When Kung Fu premiered last year, it debuted to 1.4 million total viewers and gave The CW’s largest audience in the time period since fan-favorite Riverdale. The network drama’s Season 1 finale aired way back last summer, so it was to much excitement that Kung Fu returned on March 9 with all new episodes. Ahead of the launch of Season 2, LA Confidential spoke with star Olivia Liang all about what Nicky Shen has in store this season and how the series has changed her life.
Everyone has their own path for getting into acting, so we’re wondering why attending a university program was the right path for you?
I wanted to be an actor and I guess growing up in an Asian household, you're like, “Well, I gotta go to school for this.” So then I found out about this program at UCLA and I was part of their pilot program of this, which was acting for the camera. And it seemed to fit everything that I was looking for in terms of training, which was acting for the camera. It was an extension program where it was a bunch of actors and we would learn from people who are actually in the industry. They brought in Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston as guest speakers and directors, and so we got to meet them and work with them a little bit, which was awesome. My mom has always stressed education, so when I was deciding to pursue the arts, I was like, “Well, maybe I need to go to school for it.” So that's what I did.
There must have been so much that you absorbed during your time there. Was there anything in particular that stood out to you?
I guess what I took away the most was a sense of community from all of these acting programs that I did because I was very lonely in the industry. I don't come from a family in the business, so finding like-minded people who have the same goal and the same dream as you made me feel less lonely in this quite lonely industry when you're first starting out. I brought that to Kung Fu and I tried to make it a sense of community within the cast, within the crew, with every guest actor who comes on to work with us. I really want people to feel welcome and feel like they're not alone.
How does it feel to be on the verge of the new season of Kung Fu?
It feels crazy because we're actually right in the middle of shooting the finale of this season. So it's pretty wild that we're shooting the finale while we promote the first episode. It's like we're at the end, but we're starting at the beginning as well. So it feels very surreal. The cast and I keep saying like, “We still can't believe that we're making a show,” because we've been doing it in this pandemic bubble for two years. It's always a pinch-me moment.
What can fans look forward to from Season 2, especially from Nicky’s story arc?
I'm super excited about how we've upped the ante in the fights this season. That's something that I hope audiences enjoy from Season 2. And then as far as Nicky’s concerned, it's been really interesting to play her this season because we introduce her cousin. And her cousin is in grave danger because of Russell Tan, and Nicky has to start toeing the line of good and bad and right and wrong. So it's been really fun to watch Nicky go through the gray area of things and maybe be a little bit in over her head, make some questionable choices and it's just very relatable on a human level.
What's it like balancing martial arts training with filming?
It's pretty difficult, to be honest, to balance the training with the filming because I'm on set practically every day and those are 14 hour days. Then in between that is when I can go to the stunts gym and start learning the choreography that our stunt team has worked so hard on. My stunt double is incredible. She and I collaborated a lot this season on the storytelling aspects of fighting, which was really cool to to do because she, as someone who uses her body to express, she was thinking about Nicky’s character in that way and thinking, “What would Nicky do? How would her emotions look while she's fighting?” And so she's taught me so much this season about that.
Our stunt team works for hours and hours and hours around the clock like two weeks to prep an episode while we are shooting an episode and doing stunts on that. And then, a stunt day is 14 hours for a fight and then we watch the final product and it's like three minutes on screen, so, so much work goes into it, but it's very rewarding to see the final product.
You have a Nicky Season 2 Spotify playlist. How does it embody her journey?
As I was preparing for Season 2 and I had my my conversation with my showrunners, they told me where Nicky starts and where they want her to end. That's when I started crafting the vibes for myself and I would listen to that playlist on the way to work.
Nicky is in love at the start of the season and there are no more secrets with her family. She's kind of feeling like a badass. She's had six months since all of the shenanigans of Season 1 and feels at home, is protecting her community and has a great team around her, so I wanted to create that kind of badass girl vibe. And some of the artists that I found are Asian artists, like Audrey Nuna and Niki and Black Pink is in there because they make me feel like a boss too. And then I put a lot of 70s influence in there because I imagine that that's what Jin and Mei-Li were playing while the kids were growing up in the house because that's their era of music. I just wanted to craft Nicky’s mindset through songs.
I love music. If I could be a singer, that's what I would be, but I think God knew that I would be so full of myself. Like I would never shut up. But music is a universal language. And I know we have fans not only in the States or not only in North America, so I want them to be able to participate and know some of the prep work that goes into a season and some of the things that that we think about as actors crafting our character. I thought that that would just be a fun glimpse into what I'm listening to and how I get into Nicky.
Do you have a favorite episode this season?
Yes, I love the first episode just because it's so action-packed and we really set the stage for this season. And our director, Joe Menendez, did a wonderful job putting that all together. And then there's an episode that involves Althea and Dennis, Episode 4. I'm so excited for that one. I think that's my favorite of the season. It was so much fun to film. There's a car chase involved and that is all I will say. Episode 10 is a super emotional episode and I'm really excited for people to see the Shens go through some serious stuff.
Truly every episode this season has felt so epic and and leaves us with a cliffhanger. As a cast, we don't get the episodes that far in advance. So we're waiting anxiously to see what happens next.
It's been almost a year since Season 1 premiered. Personally and professionally, how has Kung Fu changed your life?
Playing Nicky has definitely changed me as a person. She is a strong Asian American woman who speaks up and takes up space and is unapologetic about what she brings to the table and I have learned so much and have tried to channel my inner Nicky Shen in so many ways since getting to play her. Honestly, my life is that I can pay my rent without worrying now. I was a struggling actor for a bit living paycheck to paycheck, so getting to pay my rent comfortably is a blessing that I never forget. And also, nothing makes me feel more like my life has changed than driving into a parking structure and paying for parking instead of searching for an hour for free street parking.
I just feel so grateful every day. Truly, it's the little things like driving to a parking structure or not being stressed about rent or about paying off my credit card. These little things, I don't take them for granted. To get to also do what I love on top of that and tell stories and truly hang out with my friends up here— because this cast is my family, s going to work is so fun. And I get to do all this cool stuff and beat people up. I can't even call it a dream come true because I never dreamed it was possible to be on a project like this. When I was starting out, I was in the mental space and prepared for it to take like 10 years to book a student film because I know that the industry is really hard, so I just feel so lucky that I didn't have to wait 10 years and that I get to do what I love. It's not frivolous, either. I think our show is making an impact and it’s pushing the needle forward and representation in the way that we tell stories, so I'm very, very honored to be part of this project.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Shane McCauley; Bettina Strauss/The CW