You would never know it from her career today, but JuJu Chan Szeto didn’t exactly grow up wanting to be famous for her fighting skills. Born in Hong Kong with no family ties to the film industry, Chan Szeto looked far more likely to go into a career in computing than cinema. Through a twist of fate and sheer determination, the 32-year-old has amassed 19 acting credits as a martial artist and can rattle off industry heavyweights like Nicolas Cage, Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen as co-stars.
“Being an actress didn’t even cross my mind until I was at university. Even then it was a vague idea,” says Chan Szeto, speaking from Bangkok, where she is filming Fistful of Vengeance, a feature film version of Netflix’s Wu Assassins. Her next stop is Australia for her role in X Vengeance, scheduled to begin filming in June.
“I was a hyperactive kid,” she says. “My dad used to enjoy watching kung fu films at home and I used to copy all the crazy moves.” She had taken judo lessons since she was ten, but the Japanese martial art had to compete with a constellation of other extracurricular pursuits, including ballet, piano, tennis, high diving, ice skating and swimming. Not to mention homework. “I was more productive then than I am now,” she says, laughing, having gone on to graduate with a computer science degree and then a master’s in film and television from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She’s also a former beauty queen.
Rather than sitting at a desk all day, Chan Szeto decided she would channel the physical disciplines she learnt as a child and see where they took her. Taking inspiration from actors and martial artists she had grown up watching, such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Zhang Weili, she moved to Los Angeles and worked as an emcee, a singer, a model and a dancer to make ends meet. She even competed in martial arts championships before landing her first role, in TV series Lumina in 2009. Fighting didn’t come first, though: between 2010 and 2013, she released a musical album and two books, one semiautobiographical and the other about dining.
It was the Hong Kong director (and Chan Szeto’s now husband) Antony Szeto who pushed her to narrow her focus. Being an entertainment all-rounder was paying the bills, but it wasn’t getting her noticed by casting directors. So she poured her energy into becoming the best female martial artist in the industry, extending her training into shotokan, taekwondo, hung ga, wing chun, choy li fut and muay Thai, which led to her big break in 2016’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, the sequel to the 2000 blockbuster hit. Her co-star Donnie Yen instilled values in her that remained long after the final “Cut!” was shouted. “He opened my eyes to the importance of setting high standards, not only for [myself] but [expecting them] from others too.”