group], you start to realize why they were so iconic, why they were moving to coach me so much. Then you put on the character, and you are feeling like you're living the lives of these people. You're able to appreciate them more on a deeper level outside of the music. It's been special, man. I love it.
Zolee Griggs: Back in 2018, I got an audition for a show. Of course, hearing that Wu-Tang was having a show about their lives captivated me immediately. A lot of people don't know much about the Wu-Tang Clan, so that was the first thing that got me. I auditioned and I was lucky enough to get a callback. Then I did a chemistry read with Siddiq [Saunderson], which was the first time we met. I got the role right before Christmas, so I call it an early Christmas gift! I'm super appreciative that we've made it this far.
Johnell Young: It really started with Instagram. I saw them post the script. Alex Tse posted a script on Instagram, somebody posted a script with him, and I screen grabbed it. I was like, "What about Wu-Tang clan?" This is about where I'm from, Staten Island. This is about iconic legends where I'm from. I'm like, "Yo, I got to get these opportunities." So I basically went made a video as the GZA that went viral on Instagram. All the Wu-Tang Clan members saw it, and my manager wound up getting me a read for it. Then once I got the read, I flew out to LA. Once I got to LA, I was on my homeboy's couch, I was like "Yo, bro, I got to stay for the night." I just auditioned the morning and killed it. The next thing I know, RZA's calling me like, "Yo, I need you to come to set this day." I pulled up, I didn't know if I got it or not. I didn't know what was going on. Me and my mom just pulled up and he [RZA] was like, "Yo I seen that video man. Yo, everybody say congratulations, man. He's playing my cousin in the show." I looked at my mother like all I just freaked out. It was one of the craziest days. They were rolling, so I was like, "Oh snap." It was great. It was a great introduction to Wu-Tang: An American Saga.
Siddiq Saunderson: Audition. In season one, I was just starting to book roles and stuff like that. I got an opportunity to audition for Wu-Tang: American Saga, an audition for a role named Dennis. I did not originally know [it] was Ghostface Killah, which I think actually helped me because I trained at drama school. In drama school, we learn that it's in the script, a lot of the answers are in the script. Yes, you make things up, but a lot is in the script. Starting from the script, and starting from Dennis, and honoring that, I think is what got me the role. I wasn't really worried about trying to put on this or that or something to in order to play him. I just was honoring what I saw on the page. I just had a couple of auditions, had a couple of callbacks and then was blessed to be a part of one of the biggest, most iconic hip hop families and music families of all time. So, that was my story.
Marcus Callender: The real way auditioning for it, I got a callback, and then I tested.
You went through the motions!
Marcus Callender: I went through the motions.
Uyoata Udi: I think mine was the most interesting of all. My manager was on the hunt for this audition like four months prior, even hitting the breakdowns. She sent it over to me. I was working on so many other things and I was focused on that. Once it came my way, I jumped on it did it. Literally, it went like one day I got booked in the morning. Then they were looking for a flight for me to fly out, to get to New Jersey that night. It was such an amazing process in the grand scheme of it. When I flew out to New Jersey, I met RZA. His first comment was, "Yo, I didn't choose you, I chose you in my mind, but I left that right to Inspectah Deck. Inspectah Deck chose you.” I think that my character choosing me was an honor and a blessing.
How did you prepare yourself for this role?
Ashton Sanders: I didn't allow myself to put any pressure on. For me, I try to hold humanity within every character that I put on. I just wanted to get to the most human part of him. Not put on a celebrity, what people perceive him to be, like, really get it. The corporate spirit, almost. It's spending time with the RZA, having those conversations. It's outside of all of the research that you have to do. You have to dig back in the archives, do a lot of background work – watch videos. Although RZA is still alive, he's very much not the same person he was in Wu-Tang, as he is now being this 40-year-old man. It's taking all of that into account, right, and just collectively putting that on. Trying it out until it works, and if it doesn't, it doesn't. It was definitely cool to have RZA on set with me, especially through that initial first season to guide me. This season came back around. I'm super excited for it. I think there's a lot of growth within this character of Bobby that we see within all of the guys actually. It's very much a story of brotherhood. We've seen these guys come together and finally, form Master Wu-Tang Clan. We finally see Bobby transition into RZA. We finally see Ason transition into ODB. We finally see Dennis transition into Ghostface Killah. It's very exciting, man, I think it's going to be a very exciting season. This one is more a music-based season. We're focusing more on 36 Chambers this season. I think the fans are going to be excited. Everybody involved is really stoked for this to come out.
Zolee Griggs: I was fortunate enough to meet with one of RZA's sisters. Her name was Sophia. She, Erika [Alexander], and I had to sit down and get lunch one time. We were able to discuss the dynamic of the family and those close-knit relationships, whether it was between the mom and the sisters, or just the sisters with all the brothers and how they lived in their daily lives. That gave me great insight, of course. Then also bringing in my own experience as a woman, because even though I am playing somebody else, all women can relate to Shurrie and the dynamic that she has with her mom, or her relationship with Dennis, or even her brothers. It's easy to implement my own experience into her character and into the role. Working with such great co-stars makes it that much easier as well.
