Before the full question has even been uttered, Olivia Liang sounds as if she’s been momentarily caught off-guard, and understandably so: Little feels as absurd as being asked to explain your Instagram bio. That’s where the 27-year-old actress describes herself as a “sewer dumpling.” “Um,” she pauses, then fills the brief silence with an earful of welcoming laughter. “I don’t ever want to take myself too seriously. And I love dumplings,” she says. “But I also like to describe myself sometimes as a ‘trash goblin’ when I’m looking really rough. Just marrying those two things.”
Those who have seen Liang act — as the brooding witch with a tragic backstory Alyssa Chang in Legacies or, most recently, the San Franciscan martial artist Nicky Shen in the CW’s action series Kung Fu, which premiered yesterday (April 8) — know she understands the plight of being caught between two things. In Nicky, she plays a young Chinese-American woman weighing her family’s high expectations against a personal desire to carve out her own path. When her controlling mother Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) pressures her to marry, she flees to a monastery in China where she learns hand-to-hand combat. But after an assassin murders her teacher (Vanessa Kai), she returns to California to track down the killer and reconnect with her family. Meanwhile, as a prophecy surrounding a sacred sword comes to pass, questions of fate and destiny collide with Nicky’s emerging sense of autonomy.
Kung Fu is an update on the 1970s series of the same name that starred a white actor, David Carradine, who had no previous experience with the sport, as a Shaolin monk roaming the American West. This iteration, helmed by Lost writer Christina M. Kim, hopes to make up for some of those insensitivities with a predominantly Asian cast and a stunt-pulling, ass-kicking lead heroine. And arriving unexpectedly on the heels of a sharp rise in anti-Asian racism, the timing feels prescient, if not outright harrowing, as that narrative becomes inevitably entangled with its viewing. “At face value, it seems silly, right? To say that somehow we’ll be part of the change, because it seems like such a deeper problem than media and entertainment,” Liang posits. “But truly, entertainment has shaped a lot of worldviews.”
But for Liang, the role is personal because Nicky Shen’s story reflects her own in many ways. Where the character’s journey of self-discovery takes her through mountains, monasteries, and back again, Liang’s first leading on-screen role comes after years of prioritizing her acting dreams in spite of outside expectations. She’s committed to being her authentic self, “sewer dumpling” Instagram bio included.
MTV News: This version of Kung Fu is a reboot of the original ‘70s show, which was a little bit before your time. What was your relationship with martial arts movies or media growing up?
Olivia Liang: I watched clips of the original once I booked the part. As you said, it was a little bit before my time so, as part of my research, I did watch a bit of it, just to see what elements we were honoring and keeping in our reimagining. I grew up watching Jackie Chan in Rush Hour. I rewatched it the other day and it’s a bomb. It’s so funny! The fighting is so good. I would drive my sister to her Taekwondo lessons, but I don’t have a background in martial arts, so my experience with it growing up was from a distance and as entertainment.
MTV News: How much of the fight choreography do you perform yourself?
Liang: Quite a bit. It’s really important to me that we honor the art form and the sport, and that I make our people proud. The really huge stunts with wire work, that is my amazing stunt double, Megan Hui — she’s the one who’s making me look so kickass. But with my background in dance, I’m able to pick up at least the choreography. Fighting in TV and film, it really is a dance. So, it’s been really fun to unlock that side of me and exercise that muscle. I feel so cool and so badass.
MTV News: I love those high-flying, slow-motion scenes. Matrix style.
Liang: I’ve been begging our stunt team to let me get on a wire and fly, but they’re very afraid that I’m going to get hurt.
MTV News: I believe in you! I feel like that is the next evolution, right?
Liang: Yes, I’m going to let them know that Coco said that I should do it.
MTV News: How would you describe your character, Nicky Shen? What aspects of her do you relate to?
Liang: She is a girl who basically lost it. Her mom was controlling most of her life. When she finally had that awakening, she did what I think all of us would do, which was run away to a Shaolin monastery in China and really immerse herself in kung fu. Very relatable. And when we pick up, she’s a new woman coming home to San Francisco, and she really has to reconcile this new Nicky with the old Nicky she left behind.
I think that is something many people of color can relate to. There’s this dichotomy of our culture versus where we live, the history of our family versus our immediate surroundings of being in America, and battling with that duality. That was something that really struck me about the story we’re telling about Nicky and the struggles she goes through. And that’s certainly something that I feel as an Asian-American woman: feeling neither here nor there, not quite Asian but not quite American, and figuring out what that in-between is.
