Martial Arts Television

‘Kung Fu’ Star Olivia Liang is Fighting on Her Own Terms

In this reboot/retelling of the 1972 martial arts series of the same name, Kung Fu is given a modern update, starring Liang as Nicky Shen, a young Chinese American woman who returns home to San Francisco after spending three years at a Shaolin Monastery in China. After the murder of her mentor and with nowhere to turn, Nicky returns to the place and people she ran away from--home. Nicky is determined to find the assassin who murdered her mentor and also reconnect with her family and friends.

When Olivia Liang first hears what outlet I’m from, she tells me that she just got off a panel for Kung Fu moderated by my editor-in-chief, Keith Chow. I asked her how it went and she said it was ‘really good.’ Knowing she’s been doing interviews and panels all day, I told her I’d be quick with my questions. Liang has been doing press non-stop for the past two weeks and doesn’t look to be slowing down as the series is set to premiere on The CW. Fortunately, Liang knows it comes with the territory when you’re starring in a network television series, especially one that is breaking barriers as the first predominantly Asian cast centering around an Asian heroine and her family. 

In this reboot/retelling of the 1972 martial arts series of the same name, Kung Fu is given a modern update, starring Liang as Nicky Shen, a young Chinese American woman who returns home to San Francisco after spending three years at a Shaolin Monastery in China. After the murder of her mentor and with nowhere to turn, Nicky returns to the place and people she ran away from — home. Nicky is determined to find the assassin who murdered her mentor and also reconnect with her family and friends.

When Liang saw the casting call for the series, she immediately knew she wanted to audition for the role because it called for an Asian American woman. The role didn’t call for an ambiguous actor or was open to all ethnicities. The role straight up called for an Asian American woman. 

“To have just someone who I know for sure I can represent, that’s exciting in and of itself already,” Liang said during the Kung Fu virtual press panel at WonderCon in March. “But as I was reading the script and the sides that were provided, I was like, ‘Oh, okay, so I don’t have to act at all. Nicky is just my experience.’ Christina [M. Kim] wrote it so beautifully and she really captured what it means to be Asian American, first-generation, daughter to immigrant parents. Just to be seen was attractive for me. I didn’t really have to do much. It just felt like a continuation of all of our experiences and the stories that we are already living out in the world.”

Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen in “Kung Fu,” a CW reboot of the classic TV series.

The character of Nicky goes through many relatable situations that many Asian American women have faced from their family, especially from immigrant parents — the pressures of being successful in school/career, marrying a nice Chinese boy, or having Asian parents who never admit they’re wrong. Liang found everything about the character relatable. 

“I think you just hit the nail on the head with that list,” Liang laughed as I listed all the relatable Asian quirks found in the pilot. “Truly, when I read the pilot, every single line, I was like, yes, yes, yes. Christina Kim, our amazing showrunner and creator, nailed it. [She] nailed what it’s like to be Asian American and really infused the things that we go through into the script. Truly, I just related to nearly everything and not just from Nicky’s side. I related to the character of Althea, Ryan, and their parents.”

Liang says that the series stands out as a truly common Asian American experience. It comes as no surprise since Kim is of Korean American descent with several on her writing staff being Asian American. 

“I’ve learned there’s something to be said about what it is to actually be Asian American, rather than Chinese American, Korean American, Japanese American, Thai American, Indian American,” said Liang. “There is that through line for all of us. And then there are the cultural nuances that make us all so beautiful and make us not a monolith and I’m learning that through my classmates, because a lot of us are Chinese Americans.” 

Another factor for Liang joining the show was that she did not need to have martial arts on her resume. Liang made a promise to herself that she would never learn martial arts until she was paid for it. She credits having an Asian showrunner for understanding the difficulties Asian actors already have to go through to secure roles. 

“I’m very grateful that Christina didn’t have a requirement of needing to know martial arts in order to play this character,” says Liang. “I think that’s a testament to us having an Asian showrunner, who knows that not all Asians know martial arts and not all Asians speak another language. So the fact that she was behind the scenes and leading the charge, she knew what we were going through on the other side.” 

