It takes more than talent to make it in the entertainment industry. The recipe for success calls for hard work, determination, unrelenting drive and a sprinkle of luck. Most of all, it takes a passion to create. Olivia Cheng caught the creative bug early in life. She took her first acting class at age 6 and booked her first local commercial at 19. After high school, Olivia attended the University of Alberta where she earned a scholarship and early admittance to its commerce program. Unhappy in university, she enrolled at NAIT’s Radio and Television Arts program the following year, which led to a successful media career. After finishing school, her journey led her to a job as a videographer for Global TV Lethbridge, before moving back to Edmonton to work as a broadcast and print journalist.
At the height of her journalism career, AMC was launching its original content division and came to Alberta with a Walter Hill-helmed mini-series, executive produced by Robert Duvall. They were looking for five Chinese actresses, but were willing to look at non-professionals as well. Duvall saw Olivia’s audition and asked to bring her back. She was then cast in “Broken Trail,” which was nominated for 16 Primetime Emmy Awards and went on to win four, including the Emmy for Outstanding Mini-Series. “Broken Trail” gave Olivia the push she needed. She moved to Vancouver and worked as a stringer correspondent for ET Canada, while she pursued an acting career full time. Since then, Olivia has appeared on USA’s “Psych,” Fox’s “Fringe,” CTV’s “Flashpoint,” The CW’s “Arrow” and “Supernatural,” and CBC’s “Arctic Air.”
Her latest project, Netflix’s larger-than-life series “Marco Polo,” showcases her most ambitious work to date. Produced by The Weinstein Company, the series is based on the famed explorer’s adventures in Kublai Khan’s court. In this breathtaking and powerful series, Olivia Cheng plays Mei Lin, the sister of Jia Sidao and favorite mistress of the Emperor of the Song Dynasty. Mei Lin is a beautiful and alluring woman, but also a dangerous warrior who possesses a proud and intelligent mind. “Marco Polo” has set a precedent for production, being one of the most expensive television series ever produced. Netflix will launch all 10 episodes of the second season on July 1st. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Olivia Cheng to discuss her role on the critically acclaimed series, her evolution as an actor and what the future may hold for this star on the rise!
What attracted you to the arts early on?
My earliest memories come from the way I used to play as a kid. I would make theater performances and cast my friends in plays at recess. I was a really good student, so I would often ask for special permission to turn an essay assignment into a live performance piece or a movie! I was a very artsy kid and I don’t even think I realized it until I looked back years later.
When did the craft of acting come into your life?
I started looking into it when I was 15 years old. I probably invested thousands of dollars that I will never see back on what I think were shams, now that I know how the business actually works! [laughs] The promises these people made far exceeded what they could actually do. When you have a dream as a kid, you will put together the money and pay whoever to help you make it happen. So, I was already looking into it but after losing a lot of money to these enterprises that weren’t really legit, I kind of decided this wasn’t something I had access to. I did continue to sign up to be an extra whenever I heard something was in town looking for extras. It was through that process that I eventually heard about “Broken Trail,” went out to those auditions and was cast. The project ended up being nominated for 16 Emmys and I think it won the Emmy for Best Mini-Series that year and put AMC on the map. That was a project that made me say, “I can’t deny that this is something I really want to do.”
Was there anyone behind the scenes who gave you a push when you needed it?
I would give that credit to a former managing editor of mine. When he heard that I had heard I had been offered a part in “Broken Trail” with Walter Hill and Robert Duvall, he knew I was very torn about leaving my stable, full-time career in media. He pulled me aside and said, “I’m talking to you as more of a parent than a boss but you’ve got to do this! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and we will be here if you want to come back. I don’t think you will come back because I don’t think your heart is here.” He was right! I never went back!
Years later, you find yourself in yet another larger than life series with Netflix’s “Marco Polo.” How did you get involved and what intrigued you about this project?
