Vanessa Yao on Mia’s Journey and True Purpose in ‘Kung Fu’

*This interview contains spoilers from tonight’s Kung Fu episode ‘The Enclave’*

Vanessa Yao really had to dig deep into her role as the new girl on The CW’s Kung Fu

As the loner Mia, Yao really delved into what it means to be isolated from everyone. It helped that Yao herself was a newcomer to the cast, who already established a beautiful camaraderie with each other during the first season. 

“I had to distance myself from the whole cast,” Yao said over the phone with The Nerds of Color. “I didn’t want to really connect with anyone because I needed to feel alone. I needed to understand that I cannot rely on anyone.”

That’s not to say that the cast were not welcoming. Yao felt the love and warm welcome from her fellow actors and even bonded with them over being part of a predominantly Asian cast. 

“[The cast] were so welcoming,” she said. “You could feel how proud they were of what they had done [with the series]. It was just so nice to be in that environment. They were so genuinely nice. So I felt great [being there].”

Still, Yao wanted to be sure to play Mia right and sink into the trauma the character had gone through. For years, Mia has been hiding from evil and powerful men like Russell Tan (Kee Chan) due to her being of Guardian and Warrior blood. Being of both descent, Mia is gifted with powers of agility and strength — on top of her skills with martial arts, but it also comes at a price. Based on ancient history and folklore, those who are mixed Guardian and Warrior are destined for destruction. 

Of course, Mia didn’t want to believe this and fought hard to deny her fate. But, after tonight’s episode “The Enclave,” Mia’s need to seek revenge against Russell Tan caused one of their own to take the hit — Ryan (Jon Prasida). Feeling guilt for what had happened, Mia turned to the only person who could understand her pain — Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman).

We got to chat with Yao about tonight’s episode and her portrayal of Mia as a Warrior/Guardian and a Survivor.  

The Nerds of Color: How is it joining the already established series in its sophomore season as a major character in this story arc?

Yao: I was extremely excited and nervous at the same time because [the cast and crew have] established such a great season and, as a newer fish, I was just worried what they would think [of me]. Just insecurities, in general. But they [were] so nice. They were so welcoming, especially [with the series being a] predominantly Asian cast, you could feel how proud they were of what they’ve done. It was just so nice to be in that environment.

Kung Fu — “Disclosure” — Pictured: Vanessa Yao as Mia — Photo: Jack Rowand/The CW — (C) 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

There is so much trauma to uncover from Mia. I honestly don’t know how she’s handling being with the Shens because of everything she’s been through. What is her mindset at the start of the season to now?

I felt like when she first entered [the scene], she was definitely cautious. She didn’t know what an extended family [was]. I don’t think that was a term that she really understood. And to trust someone means a lot to her. I think she wanted to do it, but it’s hard for her. Also, there’s this aspect of guilt that follows her and what she does. The one time she wanted to do something [for] herself, it really backfired on her really badly. I feel like that makes her an insecure person and in every action and every word that she does say, it’s the guilt that will always be with her no matter where she is.

I can’t help but feel Mia’s pain from losing her mother, but also rejection from her father. Does she feel a sense of vengeance towards him? I feel like this won’t be the last we see of him. 

I think that it is more than vengeance. It’s just more of ‘I can’t trust anyone. I can only rely on myself.’ There’s more of an independent thought for her – “I have my own back”. There’s more of that aspect for her. When she’s around Nicky, [Mia] wants to do more of her own thing because she doesn’t know if she can rely on other people. So I feel like that’s probably the damage from her father that’s been done to her.

There’s always a level of resentment when it comes to wanting what you didn’t get to have, especially for someone who has been through so much trauma. Does Mia harbor any of those feelings towards Nicky or the Shen family?

I think, probably, yes. It’s so foreign to her. She maybe doesn’t know how to feel to have siblings, to have a mom and a dad, [and] to have all of that. Like, what is that? What does that feel like? I think for her, it’s more like she’s in shock that someone could have all of this and what that feels like. I think there [are] some parts of jealousy involved as well, but she wants to trust people. Deep in her heart, she wants to be accepted. She wants all of that. She wished she did.

I know Mia probably feels guilty about what happened to Ryan, but her going after Tan stands against what Nicky and the Shen family is all about. What is her mindset about this?

At this point, she has no one now, especially when she went to Zhilan to talk about it. The way that Zhilan comforts her, she explains that [Mia] can never go back to [the Shen family], [especially with] what’s happened, they will never forgive you. That’s what [Mia] really didn’t want to hear, but she heard it and she’ll remember that. She knows now that she has no other path to go. Zhilan also repeats to her that it’s Russell Tan that did this. So, at the end of the day, to make herself feel better, all she can really do is just move forward and do what she needs to do. She has no backup plan. She can’t go back.

Kung Fu — “Jyu Sa” — Pictured (L-R): Vanessa Yao as Mia and Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen — Photo: The CW — (C) 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

I understand that in the past, the Guardian/Warrior mix became dark and evil, but do you feel that Mia could truly have the darkness inside of her or is she influenced by the concept that the Guardian/Warrior mix is inherently evil? Kind of like the power of suggestion. 