It doesn’t mean Liang hasn’t put in the work. Like many non-Asian actors who have been cast in martial arts roles, Liang has been working non-stop with the stunt coordinator. Even with Liang’s dance background, she said that martial arts is the hardest thing she’s ever put her body through. In numerous interviews, her castmates have vouched for her work ethic, calling her an “absolute powerhouse” and constantly in the gym rehearsing the stunts and fight choreography. 

“I just feel very excited that I do get to share my culture as part of it,” Liang explains. “Martial arts is such a huge part of Asian culture, and I’m glad that we get to tell the story of it from our perspective that other people can appreciate. I’m so glad that I get to infuse the language of my mother and my grandparents and all the people that came before me into the show when I speak Mandarin. And so it really is a reclamation in so many different ways. And I just feel proud that we are showing so many more dimensions than the foreign language and the martial art we are showing these humans in all sorts of ways.”

Liang knows there are naysayers regarding the martial arts series, especially with the name Kung Fu. There finally is a show starring Asian Americans on primetime television for the very first time, but it is heavily based on martial arts.

“I totally understand where they’re coming from,” says Liang. “It can be very triggering because in the entertainment space, we’ve been put into a box in the past of just coming on silently to throw a few kicks and punches and then leave. We don’t know anything about that character. We don’t know what their likes and dislikes are, if they’re married or with someone. We don’t know anything about that person and the huge difference with our show is that we do know all of these people. Yes, there is martial art, but there is meaning behind it now because we’ve gotten to know these characters. We know what they’re fighting for. And if you don’t see yourself in Nicky who was doing a lot of fighting, you’re gonna see yourself in Althea or in Ryan, or in Henry or Dennis.” 

Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen in “Kung Fu,” a CW reboot of the classic TV series.

She further explained that the series is not just about martial arts, but what it means to be Asian in America. The human element is the major draw to the story and knowing what the characters are fighting for “makes the martial arts more powerful.”

The series has already gotten a lot of traction, not just for its martial arts and Chinese elements already shown in the trailers and released clips, but for the typical CW fan reactions to the gorgeous characters showcased. Liang appreciates the normal discussions surrounding the characters, even before the show even premieres. She loves seeing the fans talk about the handsome love interests — both Eddie Liu’s Henry and Gavin Stenhouse’s Evan — and which one should end up with Nicky. 

“I feel like if I tell you who I’m rooting for as Olivia, I’m going to give it away,” Liang laughs. “But I will say, I agree Nicky is very lucky that she’s got two great guys kind of vying for her. And, you will be excited to see how all three of these characters grow in their own way. I think that they’ll be happy with what Nicky chooses, if there is a choice to be made.” 

There has already been talk on Twitter of another possible love interest for the heroine and Liang knows all about it before I could even say their name.

“You know I have seen that happen already on Twitter,” Olivia laughs. “I know the ship is happening. I’ve seen people be like enemies to lovers, so true. I’m open. When I’m taking a step back as Olivia, I’m rooting for [the villain] Zhilian because she’s cool, hot, and badass.I am open to all of it, I support any and all of that. I could be team Nivan (Nicky and Evan), team Hicky (Henry and Nicky), Team Zhicky (Zhilian and Nicky). I’m in. Olivia, a fan of the show, wants to see anything happen. I’m open to it all, I love all these crazy, crazy ships.”

With the first season already wrapped up, there was no time to include the current state for Asian Americans and the anti-Asian violence that surrounds them. But, hopefully, if given a second season, Liang knows the writers are very smart in infusing real world issues into the storylines. 

“I don’t know what they have planned, but I know that they are very in-tune with current events and want to make sure that our show is not only entertaining, but is really reflective of the world around us,” says Liang. “It’s very clear that our creators, the people behind the camera, [and] in the writers room have a very clear point of view. And, at their core, just want to spread just goodness and I think they infuse that into our show really well.”

Liang describes herself as “lucky” to be part of this series because she gets to play a character much like herself and learn things from her culture and feels proud to see it celebrated on screen. She also likes that there are normal discussions surrounding the series, because although it’s the first Asian-led drama on network television, it’s also a beautiful reflection of a normal Asian American family. 

“It’s not a blueprint and it’s not a documentary about Asian America, but I do think that a lot of people are going to be able to, who previously haven’t been able to, see themselves represented,” says Liang. “They’re going to see themselves on our show.”

Kung Fu premieres tonight at 8/7c on The CW.

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