It was such a hail mary, as my agent calls it! [laughs] I am a working joe actor in Canada. In Vancouver, we are largely a service industry for American projects that come to town. It is a fantastic platform for so many Canadian actors to cut their teeth, gain experience and work in a relatively small pool of talent compared to the United States market. I have been in that market for seven years. You hear a lot of actors talk about this, because it does happen to a lot of us, where you are at a point where you love what you do but you don’t know how to make rent again! [laughs] I was at that point! I was doing really well and getting really great feedback. I knew I just had to hang in there! My agent called me and said, “This breakdown just came out. It’s a project co-produced by Netflix and the Weinstein Company.” That immediately perked up my ears because the Weinstein Company has been nominated for close to 400 Oscars now and has one over 100. In this business, everyone knows the caliber of project that company puts out. She said to me, “Ya know, you really have to make this take pop.” She referenced a local actor, Michael Eklund, who created a miniature short film for his audience for his audition with the Halle Berry movie, “The Call.” He won out the role from going the extra mile. Basically, I put down a tape and put more effort into it than usual. I borrowed a friend’s really good camera, I got lights together and a proper mic. I didn’t just shoot it against a blue screen with a chair, as so many auditions are. I knew they were searching the United States, Australia, the UK and China. I don’t believe Canada was officially on the search list. Often, we just see what is going on in The States and we submit. I knew this tape really had to stand out visually because it was going to be seen among hundreds or possibly thousands of others. I actually filmed my audition nude! You don’t see anything but I, as much as possible, tried to create the set and space of what was happening in the scene. My agent told me later that she had never fought so hard for a tape to be seen. I never really had gotten material like that for her to see what I could do with it. In Vancouver, we get a lot of movie of the weeks. The kind of material “Marco Polo” put down in front of me was really, really rare, challenging, dark and complex material. My agent eventually just bullied her way into the U.S. Office and said, “You’ve got to watch this!” I have been very lucky to have a lot of great people pushing for me behind the scenes.
For those just discovering the series, what can you tell us about it and the character you play?
The show follows a young Marco Polo, who was a famed Italian explorer. In real life, I believe, he spent 17 years in the court of Kublai Khan at a time when Kublai Khan was the most prolific conqueror and ruler in the entire world. No one has ever matched his family’s legacy of how much of the world they conquered and populated. We take a fictionalized look at history and Marco Polo as he lands in the court of this 13th century Mongolian Empire, as it is warring with China’s Song Dynasty. My character is from the Song Dynasty side. Mei Lin is based on a real historical figure, who is a footnote in Chinese history, so this is a real imagining of how this woman might have been. She is an imperial consort to the emperor of the Song Dynasty. She is also the sister to Chancellor Jia Sidao who went down in history as the corrupt chancellor who brought down the Song Dynasty. In our story, she is blackmailed by her own brother. He takes her daughter hostage and she is forced to enter the Mongolian Empire as a double agent. Eventually, she becomes a prisoner of war to the Khan. In Season 2, Mei Lin maneuvers through the court in a very precarious position. She is basically a living weapon for the Khan but she continues her role as a double agent because she is still trying to keep the daughter alive and still wants to take the Khan down.
It goes without saying this series has great writing involved but what did you bring to this character that might not have been on the written page?
That is a really great question. I watched a lot of documentaries about prostitution, human trafficking, sex slavery and read a lot of social science articles. There was one amazing article I read about South African women who sell themselves in mining towns. I read stories from all over the world in this day and age, who work in our oldest profession. I think what struck me the most across the board was that whether these women were from Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa or North America, was how they told their stories with their chins held high. They were from such a marginalized section of society but when they told their stories they had such dignity and poise. It was really moving for me to notice that common emotional thread amongst them. It helped me imagine how hard their lives must be and how they learned to hold their heads up high. That really inspired me to bring that quality to Mei Lin and not portray her as a victim of her circumstance but as someone just as human, intelligent and full as you or I would be in life.
What was the biggest challenge you faced on this project?
I think the greatest challenge has been building a character from scratch. There are so many things you can’t prepare for through acting class to when you become a lead on a series. There are so many pressures on you when you are helping to carry a show. I think this is the first role I can truly say took a lot out of me emotionally, mentally and physically. I had to go through training to learn martial arts and get the ex-gymnast muscles firing again to flip around and hit the back handsprings on set. I think the greatest challenge was what it took to make a character like Mei Lin feel organic to the audience.
I am sure you learn something new with every project. What is the biggest lesson you took away from your time on this project?
I think the biggest lesson I learned was more on the pragmatic side of how to keep going in the marathon of shooting a show. We had two full camera units going six days a week to hustle through shooting 10 episodes that have such high quality feature film production values and get it in on time. The scheduling was really rigorous! I have been a high achiever for a lot of my life, so it is a very natural and familiar space for me to burn the candle at both ends. I think something this epic and of this magnitude really showed me how important it is to rest, take care of myself and have a good team of people around me. I really learned how important rest is! Maybe that is a boring answer but it is something that has been really hard for me for a lot of my life!
