JB Tadena of Kung Fu

‘Kung Fu’ star JB Tadena on the relationships that tie Sebastian to the Shen family: ‘They’re kind of soulmates’

JB Tadena, who plays Sebastian ‘Hot Chef’ Cailao on The CW’s Kung Fu spoke extensively with Subjectify Media in advance of episode 7, which, without giving anything away, is a particular showcase for his character. In this first spoiler-free part, JB discusses the two relationships that have defined Sebastian’s story on Kung Fu so far.

When JB Tadena’s Sebastian blew into the Kung Fu season 2 premiere as a potential love interest for Ryan Shen (Jon Prasida) no one knew quite what to expect. He was hired by an exasperated, overworked Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) on the spot, but not before he and Ryan gave each other a not very subtle once over crackling with sexual tension. But who was this mystery man with the qualifications to slot right into Mei-Li’s kitchen and her son’s heart?

For a while, in our season 2 conversation reviews, we were convinced Sebastian was not what he seemed, accusing him of being both a plant from Russell Tan sent to spy on the Shen family and being a plant from Melody Dumplings sent to sabotage Harmony Dumplings. How else to explain the fact that he seemed too good to be true — a capable, creative hand in the kitchen for Mei-Li and a sexy, available love interest for Ryan — what are the odds?

Over the course of Kung Fu season 2 Sebastian proved himself to be a staunch supporter of Mei-Li. Their creative partnership allowed both of them to flower. Under their combined influence, Harmony Dumplings found unprecedented success setting viewers up for so much more disappointment when the earthquake that hit San Francisco at the end of season 2 destroyed so much of what they had worked to create.

In spite of Sebastian’s worries about putting his position at Harmony Dumplings at risk over a relationship with the boss’s son, he and Ryan took a chance on each other. In the process they had to overcome the fear of Sebastian’s violent past, Ryan’s near death experience after being shot by Russell Tan, and Sebastian’s induction into The Truth About Nicky Club.

Throughout season 2, Sebastian went from a potential love interest to a fully formed character with his own fears, hope and dreams and with pivotal connections with two members of the Shen family. JB Tadena’s promotion to series regular for season 3 was well-deserved and an indication that the showrunners knew what a gem they had found when casting Tadena. Kung Fu eason 3 has continued to offer Tadena chances to shine as Sebastian, with a mix of humor, sentiment and drama.

In the first portion of our chat with JB Tadena, we discuss Sebastian’s story so far, leading up to last week’s emotional episode, where Sebastian chose to quit Harmony Dumplings rather than put Mei-Li and the restaurant in jeopardy by protecting him, and stay tuned for part 2 of this exclusive interview after Kung Fu season 3, episode 7 airs this week!

I want to talk a little bit about Sebastian’s arc. Looking at it from the outside, it seems like Sebastian could have been meant to be a fun side character. A love interest, maybe long term, but still a side character. But obviously, Sebastian has become much more than that. When you got the role, what did you know about the character and how long he might stick around?

I had zero clue, so when I talked to Bob and Christina, when I first got to Vancouver they were like, “Okay so let’s talk about what this character is.” And we talked about his background, we talked about his sexual orientation. We’re like, “What what that would encompass? We want to keep it ambiguous.” It was more of those surface level kind of ideas, because they had no idea what they wanted to do with him yet. So we talked, and they’re like, “Is he going to be a villain? Do we know if he’s going to be a Tan plant? Or is he just going to be a foil for Ryan and Mei-Li? We will see as it goes.” And around the the time of episode 5 and 6 of season 2, they knew where they wanted me to go and I think it’s an essence thing because when I talked to them also, they were like, “You’re the only person who auditioned for this character in a nice way,” in a sense that everyone else kind of played him overly machismo or overly cocky, and I just played him with like, you know, he’s a good guy underneath. And I think using that, they didn’t want to create this Tan plant, so they started a different storyline. I think it was based off of an older storyline they were going to use for Henry that never came to fruition, of this “rough around the edges, has a record” kind of character, and what can you play with, with that.

Obviously I have a bias, you know that, but it definitely feels to me like after you had been in a few episodes, it was sort of obvious that it would be a shame to not really utilize you in the show more.

Thank you, I appreciate that.

At what point did you know that you would be sticking around? I guess in a show you never know what could happen, but…

There’s always the feeling of you never know. I was happy with the work that I did up to season 2, and if it was going to end there, then that would have been great. I would have been proud of it. Because over season 2 he has a great arc. They wrote him so well and I’m thrilled with how it ended up and I didn’t expect anything from season 2 because I knew, you know, they had to kill off Annie [Juliette Tan.] It’s a it’s a big cast. I fully didn’t expect anything.

That does make me nervous, it’s a big cast right now!

It’s a big cast. I’m number 11 on the call sheet. To see how they’ve been able to fit everyone in their own moments, it’s impressive and I’m thankful that they’ve given me even more cool things to do this season.

