Nerds and Beyond recently had the chance to sit down with Vanessa Kai from Kung Fu to talk about her transformation into Xiao in this week’s episode, “The Alchemist” and more. Read on to see her thought-provoking answers!
Kai: [Concerning the new episode] What did you think? I’m dying to hear?
Nerds and Beyond: It was really exciting to get to see you play The Alchemist! It was a really nice twist I thought.
Kai: Yes! Thank you so much. Yeah, she was so much fun. She really was so much fun. Yeah, it’s been quite a thrilling ride to get to know her and to create her. This is such a really an honor to have the opportunity to get to create someone new at this at this place. Yeah, and I feel very privileged that Christina and Bob would give me the opportunity to do that.
Nerds and Beyond: Yeah, you knocked it out of the park! I’m really excited to possibly see more of her in the future, but well we’ll get to that in a minute. So to start off, the beautiful moment that like the monks had in remembrance of Pei-Ling at the end of season 1 in the monastery (for me at least) felt like a send off for the character. With Nicky having gotten justice for her shifus death, I thought that we might no longer see Pei-Ling appear to her or anyone else for that matter. So imagine my surprise when she was one of the first faces we saw in season 2! Did you always know that the writers were planning to bring you back if season two was renewed?
Kai: No! Well… I think that towards the end of season 1, I had already gotten a hint. So I had already gotten a hint that I had a wonderful future look forward to come back to.
I didn’t, to be honest, know how — what they did not tell me is how she was going to come back or when she would appear. So the character of Xiao actually was not introduced to me until maybe two months into shooting season 2. So when we returned at the start of the season, and as well as the start of season 1, Christina, Bob, we each have meeting and we all have a big powwow and they let me know they have some ideas for Pei-Ling, for my character, but they didn’t know just what yet. Nothing was solidified. So I knew that there was a lot of creativity that was happening. But until it was secure, or until the decisions were made, then they would let me know.
But I didn’t even learn about it until maybe I want to say about two months into shooting season 2. Yeah, yeah. So when they told me that, I just sort of sat and I wanted to make sure that I remained creatively limber. You know what I mean? I just wanted to remain creatively limber and take in information when and if it came, and just to make myself ready for for whatever came. And to my surprise, when Bob and Christina let me know, it started in increments. So it started with like, “Hey, so keep up with the training.” I was like, “Okay.” [laughs] And then, “So here’s an idea that we have” and then I said, “Okay, right. What??? What, what is this? Okay.” Then comes the work. I just tried to keep my head down and check in with Christina and Bob about how I think this character is being shaped, where she is going, and the tenor of her voice. And then comes what is her motivation and her history or what drives her. It’s always a collaborative process, right.
Then came the beautiful costume and the headpiece. Then came the the stunt training in the costume. And then we actually had to rehearse [in it]. I had a costume fitting, and then we were just like, you know, it’s best if everyone’s in the room. The stunt coordinator came to my costume fitting. So the costume designer, Angus Strathy, and our stunt coordinator Andrew Chen and I were there with me while I am trying to do the stunt choreography in the costume to see what we can do in this costume. And then tailoring to that and then yeah, here we are.
Nerds and Beyond: So you’ve answered part of my next question about your process of constructing Xiao’s persona when learning about the history of the character, but what do you think was the most challenging part about trying to differentiate her from Pei-Ling in terms of your mannerisms, especially since the differences were subtle at first in the Jyu Sa dream realm?
Kai: What a great question. I think it depends. The challenge is, I try not to fall into that “let’s make her the polar opposite.” Right? And it’s really about figuring out what is each individual character’s motivation. And I think that once I figure out what that motivation is, then that will be the engine that drives this character moving forward. And so with regards to mannerism, in the way that she moves and the way that she speaks and the way that she sounds, I basically tried to just take any information of her of her backstory, of how old I think she is, the world — the literal world, the dreamscape world and where she lives and where she comes from.
And what I did in the process was, because I come from a theatre background, normally in theater, we would do what is called table work. Same thing in television and film, we have a table read where we sit around the table and we read. But we usually spend some time sussing out all the story, and characters and so forth. But we don’t really have that time and that luxury in television. What we do have, however, is table reads for every episode and and we’ve been doing this over Zoom. So with every single table read, I use that as an opportunity to workshop this character. [laughs] So that means like everyone gets to witness witnessed the creative process. [laughs]
Nerds and Beyond: And so like you were saying, we kind of got to see you in action for the first time in a while in that wonderfully coordinated fight sequence with Nicky in the Jyu Sa dream realm. What is your favorite part about coordinating the fight sequences and working with the stunt team, and did you have any background in martial arts before coming to work on the show?
Kai: I have some background in martial arts. My husband is actually a Muay Thai instructor, so I have some experience in training in Muay Thai. But other than that, I come from a dance and theater background, so my years of dancing and and working in theater have taught me how to use my body as an instrument of expression. And in this case, the language is Kung Fu, is martial arts. And so that’s how I then translate that and use my body and am able to use what I’ve learned and then work with our stunt coordinator. And they let me know like, this is what that is.
And how has it been? It’s been fantastic. It really has. I think that what I tried to do for the work is I try to do my best to understand and learn the heart of the art form. In addition to the choreography, what I strive to really embody it so it looks natural, like it’s something that we do all the time. And it’s not always familiar with my body, so I do my best to show up and train as often as I can. Andrew Chen and the entire stunt team have been fantastic. Truly, truly fantastic. I went in and asked and they try to teach me loosely all the all the fundamentals so, ultimately, I can convey that as naturally as I can. Whether that’s sword or bo staff, or wushu, or Wing Chun; it’s stances, it’s just a very well rounded…I wouldn’t say education, but training, certainly.