You have come a long way since your first role as an actor. Looking back, how have you most evolved as an actor?
I think I understand the craft so much more. When I think about my first big experience on “Broken Trail,” I was so green! I ran around that set like a puppy off-leash! [laughs] I was so excited to be there but I had no understanding of the craft or how to serve the story. I remember at one point, there was this scene, where Robert Duvall is teaching one of the Chinese girls whose feet have been broken in traditional footing binding. He puts her on a horse to give her a sense of freedom and movement that, for obvious reasons, she can’t experience on her own. We were shooting this scene and we were sitting in a wagon. I was so excited to be on set that day that I remember I was cheering in the take! I was like, “Yeah! Go, go, go!” I was super excited! Walter Hill called cut and walked over to me. He is a very stoic, thoughtful guy and doesn’t waste a lot of words. [laughs] He came over to me and said, “More Yi Fung. Remember, you are in the 18th century and you have been very, very traumatized and no Olivia.” [laughs] I was like, “Oh, OK.” [laughs] The energy I was bringing was not the correct energy for the character or the scene. To me, that illustrates that at that point, I didn’t understand to serve the character or the story. Shortly after that, I went through a year that I call a year of bad acting, where I over-acted on camera on everything I was cast in. I didn’t understand that you just have to think something and the camera will pick it up. Now, for Mei Lin, when I hear people who know me and know what my energy is in life tell me they’ve forgot they are watching me or saw me disappear into a character, it really means something to me. Like I said, I remember how I started as an actor and how unrefined I was during my first few years! [laughs]
Where are you headed in the future. Obviously, you will take on more projects as an actor but do you see yourself exploring the world behind the camera?
I would love that! On the writing end, I have actually been developing projects since the beginning of my career. I’ve had a couple of projects optioned that never went to production but they gave me a taste of what it takes on the development end and I continue to push on that side. It is interesting to watch, as a Canadian Asian, watch my American counterparts up here really push on the diversity issue. For example, Margaret Cho starting the whole #whitewashout movement on Twitter, really fortified to me how important it is that voices within my own ethnic community and culture create the content that resonates for us and hopefully finds that universal home base. We actually have momentum and the dialog and conversation that is happening in Hollywood right now, maybe it is unbalanced or not enough, but it is happening. I think it is up to people like myself to continue pushing where I can. I absolutely hope my writing projects find a home and I would love to go from directing my professional acting friends in skits to maybe one day directing them for real!
A lot of people can look to you as an inspiration. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
Anyone who is trying to do something that is outside of the box, something no one in their family has done or any type of entrepreneur in that sense, knows it’s so scary to bring your visions to life. The thing I would want to convey from my own experience is failure is the F word that nobody likes to talk about but I think it is important to let people know that I have failed. I have failed so much to get here! I have been the actor who has failed so big! I have walked out of audition rooms just wrecked for days after auditions where I flubbed lines. I have felt like I have really blown shots by putting ideas out there. There is so much rejection and so many things that feel like they go so wrong but I think it is really important we go through those processes because those failures are such amazing bits of wisdom. They do hone you and sharpen you while giving you a sense of what is needed in what you do to fix that hole, so to speak. I want people to know, if they fail, that is how they know they are doing it right!
Being part of a successful project like this puts you in a very unique position when it comes to shining a light on world issues and worthy causes.
Absolutely. I got into media at a very young age, I was working behind the scenes from the time I was 19, and it was impressed upon me very early about having a voice in mainstream media. I guess I am now in the position of figuring out how I can best use that voice in whatever public platform I have and shine a light where it is needed. There are so many great causes and initiatives that I would love to help out in but I think what I would most like to focus on is human trafficking. I am definitely a feminist and very aware of what is going on with women and children in other parts of the world that are far less developed than what we have here in North America. I was interested in all of that stuff even before playing a character like Mei Lin on “Marco Polo.” I think something in that arena is something I would like to help out with.
Thank you so much for your time today, Olivia! I can’t wait to see where your journey takes you next and I wish you continued success!
Thank you, Jason! That is so sweet. I really appreciate it! Take care!