The arrival of The CW’s “Kung Fu” couldn’t come at a more crucial time. Amid a rise in anti-Asian racism and hate crimes, the timing of the series — a modern-day reimagining of the 1970s martial arts drama — isn’t lost on leading lady Olivia Liang, who plays central heroine Nicky Shen.
“It’s very eerie how relevant it is to what’s happening today,” Liang acknowledges during a recent phone interview with ET. “It’s crazy how reflective of the world we’re living in today, April 2021, is in the pilot. It doesn’t escape us that our show is coming at a very strangely, eerily on-time moment… We talk about it being a reclamation of the original series aired in the ’70s, but I think it’s also a reclamation of our identity in this country.”
Adapted by Christina M. Kim, the new “Kung Fu” follows Nicky, who abandons her family and goes on a life-changing journey to an isolated monastery in China. When her mentor is killed, she returns to San Francisco years later and she finds her hometown overrun with crime and corruption and her own parents at the mercy of the powerful Triad. Nicky must use her martial arts skills to protect her family and bring the criminals to justice — all while searching for the assassin who killed her mentor and is now targeting her.
“We are taking power over the narrative of how we’re seen and it seems silly to think that a TV show can change minds, but really, entertainment shapes our worldview and shapes the narrative that we have of people,” Liang says. “Asian Americans have and Asians in Hollywood have historically been othered, and I think our show is about to show everyone that we’re not other.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s debut, the actress discusses the importance of reclaiming “Kung Fu”, what she hopes it does for the greater understanding of the Asian community and what fans can expect in the series.
ET: There’s been a collective excitement surrounding “Kung Fu” premiering.
Olivia Liang: We’ve been shooting this show since last March, we’ve been doing it in this COVID pandemic bubble, so it’s really been ours and we oftentimes forget that we’re actually making something that people are going to see. So this lead-up and this anticipation has just made it more real and we’re realizing, “Oh, OK. This isn’t just for us anymore. This is about to be for everyone.” But I think we’re all just really excited because we’ve been waiting for it to come out so that we can share what we’ve been working on with everybody. And yeah, we’re really pumped and hope that everyone has a good time watching it.
This show is special in the sense that there aren’t a lot of Asian-led shows on television. The significance of “Kung Fu” coming on at this time also feels massive. Can you speak to that a little bit in terms of just being the face and the leader of such a groundbreaking show?
I could feel a lot of pressure to be the “face of the first of its kind,” but truly without this cast who was surrounding me and sharing that pressure with me, I wouldn’t be able to handle it because it is so important and so poignant, especially in light of what’s going on today. I’m so glad that I get to share this with my amazing cast because they really hold a lot of space for me and share this burden. I don’t want to call it a burden — share this pressure and this desire to make our community proud and to represent well. They share that with me so that I don’t have to be the one to bear it. So it’s not just me. It’s all of us are who are really leading the charge.
How do you think “Kung Fu” coming around at this time will shift people’s perception or understanding of the Asian community?
Once the pilot comes out, it’s very eerie how relevant it is to what’s happening today. As Christina wrote this — I don’t know how long ago she wrote this pilot, at least a year ago, it’s crazy how reflective of the world we’re living in today, April 2021, is in the pilot. It doesn’t escape us that our show is coming at a very strangely, eerily on-time moment. And as an Asian American community, we’re kind of facing this turning point for the better. I think our show really is going to contribute to that. We talk about it being a reclamation of the original series aired in the ’70s, but I think it’s also a reclamation of our identity in this country. We are taking power over the narrative of how we’re seen and it seems silly to think that a TV show can change minds, but really, entertainment shapes our worldview and shapes the narrative that we have of people. Asian Americans have and Asians in Hollywood have historically been othered, and I think our show is about to show everyone that we’re not other.
You recently tweeted that the term “kung fu,” and martial arts, was synonymous with Asian identity, but this show turns it on its head. Can you elaborate on that?
I think a lot of Asian Americans can feel triggered by a show called “Kung Fu” with an Asian cast if they just look at it at a surface level. But I’m really proud to be on a show called “Kung Fu” because as Asian performers, we often were cast just to do the martial arts for the kung fu, right? You would get an Asian actor making a cameo in something, they don’t say a word, they throw a few punches and then they leave and you don’t know anything about their character. And so, really, the martial arts of it all was never the problem that we had. I think with the typecasting and the stereotyping, it was the fact that that was the only thing we were seen as. But on “Kung Fu”, we are going to put meaning behind the fighting that we do, behind the martial arts. The audience is going to get to see what these characters are fighting for, which makes the fighting all the more powerful and more meaningful. I’m really proud that I get to celebrate this very awesome part of Asian culture that really can be enjoyed by everyone, but we just get to put that meaning behind it and we get to see these fully rounded-out, fleshed-out characters celebrate this part of their culture.