It’s definitely the power of suggestion. I don’t think [she thinks] people are born evil. It’s always the circumstances that make them evil or [circumstances that] happen to them. When people end up doing bad things, it’s because they have no one. They have nothing to lose. So for Mia now, she really has nothing. Nothing left [to lose].

What is Mia’s endgame or does she not know what she wants? Does she yearn for a quiet life or just to be left alone?

That’s an excellent question. I don’t even think she knows what she wants. But she wishes to know that from other people. I think she wants the answer from other people — to hear from [them] what she’s supposed to be doing. What am I supposed to do? She asked Nicky. [Mia] confided in Nicky that she doesn’t know where she’s supposed to be [and] what she’s supposed to do. I think that followed her to episode 9. She doesn’t know [what] she’s supposed to do. She wishes someone would tell her, ‘this is what you need to do to feel better.’ I don’t think she knows herself. She’s very confused and wishes someone could just show her the path, but got interrupted and she’s still very insecure.

Now that Mia is with Zhilan — Do you feel that Mia’s personality is more suited for Zhilan as sifu than the wholesome Nicky?

I think it’s Zhilan, but it took time for her to realize that. Nicky is more black or white, but for Mia, [especially after] everything she’s been through, she doesn’t see everything as just black and white now. She’s more harsh. She’s more raw. And, for Zhilan, that’s something that aligns [more with Mia]. [Zhilan] is very harsh with the things she does and she’s seen much more and she has damage to her — that’s something that binds her with Mia as well.

Kung Fu — “Reunion” — Image Number: KF205fg_0003r.jpg — Pictured: Vanessa Yao as Mia – Photo: The CW — (C) 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

I have to agree with Zhilan and Mia fitting better together because Zhilan has been through so much trauma — like Mia. Nicky and her family have been very fortunate to have each other. So, there’s a closer connection because of the shared trauma between Zhilan and Mia. But, there’s still that mistrust — do you feel like moving forward that Mia could trust Zhilan? Zhilan wants to destroy Russell Tan no matter what and by any means.

Definitely. The shared trauma means that this person understands me more. I feel like with Zhian losing her mom, [they] align perfectly. And, at the end of the day, Zhilan did tell Mia the truth, right? So why not listen to her at this moment? For now, it’s definitely Zhilan. It’s definitely the person that she wants to hopefully get answers from and to have someone show her the path that she needs to go.

There’s a clear disconnect between Zhilan and Nicky as rivals. They respect each other as a Warrior and Guardian, but remain nemeses. How is Mia feeling about working with Zhilan — who doesn’t align with Nicky’s ways — and knowing that Mia is eventually going to interact with Nicky and the Shens again? How is that going to affect Mia internally?

It definitely bothers her. She does feel like she’s betraying people who trusted her. I don’t think she goes into this feeling great about it either. But, for now, she feels like she can’t go back and [that the Shens will] never trust her again. So it’s [Mia] is already this far, so why not go further?

Your character really goes deep into the trauma and deep into this loneliness. How was it to really dive into this character – not only from a human aspect, but also the supernatural one?

Personally, I needed to feel what she felt so obviously, I’m thankful my parents are still well and they’re doing good. But, to enter her shoes, I had to distance myself from the whole cast. When I was on set, I didn’t want to really connect with anyone because I needed to feel alone. I needed to understand that I cannot rely on anyone. I don’t have anyone. So it was interesting because anytime I would feel happy, it would actually make my performance not as good. So I noticed that early on to give Mia the justice she needed, I needed to feel that as well. It’s a bit depressing, but [I wanted to] Mia feel as raw and vulnerable as [possible]. I had to kind of get as far as I could without hurting anyone or anything like that. It was just the process of just being alone and being in my thoughts and the things that were happening to Mia on the show, I would make that feel like it happened to me. I was just trying to be as raw about it as possible. That’s how that came to be. I realized that was a process I had to go through to not downplay anything she’s been through. [The cast are] happy on-set and they joke around so much, but I realized I couldn’t be part of that — it was not fair for the character and the traumas she’s been through. So I had to separate myself from that to continuously be in that state.

As a Chinese Canadian, you started out working in Asia and China prior to being cast. Now, you’re working on a series where this is the first predominantly Asian cast on network drama television. I know it must be different for you. After working in Asia and now returning and working with the Asian diaspora, do you feel the impact of the series in terms of Asian representation?

Yeah, I did see that and it’s amazing. Before I left to [work in] Asia, this would have never been possible. Yeah, this would not be possible at all — and that was just seven years ago. Now that I’m back to see this – and now that the show has wrapped — there’s auditions coming in for other stuff. There’s a huge step towards more representation. Obviously, it’s still not [huge], but there’s much more [than before]. For me, it’s already a huge improvement. So the way I see it, it’s getting much better because seven years ago, this was never the case. Even if there was an Asian role, it was so small and there was no depth to it. But for me to receive something like Mia where there’s so much depth, I was shocked and I really wanted to do her justice and the show justice as well. [I] just [want] to do what I can for the Asian community.

What can we expect from Mia in the next coming episodes? We’re almost at the season finale. What can you hint at us? 

I just hope [the fans] can understand where [Mia is] coming from and that they love her. I just hope they feel everything she’s feeling. I think that will happen, but just buckle in… because there’s a lot coming.

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