MTV News: Family is a big part of the show, not just Nicky’s relationship with her mom but also with her Shifu character at the outset. Why do you think that is?
Liang: Family is the core of this show. It’s so important just to be able to see a cohesive family unit on TV, who is going through things that families go through — financial problems, fights, purpose, and belonging. To have the strong foundation of family, to really ground it, and bring everyone back to home base is really important for all of the characters on this show. And I’m just excited that any family can see themselves in the Shens.
MTV News: What’s your family like?
Liang: My family is super, super close. My mom and my sister are my favorite people in the entire world. My mom is an incredible singer, but that was not something she pursued professionally. We’re a really tight unit, and we make a lot of decisions together. We stick together.
MTV News: Nicky’s Shifu had this great quote that she repeats, “You make the path that you live.” I think that’s something we all have to discover to some degree, so has that advice ever been relevant to your life?
Liang: Something that resonated so much with me about Nicky was that she realized she wasn’t on a path that she chose. It had been chosen for her. And I resonate with that so much, being an Asian-American woman and having to follow this trajectory that my mom set up for me of being one of the big three — doctor, lawyer, engineer. Going through college trying to figure that out, finally I was like, what I’ve always wanted to do was be an actor, and I need to do it. And I’m sorry that that’s not part of your plan for me, but this is the path that I want to go down. And so I did.
MTV News: Was that a hard conversation to have, or was she supportive? What was the vibe?
Liang: The vibes were not supportive. To give my mom credit, she really came around more over the last four years, but the initial fear she had was that it’s unstable. “Are you going to be okay? Are you going to be able to live and feed yourself and put a roof over your head?” I totally understand where the hesitation came from. But yeah, it was a very hard conversation because I actually sat her down when I was 18 and I was like, “I don’t want to go to college. I want to be an actor.” And she was like, “Absolutely not.” So then I had to resit her down when I was 20 and in college, and I was like, “I really want to be an actor. And I’m going to get my college degree, which is what you wanted, but now you need to let me do what I want.”
MTV News: And then you ended up in a professional program at UCLA, which seems like such a straight shot into the industry.
Liang: Totally. And it was the first time that I was surrounded by actors. So I started to form a community, and find support in fellow artists who were struggling along with me.
MTV News: From there, what would you consider your breakout role?
Liang: It was probably when I did Legacies. I booked that in December 2019, and that came maybe a year and a half after I graduated from UCLA. I would not be here without the role of Alyssa Chang. She opened the doors, she brought me into the CW family, and that’s where I live now.
MTV News: Have you had any auditions where you felt you totally flopped?
Liang: My very first audition for Legacies was for a different character, and it was the worst audition of my entire life. Completely didn’t know what I was saying, I felt the casting director was embarrassed for me. I left that room being like, well, I’m never seeing them again. And then fast-forward to the audition for the character of Alyssa Chang, and I had this weird feeling while I was in the waiting room. Why have I been here before? Oh yeah, this is where I bombed. But the following thought was, I can’t be worse than that. So let’s just go in there and have fun.
MTV News: What trajectory for Nicky Shen can we expect to see in Kung Fu?
Liang: You can expect to see Nicky really continue to come into her own as a powerful woman, as someone who wants to fight for the underdog, really do what’s right, and protect the people around her. After you see the pilot, there’s kind of a fun, mystical element, and we get to see that develop a little bit. And Nicky comes to terms with the path that has been presented to her. It’s very interesting you brought up the quote of, “You choose the path that you live,” because there’s a lot about fate and destiny. When you’re presented with your fate and your destiny, does that become a choice?
MTV News: The past few weeks have been especially harrowing in terms of anti-Asian violence and racism in the United States. At the same time, something that’s so great about this show is its amazing cast of all-star Asian actors. Representation isn’t everything, of course, but what do you think Hollywood’s role can or should be as part of a solution to end hate?
Liang: For so long, Asians and Asian-Americans were the butt of jokes, and sometimes we still are. Like Tzi Ma, who plays my dad on the show, said, this show and representation of Asians in media is a long-term solution because we get to be invited into people’s homes. Hopefully, they will see themselves in the characters we play and see that we’re not so different from them. We are not other, we are all human, and we all have shared experiences. I think those small changes in mentality and in worldview are what will bring about macro change.