Nerds and Beyond: It’s really cool you had a background in Muay Thai too! I spoke to Ludi a couple of weeks ago and I know he did some of that too.
Kai: Yes! It’s so funny. [laughs] My husband has been teaching for 20 or 30 years? He’s been teaching for quite some time. But before we met, I never knew anything about Muay Thai. I knew nothing. But once we met, I went to multiple fights and competitions and have attended them and watched many things. I didn’t understand it first, and now I do. [laughs] And now I have a whole appreciation for it in a way that I didn’t before he and I met. I feel really grateful that I’ve learned how to embody the fighting stances, the strikes, the kicks, as well as the call and response of just embodying that particular art and how it’s able to to transcend other art forms as well.
Nerds and Beyond: So one of Pei-Ling’s core qualities that’s emphasized heavily throughout the show is her guiding spirit and her wisdom as a shifu. What would you say are the biggest lessons that the mentors, the shifus in your life, have imparted upon you, and how do you work to carry on their legacies?
Kai: Oh my gosh. For the shifus in my life that I’ve found so inspiring and continue to actually rely on, it’s the amount of grace and patience that they have shown me and the amount of space that they have held for me. I think that for all the mentors in my life, aside from the practical advice and sage wisdom, it’s really when you’re watching the students just going through their mistakes, you know, and you just have to let it happen, because that’s part of the growth. The only thing that my mentors were able to do for me is to just let me stumble sometimes [laughs] and know that eventually I would find my way with their guidance — if I was smart enough to listen to it. [laughs] I think what I try to imbue Pei-Ling with is with that same kind of grace and patience. And to understand that everyone is on their own individual journey, but we’re all here at the same time, and that these are just lessons. Everyone has their own pace. And all we can do is just hold space for that and just be there, you know.
Nerds and Beyond: One of the hallmarks of the Kung Fu set seems to be the super familial atmosphere that’s been built between the cast and crew. What would you say has been one of your favorite memories on or off set that you’ve experienced with the Kung Fu family?
Kai: [Laughs] My favorite… gosh, there’s so many. There are just so many. I think the biggies are the big events like the laser tags.
Nerds and Beyond: Olivia was telling me about the laser tag. [laughs]
Kai: Yes. [laughs] Those are really exciting and I absolutely love that. I think on the day to day, it’s the dinners. It’s the after work drinks, if you will. It’s the weekend of like, “Hey, whose turn is it to host? Let’s order takeout. Where should we order from?” I love that we each take a turn leading the planning. Like the way that we celebrate each other’s birthday. You know? Or or a special event or holiday.
Even now we’ll still check in on each other. I just chatted with Kheng over WhatsApp a couple of days ago. Olivia and I just chatted yesterday. I know that Tony is back in town. We’re both from New York, so I can’t wait to meet up for coffee with him. So, I think that it’s the day to day that that is consistent. That we are still connected. That is really one of the many things that I prize about our our relationship.
Nerds and Beyond: It seems like you all have a really special group of people around you.
Kai: Yeah, I would agree. I would agree. Everyone is indeed very special. And I think what we have is very special. We try to do our best to not take anything for granted and to make sure that we try to nurture this as much as we can. Because I really would hope that we will all be together for a long time to come.
Nerds and Beyond: Do you find yourself having a kind of mentor-mentee relationship with the younger burgeoning actors on the show?
Kai: Oh, excellent question. Not intentionally. Something that I’m also learning is that mentorship isn’t always just one sided. It isn’t just the elder leading the younger or mentoring the younger, but the younger generation also has so much to teach the older. There’s a lot to be learned. The reciprocity is very real and so there’s so much that I’m learning about from my younger castmates that I hadn’t thought about. And also because we are not only of a different age group, but we’re also from two different coasts. I’m learning a lot like West Coast and California versus New York, not versus as in competition, but like the general dynamics of what is really the culture of cities. It’s very exciting.
I think that I come from a place of if there is something, I never intentionally go, “Oh, hey, let me share this with you” or “I have some advice.” If anyone would like to ask me something, I’m very happy to share whatever from my experience is helpful for them. And in turn, there’s also a lot of things that I’m like “Hey guys, what what does this mean?” [laughs] What’s happening social media? What is this TikTok? Is this something I should get into? [laughs] Also, like fashion designers and makeup and such. We’re learning so much from each other. It’s really quite fulfilling. It’s really great.
Nerds and Beyond: Well, it looks like we’re running short on time, so I will hit you with one final question. I posed the same question to Olivia and Ludi when I had the privilege of speaking with them and I wanted to ask you as well. Kung Fu is the first network drama to feature a predominantly AAPI cast. For you personally, what’s been the most rewarding part about being able to help bring that level of representation on screen?
Kai: That’s such a beautiful question. I think what is so rewarding is that the stories that we are telling on this show, led by Christina and Kim and Bob Berens, this team of incredibly talented writers, that the stories that we’re telling are not only entertaining, they’re also culturally illuminating, and universal. Because at the end of each episode, every person who’s watching the show will feel some sort of kinship or connection to one or more of the characters on the show and their relationship and/or the circumstance, and everyone will realize just how similar we all are. I think that’s what makes this show so loved and what I find some more warning. It’s the universality. To add to that, I’m reminded of how similar, for example, Turning Red is to Encanto, because they’re both about magic, generational trauma, family, love, familial expectation and a sense of responsibility, fear of failure. These things are universal. And so is Kung Fu.
Nerds and Beyond: That was really beautiful. Thank you for all of your your time and your very thoughtful answers!
Kai: Thank you, Kenedi. Thank you so much for asking such really smart questions, and I and for listening. I really appreciate you.
You can catch Kung Fu on Wednesday nights in its new time slot at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on The CW. As always, make sure to stay up to date with all of our coverage here, and stay tuned for more updates!