‘Kung Fu’ Star Olivia Liang Breaks Down the Packed Series Premiere

If it wasn’t for Olivia Liang, The CW’s reimagining of Kung Fu arguably wouldn’t work. The star plays Nicky Shen, a college dropout who studies martial arts, then travels back to San Francisco to fight crime and attempt to reconnect with her expansive family. In the pilot, which just aired on The CW, Liang is in nearly every scene, balancing intense street fighting action with emotional moments, new love triangles, and so much more.

“It was a whirlwind, which I think is very reflective of how Nicky was feeling,” Liang told Decider of filming her first major lead role on a network series.

For much more from Liang, including how her role on Legacies prepared her for Kung Fu, which CW superhero series she’d like to cross over with, and what to expect as Season 1 continues, read on.

Decider: What was it like going from playing a supporting character on Legacies, to suddenly leading your own show for Kung Fu?

Olivia Liang: It was crazy. I learned so much from that Legacies cast. They’re so amazing. They’re so gracious and respectful. They really gave me a crash course on how a show operates and how to be a good leader on one. Coming into Kung Fu, I attribute any sort of good vibes and professionalism to what I learned from that Legacies cast. But yeah, the workload really changes from supporting, to one of the leads… It’s been really fun.

Alyssa on Legacies and Nicky on Kung Fu are almost diametrically opposite characters, too. What was it like jumping from one to the other?

You know, it was so fun to play Alyssa Chang, because it’s good to be bad sometimes. I got to take out a lot of pent up stress and annoyance when I was playing Alyssa. That was an outlet for me; and playing Nicky is kind of an extension of myself, I see so much of myself in the character of Nicky. So really, it was just going from playing pretend and having fun with Alyssa Chang, and then now with Nicky, getting to infuse myself into a character.

Back at a press day last month you were mentioning that you didn’t really have any martial arts training going in… So what was the audition process like? Maybe this is a question for the casting director, but what were they looking for in particular that they found with you?

You know, thankfully, [showrunner] Christina [M. Kim] did not require martial arts as a necessity for the role. I don’t know what they were looking for. I know I can answer that for me, reading the part of Nicky, there was so much attention to detail of what it is to be an Asian-American woman, and I latched on to so many of her experiences, that it clicked for me. It really fit like a glove.

Now that you’re a couple of episodes into filming, have the martial arts started to click as well? Or do you still find your dance training is something that you’re pulling on?

The martial arts of it all is definitely starting to click. Starting out in the first couple of episodes, I was still finding my footing. I still rely heavily on the dance background in terms of the ease and ability of picking up choreography. But the stunts team has really taught me how to add power. I think that was the biggest thing, and also getting comfortable with the dance… That is not only with your fight partner, but with the cameras.

I was really nervous. I was like, “Oh, I don’t know what I look like at the end of all this.” But getting to see the fight choreography in all of its glory, put together with all of these really cool camera angles and shots… I am able to go into these fight choreography days with much more ease now. I know that we’re all setting each other up for success, and so I just get to have fun and feel really good and badass.

There are so many different parts of Nicky’s life that are introduced in the pilot — and from a viewer’s perspective, it’s great because it’s very propulsive. But for you, behind the scenes, what was it like jumping from dojo fights to San Francisco to family drama, all over the course of one episode?

It was a whirlwind, which I think is very reflective of how Nicky was feeling. I mean, she went through some stuff in that pilot and we get to see her get this whiplash of life. And finally, the call to action to go home and repair relationships that she left behind, reckon with the woman she was, versus the woman she is now, bridging that gap. So I think for me as an actor, it was exactly how Nicky was feeling, which is this whiplash of, I just went through this, but now I have to do this; and this is still going on in my head, but right now this problem is in front of me, and I need to do something about it. So all that to say, it was very easy for me to fall into the role.

Was there a relationship — from your family, to love interests, to enemies — that started to work first, and knock the rest into the place like dominos? Or did it all sort of hit at the same time?

