Eddie Liu is a certified heartthrob.
We all knew this when we first saw Liu’s portrayal of Steve, the hunky jock and ex-boyfriend of Kamala in Netflix’s hit series Never Have I Ever. Liu ended up being a fan favorite and praised on social media, but his character was ultimately dumped by Kamala at the end of the first season. But Liu wants you to know that there is more to him than his dashing good looks and amazing physique. He’s also pretty charming and a known goof among his castmates. Fortunately, we get to see more of Liu’s charming good looks and boy-next-door personality in the new CW martial arts series, Kung Fu.
Liu plays Henry Yan, a Tai Chi instructor at the San Francisco Chinatown Community Center who also happens to be a Chinese Art History graduate student at UCSF. Henry is an expert in Ancient Chinese history and folklore, which benefits our Kung Fu heroine, Nicky Chen (Olivia Liang), as she is dealing with ancient Chinese supernatural forces. When Nicky and Henry first meet, their chemistry was so strong that it stopped a random Asian Auntie in her tracks to have her comment on the good-looking pair. That said, if Asian Auntie approves, then we do too.
With the second episode premiering tonight, The Nerds of Color got to chat with the busy actor over the phone about what to expect from his character, the other romantic rivals for Nicky’s affections, the relatable moments from the show, fun Twitter banter, the tiring conversations surrounding representation, and a fashion faux pas I personally had to ask from the pilot episode.
So, when we first meet Henry, he’s this charming Tai Chi instructor who is also a Chinese Art History graduate student who trained in Wushu in China. Are we going to find out more about his semi-charmed life — maybe his family dynamics and more on his background?
Oh yeah, yeah. We’ll definitely find out a little bit more about him. But [what] we’ll mainly see, though, is that he is going to be such a huge part of the treasure hunt team, which right now is really just Nicky and Henry. That’s what’s forming. It’s a two-person team. It’s a very small operation. We’re not even a 501C3 [organization]. He’s a huge nerd about this stuff, and, I mean, nerd in the most endearing way. He’s just really passionate and he just is very knowledgeable. For him, it’s like these comic books are historical comic books coming to life. So to know that this magical mythology is real, who wouldn’t be excited about that. So he’s definitely ready to jump in and help. So, let’s just say he has eyes for both the books and for Nicky.
Obviously, you cannot tell me much about Henry and Nicky’s relationship, but it seems like the only time they’re together is when she needs to know stuff about the sword or medallion. I enjoy the spark they have with each other. Is Henry ever going to ask her out and chat beyond the mythical information Nicky needs? Is that all he is good for?
Yeah. I mean, you know, when you write a TV script, every character has a role to play and then there is the expert guy and that’s pretty much all we need to know about him. They’ll be spending more time together for sure and they’ll be getting into shenanigans together, along with the Shen kids. I can definitely tell you that.
I know most of the shipping conversations will go towards Henry/Nicky and Evan/Nicky, but I was wondering what your thoughts on another competitor pining for Nicky’s attention — the crooked yet sexy Zhilian aka Team “Zhicky.”
If Evan and Henry were to hear that that was something — another option on the table — I think they’d be a little weary given what Zhilian has already done, which is murder her sifu (teacher). However, I think we would both give our blessing, for sure, and we wish them very well.
There are so many relatable moments on the show, especially the family dynamics between Nicky and her family. Were there any moments when watching the show that you felt most connected to?
I love how these moments get sprinkled in where it’s not so heavy-handed. You get to see the Asian experience come to life, but it’s not. Kung Fu is not a documentary or blueprint on how to be Asian American. This family just exists as themselves and that’s what I love about it. One moment that I’ve always loved and I always laughed at (and I’ve watched the pilot like a few times now) [is] when Nicky comes home for the very first time and Jin embraces her. There’s this really heartfelt moment where a father who loves his daughter like the way any father would after she’s been gone for this many years and he just takes one quick glance at her and says, “You’re too skinny.” And, it’s just there’s no argument. It’s not a conversation. “Are you hungry? You need to eat” and that’s it. It’s so real, because that’s how Asians, especially, express their love. I mean many cultures do but we Asians, especially, like that moment landed home for a lot of us.
You’re Chinese American, born and raised in New York, and have done many roles that have you just being a regular dude that happens to be Asian. Since Kung Fu is focused on the Chinese American experience, do you feel a bit closer to your heritage while working on the series?
More than ever. There has been a great sense of pride that’s come up for me. Growing up Asian in the West, in the United States, I know that this is not every Asian’s experience, but for me, there was a repelling feeling growing up. There was a sense of not wanting to embrace my heritage for fear of being found out as different. I think I inadvertently strived for our proximity to whiteness and falling in line and being afraid to stand out. And, I didn’t have the maturity and the wisdom back then to know how to embrace my culture and not be afraid of being made fun of back then. Because being made fun of as a teenager is one of the scariest things. That is just something that you dread and… whether it is harmless or not, the dread is worse than the experience sometimes. And, I wish I had a stronger sense of self and pride, but working on a show like this has given me all of that back. I feel like we’re reclaiming so much. We’re reclaiming the genre in a way and we’re building off of the original series with love, more detail, and the cast. It’s an incredible opportunity and one of the many, many benefits and wonderful things about the show is feeling connected to my roots again.
