“I was a big Disney channel kid,” says “Kung Fu” star Olivia Liang. “Growing up in Southern California, you hear radio ads that are like: ‘Does your child want to be on Hannah Montana?’ I was like, yes, absolutely. And [my mother] was like, ‘your chances are one in a million.’”
Although Liang didn’t get that one-in-a-million shot at “Hannah Montana,” years later she landed on the CW Network as the star of “Kung Fu.” The 27-year-old Liang leads the series as Nicky Shen, a young woman who drops out of college and studies at a Shaolin monastery in China before returning to San Francisco to fight crime. The show premiered last week, bringing the CW its highest viewership for a Wednesday series debut in seven years.
“I like being an underdog,” says Liang, who watched the premiere alongside her costars. “I like having low expectations from people, and then blowing them away.”
Before signing on, Liang was unfamiliar with the original “Kung Fu” series, which aired in the early ’70s and was led by David Carradine. “For it being a show in the ’70s, it really did push the needle forward for its time,” she says. “It gave a lot of Asian American actors their first acting jobs, and bringing it into 2021 we’re pushing the needle even more forward with a predominantly Asian cast.”
Liang appreciated that the new version of the show presented a nuanced story about “what it is to be Asian in America,” with Liang adding that she felt a strong affinity for her character.
“I had a very similar upbringing as the character Nicky, you know, who had quite a strict mother and was following a path set out for her. And finally, she had that quote-unquote quarter-life crisis,” Liang says. “And I went through that same genesis myself going through college and trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, and finally finding my voice and standing up for what I want.”
Although interested in acting from a young age, Liang’s creative outlet growing up was dance; it wasn’t until she was a senior communications major at University of California San Diego that she took her first real acting classes. “I told my mom I wanted to be an actor when I was 18 and that I didn’t want to go to college. And she said, absolutely not. And I was like, got it. So I was trying to find something acting adjacent,” she says. “By 20, I was like, ‘Mom, I really want to do this. Please let me, and please trust that I’ll know when to quit if I need to quit.’ And she was like, ‘OK, you’re still talking about this. Go ahead.’”
“Kung Fu” also allowed Liang to fulfill a promise to herself. As the title suggests, the show uses martial arts as a vehicle for that story; Liang didn’t come in with any prior training.
“Recognizing that martial arts was in the past quite typecast and a trope for Asian performers, I made a promise to myself: ‘I’m not going to learn martial arts until I’m paid to learn martial arts,’” Liang says. “And cut to booking ‘Kung Fu’ and being paid to learn martial arts,” she continues. “I love that the martial arts on our show are done with purpose and meaning; we’re not just characters who come onto the screen to throw a couple of kicks and punches; we have a reason for throwing our kicks and punches.”
In her short time in the entertainment industry, Liang notes that she’s already seen a shift in the quality of roles available for Asian American actors.
“I’ve seen before my eyes the characters go from ethnically ambiguous or open ethnicity to Korean American, Chinese American, Indian American,” Liang says. “They’re getting specific with these Asian American characters, and they’re really dialing into the nuances in the different cultures.”
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