In Kung Fu, Olivia Liang plays Nicky Shen, a Chinese-American woman who had a quarter-life crisis, quit college, and began studying martial arts in a Shaolin monastery. When tragedy strikes, she moves back home to San Francisco to defend her family and community with her newfound skills. And try to bring her mentor’s killer to justice.
It’s a great premise for a show. One that has made Liang a breakout star in The CW’s re-imagining of David Carradine’s ’70’s martial arts show. But the actor’s own martial arts journey is almost as interesting as her character’s.
Let’s take a look at how Olivia Liang trained for her role in the show, why she resisted martial arts for so long, and how her experience has influenced her relationship with all things Kung Fu.
Does Olivia Liang Have A Martial Arts Background?
Frustrated with the limited opportunities for Asian American actors — and the limitations of the roles that they were offered — Olivia Liang made a promise to herself in the early days of her career. She would only learn martial arts if she was paid to do it. “I had several people, the follow-up question to, ‘You’re an actor?’ was ‘Do you do martial arts?’” the star recently told TIME.
It wasn’t just the type of roles that troubled Liang, but how little humanity they offered the characters and the actors portraying them. “In the past, an Asian person would come onscreen, do a couple kicks and punches, and then leave,” she said in an interview with Bustle. “We would have no idea who they were and where they came from.”
“I didn’t want that to be the only way in for me,” Liang continued. “And now, of course I’m on a show called Kung Fu and I’ve really done a 180.”
How Did Olivia Liang Train For Kung Fu?
Rotten Tomatoes reports that Liang started preparing for the role while wrapping up work on her previous series, Legacies. She’d prod that show’s stunt coordinator, David Morizot, for basic moves between takes. Then she moved onto a two week bootcamp where she spent three-to-five hours a day working with Kung Fu’s stunt coordinator, Sam Ly.
Liang has taken dance, so she wasn’t a stranger to physical performance. According to her Bustle profile, she also enjoys hiking and Chloe Ting’s YouTube workouts. But there was one aspect of this type of training that was very new for her. “My dance background helped in transferring over to picking up choreography. And then what I was lacking was power,” she said in an interview segment with The CW.
“I was kind of approaching everything with that dancer’s gracefulness, and so that bootcamp of martial arts that i went through prior to the show starting filming was really to insert that power into my movement, and to really give me that base and foundation of forms and stances so that I could really build on that for all of these fight sequences.”
Liang is a quick learner, which you can see for yourself in Kung Fu. She tells Rotten Tomatoes that “you can maybe expect to see at least 65% me” in action sequences.
“I’m not allowed to do the wire stunts!” Liang told Decider. “I love the down to earth [fighting], 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.”
Reclaiming Kung Fu
Because of her past issues with martial arts, Liang wasn’t sure if she wanted to take the role of Nicky at first. The ability to work with an Asian cast and creative team, lead by Christina M. Kim, and to tell complex Asian-American stories changed her mind, though. “To have a fully fleshed out character who also does martial arts has really changed my perspective,” she told TIME.
In addition to helping Liang reclaim Kung Fu the martial art, the show has also been a way for the cast and crew to reclaim the Kung Fu franchise. The original 1970s series and the 1990s sequel played an instrumental role in bringing martial arts to North American television audiences, but they were also stories about a half-Asian character that were written and performed by white people.
At a press event in March, Kim acknowledged the original story’s place in history, but also addressed its issues, and the changes she wanted to see in her show. “The lead actor was not Asian. And for me, in developing the show, it was really important that we change that. And for myself as a woman, I really wanted a strong female Asian lead who was kicking butt and was the role model that I wished I had growing up on TV,” she said.
“The martial arts of it all was never the problem that we had,” Liang explained when ET asked her how her show challenges the way that Asian Americans have been associated with Kung Fu in the past. “I think with the typecasting and the stereotyping, it was the fact that that was the only thing we were seen as. But on Kung Fu, we are going to put meaning behind the fighting that we do, behind the martial arts. The audience is going to get to see what these characters are fighting for, which makes the fighting all the more powerful and more meaningful. I’m really proud that I get to celebrate this very awesome part of Asian culture that really can be enjoyed by everyone, but we just get to put that meaning behind it and we get to see these fully rounded-out, fleshed-out characters celebrate this part of their culture.”