Kung Fu Star Olivia Liang on Updating a Classic, Reflecting the Asian American Experience, and Mythical Fun

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<i>Kung Fu</i> Star Olivia Liang on Updating a Classic, Reflecting the Asian American Experience, and Mythical Fun

Before actress Olivia Liang landed the starring role in The CW’s reboot of the ‘70s cult martial arts drama Kung Fu, she spent two seasons at Salvatore’s Boarding School for the Young & Gifted on Legacies. As troubled young witch Alyssa Chang, Liang was put through her paces, surrounded by an ensemble of her fellow eager young actors, all learning the ropes of the hour-long, TV-making grind.

What Liang didn’t know at the time was that experience was also preparing her to be Number One on the call sheet for her own series, which would happen far quicker than expected. “They just really taught me so much about leading a set,” Liang tells Paste about her experiences via a phone call from Vancouver. “Danielle (Rose Russell) lead the show and she’s was so gracious and so respectful and so professional. And I was like, ‘Okay, if I ever get my own show, I’m gonna be like Jenny (Boyd) and Danielle because they introduced themselves to me when they didn’t have to.’”

Barely into her second season on Legacies, Liang was cast as the contemporary glow-up of classic Kung Fu’s Caine (David Carradine), the Shaolin monk/martial arts master. However, Liang’s Nicky Shen would not only be trained in kung fu and an actual Asian American actor—the character was also reimagined by showrunner Christina M. Kim (Lost) as the college-aged daughter of San Francisco immigrants and small business owners. The mythology was now instantly more relatable and, more importantly, it puts forth—front and center—Liang and a cast of Asian actors as the heroes of their own story.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Paste: Since the OG Kung Fu was beloved back in its day, did Christina M. Kim express any elements of the original show that she wanted you to carry through?

Olivia Liang: Christina is so brilliant and she’s really assembled such a wonderful, diverse group of writers as well. And that’s really reflective in the stories that we’re telling. In terms of carrying something on from the original, the early conversations we had about this character was [that she] does not have a hero complex. In the original, [Caine] didn’t have that hero complex either. He just had “a particular set of skills,” as Liam Neeson would say. [Laughs] When he saw something unjust happening, he felt the need to step in. Christina really cemented that with me. She was like, “Nicky is not a hero. She is heroic, but she’s not looking to be one.” That was really important to weave in, which bleeds into why Nicky asks for help. She’s not this lone vigilante. She enlists the help of the people around her.

Paste: On the other hand, this show is written by and has been cast with Asians from all backgrounds. How is that taken into account to make the show unique?

Liang: In terms of just cultural specificity, Christina has been so sensitive because she’s Korean American. And although there’s a shared experience between Asian Americans, they’re also very specific culturally with the fact that this is a Chinese American family. She’s been really great about each of us being able to infuse our culture, and if we see something in a script that we’re like, ‘Oh, this would be really great to add….’ She’s always open to that, right? There’s an episode where we very specifically mentioned a tea that truly any Chinese American would know that tea, and we said it in Mandarin, and she let she let us do that. When I told my mom, she was like, “Wait, you guys are gonna say that on TV and you’re not gonna say it in English?” And I’m like, ‘No, we’re just gonna do it.’ It’s really cool that she gives us those opportunities.

Paste: There was a roaming heart to the first Kung Fu. Will Nicky stay in San Francisco this season or hit the road?

Liang: Throughout this first season, it’s definitely more focused on a homecoming. Nicky was roaming. She was gone and now she’s back. There’s a grounded-ness that she needs to find after experiencing, as you see in the pilot, so much trauma. She’s just gone through a lot. And she needs a second to get her footing and catch her breath. But as far as infusing roaming into the future of the show, l would love that.

Paste: Is Nicky’s kung fu proficiency a reflection of her worldview post-monastery training, and if so, how do you show that in the fight scenes?

Liang: When you’re watching, you can’t help but know what Nicky is fighting for. It’s hard to separate that. And then there’s our stunt coordinator and our fight coordinator. They are so thoughtful. They’re not crafting these fights just to look cool. There’s always a reason behind every block, every grab of the arm. They’re very specific with me. They’re like, “You need to grab him on the meat of his palms because that’s where you can control where his hand goes,” so they’re so specific about those things. And then they also infuse the really beautiful traditional movements that you might find in kung fu styles. Nikki is influenced by the crane style because of her shifu [or sifu in Cantonese]. They infuse little traditional elements into these more “street fights,” which I think adds a lot of grace to them. Coupled with just knowing what Nicky’s drive is, I think that all really sells the whole story.

Paste: Nicky’s mentor, Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai), is folded into Nicky’s life in a specific way. Will that evolve throughout the season?

Liang: Totally, Pei-Ling really is Nicky’s spiritual guide. And you’ll see throughout the season, when Nicky is at these crossroads. When maybe she’s in the thick of a fight and it feels like all hope is lost, that’s when Pei-Ling shows herself, and reminds her of something that she learned in China. Whether it be about strength, or patience, or sacrifice, these are lessons that Nicky learned throughout her time in China, and is being reminded of, as she faces these trials and tribulations in modern day San Francisco.

Paste: While Nicky and her siblings speak to this generation, the show also makes a lot of space for a spectrum of generational experiences. Do you think that will bring in some unexpected audiences?

Liang: Christina, Bob [Berens], and our writer’s room have done such an amazing job of making this a multi-generational story. Our parents aren’t just coming in to give a couple lines of discipline and then leave. And my brother and sister aren’t just there for comedic relief. Every character gets a fully fleshed-out story. And I care about all of them, especially the parents, Tzi [Ma] and Kheng’s [Hua Tan] characters of Jin and Mei-Li. They are a demographic that’s not well represented in our media: the immigrant couple who came to achieve the “American dream” and seeing what their struggle was, seeing where they found success, and seeing the way that they’re raising their kids. I think it’s such a beautiful part of being Asian in America that isn’t necessarily seen on TV, or represented very well.

Paste: There’s also an overarching story that follows Nicky from China in the form of a nemesis that leans more into the mythical?

Liang: Yes, the antagonist coming after this mythical sword, and it feels otherworldly and modern and from the past. It’s just fun. I find myself, as Olivia, watching the pilot in scenes with Yvonne (Chapman), who plays Zhilan, and being like, ‘I’m kind of rooting for you. I want to know more.’ [Laughs]

Paste: Once audiences get past the pilot, which episode are you most excited for them to see?

Liang: I’m so excited for them to see Episode 6. You’ll get to see everyone in all of the worlds collide. It’s really incredible.

Paste: Last but not least, this Kung Fu addresses issues that have long impacted the Asian American community, but with the current climate, the portrayal of these issues on TV is more important than ever for the ongoing cultural conversation. What are your hopes for the series?

Liang: We always knew that our show was going to be important, and a game changer being the first all-Asian cast on a major network in a one-hour drama. But we never could have predicted that we would premiere at such a time like April 2021, where the story is so much more relevant and poignant than we ever could have imagined. In the media right now, they’re shedding light on this anti-Asian violence and rhetoric. But I’m excited that we get to also show the other side of what it is to be Asian American. We’re going to show us experiencing joy and love and family and connection. That’s really important to see as well. I’m so excited that we get to be in households that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have seen an Asian American family and really humanize what it is to be Asian American. And, of course, we’re not a monolith. And our show can’t be everything to everyone. But I really do hope that people who have felt unseen or unheard can see themselves in any kind of way through our show.

Kung Fu premieres Wednesday, April 7th on The CW

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.

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