Styling: Eric Owes; Wardrobe: Collin Casino, Entire Studios
On Feb. 15, Wu-Tang: An American Saga returns to Hulu to close out its story about one of hip hop’s most legendary groups. But before this chapter ends, the show has a few important things to wrap up, not to mention a deep dive into some of Wu-Tang Clan’s most prolific albums.
“I know that we put our all into this project, especially for season three,” Johnell Young, who plays Gary Earl Grice A.K.A. GZA (A.K.A. The Genius), tells Los Angeles Confidential. “It’s going to go down as one of the best shows on TV, I believe. I know a lot of fans are raving about it now. Once we go away, it's probably going to blow up even more. It's a sad thing, but it's also sweet to know that we were able to come together and build something like this.”
Season 3 picks up six months after the season 2 finale. Riding high on the success of their recently released album, Wu-Tang Clan navigate the fun of fame and follow up pressures. There’s complicated family dynamics, the chaos of touring and multiple allegorical movies, including for GZA’s solo debut, Liquid Swords.
“I think they're gonna love the creativity. I think they're gonna love to see GZA in a different light,” Young expects of fans. “We got so many surprises for them to see with the way this character just grows from season 1 to season 2 to how he just jumps all the way out there for season 3.”
Read more from our conversation with Young about the final season of Wu-Tang: An American Saga below.
Episode 8 is entirely dedicated to GZA’s Liquid Swords. How did you feel when you first got that script?
When I first got the script, RZA gave it to me. A matter of fact, we had a meeting at a restaurant. He was like, “Look, we gotta have a meeting about this one.” I'm like, “Oh boy.” I was already on the edge of my seat.
He went through [the script] a little bit and I was just in awe. I was like, “What! This is what we're about to do…”I feel like out of everything, this is probably the best episode, if not one of the best episodes, of the entire, whole series.
It’s its own movie. I wouldn't be mad about a spin off of just that episode alone.
You talked about feeling a little bit of pressure when you first started portraying GZA. Was there a renewed sense of pressure going into this chronicling of what is considered one of the best releases among Wu-Tang?
I had to do more research and had to do more rapping and getting his word play correctly. And I'm from Staten Island, so it's definitely more pressure being able to put on for my city. That's where Wu-Tang Clan is from. After a while of practice and just me locking into him and me actually getting a chance to perform with him [and] see how he moves and rap alongside him on stage, I got a little bit more comfortable.
What were your conversations like with GZA about the making of Liquid Swords?
We had lunch over in Jersey about Liquid Swords and the album and his wordplay and where he was really coming from during that time and what he wanted to do with his words and his lyrics. He wanted a majority of his stuff to be less words, but twice as strong, so that's why he's got so many big words in there because he wants you to get the picture that he was painting but with less words, less lyrics. It’s like he used his tongue as a sword, literally. That's why you gotta learn how to pronounce his words correctly. You got to know how to really come in with his cadence.
How did you nail down the way he raps?
I just listened closely to how his voice sounds… It's very unique. When I was recording, what I would do was go to King Tech, who did the music for the show, I would go and put like one or two pieces of tissue in my nose and have a little bit of saliva in my mouth while I was rapping and using my tongue a little bit to get that down to a tee because his fans are very, very, very, very detailed.When they see me, they’re like, “Yo, we love how you did this.” I'm like, “What, you guys actually pay attention to that?”
Styling: Eric Owes; Wardrobe: Nice as Heck
The Liquid Swords episode hones in on the importance of access to arts and culture and authenticity in art. As an actor, an artist yourself, how did it feel to carry and disseminate that message?
I'm all about arts; I’m all about creativity. I'm all about not watering the stuff down. It’s pure when it's real and it’s genuine. And I feel like I'm a real, genuine person, so for them to allow me to express this in the episode, it was an honor. It definitely was an honor. RZA said this is one of the longest episodes that the people will see.
For GZA to be able to trust me with this masterpiece— this episode is a masterpiece— I just feel honored and I don't take it lightly. I don't take it lightly at all.
Considering your work on Wu-Tang: An American Saga, All Eyez on Me and Kold and Windy, do you enjoy projects that peel back what it's like being in music?
I do enjoy that, but that's not all that I want to be involved with. All Eyez on Me was the biopic about Tupac, of course. That was the first role I ever got. Getting Wu-Tang, I felt that I would book it because I manifested it. Kold and Windy was something that I had to think long about because I didn't want to typecast or anything, but it was a good project and I loved what they were doing with it.
But the industry won't see me portray another role like this in a long time. I feel like [I’ve done] all I can do with this lane, acting as a rapper and music, so this will be one of the last times in a few years that I'll be in a role like this. But it was fun. I love music. My dad's a DJ. My granddad was a rock star. He was in a band— it was three of them— when he got back from war and my mom's a dancer, so anything with arts, the culture, dancing, music: I love it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Cory Grimes