Johnell Young: It was fortunate that my clan member is still alive. I got a chance to text GZA and speak to him. Pick his mind every now and then and then go to his performances in Coney Island. Endless nights of just watching YouTube and researching and listening to music, listening to albums just to see what his mind and his mindset was at those certain times around '93-'94 ish. I'm from Staten Island, so I've been studying them since I was young. All of that mixed together prepared me to actually play this role.
Shameik Moore: I didn't really do a lot of preparing to be honest with you, I had to demand to meet Raekwon. I had the opportunity to [speak with him]. RZA called me and told me he wanted me to be in the show. I was blessed with the opportunity for him to call me, but that meant that I didn't have like the research in me. I was like, wait, I had to do everything he said. I think the main thing was that I needed to meet Raekwon, and I did meet Raekwon. That's where my answers were. How he walks, how he ate his food, when he didn't respond when it was just a look. All the little details. There's stuff that an actor studying someone that he's playing would pay attention to.
Damani Sease: For me, it was really watching YouTube interviews, some performing. Studying his mannerisms and reading these books. Most importantly, reading his book because all these other books aren't from his perspective. Reading his book, I'm seeing everything. And honestly, talking to him on the phone, finding out more stuff because there may be some things that he didn't want to put [in the book]. Talking to his son, too, really helped a lot with my performance.
Siddiq Saunderson: For me, like they both said, obviously YouTube. I tried to find the earliest interviews that I could find. For me, my process, I didn't find that it was as useful to find more recent interviews, because I'm not playing him then. All people evolve. I'm not the same Siddiq I was 10 years ago. If somebody was playing me 10 years ago, I wouldn't really want them to study me now. I would want them to study me back to then. Speaking of Ghostface, we honestly didn't really speak about the show. When we did talk, we spoke more about just life. I was really trying to figure out, subconsciously, how do my life values line up with his. A lot of the things were very parallel so that just made me trust myself and trust my instincts. At the end of the day, it's me playing him and yes, it's him, but it's me that the audience is taking in when they're watching the show. So that and also trusting in RZA. Knowing that RZA was there, because another thing that I learned is that you can learn a lot about a person through what other people say about them. Not on a gossipy level, but just, sometimes people want to say "I was this" and "I was that" and put out all the good things about themselves. When you hear from somebody who is like a best friend, a cousin, or brother or something, you can really get those other sides that just add a little bit more dimension to who that person was in their entirety. I really use that as one of my tools.
Julian Elijah Martinez: I spoke to Divine in season one, and then I spoke to him again in season two. We sat down and we had like a two and a half-hour interview. Not an interview, but like kind of meeting. Then I worked with one of my acting teachers. Basically what I did was I took a bunch of his interviews. I took my headphones and put them in my ear. I just listened to him over and over again. So yeah, that's my process.
Marcus Callender: My experience in season one, I didn't meet Power until episode seven. I think leading up to that, I was a bit worried if I was portraying him correctly. I quickly realized in meeting him, oh, there's not much extra I need to do because it's already there. I see why they cast me to play him. But season two, before we started filming he and I got really close over the pandemic. We had a lot of time to just talk and we weren't even talking about the show, really. We would just be talking about shit. Through that, I got a lot of opportunity to spend with him. We've hung out, we've grabbed food. I've gone to LA with him to do a pop-up for Wu-Wear. I just got really blessed to spend a lot of time with him. That allowed me to really tackle the details, and how I portrayed him in season two.
What would you say the biggest challenge was taking on such a role in such an important series?
Zolee Griggs: The biggest challenge for me was making sure that I did the role justice. I just wanted to make RZA proud, and his family, because they're sitting at home watching this. Then also making myself proud. Making sure that I'm doing the work and that I'm having a good time. That all of us as an ensemble are having a good time. Taking the time to really flesh out these characters, flesh out these people. It's beautiful challenges. I think we're doing a pretty good job.
Johnell Young: His rapping. He’s a real rapper. I'm not a rapper. He has a gold tooth, so I had to learn all that, like how to speak. It was challenging, but it was fun. The journey was dope. I'm having a great time just playing his role.
Seeing that the show is a biography, in a sense, did any aspects of the Wu-Tang story come as a shock to you?
Zolee Griggs: Yeah, the whole thing. Like I said, nobody knows about Wu-Tang's personal business. When they came up in the early 90s, like '93, there was no social media. Even now, if you Google the Wu-Tang Clan, you can't really see family members. You don't really know information. I think that's kind of sweet that they were able to keep their personal lives their personal business. I'm appreciative. They're brave for coming out with this show to let us all know how they came about. The whole thing was a shocker. It's still a shocker because we get each episode as we're going along, I'm like, "Their lives were crazy. No way that this is real." But hey man, they lived crazy lives, and we're here to tell their story.