On ‘Kung Fu,’ Yvonne Chapman is Making Evil Look Good

When Yvonne Chapman first received the call that she was cast in the reboot of The CW’s Kung Fu, she was over the moon and immediately called her husband and friends. It all happened so quickly for the Calgary native. When Chapman first auditioned for the role of the villainous Zhilan — an ageless Guardian who is determined to collect all the mythical swords that, if in the wrong hands, could destroy the world — she immediately fell in love with the character. 

“The entire time I was like ‘oh man, I really hope I get this,’” Chapman revealed on the phone with The Nerds of Color last week. “I remembered in that time with my friends and my husband that I [had a] feel in my gut. I just felt like it was really right for me. It was just hoping that other people felt the same.”

Fortunately, they did and cast Chapman as the antagonist to the hero, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang). In the series, Nicky Shen is trained at a Shaolin Temple in China by her mentor, Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai). After the temple is attacked by unknown assassins, Nicky encounters Pei-Ling being attacked by Zhilan, who steals a magical sword from the temple and fatally stabs Pei-Ling, resulting in her untimely death and with Nicky swearing vengeance.

After the premiere of the series, fans have fallen in love with the stunning  Zhilan, even though she’s the villain in the story. Fans on social media have sworn allegiance to Zhilan’s cause, with many questioning if they’ve become evil themselves. “No,” Chapman laughed. “No. Nobody’s evil. We’re just different… Let’s just say that.”

As the series has progressed, viewers have learned that Zhilan is not just a pretty, evil face. She has a history with Pei-Ling — they’re sisters. Chapman is excited for fans to learn more about Zhilan’s history and that she’s more than the dragon lady trope. 

In an interview with Chapman, she fills us in on Zhilan’s family history, if the character is redeemable, potential love interests (team Zhicky), and the impact that the series already has for the community. 

When you were first introduced, we see you battle Pei-Ling to the death, we also find out they are sisters throughout the series. Although they went in different paths, you can never deny family — which is the theme of Kung Fu. What can you tell us is going on in Zhilan’s head knowing she killed her family member? Is there grief going to be played out?

Chapman: Yeah. I don’t think that decision to kill her sister was a light one, by any means. I know that in the pilot it was such a quick thing. But the way that I saw that, if she didn’t do it quickly, she wouldn’t have done it at all, in my opinion, as I played her. We will see, down the line, a lot more of the backstory [and] the history of the family play out. It’s definitely something that I think the audience will be needing to be and wanting to see it. There’s far more to her character than just a ruthless killer. I think that’s kind of the beauty of the journey of it, which I really appreciated to take the audience on a ride and to let them see how fleshed out Zhilan is throughout the season.

Like you’ve said before “Zhilan is the hero in her own story,” which we see many as villains’ frame of mind. Is this one of those situations where she believes the death of Dr. Chau and countless others is worth obtaining the power?

For the reasons of why she wants [the power so bad] is definitely a means to justify the ends. But I think she goes through this and, as people come to know her and see her through her own journey, it is paralleled to Nicky’s. What I love about her as a villain is that she definitely is the hero of her own story and has her own motivation, but I couldn’t play her any other way. She’s not someone who’s doing these for the sake of doing them. It’s all for a reason.

What I appreciate about Zhilan is that she’s kind of a superhuman because she’s a Guardian of the Legendary weapons, but also doesn’t age. We learn a bit about her family, especially her father. With her being so ruthless, will we eventually see some sort of kindness that makes her human?

Oh yeah, definitely. Again, I think that’s what really drew me to this character as well is that she’s still fully realized and so well-rounded and written. I really am grateful to the showrunners and to the writers who wrote her so beautifully. You will see this really great journey of hers throughout the season as it plays out. So, you’ll definitely see a lot of different facets from her. I think the introduction of her, of course, it’s kind of like this, as I’ve said, a ‘badass’ which is fantastic, but you will see a lot of the humanity come out of her later on too.

With the show getting so much praise and a likely season two, is there a chance of redemption for Zhilan or are we seeing this as a forever villain who is ultimately irredeemable?

