From executive producers Shannon Lee, Justin Lin and showrunner Jonathan Tropper, Warrior is an action packed story of the Tong Wars of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 19th century. Following Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), a martial arts prodigy from China, who, after immigrating to San Francisco, becomes a hatchet man for the most powerful tong in Chinatown.
CGMagazine got the chance to talk to Olivia Cheng who plays Ah Toy, a bisexual madam who runs a brothel in Chinatown in Warrior. A woman with an exciting and diverse career, Cheng has been a part of many series and films, including the recent Steven King adaptation, The Stand, along with the Netflix historical epic Marco Polo. An actor with a wide range of talents, she brings a unique take to our discussion, talking about everything from her career, to the role of representation in modern cinema.
CGMagazine: How did you get involved in Warrior, and what do you believe the series adds to the television landscape?
Olivia Cheng: It’s funny, I had a couple of friends who were auditioning for the male lead roles on the Warrior. So that was my first exposure to it, helping friends’ tape and reading Ah Toy off-camera for them. And then when the audition call came for me to play Ah Toy, it came about in a more personal way because Brett Chan, our stunt coordinator from Warrior and Richard Sharkey, one of our EPs of Warrior, actually knew me from Marco Polo. Both reached out personally to ask if I would consider the show?
I was more drawn to this show because of whom the players were not only because it’s always nice to work with friends. But also, because it’s a Bruce Lee legacy project. And to be part of the Bruce Lee legacy is a huge privilege and great honour. So, I didn’t know where the character of Ah Toy would go. It’s always a little scary because you’re putting your hope and trust into the hands of a showrunner that you don’t know well.
But given that it was Jonathan Tropper from Banshee and Justin Lin from Fast and Furious, who is so admired by so many Asian North American movie firms for the inroads he’s made on our behalf. Then, of course, Chan and WE, having her blessing on a project like this. So that’s how I came to this project and why I decided to hop on board.
CGMagazine: You’ve been in a lot of projects that have pushed representation to the forefront, how do you view Asian representation and representation of cultures that are not white? Being more to the forefront in Hollywood and TV in recent years, and how do you see that progress going forward?
Olivia Cheng: It’s a complex question with a complex answer. If that question had been asked in 2018 on the skills of a project of Crazy Rich Asians, I would give you the most optimistic soundbite ever. I just literally yesterday was sent a report that broke down the statistics about representation for Latin x, black, Asian, LGBTQ, and other marginalized voices, statistically in terms of number and percentage of speaking roles, number and percentage of women and marginalized people behind the camera. I was shocked because the statistics are still pretty abysmal.
So, I think in answer to your question, I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer because I do celebrate that victories and progress are being made, but it is not perfection. I don’t want this issue to be reduced down to something that is easily boxed into, I think it’s complex. I think if we don’t talk about that then we’re not servicing what the cause movement is actually about.
CGMagazine: I want to talk about the physicality of the Warrior and it is such a physically visible show, how was that as an actor and how was that to prepare for that sort of Show?
Olivia Cheng: It was so exciting. Let me paint a bit of a picture for you. We had a giant industrial hangar. It’s just one of the best setups I’ve ever seen for a stunt department because there were just all these sections for different teams working on different sequences to have their own space to rehearse and train. Koji had his little section that he got to train in. I was doing swords over here. Diane was over in a corner working with the Korean stunt team who trained the Special Forces and Olympic team, it was bananas, we had the Kazakh guys flown in.
So, it was a reunion on Warrior because we all worked together on Marco Polo. And then we had the local South African stunt team who are so freaking talented, and they were so excited because they’ve never gotten to be part of a show that touched on Asian martial arts, literally, Bruce Lee. So, the excitement behind the physicality is so visceral for us that I think it translates on screen.
“It was a reunion on Warrior because we all worked together on Marco Polo.”
I’m proud of the action because there are so many products in the action genre that just feel good today. To me, our show may feel gratuitous to some viewers, that throats are being ripped out. But for me, what I’m proud of as an actor and as an artist is that all of our fights are very much motivated by story, circumstance, and relationship.0
So viewers should feel something visceral because whether it’s Ah Toy fighting someone because if she sees it as a necessity and she sees it as something necessary to do to protect her people but she takes no joy in it or whether you see someone like a Hong, who is cocky and arrogant and more of a Showboat but is refining and transitioning into becoming a hero and a leader against his wishes.
Or whether you see someone like Li Yong, who is just so loyal but has this incredible heart and love for Mai Ling, or you see one child who gets in the fray this season, who’s just fighting in a very warm cow way, which he’s improvising constantly. He’s just thinking on his feet and his fight style reflects that when you see Leary who fights in a very specific boxing and brawl kind of way. And you see that for him. He loves violence. So, I love that the physicality in our show is very much informed by the characters and the differences between the characters and the circumstances in which all the characters find themselves.
