Bobby “RZA” Diggs, the producer and leader of the legendary hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, hopes he’s created a guidebook for people who grew up the way he did.
Speaking about Season 3 of Hulu’s “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” the fictionalized account of the group’s origin that he created with Alex Tse, he says, “This show is a map for young men trying to navigate themselves through life. Whether they’re in music, sports or nine-to-fives. I just hope that when young men, and young women, watch it, they take these examples to heart.”
Though “Wu-Tang” began in the midst of a clash between rival gangs, the series’ third and final season sees Bobby (played by Ashton Sanders), ever the perfectionist, spending every waking hour in the studio as the architect behind the group and each member’s solo careers — though issues with drugs, girls and the rappers’ interpersonal relationships often get in the way.
But it was important to RZA to make sure these issues weren’t just told from his own perspective, so he flipped the world of the show on its head. Season 3 features three of what he calls “allegorical mini-movies,” in which Sanders and the rest of the cast play different characters in completely different universes. The storylines, while outlandish, still apply to the reality-set remainder of the season. Enter: an episode shot in the style of Blaxploitation films, another styled like a gangster movie and another drawing from the martial arts genre.
RZA and Sanders spoke to Variety about building these allegories, their collaboration throughout the series and their feelings as the show ends.
Why was this the last season and what were you hoping to pull off as you closed the series?
RZA: Me and my partner Alex, he had a story that started in the early phases of Wu-Tang and took us to the end of a five year period. We could have stressed it out to do it in five years, but we were able to really capture it in 30 episodes. It was a fun challenge and it’s hard to say goodbye. But we captured the story we wanted to capture and present to the world.
Since this show is billed as a fictionalized version of the real events of the Wu-Tang, does the line between fact and fiction shift between seasons? Talk me through what aspects of the story in Season 3 you changed or heightened and what you wanted to keep true to life.
RZA: The beauty of it is that when you’re telling a reenactment, there’s going to be all these different perspectives. We’ve made sure that every episode is you know spiritually true, but we could play with time. We could take something from one guy’s mouth and put it into another’s. In this particular season, we’re watching these guys who are successful, and how do you deal with success? The demons that were in you before success, do they multiply? Do they go away?
This season, we use allegorical episodes, three mini-movies. It was definitely a risk to try it that way, but I feel gratified knowing that [when it comes to] the spiritual truth and the lives that Wu-Tang Clan lived, we never deviated from that path. We just found a cool way to say it. In a song like “C.R.E.A.M.,” Raekwon says, “I grew up on the crime side / The New York Times side / Stayin’ alive was no jive.” Within just those two lines, you will hear his struggle. And in our TV show we’re able to expand those two lines, and you can see what that crime side was.
Ashton Sanders: Each experience is different because every narrative is special. You gotta handle it with care. I’m just trying to stay true to that. for something like Wu-Tang, you know, I had the opportunity to talk to RZA if I needed to. Grab a dinner, develop a relationship. Something I learn playing RZA was not doing an impression. Hair and makeup can make you look like the person, but playing the truth of who their spirit is — everything else flows after that.
Can you talk more about your collaboration? Ashton, what was it like playing RZA in the episodes he directed you in?
Sanders: RZA, it’s cool that you’ve been able to always accept me for who I am off screen, so it’s always been comfortable. People expect it to be this awkward, crazy thing, but I feel like having the foundation of knowing each other surpasses all of the expected pressures. It just flowed.
RZA: Ashton is an artist. When I first met him, I saw that, and as a director or writer, the best thing you can have is an artist that is able to translate the emotions you’re trying to capture. I didn’t direct until Season 3, so I had already gotten to understand his vibe and understanding him as a person. I trusted him and I know he trusted me. Episode 8 is a great example, when he’s not playing the RZA; he’s playing another out-of-world rendition, because we’re using allegory. His understanding of the material shines through, as well as my understanding of the camera’s going to show his creative beauty.
When you watch a TV show, you see someone become a character, and every time you return to that show, that character must be that character. Ashton is playing RZA, Bobby Diggs. But this season, using allegory, I got all these different names. He had to play Bobby Stills in one episode. He plays an abbot in one episode. It’s not the same as the kid who’s making beats, trying to hold the group together. There’s another energy.
How did you decide to incorporate the three allegorical episodes after sticking to one reality in the rest of the series?
RZA: I would always advise the writers to watch something that they may have not watched. Being older, my library is longer. From Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” to [Akira] Kurosawa to Michael Schultz’s version of blaxploitation to Gordon Parks, all these different directors and vibes, we wanted to include. Because those energies inspired our music. We were able to pull from film and our discography and create these worlds that are very unique in biopics. It hasn’t been done this way.
In what way do these episodes fit into the linear plot of the rest of the series?
RZA: Especially for ODB, we respect his legacy and his family, but he had demons. We thought the best way to describe those demons would be allegorical. We felt that it would protect his legacy. And when you watch it, you should still not break the linear trajectory of all the characters. And you actually see that some of the people we cast in the allegorical episodes may just pop up in the reality episodes. Airtight Mike [played by Sanders] tells Dirt McGurt [played by TJ Atoms, who usually plays Ol’ Dirty Bastard], “You should be more like Shaquan,” Shaquan being Method Man [played by David “Dave East” Brewster]. And Method Man was the first one to break out and get a big pop single that charted. We never leave the story.
Sanders: As an actor, receiving those scripts was refreshing. These writers are really doing something smart. For us, you know, like, obviously, we’re in the show so we’re able to track it in a way that maybe the audience can’t. Those one-off episodes were really cool to hop into, for the audience to see a glimpse of us as a different entity just for a second.
There’s a connection between Bobby and the different characters you play in these allegories, but as an actor, do you still feel like you’re playing Bobby? Or is it a completely different performance?
Sanders: No, I feel the freedom in those episodes to put Bobby away. It comes with the understanding of the script, and then you have the freedom to play. Airtight Mike isn’t like Bobby. Creating that character doesn’t feel like I’m playing RZA, although I understand who this character represents.
RZA: Airtight Mike is still held in a leadership position, his essence was still there, but how he translated that was totally different. Like, I never do cocaine! I just want to say that out loud. But Airtight Mike, he can do that.