‘Kung Fu’ Star Kee Chan on Finding Humanity in the Villain

It’s hard to not associate the actor with the character they portray on television/film, especially if the character is as sinister and haunting as the enigmatic villain Russell Tan on The CW’s Kung Fu.

Of course, this isn’t the case for actor Kee Chan, who plays Russell Tan. 

Chan is the complete opposite to the “evil” big bad of the series. Chan is warm and thoughtful. He speaks softly and is gentle with his answers. Known by his castmates as the “kindest man” and “often always trying to feed them,” Chan is charming and personable. He greets me on Zoom with a smile, insisting that I call him “Kee” after I addressed him with ‘sir.’

I tell him he’s completely not like his wicked character. He laughs and understands how different they are, but, as an actor, Chan believes in trying to find the humanity in Russell. He doesn’t want people to just see Russell as this ‘one-dimensional villain,’ so he made sure to provide the character with more nuances and layers, including sympathy and compassion.

“Russell is a very compelling character,” Chan tells me over Zoom. “He’s thoughtful. He’s manipulative. He’s mesmerizing. He’s vulnerable. He is also very ambitious. However, underneath all of that, he has a need to be wanted.”

This season will see a different side to Russell, at least his motivations for why he is doing the things he’s doing. Now, with the addition of his daughter Juliette (Annie Q) and the return of his son Kerwin (Ludi Lin), the series will showcase Russell’s family life and his relationships and obligations to them. 

“Kee channeled some really deep human stuff with Russell, but he also brings the fear,” praised Kung Fu co-showrunner Robert Berens. “He’s really delivered a knockout performance for us this season. We are really excited for people to see him.”

Kung Fu — “Year of the Tiger: Part 2” — Photo Credit: Dean Buscher/The CW — © 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

We got to chat more with Chan on what to expect this season, his relationship with his children, his enemies, and what exactly is his endgame. 

The Nerds of Color: Russell Tan is an enigma. We don’t know much about him and his history. We just know he’s a rich billionaire. So, what’s his deal? 

Kee Chan: He’s a very complex character. It is not just about the money. [pauses] Yes, it is about the money. He’s also very passionate about many things. He, apart from his badness [and evilness], actually loves his children very much. But, sometimes, when you’re evil, you have no boundaries, but it doesn’t mean a bad person is all bad. There are so many levels [to it]. You know, a really bad person is also very compassionate, very warm, very loving, very vulnerable, creative, [and] insecure — especially insecure. That’s why they do what they do.They are also intelligent. I’ve created this very interesting arc [for] him. He was written as incredibly bad, but I’ve given him so many human qualities. For example, [his relationship with his daughter], I made sure that people saw that he really treasured his daughter and put her up on a pedestal despite everything else. He has complex relationships. He had a complex relationship with his sons — like Kerwin. That’s another story by itself. In his art, to see domination in everything he does, he does lose his values quite a bit. But, at the end of it, the need to dominate comes from a deeper value or being for the better good in his own mind, which is a bit twisted. But, everyone does things because they believe in what they’re doing – whether it’s murder or something [sinister].

Last season, the villain Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman) seemed to be following a trope of “the dragon lady” until we learned a bit about her life and the struggles she went through — fleshing out her character greatly. My fear is that Russell Tan is going to become a one-dimensional villain. Will we learn the history of his plight and determination so he can have more layers?

I don’t know how much I can give away right now. We get to know his background. He travels a lot. He collects things. He collects many, many things, [like] humans. He collects people. He buys people with his power. There is someone he’s really wanting to collect — and that is Mia. Because ultimately, she has all the power in the world. Almost.

We saw the relationship between Russell and Kerwin last season — like most Chinese parents, we do love our children, but we can be hard on them to drive them to success. Is this the case for Russell or does he genuinely not feel a kinship to his son unless he’s useful?

He has more [than one son], but the son he loves the most has passed away. I think he’s projecting everything he had wished in that song onto Kerwin, [who has] a different personality type. Those are the trials between this father and son relationship.

Credit: Richie Lubaton

With Kerwin’s betrayal — we find out Juliette said it was because of HER, Kerwin lived. But is Juliette lying and it was actually Russell who decided to save him? Would Russell actually kill his son?

Tan does save Kervin in a way, but it doesn’t mean that Juliette had nothing to do with it.But Russell does save Kerwin, but for his own motives. It’s very complex. The many writers on the series have written an extraordinary journey for Russell Tan. I hope I have lived up to all the written words to it.

Russell Tan strikes me as a traditional Chinese dad, which means the son is the golden child and the daughter is secondary, but is it different for Russell? Would you say he’s a traditional Chinese businessman or would you say he’s more modernized?

