Set in a world of greed, betrayal, sexual intrigue and rivalry, NETFLIX’s hit show “Marco Polo” is based on the famed explorer’s adventures in Kublai Khan’s court. Back for a second season, we talk to actor Olivia Cheng about how the show has challenged her and about pranking her cast mates.
Where did your love of acting originate? Who were your acting heroes when you were young?
My mom told me I mimicked commercials as a toddler. I have no recollection of it but I do know I’ve always been happiest being creative and immersed in books, TV and movies. I used to present the content of my school essay assignments as short films or plays. There’s footage somewhere of my 13-year-old self singing geography lessons to the tune of The Entertainer, so I think acting is a natural draw for me.
I was obsessed with Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh and Leonardo DiCaprio growing up. When you don’t see yourself reflected in media very often, and suddenly you see women like Lucy and Sandra killing it on television and in the movies, of course you become a total fan girl. And with Leonardo, I’ve watched him since elementary school. I always believed him in everything and was like, “How does he feel all that?”
How has “Marco Polo” challenged you in ways you haven’t been challenged before as an actor?
I have never been so pushed outside my comfort zone as I have on “Marco Polo.” My character, Mei Lin, is a young mother and imperial concubine. She’s blackmailed by her own brother into serving as a double agent and eventually becomes a prisoner of war to Kublai Khan. Her sexuality is a weapon unto itself and therefore she’s an object devoid of humanity to those who exploit her for their own gain. Bringing her to life was challenging for me mentally and emotionally because she lives in a very different energetic space than I do. She’s always on guard, always assessing enemies and constantly calculating her way through life or death situations. To take on a role of someone who’s unflinching in her nudity and sexuality was also terrifying and incredibly vulnerable for me. But I faced the challenge because I was fascinated with Mei Lin’s fall from grace and her rise out of the ashes.
What do you do to fill the down time on long shooting days?
I nap between takes and I prank my cast mates and crew. I love my teammates on this show, and I express that love by leaving inappropriate things in people’s rooms, writing official letters with fake instructions from fake authority figures, and sending cast mates on elaborate treasure hunts I’ve concocted. Don’t feel bad for them, they’ve all gotten me good too.
What has your involvement with the show taught you about yourself?
I almost didn’t take this role because I was scared. I was scared what people would think of me, I was scared to fail, I was scared I would be slut-shamed. Let me be clear, this role didn’t create those fears, they highlighted them for me to see. I shudder when I think of how close I came to missing out on the friendships and life experience “Marco Polo” has given me. I’m glad this show was the catalyst in teaching me to make a decision based on what I want for myself, not based on fears I wasn’t even fully conscious of.
Diversity on TV has been a talking point in recent years. In your opinion, why is that important and what can producers do to make inclusion something that’s the norm, not just a “hot topic?”
I’ve thought a lot about this for over half my life. I’ve been in the public eye in some way shape or form since I was 19. If diversity does not normalize beyond a buzzword or hot topic in Hollywood, then I think people of all races and cultures stand to lose out. I think producers can mentor and nurture writers to deliver culturally authentic material. If the writing’s not on the page, everyone from producers to actors are limited with what they can do. I believe the writers are the creative key to unlocking the lack of diversity plaguing Hollywood right now.
What motivates you to keep going as an actor?
Seeing great work. Seeing other artists of all mediums making it happen. That always lifts me up and makes me work harder because I see them doing it.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m working on a film as we speak, and stoking a few other irons in the fire.