I know there has been talk about Asians and the stereotypes surrounding our portrayal. I’ve read and watched your interviews. Since the 2010s, we have seen a change from the “sexless” and “nerdy” men to the buff, sexy men in Warrior, Into the Badlands, and now Kung Fu and even the dumb, goofy hot guys in The Good Place and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Do you ever feel tired of the constant questions surrounding these kinds of issues, especially since we’ve been seeing the rise of the sexy Asian man?
It’s interesting seeing the change that happened in real time. I think for a long time, especially when I started out in the business, I didn’t want to carry the team flag. I didn’t want to have Team Asian written on my chest. I just wanted to be an actor. I never ever wanted anyone to question the validity of me getting any job. I didn’t want anyone to question [it]. It wasn’t a goal of mine. I don’t want anyone to think that I got here because of the color of my skin, because that was something that has worked against us in entertainment for so long. My goal was to just sort of be who I could be. It’s tricky when you do have these great classic examples. It’s easy to live in the shadow of something that is so great and prevalent. Whether that was Bruce Lee setting the tone for us in terms of masculinity, strength, and power. And, even the style and humor and the likeness of Crazy Rich Asians. That did such amazing things for our community. So I think what the rest of the industry can do a better job at is recognizing that even though you see one successful product doesn’t mean everything after that needs to follow suit. The goal is to not just have representation of Asians, but to have a very diverse representation of Asians because we are anything we want to be. We can be anything we want to be. I can’t complain about the rise of the sexy shirtless Asian man, because many of us do benefit in a way. But not every Asian has to be shirtless either though, so there is that flip side of it where there’s a place for everyone in this industry. The goal is to normalize everyone in a way and that’s what we’re working towards.
With everything going on with Asians in society and in entertainment and being in this industry for quite some time, I’m actually tired of asking questions about how a person feels about inclusion and diversity, because BIPOC knows it’s important and we should be asking these questions to white allies. I was wondering what your thoughts are on these sorts of questions and how we should approach the topic of Asian inclusion and diversity.
I completely agree with your approach. I go really hard back and forth and sometimes I dwell in the middle space, which is that ‘I don’t need you to ask me how I’m feeling about the uptick in Asian racism. I need you to put that energy towards calling out and educating your racist family. I need you to put the energy towards checking on your friends who spew seemingly harmless racist insults. That’s where I think your energy would be better served. While I appreciate the thought, I don’t need you to check up on me necessarily.’ I know that we’re gonna get these questions for a long time and it’s one of those things where I have to just sort of have to take a deep breath and just embrace the suck, as some people use that term. What I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle of this solemn conversation of representation is how fun our show is. We have a really fun, funny, enjoyable adventure to watch here and that’s really what I’m here to do mainly. I’m proud to be an advocate and to lend my mouthpiece or lend my microphone to any cause that really needs more amplification. But, I can only imagine just the parallels and how akin it is and how analogous it is to being a woman and being asked about the glass ceiling all the time or being a Black actor and being asked about how #OscarsSoWhite inspired them or moved them. I’m happy to talk about it and there is a place for people to talk about that. We need those people to call that out and put words to paper to describe what’s actually happening because we didn’t have that when I was growing up. And, there is a place for others to execute the action that needs to take place to make the change.
Twitter is so great at creating discussions surrounding your show. How do you feel about the conversations going on, especially the normalized conversations regarding being TEAM HENRY or TEAM EVAN. How important was it for you to kind of check out the feedback and just see how normal the conversations are especially given this is a CW show, so people are gonna look more at the beautiful people present onscreen.
In a way, isn’t that a huge marker of progress? It lets us know that people are interested. They’re already on board with the story and the characters. It’s a really good feeling. Ultimately what this show is, it’s not just entertainment, but it is still entertainment. Entertainment is often really hard to separate politics from it. Being apolitical is political, isn’t it? Our show is meant to be entertaining. We happen to be a vessel for the serious discussion about representation and one that does get tiring to have to answer all the time. What’s great about our show is that it’s really fun and that we get to shift characters. We get to make memes and poke fun at each other and banter with each other on social media. That’s what I love so much about the show is that we can do all of that with this one show.
Well, speaking about the fun stuff about the show and adding some lightness to the conversation. I need to talk about one fashion faux pas that bothered me throughout the pilot episode. I think you know this and was warned about this through our mutual friend. We need to talk about the black turtleneck. It was quite distracting seeing the turtleneck and thick coat while it looked like springtime in San Francisco. Also, it was distracting away from your handsome face. I just want to hear your thoughts on this.
Okay. All right, well, you make that sound like a bad thing and this is pretty awesome [laughs]. Yeah, it’s a strong choice. It did keep me warm because we were freezing inside the mansion that we were shooting in. Because of COVID regulations, the doors and windows have to stay open to maximize air ventilation in an enclosed indoor space. So while my castmates were freezing, I had the benefit of having two long-sleeve pieces of attire to keep me warm. And I could hide a merino wool under-layer undergarment underneath that to keep me warm. Well, I understand that the turtleneck, people have felt a strong way about it. My mom likes it. She thought I looked very handsome. So, I’m having to make her proud by donning that.
Check out more of Eddie Liu as Henry Yan on Kung Fu every Wednesday night at 8pm on The CW.