Olivia Liang

Jacket by Proenza Schouler. Top by RE/DONE. All earrings throughout by Sophie Buhai. Ring's, worn throughout, Liang's own.

Olivia Liang Is the Role Model She Wishes She Had

When the television series Kung Fu was first rebooted on the CW in 2021, it was praised for its many changes from its original 1972 counterpart. Although critically lauded, the older series was a product of its time and attracted plenty of controversies, especially from Asian communities. There was the conspiracy that the concept for Kung Fu was stolen from a pitch by Bruce Lee, who was then passed over for the lead role, and the blatant whitewashing of casting David Carradine as a half-Chinese and half-Caucasian monk. There was even a formal complaint filed by the Association of Asian-Pacific American Artists alleging unfair hiring practices around Carradine, although then-president James Hong would later acknowledge that it became a great source of employment for the Asian acting community over its sixty-three episode run.

Now in its third season, the rebooted Kung Fu has more than made up for the errors of its original iteration. Not only is the series led by Asian-American showrunner Christina M. Kim, but Kung Fu is also the first network drama series to feature a cast of predominantly Asian descent. Taiwanese-American Olivia Liang stars in the gender-flipped lead role as Nicky Shen, a Chinese-American Harvard dropout turned Shaolin master who protects her community in San Francisco.

Over three seasons, Nicky continues to unravel the mythical mysteries surrounding her Shaolin training, all while attempting to keep drama at bay in her hometown with the help of her family and Chinatown community. "It immediately felt so special," recalls Liang of the first day of production, when she stepped onto the set and found herself surrounded by a cast of mostly Asian heritage. "Our chemistry was instant and I think it's because we all have this Asian background. There's a shorthand that happens when you're with people who just understand how you've grown up or how you view the world, or even how the world views you."

All clothing by Peter Do. Bodysuit by Skims.

All clothing by Peter Do. Bodysuit by Skims.

Growing up in Diamond Bar, California, Liang had dreams of becoming an actor from an early age. A self-professed "big Disney Channel kid," she would hear radio ads for local children casting opportunities for the network and would beg her mother to take her, to no avail. "I think she never took me because, one, I'm Asian, and it's not necessarily in our parents' plans for us to be starving artists," she says, laughing. "Then on top of that, I think my mom subconsciously also was just like, 'I don't see Asian people on TV very much, so I don't know that her chances are going to be great.' And obviously, with her being a protective mom, she didn't want me to pursue something that I might not be successful in."

Although her mother might have been aware of the lack of Asian representation, Liang admits the issue wasn't one she noticed growing up. "Entertainment and film and TV are just you relating to the people on screen no matter what they look like because you just relate to them on a human level," she says. "I would watch Wizards of Waverly Place and Hannah Montana, Lizzie McGuire, and I always saw myself in those girls because that's what they intended, for young girls to see themselves in Lizzie, Miley, and Alex Russo." It wasn't until 2017, after she graduated from college and began to seek out work as an actor, that Liang was confronted with the lack of opportunity. "I became an actor and I was in these audition rooms and I was the only Asian there," she recalls. "That's when I became very aware of my Asianness and aware that I might not have a shot at this because I'm Asian."

Finding herself alone in the industry gave Liang room for reflection on how she could shape her own career. "It made me realize that I could be that representation," she says, "and it made me wonder how my view of myself or my worldview might have been different growing up if I had been able to see someone like me on screen, how much more powerful It might have been to relate to and watch someone like me. It just got me excited about, maybe I could be part of the change."

All clothing by Calle Del Mar

All clothing by Calle Del Mar

As Liang continued to audition, she saw a pattern in the limited opportunities that were available to her. Often, the characters required accents and didn't even have a name or any specificity as to their Asian heritage. But thanks to recent movements and pressure on Hollywood for more inclusion, there are the beginnings of change, something which Liang said she noticed in her audition for Kung Fu. "I saw right before my eyes things start to get very specific and inclusive," she says. "The specificity started coming out and I think it's because there was more representation happening at higher levels and behind the scenes where writers and showrunners are diverse and they understand that the Asian-American community is not a monolith. So I was able to start to see they weren't just trying to check a box. It felt like they were actually wanting to tell a story about a specific person."

From season one to season three of Kung Fu, Nicky has discarded some of her angst and opened up to the love from her friends and family—no longer needing to be so secretive, she can rely on her support system and become a lighter person, sharing the burden of keeping her community safe. From the beginning, Liang says she found Nicky's journey relatable, and now three seasons in, the actor says that she has become so intertwined with her character that people often call her Nicky on set. "I hope I'm able to infuse the empathy that I have as Olivia into the character of Nicky and the love that she has for her family—I very much relate to it. I think at this point in season three, I feel like the writers are writing toward me a little bit. In certain moments I'm able to infuse a little bit of Olivia, but she's a way better person than I am—I just have to put that out there," says Liang, laughing. "She is so much more selfless and brave and courageous than I am and I've actually learned so much about how to speak up and stand up for myself and for others through playing Nicky. She really makes me feel like a more empowered woman."

Ultimately, what makes Kung Fu exceptional is the opportunity to see authentic Asian-American lives represented on screen. Some of the most entertaining scenes are not the elaborate fights or mythical sets but the more grounded moments between family members or Nicky and her love interests, which fittingly plays into Liang's hopes for her next endeavors. "I love romcoms, and I would love to do something like that one day because those are my favorite movies to rewatch and revisit after a long day. I want to come home and watch Crazy Stupid Love to feel better. I'm not watching The Revenant to do that," she says, laughing. "I wouldn't say no to a Revenant, but romcoms bring me a lot of joy, so I would love to be part of that and bring joy to someone else in that way. Kung Fu has a very real-world–based plot as well as a magic plot, but I think it would be fun to be a real, non–'very skilled martial arts' person for a bit and just be a gal."

Kung Fu continues on Wednesdays on the CW.

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Olivia Liang

All clothing by Monse

Olivia Liang

All clothing by Dion Lee. Vintage boots by Bottega Veneta.

Hair by Karen Arechiga. Makeup by Anna Kato. Stylist's assistant: Abby Gordon. Lighting technician: Evadne Gonzalez. Shot at Hubble Studio, Los Angeles.

As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.