In The CW's Kung Fu, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang) finds herself back home in San Francisco after having spent three years at an isolated monastery in China, but her return home isn't simply a product of homesickness or an end of training. Nicky's mentor, Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai) is murdered by an assassin, Zhilan, and, more than that, Zhilan took with her a mysterious sword. It's a series of events that puts Nicky on a path to not only reunite with her family and deal with the threats her community faces but also a path to track down Zhilan as well.
But Zhilan isn't just a one-dimensional villain. It turns out that she wasn't just Pei-Ling's adversary, but her sister, and there is far more to her story than it may first seem. She's a complex character, one with her own motivations and history that makes her more than your average bad guy. ComicBook.com recently sat down with Yvonne Chapman, who plays Zhilan in the series, to chat about the character, how she's the hero of her own story, what the success of Kung Fu has meant to Chapman as an actor, and about the importance of bringing this story to life with powerful female characters.
ComicBook.com: Kung Fu has had a very successful debut and then maintained its audience in its second week. That's a pretty impressive feat for a new show. How does it feel for Kung Fu to be so successful straight out of the gate?
Chapman: Amazing. You know, I think to put it simply, we were all expecting a drop in the second week because that's completely normal, right? I mean, we've all been part of this before, we understand that that's kind of par for the course and to see that that didn't happen was really, really incredible and just special for us. And it just made us feel the love and support from the fans. It's been great. I mean, I think all of us are still trying to process it, especially because we're all still filming. We're just trying to do the best that we can, giving justice to the incredible story that they've created for us. So, we're all still trying to take it in for what it is but we are all very, very grateful to everybody.prevnext
Speaking of the fans. Kung Fu is crushing it in the ratings, but even just a quick glance at social media you can see that this series has really found a very vocal and devoted, and passionate audience. Did you ever anticipate that it would have this sort of response and would mean this much to people so quickly?
I will speak for myself, however, I don't think any of us really expected it to be that fast because fair enough, things take time, things take time for people to understand how they feel about things, get invested in shows, the characters, things like that. What a beautiful surprise, really, and it's been so much fun engaging with everybody. We wouldn't be doing this without them. We can't do this without them. So that support right off the bat has meant everything.prevnext
This series is kind of unique in the sense that it's building off of something very iconic, culturally speaking. Everybody knows the original Kung Fu. Did you feel any particular stress or responsibility taking on something that is so culturally well-known?
You know, I have been a part of a reboot before so I understand that there is a care that needs to be given and the respect that needs to be given to an original series. However this being, you know, a reimagining of what that was, I really do think that our show stands on its own. And I do think that in the spirit of the previous series, that the excitement of it, the fighting, all of the stuff that we saw in the previous show, I think to an extent definitely comes into our show but I have to say I really do think our show stands alone in its own right as a new thing.prevnext
I know a lot has been said about Kung Fu and the show's Asian representation and how important that is -- and it absolutely is. But Kung Fu is also unique in the sense that it's made up of powerful female characters, which is very unique within the genre and that kind of story in general. For you, as a female performer, what has it been like to take this kind of iconic story that's frequently been told through a male lens and tell it through a powerful female lens?
Well, I have to say that I feel like I get emotional thinking about that in the best way possible because what an opportunity. We women are powerful and salient to the way that what you see on the show is what you get in real life. And to have that be at the forefront and to help people see that and be familiar with it is, you know, it's about time, in my opinion, and that is incredible. I think we owe a lot of gratitude to the creators of the show and the network for doing that, for taking that on because I think people also really want to see that as well. Who doesn't, right? But, again, the power of media is for us to connect and to show that to a lot of different people when we need to be familiar with it, that needs to be something that needs to be shown and to be said. So I love it.
It's like our time has come.
Our time has come and it's gonna stay.prevnext
Speaking of the characters, you play the villain Zhilan. We haven't seen a lot of her, but we're going to see more of her. She's very critical to the story on a lot of levels and she's quite a threat. How do you see the character?
When I first read for her, when I first got the audition for Zhilan what really resonated with me right away was that the description for her was this strong, fiercely independent, intelligent, elegant woman, who was so determined and focused on getting what she wanted. I love playing that and having an opportunity that, but also more than that, and what really, really drew me in was the fact that her backstory is heartbreaking. And I know I've said this before and you will see it come out in the season, but that to me is so important. She's a villain for all intents and purposes but she really is and I've said this, the hero of her own story. Because she has a reason for everything that she does. And she's not just doing it to be malicious or to be evil. I could not play a character like that. She is completely well-faceted and well-rounded and you're going to see a lot of nuance from her character and her motivation. And I hope that the audience really responds to that because I certainly have.prevnext
It's nice to see a multifaceted "bad guy" because no one is any one thing. And kind of going along with that, last week there was this twist reveal that Zhilan and Pei-Ling weren't just adversaries; they're family, they're sisters. When I spoke with Olivia Liang, she talked about how Kung Fu is about family. While that is clearly in reference to Nicky's family, this is a family dynamic as well. How does this complicate matters for the story going forward?
It also really complicates things but I think in a really fascinating way, you know. You see one kind of dynamic from the Shen family and then you're going to see another family dynamic from Zhilan and her upbringing and her past and why she did what she did. It wasn't an easy decision for her by any means. You know, it may have seemed in the pilot, I think, the quick killing of Pei-Ling was needed otherwise I don't know that she would have been able to do it. You know what I mean? That you're going to see a different dynamic, which I think is important. I think it's nice to have that dichotomy and that juxtaposition from the Shen family to Zhilan and Pei-Ling, you know?prevnext
One of the cool things about this show is that there's a lot o really good storytelling and a lot of humanity, but there's also some great action. How did you prepare for this role?
So the stunt team has taken great care of us. Fantastic care of us in training us for this role, not only are they amazing choreographers and martial artists, they're great teachers. And so, for each and every one of us, they really took the time in getting enough prep in the movements and in the base things that we really needed to do for our bodies to be able to do these fights because the fights truly are a dance and it takes a lot of practice and a lot of nuance to be able to do them. So luckily for all of us, you know, we have a team showing the way so they really deserve all the credit for the fights that you're seeing because my god they do an incredible job. I can't say enough good things about them. You know for me, personally, I know Olivia has a dance background and she's incredible. The girl is killing it. So is Vanessa, Eddie is very fit and athletic. I grew up playing sports so I was lucky that some of that movement translated into doing these stunts. My body has some familiarity with the moves, but it was a learning curve for sure. And it's gotten easier and easier as the show progressed because your body just has a kind of muscle memory at this point to do certain things. But yeah, the fights have been a lot of fun to do and a lot of credit goes to our incredible stunt team.
Do they let you do any of your own stunts?
They do. I did a lot of the fight in scene one, but my stunt double Aaliyah, this woman is unbelievable. She's fantastic and she makes me look so good.prevnext
What's been your favorite thing about Kung Fu thus far?
I have to say the cast. This whole family, like the cast and the crew, they have been so loving. I've made incredible friendships with all of them. And because of the time we are filming right now, COVID, we are each other's bubble. And so how lucky are we that we all truly get along and love each other and we're able to give each other that support? While trying our very best to give justice to the show and the story that's been created for us. That has been my absolute favorite part about this whole process, the people.prev