They all hit at the same time, because I’m working with amazing actors and we we have such a good relationship, off camera as well. We’re working up here in a bubble together, we don’t have anyone else, so we’re really leaning on each other, we’ve become so close. We have so much fun with each other, and I think we all trust each other as human beings first. So that made it so easy to translate those relationships on screen. All the relationships really just fell into place. We all did such intricate work on our characters that it was very easy to have that click.

This isn’t technically a superhero show, but talking to actors on those sorts of things there’s always a moment — usually putting on the costume — where it suddenly starts to feel real. Was there a moment when you got on set and thought, “Oh, here I am, I’m starring on Kung Fu.”

I think there’s like a pinch me moment every single day. Truly, this has been a once in a lifetime dream role. Every time I’m on set, and I look around, I’m like, “oh my gosh, we’re all making this show and I get to be part of it.” That pinch me moment. Every day, I’m like, “oh my gosh, I get to be Nicky, I get to be this really heroic woman,” and it’s really inspired and translated into my personal life. I kind of want to start to be that strong, powerful woman who’s been unafraid to use her voice.

I know you got probably at least a little bit of a sense of this from Legacies, but are you looking forward to — or potentially wary of — the CW audience starting to ship Nicky with other characters?

The shipping, I love it, I’m a fan. I’m a fan of TV too, and so when I watch shows, I’m shipping people together. I like to get creative in my mind and wonder where the storyline’s going to go, and who can get with who, and I love love. I’m such a sucker for romance, and so I’m excited for fans to fall in love with other characters and maybe want to see Nicky with them. There is already like a really funny ship that I’ve seen going around on Twitter of me of Nicky and Zhilan, enemies to lovers. I’m like, you know what? You guys keep dreaming big. I love it.

I was going to ask you if you were prepared for that one, but sounds like you’re good to go… Back to the pilot, I was surprised about how much mythology got built up so quickly. How much of the show going forward is going to be magical battles, versus down to earth mysteries?

It’s gonna get real mythological. The mystical element is really going to start to play a part, and you’ll get to see Nicky not want to believe in it; and then be forced to believe in it, because it turns out to be really interwoven [with] her destiny. It’s really cool, and I can’t wait… I’m also such a fan of these kinds of shows where there’s other-worldly things happening. So I’m really excited for that, to keep playing out.

You have that great, very down to earth fight in the first episode on the street; and then the one on the roof starts to get into wire stunts a little bit. As we get more into the mythology and magical elements, are you finding you’re enjoying the wire stunts? Or do you prefer the more down to earth fights?

I’m not allowed to do the wire stunts! I love the down to earth, because then I get to really be in it. I’m gonna convince our stunt coordinator to eventually let me get up in a wire. But the really cool wire work is my amazing stunt double, Megan Hui, who has taught me so much. I think that the fighting does stay quite down to earth… We have the element of the weapons. We really get to use these in hand to hand combat. Our stunt team and our fight coordinators really love that kind of gritty, down to earth fighting.

You also start to have the brewings of a love triangle in this first episode? Can we expect some movement with either Henry, or Evan, or both?

Yes, I think you can expect to see all three of us grow in certain directions; and where that will take us if Nicky has a choice to make, we will see. Each character is going to grow in their own way.

As we were talking about earlier, in a certain sense, you could certainly look at this as another CW superhero show… Though obviously not tied to the DC shows. That said, is there a fellow CW superhero you’d want to see Nicky cross paths with?

Supergirl is ending, but I would have been so cool to see two badass women… So maybe Batwoman, that would be awesome to have a trip to Gotham, or vice versa. Selfishly, I think it would be really fun to team up with Legacies and to have this multiverse where Alyssa Chang is meeting this Nicky character that looks just like her.

That would probably freak MG out… Since this is a reimagining, not a reboot necessarily, is there any room to potentially bring in folks from any of the previous series?

You’re taking over the Riverdale time slot for the next 13 weeks or so. For fans who might tune in Wednesday at the same time, what do you think could potentially draw in a Riverdale fan to Kung Fu?

The mystery of it all. You know, there’s this mysterious bad guy, and we want to know more about her. The love triangle of it all. We love to see it, and I hope that right off the bat… You’ve seen in the pilot, the action is immediate, we get right down to business. So I hope that they’re kind of taken aback by it, and intrigued.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kung Fu airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on The CW.

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