CGMagazine: You’ve done a lot of diverse different roles and a lot of series. How do you pick the things you’re involved in and where do you see yourself going next?
Olivia Cheng: I don’t have this smorgasbord or buffet table of options in front of me. That’s not the case, I have a lot of Hurry up and wait, for me in my career. So I think I’ve just been really lucky that some of the projects that have presented themselves to me are of the calibre that they have been and are culturally resonant in the ways that they have been and that I can then really proudly behind them and speak to something so incredible about the experience and getting to be a part of that.
CGMagazine: Where do you see your direction going next and what type of things do you want to see yourself doing next?
Olivia Cheng: Before the pandemic hit, I did book a new project. I’m excited about it because it’s going to take me in a direction that I’ve never had a chance to play before. It is just a completely different energy. Who this character is, I probably can’t even say too much because nothing has been announced. I have never signed so many NDAs, I’m excited to talk about her but I don’t want to risk getting fired before the camera.
I will say that every actor wants range. I just want to continue to have the opportunity to do roles that teach me something about myself and stretch my ability as an artist. I just did my first lead role in an indie feature in Vancouver. It was great because I played an alcoholic who goes from being the life of the party to show some incredibly tragic colours. I’ve never gotten to play the hot mess.
Ah Toy, Malin, Master gal, these are characters with such authority, gravitas and control that it’s also incredible to get to the other side of the spectrum and be that person who makes everybody else in the story cringe and should make the audience cringe either in sympathy or repulsion because she’s just such a mess. So that’s fun. And then the next character I get to play will live in a much different space than the characters I played in the last few years. I’m grateful that people are curious and willing to give me those opportunities and let me sort of break my mould.
“I’ve got the life rights to an Asian American hero whose story I’m so passionate about putting on screen because I think it’s important, and it’s a damn good story.”
I think I want to go more behind the camera. I’ve got the life rights to an Asian American hero whose story I’m so passionate about putting on screen because I think it’s important, and it’s a damn good story. That’s been written as we speak and through this pandemic, it afforded me the time to finally develop a series that had been brewing in me for 15 years. So, we worked on it almost every day for the last four months straight.
I’m now cutting a sizzle reel, and we’re getting ready to go out and pitch. I finished editing and refining my first short film because I wanted to have a calling card as a writer-director. So, I think that’s also where my career is expanding, and I’m excited and scared. Because doing anything new for the first time is always really vulnerable. I’m just a storyteller whether it’s acting or being the facilitator for a story being told, and I just hope I attract the right teams and opportunities to push that woman to move forward.
CGMagazine: Where do you prefer working in Canada or the US or around the world and how do you see Canada evolving its film space as it matures?
Olivia Cheng: You are the first person to ever ask me that. I appreciate it so much because I think people just overlook the fact that I’m Canadian. I have never actually worked in the United States. So even though it is the Hollywood American industry that pushed my career on the international stage. I’ve never actually gotten the opportunity to work on US soil. I would love to find out what it’s like to shoot in LA, New York, New Orleans or Atlanta, I’ve never had the opportunity.
I’m working in Vancouver. And we liken ourselves to Hollywood North. Because we’re in the same time zone as LA, we have all these amazing locations between the beach, rain forests, mountains, cities, small towns, desert locations, we’re just such an ideal shooting location. We are growing exponentially. And I’m so proud because we have such world-class crews here in Vancouver. I think that as the world continues to recover from the pandemic, it’s going to be really interesting because we were already such a coveted filming spot before.
I think the last thing I heard is we have another 45 Productions coming in because we seem so on top of COVID-19 here and flattening the curve, wearing our masks out of courtesy, public health and safety, and we are also, even more, an ideal location to shoot on because of that. So, I’m interested to see what happens for the Canadian industry as it continues to establish itself as a world leader on the scene.
CGMagazine: Thank you so much for your time, anything else people might want to pay attention to in your career as you wrap up this call?
Olivia Cheng: I’m a little shy about saying this, but I think it’s important to say, I went into this pandemic and I did not realize that I would become an activist during this time. So I just wanted to mention that in case it resonated for anyone especially for other Asians living outside of Asia and dealing with the racial reckonings in our various countries, it’s new for me, it’s a little newer for a lot of us given what our cultures have been and how we’ve survived as the model minorities in these different immigrant diaspora experiences.
But I wanted to mention that since you gave me the opportunity. I don’t think I’m particularly great at it. It’s something that I’m learning, I’m fumbling, and I think it’s really important. I really would love to see more Asians out there in the world taking part in being on the right side of history.
CGMagazine: Awesome, thank you so much for your time. I hope you have a great rest of your Friday. And have a great weekend. Thank you so much.
Olivia Cheng: Thank you so much, Brendan.