In The CW series Kung Fu, a young Chinese American woman, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), dropped out of college and hid out in an isolated monastery in China to avoid the life that her mother had planned out for her. Now back in San Francisco and ready to stand up for her family against the crime and corruption in her hometown, Nicky will use her martial arts skills to protect her community and bring the criminals there to justice.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Liang talked about how right it felt to play this character, what she learned from her time on The CW series Legacies, what most excites her about this version of Kung Fu, why it’s an important time for this show to be airing, the bad-ass fight scenes, working in a COVID world, and having her own theories about where things could go in a possible second season.
Collider: This is such a great bad-ass character and she’s exactly what we need right now.
OLIVIA LIANG: Yeah, the timing is really crazy. It’s definitely what we need right now.
What was your audition process like for this? Was it a long, drawn out process where you had to wait for awhile to find out if you’d gotten the role, or did it all happen quickly?
LIANG: Once the ball started rolling, it happened pretty quickly. It was a pretty standard audition process. I did a self-tape. I was working in Atlanta, at the time, so I just like knocked out that tape. I did one take of each scene and I didn’t really think too hard about it. Our amazing showrunner, creator and writer, Christina Kim, wrote scenes and a pilot that were so easy to just fall into and helped to understand the character. The character just was very intuitive for me. And then, once I was asked to test for it, we did a test. And then, tested for the studio and the network. The day after is when I found out. It all happened within the span of probably three weeks.
When you make a self-tape, do you get the feeling that you did good, or do you try not to think about that at all?
LIANG: There’s a protective layer that you try to put on, as an actor. You don’t want to get your hopes too high for any part. You wanna set yourself up for rejection because that’s most of our job. But there was something about this character where I just didn’t have that kind of stress and I didn’t feel the need to protect myself. I was just like, “This feels right, right now. I don’t know if I did a good job, but it feels like this really suit me.
Before you did this, you were a part of Legacies, which is also on The CW. What did you learn from that experience? Did anything about your experience on Legacies help you prepare for leading Kung Fu?
LIANG: Oh, absolutely. I credit booking Kung Fu to my experience on Legacies because that cast and crew is so incredible. I learned so much about how to bring a really positive energy to set and how that really trickles down from the cast to the crew. If we’re not in a good mood, it’s really going to affect the day. The Legacies cast is so amazing and so welcoming, and I truly remember having this thought of, “If I ever get to have my own show or get to be a series regular, I wanna be like this cast.” They welcomed me in with such open arms, and they were so inclusive and really made me feel at home, and taught me a lot about how to create a really safe and welcoming space on a set.
The original series is really not much at all like this, having a man at its center and having someone at the center that was not Asian American. What most excited you about this version and what you’d be able to address and explore?
LIANG: The original iteration of the show was a little before my time, so I didn’t get to see it. But once I got this part and I dug a little deeper and did my research on it, I got the chills because this is a chance for us to reclaim something that, at the time, was maybe a sore point for the history of Bruce Lee having been passed up on. It feels very powerful that now we get to tell the story the way maybe it should have been told, not to take anything away from the original because it did give a lot of opportunities to Asian American actors, at the time. They were able to guest star on the show and it really introduced the Western world to the beautiful martial art that is Kung Fu. This iteration and this re-imagining of it might be closer to the story of that that was intended to be told. We kept the big core theme of that show, about this person coming from China and using those acquired skills to really fight for the underdog and seek out social justice. The core of that is still very much alive in our iteration of it.
This show is not just about representation and inclusion, but it’s also about strength and being a hero to your family and your community. What do those elements of the show mean to you, knowing that you’re going to be a hero to a lot of kids that see this?
LIANG: That gives me chills. It’s really exciting. What an important time for this show to air and for this story to be told, and for people of color and for women to see a really strong female take up space, be unapologetic, and really fight for the people around her. She’s really driven, at her core, to make sure that there’s good in the world. I just love that message and I’m really excited that we get to tell it from an Asian perspective.
One of the themes of this show seems to be about finding justice for social injustice. Do you feel inspired by that aspect of it?
LIANG: Yeah, I totally feel inspired by it. Every script that comes in from our writers’ room, there’s an element of our show that does have a case-of-the-week thing. It’s not gonna be every week, but Nicky does encounter these instances of injustice and wants to right it and make sure that justice is, for lack of a better term, served. Getting to play this character who won’t stand idly by when she sees something wrong is super inspiring for me to take into my own life, especially with things that are going on in our world today and speaking out about things and not just being a passive observer. I definitely feel very inspired by the characters on our show.
