At the final audition for the new version of “Kung Fu,” actress Olivia Liang looked around the room and realized it was the first time she had gotten this far for a role and everyone was Asian.
“You hear about that moment where an actor is going to be in a corner with headphones on and they’re like, ‘Don’t bother me because you’re my competition. It’s you or me.’ But there was no sense of that in the room at all.”
After each reading, “We would all get into a big group hug like, ‘You did it.’ We had just never seen anything like this – an all-Asian cast on a major network.”
Premiering April 7 on The CW, the rebooted “Kung Fu” stars Liang as a Chinese-American woman who leaves college, studies at an isolated monastery in China and returns to San Francisco to take on a crime syndicate responsible for her mentor’s death.
While the original series – which starred David Carradine – also trumpeted social justice, it was set in the Old West and featured flashbacks to the time when he was called “Grasshopper.”
The new series doesn’t include a search for family; Liang’s Nicky Shen has parents and a sister who play big roles in her life. They’re not close but they’re all concerned with the power the syndicate – called the Triad – has on the community.
To battle the baddies, Nicky kicks her martial arts skills into high gear.
The only problem? Liang didn’t have any martial arts training before she started the series. “Thank goodness that was not a requirement,” she says during a Zoom interview. “But I have a background in dance, so when I came up here (Canada) to train, I was able to at least pick up the choreography because martial arts is very much a dance.”
Co-star Gavin Stenhouse says Liang is “an absolute powerhouse. When she is not rehearsing or shooting, she’s in the stunt gym rehearsing the stunts and the fight choreography. She does not stop, even on the weekends.”
Executive Producer Christina M. Kim says Liang was so determined to learn, the stunt coordinator tried to get her to slow down.
The reason she was so dedicated? “I feel the need to really make our people proud,” Liang says. “I don’t want to let anyone down because I know that this is so precious.”
Those in the cast who saw the original series know how important it was to the Asian-American community. The guest stars were all A-list Asian-American actors at the time. “We were well-represented, even back then,” says Tzi Ma, who plays Jin Shen, Nicky’s father.
Kheng Hua Tan, who plays Nicky’s mom, Mei-Li Shen, was an avid fan of the original. “The themes (were) strong in the original series and they continue to be very strong and similar in our current series.”
To make sure the new “Kung Fu’s” stunts were safe, coordinators kept the cast in a bubble and staged them so there was no actual contact.
“It take a lot of organizing, but we’ve got a fantastic COVID safety team that works around the clock,” says Stenhouse, who plays Evan Hartley, an assistant district attorney who has feelings for Nicky. “I have no idea how they do it, but they schedule dozens and dozens and dozens of tests every day.”
Kim says the new series will have flashbacks to the monastery and a bit of “magical mysticism” but much of this is “weird” for Nicky. She doesn’t get messages from her mentor but reminders of the things she learned there.
Besides making its leading character female and Asian-American, the new “Kung Fu” leans into family. “For me it was really important that the show was a multi-generational show,” Kim says. “We are telling the story of an entire family and the struggles that they have and what it’s like to be living in America at this time as an Asian-American.”
The murder of six Asians at an Atlanta spa March 16 was heartbreaking for the cast, Ma says. “I’m not sure what the short-term fix is (but) I believe we are the long-term solution – to do our show, to show the world who we are. Hopefully, those messages will come out loud and clear about inclusion, about representation.”