I don’t know. I think there’s a chance for redemption for her. That’s my opinion. I’ll speak for myself. I think there definitely is. Now, if that’s gonna happen, I guess we all [will] have to stay tuned. I don’t know.

I’m going to be real with you, the response to seeing you as the villain brought up many conflicting feelings for not only myself, but for MANY fans. Seeing this stunning woman being so evil. How do you feel about the response you’ve been getting? 

I absolutely love it. I’m just enjoying every single minute. I always make that joke on set too. So, as new players come in as they’re on Nicky’s side or whatever. As me, Yvonne, I’ll just go like, ‘Hey, you want to join my side?’ I always kind of put out the offer [out there] like ‘you want to join my team? I got cool clothes. I got cool weapons. I got an awesome lair.’ I was putting out the feelers and [see] whoever wants to jump on my side. So when I see it out there too, from the audience, [I think] like this is great,  let’s just do a fan club. Collect her minions.

I do want to ask this, since I’ve discussed this with Olivia and Eddie as well. You have been on many shows where you play a regular person who just happens to be Asian. But, for a show like this, which focuses on Chinese culture and a Chinese American family, it’s hard to avoid these questions on Westernized Asian experiences. Were there any moments when watching the show that was really relatable for you or one that you’re glad was being brought up? Do you feel a bit closer to your heritage while working on this set?

Oh, absolutely. I think we’ve done a beautiful job with showing the dynamic of the Shen family, and it’s in the details. It’s all in the details in taking the shoes off in the house, how they dine together, what they eat, [and] how they interact with each other. There’s so many moments where it really touched me and I’m like ‘that is my family. I’ve grown up with that.’ And, more than that though, I think looking at that, aside from the beautiful details that they put in there of the Asian family, there’s so many dynamics that I think are transcendent no matter what background you are. I really hope that speaks universally to everybody as well that they’re going to look at that family and say ‘oh, I can relate. They’re familiar to me. I don’t need to be Chinese American to know that’. I think that’s really the power of the show — building those bridges and connection between many different people.

Now to the fun, we’re going to talk about Zhicky (Zhilan and Nicky ship name). I know the chances of Zhicky happening is very low because Zhilan killed Nicky’s mentor, but I’ve always believed in redemption and how hate can turn into love. What can you say about this movement? 

Well, what I love about it is that you’re going to see that, just because I’m the villain, as cast members, we definitely don’t hate each. I think it’s just a nice moment. Me and Olivia have been having a blast with it, as well as the rest of the cast. ‘Oh Team Zhicky!’ I think you know love trumps hate every single time and I think there’s going to be moments even, even as enemies, that you’ll see a common ground between them

Okay, so I know Ludi Lin is going to be on the show and he’s set to play Kerwin, heir to the billionaire Tan family fortune. He is described as “dashing, handsome, physically fit, and impossibly charismatic.  An erotically charged partnership with Zhilan will provide Kerwin with just the path to revenge (and vindication) he has been waiting for.” I need to know about this relationship. Also, I noticed it says erotically charged, but I was wondering since this is The CW and Zhilan has been around for many years, if you would consider her also to be part of the Queer community as well.

Yeah, I kind of agree with you on that. I think with me and Kerwin, I think that’s just the very first relationship that you’re going to see of her. It doesn’t mean that it’s the only type, but it’s going to be the first. Hey, in my opinion, absolutely, why not [Zhilan be part of the queer community]. I think though, it’s not up to me.

When you got this role to be part of this all-Asian cast in the reboot of Kung Fu, what was the first thing you did? How important was it for you to be in this role that right the wrong done for Asian cinema?

Incredibly important. I’m just so grateful for everybody involved in getting this project off the ground. I’ve said it before. God, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that it has taken decades and a history, and people who have come before us for us to get to this point. So, a lot of gratitude is indebted to that, for sure. But, with change comes a responsibility to be able to keep that momentum up. And, we all just have to do our part. We’re all doing our part in trying our very best to be seen, to be familiar, [and] to be in people’s homes. Because I think that is the power of what the media can do to connect all of us in a big way, and to be a part of this is, you know, it’s indescribable. It’s amazing.

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