In the show, we hear really the advice of “You make the path that you live,” but if you’re going to make your own path, you also have to take responsibility for the good and bad of that path. Is taking responsibility and facing what she was running from going to be a part of Nicky’s journey this season?
LIANG: Definitely. She’s reluctant to do so for awhile. It’s not an easy road. It’s bumpy and there are twists and turns, but Pei-Ling, her mentor, stated that you make the path you live and really urges Nicky to right the wrongs and take responsibility for the mistakes that she’s made. You can’t really move forward without doing that, and that’s a big part of her journey.
How bad-ass and how empowering does it feel to not only get to have fight scenes, but to actually cause physical damage with bad guys?
LIANG: I have never felt cooler, more bad-ass, or more powerful than when I’m shooting a fight scene. Yes, I know that those guys are trained to look like I beat them up, but it still feels really good. And I have the bruises to prove it.
What was it like to prepare for everything you had to do in this pilot? What training did you have to specifically do to prepare for that and how much were you actually able to do yourself?
LIANG: It was a lot of training. When we initially came up, before we were shut down for the pandemic, I was training every single day, for three to five hours a day. Even before that, our amazing stuff coordinator on Kung Fu had connected with the stunt coordinator on Legacies, and between takes, while I was on Legacies, I was starting to learn basic stances for Kung Fu. They really started my training over there. And then, once I got to Vancouver, it was a crash course in kung fu. With my dance background, it was pretty seamless, actually picking up choreography for these fights. There are a lot of fights in the pilot. It was very exciting and action-packed. I tried to do as much as I could. Maybe 65% to 75% of it is me, and then all of the really cool stuff is my amazing stunt double. She’s the one who gets to fly through the air and do these really cool wire moves. They won’t let me because they’re afraid of me getting hurt, but I’m gonna convince them to let me go up in the wires one day.
What are you finding most challenging about the fight scenes and the stunts? Is it always something new and different each time, or is it something specific that you’ve found to be most challenging?
LIANG: Because of my dance background, I have a tendency to be a bit more graceful than powerful. A lot of times, after a pass on the stunts, our stunt team or my amazing double will come up to me and be like, “Okay, that was great, but you need to hit a little harder just to really put that power in.” That’s been something that I’ve been learning to do better and better with, every fight. Initially, the most challenging part is to actually look powerful.
What’s it like to get to play with that bit of magical mysticism and to explore and incorporate that into the show? Is it something that is hard for Nicky to accept and embrace?
LIANG: Totally. From my personal perspective as Olivia, I love it because I’m such a fan of Harry Potter and I love superhero movies. I’m all in on going into that world and suspending the belief and being like, “Yeah, magic is real.” But for Nicky, she mimics what a regular audience member would be feeling, when encountered with real magic in real life. She’s like, “What is going on? Is this real?” And then, we start to see her accept that there are things that are beyond her understanding.
Along with all the cool and fun fight scenes in the show, it’s also really rooted in family. What have you enjoyed about getting to explore all of her family relationship and the different dynamic she has with each person in her family?
LIANG: My favorite part of the show really is whenever we get to do scenes with the family members, with the whole family together, or with justice siblings, played beautifully by Shannon [Dang] and John [Prasida]. I come from a very close knit family, as well. Being able to translate some of my sisterly things, in real life, into this show and into this family has been really fun to explore. I’m just excited that we get to see this multi-faceted Asian American family go through life together.
What’s it like to shoot in a COVID world, where you still have to figure out a way to bond as actors and form a family dynamic? How do you work all of that out, with all of these other factors that you have to deal with now?
LIANG: It’s pretty crazy. I think we’re very lucky because we really are in a bubble, as a cast. Some of us actually knew each other before because the Asian acting world is so small. I actually was friends with Shannon and Eddie, before I even ever auditioned for this show. We’ve known each other for years, so there was that ease. And then, just knowing that every cast member is being responsible and safe, we can have cast dinners together and know that we’re being safe. Because we have no one else with us in Vancouver, we’ve really latched onto each other, which has made our relationships grow exponentially faster.
Have you had conversations about where things could go in a second season? Are you setting up threads and ideas in the first season that can carry over beyond that?
LIANG: The cast and I have a lot of theories and we’ve got our own ideas about what we think is gonna happen and what’s going on. The writers’ room is doing an amazing job of setting up this awesome mythology and a magical element to our world that I can’t wait to explore more, in hopefully more seasons. They’re laying down the groundwork right now, for something pretty epic.
Kung Fu airs on Wednesday nights on The CW.
The ensemble sci-fi action film was originally planned for a theatrical release.
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