Is there something from the show or about your character, Nicky, you’re really excited for people to see that they may not necessarily expect?
It’s really cool to watch the development of Nicky continue to find her voice. Finding moments where Nicky is reckoning with like, “What should I do?” and then deciding, “I have to speak up and speak out,” or, “I have to do something to help,” those are really beautiful moments that I hope the audience gets to see and start to feel empowered by, especially in light of what’s going on today. You’re going to see a girl go through the gambit of emotions and decide to always want to at least do the right thing.
Or try to, but maybe not succeed all the time.
Or try to, yeah.
One thing I gravitated toward was the family dynamics between the siblings and the parents because Chinese American families have a very specific heartbeat.
What’s so special about the Shen family and the story that Christina and Bob [Berens], our showrunners, are telling is this multi-generational story because we’ve often seen the story told from the kids’ perspectives of these expectations that our parents have on us, and not living up to them, and struggling with purpose and meaning. But on our show, we get to see the parents’ side. We get to see their history. We get to see how they show love, why they have these expectations and that’s a story that doesn’t get to be told a lot from that perspective. I find that to be really special. That makes the Shen family really pop amongst other TV families. We’re telling everyone’s story from everyone’s side and Tzi [Ma] has been talking about this, but he gets to play a very different Asian father. He’s not the stoic [dad, who] takes the back seat and watches over everything. He is very involved. He’s open, he’s understanding and it’s really beautiful to see that. And then to see Kheng [Hua Tan]’s character, Mei-Li, be the tiger mom, which I had a tiger mom growing up and she softened up. Getting to see the reason behind the tiger mom adds that dimension and that layer that we don’t get to see very often. I just think that no matter what kind of family you come from, you’re going to be able to see yourself in the Shens.
It’s very clear that you guys are a true family, on and off set, and you guys hang out a lot with your movie nights. Is your dynamic off set similar to your characters on the show?
It’s super interesting that Shannon [Dang] and Jon [Prasida], in particular, fell into this older sister-younger brother dynamic almost immediately because Jon is a younger brother, Shannon is an older sister and I’m in real life the older sister. The three of us, we love going around to people who don’t know who’s who. We love being like, “Who do you think is the oldest?”
That was actually a question that I had: “I think Nicky might be the middle child, but is she the oldest?”
Yeah. A lot of times Shannon and I will switch when we go back and forth between being older and younger sisters to each other in real life, as well as on the show. But yeah, I really think that the family you see on TV really is the family that we’ve created, aside from Kheng who is actually not a tiger mom. She’s the most inclusive and accepting, “whatever you want to do, follow your heart” type of woman. But she is Mama Kheng. She feeds us. She makes sure we’re good. She wants to check in on us all the time. Tzi is always like, “Are you wearing a jacket? It’s cold.” He really took on that fatherly role. Yeah. We all fell into place really seamlessly and we can attribute that to a shorthand of all being Asian, or you can attribute that to natural chemistry, but I think it’s all working in conjunction to create this magic.
You can’t have a CW show without a little bit of romance. What can you tell us about where things go with Nicky, her ex Evan (Gavin Stenhouse) and new guy Henry (Eddie Liu)? Obviously, Evan and Henry are very different people and have very different personalities.
I can say that each character, Nicky, Evan and Henry, we all grow in our own personal ways and that affects the decisions that we make in terms of romance. I don’t want to give too much away, but Nicky gets the pleasure of choosing between two great guys and maybe chooses neither. I don’t know what happens. She’s a strong, independent woman.
How would you describe the season and the ride that people will be going on?
Fun. Every time I get a script, I have to stop what I’m doing. No one can speak to me. I need to read the script right now because I’ve been left on a cliffhanger and I need to know what happens next. And then once I finish that script, I’m like, “Where’s the next one?” It’s a really, really, really fun ride. We’re going to get to know each character so deeply. We’re going to get into cool mythology, and of course, there’s so much cool fighting. People can expect to have a lot of fun.
“Kung Fu” premieres Wednesday, April 7 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.
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‘Kung Fu’ Cast Hopes They’re ‘Part of Solution’ Amid Anti-Asian Racism
‘Kung Fu’: Nicky Shen Battles Bad Guys in Action-Packed First Trailer
‘Kung Fu’ First Look: Meet Nicky Shen and Her Family From CW Reboot