"Find people who love your weirdness"
Canadian born Chinese actress Olivia Cheng is on her way to becoming a household name. Fans of Netflix TV series Marco Polo will know Cheng for her excellent portrayal of Mei Lin – the sister of Jia Sidao. Sci-fi fans may also recognise Cheng as Master Gao from Deadly Class. Eagle-eyed comic book fans will even recognise Cheng from the pilot of television series Flash.
However, soon, Cheng will be known best for her starring role in Warrior – a TV series based on a concept by Bruce Lee. Having just premiered on 5 April 2019, Warrior is being praised for its portrayal of Chinese American history through the vision of the martial arts legend.
Resonate caught up with Cheng to discuss her success, her journey and her exciting projects.
Cheng was born in Edmonton, Canada, to Chinese parents who met at a protest rally. Growing up, Cheng and her brother were encouraged by their parents to take up opportunities that they never had.
“One of those things was drama classes but the funny thing is the teacher said I was too shy,” Cheng said. “I kept finding my way back to acting in different ways though and eventually I started working as an extra while building a career in media. It all eventually led to a role in AMC’s Broken Trail.”
“AMC’s Broken Trail got me to take my own dream seriously and pursue it in earnest, but I’d say it was Netflix’s Marco Polo that opened the gates of Hollywood to me,” she added.
Inspiration for the aspiring actress came in the form of Asians in the media – particularly females.
“I got obsessed with any Asian female face I saw in media,” she explained. ” I think I’ve seen Sandra Oh in everything she’s been in, then I watched everything Lucy Liu came out in, then I got obsessed with Iris Chang after reading The Rape of Nanking.”
“The whole team of Better Luck Tomorrow were heroes to me so it’s crazy to me now that I’m working with Justin Lin and Jason Tobin on Warrior,” she added.
Outside of the Asian community, Cheng also found herself admiring other key figures in the media including talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
“Who doesn’t admire Oprah?” Cheng asks. “I think there’s just something about seeing a face you relate to that fills you with hope.”
Discussing Warrior, Cheng said the TV series is “about what happens when the American dream becomes a nightmare.”
“We follow a young man who immigrates to the United States just four years before the Chinese Exclusion Act,” she explains. “He’s trying to make something right in his life, but because of his recklessness, he immediately gets caught up in San Francisco Chinatown’s tong wars. “
For Cheng, the series is not only entertaining but is also an important reflection of the Chinese American immigrant experience.
“I think this is such an important project because it’s going to make people think about what the Chinese went through coming to America.” Cheng said. “I’m the daughter of immigrants with a long interest in Chinese American history so a lot of what we portray is deeply poignant for me.”
The original idea of the series was imagined by Bruce Lee, whose vision is honoured throughout the show by director Jonathan Tropper and producer Justin Lin.
“Warrior is a concept by the late great Bruce Lee whose ideas were rejected by a Hollywood that didn’t believe an Asian could be a leading man,” Cheng said. “After his death, the rights to Bruce Lee’s likeness were actually sold to a corporation that paid an annual fee to his family. His daughter, Shannon Lee, worked for years to get those rights back, and she’s been lovingly cultivating her dad’s legacy ever since.”
“She’s one of our executive producers and I think it’s so moving that she’s bringing her dad’s dream to life with Warrior. The theme of family definitely runs strong through the veins of our show, both behind the camera and within the narrative itself.”
In the show, Cheng plays a fictional version of Ah Toy, who she describes as “one of San Francisco Chinatown’s most notorious historical figures and madames. Historians have written about her and their stories caught Jonathan Tropper’s eye.”
“Our version of Ah Toy is she’s a brothel owner and crime boss in her own right. On one hand, she’s incredibly dangerous, on the other hand, she’s incredibly compassionate. There’s a lot to her and I’m excited for people to get to know the many sides of her over time.”
Although Cheng says being on the show was “an experience of a lifetime,” remembering fondly how they “shot in Cape Town, South Africa, a place [she] never thought [she’d] end up in,” the Canadian actress said the audition process was “nerve wracking.”
“I sent a tape in for the role of Ah Toy, and three weeks later I flew myself to LA for a call back,” she recalled. “Producers wanted to see me for two roles, Ah Toy and Mai Ling, and it was surreal getting to step into the HBO building. Shannon Lee, Justin Lin, Jonathan Tropper, Danielle Woodrow and Alexa Fogle were in the room, and remember, I’ve followed Justin Lin’s career for a long time.”
“My hands were shaking! I felt super uptight in the room first round so I’m so glad I got another chance to go back in because it gave me time to settle my nerves, think of some dumb jokes to say, and figure out how to leave it all on the floor second round.”
Discussing Asian representation in the media Cheng said, “stories in mass media have the power to promote empathy, and there are so many marginalised communities who need more understanding right now. We all have a lot to learn about each other.”
For other aspiring Asian actors, Cheng advises to “find your tribe. Find people who love your weirdness, and believe in you on the days you don’t believe in yourself. It’s inevitable you’ll have those days so learn to take care of your emotional life and artistic soul. Cultivate compassion because your job is not to judge your characters but to understand what drives them.”
Cheng also recommends reading books to retain inspiration. “If you feel lost, read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Big Magic by Elisabeth Gilbert or the The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Sometimes seeing what you’re going through written in words you can relate to is the breakthrough you need to keep going. And be kind. No one likes to work with a jerk.”
Warrior is now being released weekly on Cinemax.