Olivia Liang (Legacies) portrays Nicky Shen in The CW’s Kung Fu, a modern day adaptation of the original 1972 series.
Nicky Shen is having a quarter-life crisis and leaves college, joining an isolated monastery in China, changing her life forever. When it’s destroyed by a mysterious organization, she returns to San Francisco. To her horror, she discovers her hometown has been infested by crime and corruption. With her new martial arts skills and Shaolin beliefs, she is determined to protect her community; all the while looking for the person who killed her mentor.
Olivia Liang spoke with the members of the TV Critics Association about her new series, which premieres on April 7th, 2021.
The original David Carradine series
Had you seen David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine in the original series? Was there anything you wanted to channel from his performance into yours?
The series was a little bit before my time. But when I was auditioning for the role, and eventually booked the role of Nicky, I did look at the original.
I think what’s gonna be carried on from the original and his character into this is that sense of wanting to fight for the underdog. (It’s) a sense of duty, not necessarily being a hero and seeking that out. Just seeing bad things happen and not being able to stand for it; feeling that sense of social commitment (and) making sure that people are safe and the right thing is done.
Did you come to this with any training already, or did you train exclusively for this show?
I did not have any prior martial arts training. Thank goodness that was not a requirement. But I have a background in dance, so once I came up (to Vancouver) to train, I was able to at least pick up the choreography. Martial arts for film and TV is very much a dance.
The training was brutal, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever put my body through. I’ve so much respect for martial artists. It is an incredible sport and an art form. Our stunt team has whipped me into shape. But I also have an amazing double who makes me look so cool.
As part of the training, how different was hand-to-hand combat versus using weapons like the pole?
There isn’t too much of a difference between the hand-to-hand and the weapon. The weapon really just becomes an extension of yourself and you use it accordingly. It’s been fun and rewarding. And I can’t wait for everybody to see all the fights we’ve been working on.
I’m curious about doing martial arts, during a pandemic.
We’re carrying on business as usual. Warner Bros and CW have been really good about keeping us all safe with multiple tests a week. We are in a bubble. We trust that all of our performers, from the actors to the stunt performers, have been responsible with their personal lives. So, we carry on as usual in terms of proximity and the closeness of the fights.
Can you talk about the importance of representing the Chinese American family in today’s world? What does that means to you?
We are simply inviting (the audience) in. Our writers’ room is not just an Asian writers’ room; we have such (diversity). All of these writers are creating a rich story for us. (It) just speaks to the universality of what it means to be in a family. The details of us being a Chinese-American family are specific, but the story is for everyone. We can all relate to the Shens.
When did you realize how special it was that this is almost an entire Asian cast?
I knew this was something special really early on, during the audition process. We (Asian actors) were all in the waiting room together. You hear about that moment where an actor is in the corner with their headphones on. They’re like, ‘Don’t bother me because you’re my competition.’ There was no sense of that in the room at all.
The general feeling wasn’t, ‘It’s you or it’s me.’ It was, ‘If it’s not me, thank God it’s gonna be one of us (and) this is getting made.’ Because we had never seen anything like this, an all-Asian cast on a major network. (It was) just unheard of. I think that was for me the moment that I knew this is gonna be different. I’m just so happy to be a part of it.
Given the news out of Atlanta, I wanted to give you the opportunity so speak out about what’s going on in this country.
I think the timing of our show is really impeccable. So much about representation is not so much that we, as Asians, need to see ourselves represented on the screens. But we need to be invited into people’s homes who don’t see us in their everyday life. Just to humanize us, normalize seeing us, remind them that we are people just like they are. We have a place in this world. Hopefully having our show in their homes will expand that worldview for them.
Your character is a strong woman courageously trying to do the right thing. How did you identify with that struggle?
Oh, (I’m) gonna get a little misty-eyed. I think any woman of color is placed into a box. She doesn’t get to define herself. And I think that was Nicky’s story for a very long time. Just trying to be what everybody expected (and) projected onto her.
That’s what caused her to freak out and think, ‘I need to find my voice.’ I think, we as women and people of color can all relate to that. I certainly related to it when I was reading the script. It has empowered me to play a character who has found (and) is trying to use her voice. It has empowered me to do the same in my own life and to encourage the men and women around me to do the same.