No, I think he’s very much traditional. Very much so. You will see that in the latter part of the series when he reveals that he has less honor in fulfilling his dreams. Yes, [he is a] traditional Chinese businessman. It’s all about money. It’s all about power. It’s all about face value. Yeah, it’s all about “[saving] face” to everyone.

Since you stated Russell is very traditional Chinese. In our culture, the daughter is secondary to the “golden son.” But, since Kerwin is the black sheep of the family after betraying Russell, is Kerwin still seen as a “higher” in Russell’s eyes, since Kerwin is the son versus the daughter, Juliette, who is “the good daughter?”

He would like Kerwin to carry the mantle of everything else. [But], as [Russell] begins to age, Juliette, his daughter, is a very powerful figure. She has her own needs. She’s a very modern woman. She believes in her rights for destiny and what she cannot have, she would take it. That is where there’s complications between brother and sister. Eventually, I will have to take a side somewhere. It’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s incredibly traumatic. It’s terribly painful. But I don’t think there is a winner because relationships fall apart because of all [this] power. 

This past episode, we see Russell and Juliette talking about Russell’s plans and Kerwin enters still being ungrateful for Russell keeping him alive. What is going on in Russell’s mind?

Absolutely. [Russell is] beside himself. He could barely contain himself and he was trying to be as civil as possible and, in some way, bring him into the fold where it is livable without being explosive — without destroying all these plans. Juliette [is] someone [Russell] could trust at [this] stage and he [is] leaning a lot on her. But his “golden child” [is] his son. The conflict happens when his son becomes a disobedient son — the one who doesn’t listen to anything.

We see Juliette next to her father. Russell’s previous right-hand man was killed by Kerwin last season. So, does this mean Juliette is his new right-hand-person?

Yeah, she’s attempting to be. She’s attempting to be and Russell is allowing her the feeling because he truly loves his daughter. She doesn’t have to fight with him. They get along so well. She plays him so well. Daughters always play with fathers. Sons don’t have those powers. It gets more interesting when she becomes more devious and more calculating in her ways. All this, at the same time, being the wonderful daughter that she is. 

Will we ever meet the mother of Russell’s children?

Never mentioned. That’s another story.

We all know Russell is a rich businessman. He’s a billionaire. He has money AND power. Russell has faced Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang) before — and honestly, he has ALL the resources to kill and destroy the family — whether it through financial means or manpower. What is stopping him?

His goals are loftier than that because he can [do all of that]. But, he’s only focusing on his goal — his energy — on the mightiest of all. You will see in the [final] three episodes and understand why he was so driven — almost driven crazy. He does almost lose his mind at the end to the detriment of many people.

You said Russell loves his family. Family is a legacy. Is there a limit to Russell? Is there a limit to what Russell is willing to go for at the risk of his two children?

Both are just important family values in his power. He has to make a choice. But, at one point in the story towards the end, when everything builds up, a choice he makes may not live in the current dimension.

I know the entire cast gets along with each other. I love seeing the dynamic between all of you. I know we see Russell interact with Nicky and Zhilan a lot, but is there anyone else you’d like Russell to interact with?

I actually would like to interact more with Mia [Vanessa Yao] — in a complex relationship, which is so diabolical. I do not know what’s going to happen in the future, but I love working with Vanessa. She’s an extraordinary actress. You know, she is the standout. In fact, I believe she’s unforgettable. [Just] watch her.

Credit: Richie Lubaton

JB Tadena, who plays Ryan’s love interest Sebastian, posted a photo of you and him hanging out. I joked that Sebastian is a spy. Are we going to see any interactions?

I don’t think there’s a possibility with [Sebastian] and Russell [interacting]. 

Russell is not only facing the Shen family as an adversary, but also Zhilan’s determination for revenge on him. What can you tell me about the relationship with Zhilan this season? She is after him. 

She is. She is hell bent on destroying him. But, at this stage in the season, I do not think that he’s worried about her, because his goals are much bigger than the people who dislike him. Far more powerful than his nemesis. 

There are A LOT of theories being brought up from fans and journalists. Were there any theories that you’ve heard that you thought, ‘this is outrageous!’

Nothing is outrageous in this series. Follow season two until the end — nothing is impossible. I play Russell and I’ve gotten spent every time I received a new script because I think ‘that’s not possible.’ It pushes [the story] to [the] limit and it truly is extraordinary writing. They have [a high] level of writing. The quality and the heights of season two is extraordinary. We hope that people will like the story and like the journeys of all these characters, especially Russell. I hope you like his journey, his story, and all the surprises.

Kung Fu airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on The CW.

*Interview has been condensed for time