JB Tadena discusses his work on season 2 of Kung Fu

When I talked to Kheng, we talked a little bit about the mystery that is actor chemistry and what makes it. Because of course you’ve got the MeiBastian situation happening, and  I’ve said you’ve got the Jensen Ackles problem, which is that you are so charismatic it doesn’t really matter who you’re on the screen with — there’s this chemistry. I don’t know if that’s something you can perceive about your own performance. Maybe that’s something you’ve got to see from the outside, but what do you think about what makes that kind of chemistry when two actors are on the screen together?

It’s hard to say, because every scene partner I have, the work I put in, I try to connect with them as deeply as possible and whether it shows or it doesn’t, I don’t know if that’s controllable. But, you know, you try to make the most of everything with every scene partner you have, with the hopes that there’s chemistry. And I’m lucky enough where the two people I work with the most, JP and Kheng, that I just get along with them both like gangbusters. So I think when you have that kind of chemistry outside of set, it does translate and it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way but I think it helps.

After episode 6, Natalie described Sebastian’s relationships as two different love stories, which I thought was a really great way to put it. The first one being Ryan, which you would think would be the more important, you know Seb was brought in as a love interest, so there’s that romantic relationship, which has been a little trial and error this season — I have definitely been a little bit like, “Are they okay?” So talk to me a little bit about their relationship this season up to episode 6.

Whose? Both Ryan’s and Mei-Li?

Just Ryan and Sebastian’s and then we’ll get to Mei-Li.

So at the end of season 2, they’re in a great place. Contrary to popular belief, I do believe Ryan said I love you to Sebastian. I don’t think it’s unrequited in episode 10. Off-screen, in my heart, it has happened. But you heard that Sebastian’s apartment was destroyed in the earthquake, so they were kind of forced to have this quick move-in because Seb has no job at the moment because of Harmony Dumplings. Ryan’s not making a lot of money either in his residency, I mean he’s making a decent amount of money but not enough to…

JB Tadena discusses Ryan and Sebastian’s relationship

He’s making enough to buy whatever $2500 knives on the fly.

That and, like, our pretty ridiculous apartment. I’m like, this would cost four grand a month, minimum, in San Francisco. But, yeah, they’re forced into that situation, but in the beginning it’s you know it’s still kind of honeymoonish. They’re enjoying spending all this time together in episode 1. I think you see how they’re happy together. But as episode 3 comes around, it’s exactly what it looks like — Seb’s not given any space, Ryan feels like, man all my freedoms are all of a sudden gone, and I think that’s a very natural thing that happens in relationships regardless of how quickly you move in together. And while that happens, I don’t think it really is a negative thing on their relationship. I think it’s something they work through quickly and they are in a good place. I don’t see them having any problems up to this point.

So the other love story is obviously Mei-Li. It’s a very different kind of — in spite of the internet salaciousness — it’s a very different kind of love, a different kind of relationship, and it seems so unique on television to me, where you have this older woman mentor and this young man and the love that’s there. It feels like it could be more maternal, like a parent-child relationship, especially considering that Sebastian is sort of a son-in-law in the family hierarchy, but it doesn’t feel that way either. It just feels like really deep and respectful relationship. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah, I mean, it’s funny, Kheng and I have spoken, like if this was on HBO Max, it’d be completely different relationship. But, I agree with you, I think all facets of those things you spoke about, like how it could be maternal because of how his relationship with his parents aren’t on the greatest of terms, so he kind of sees her as a mother figure, but also he sees her as the best chef that he’s ever met. And that kind of respect that comes into it, but also at the end of the day they get just get along. They have so much in common that they’re kind of synergistic in a way, where it’s almost as if they’re friends who can finish each other’s sentences. I think it’s such a lovely relationship, like you said, that you don’t really see much of. Because, yes, aside from the salaciousness, they’re kind of soulmates in a way.

JB Tadena discusses Sebastian’s relationship with Mei-Li

I love that. I really loved in episode 5 that scene, I mean of course Carrie’s in there ruining the scene for me, staring daggers at them, and they’re over by the serving window — just this little snippet into them just hanging out together. Just working well together. It was just a nice little touch that felt like an extra.

When they’re just laughing it up, yukking it up? Yeah, we have a lot of good fun together.

So in episode 6, we’ve got a couple of really heartbreaking scenes with Sebastian. There’s the scene where he overhears Mei-Li and then quits, and then there’s the scene at the very end where Ryan comes home and comforts him. Those are two very different reactions and I felt like it was an interesting contrast of the two relationships. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about those different choices, in terms of how he is confronting Mei-Li with this situation, and then also with Ryan.

Right. I think that when he’s with Mei-Li at this moment, if he starts to show any cracks she will just keep fighting harder. And like, it’s choking me up to think about it right now, but if he shows any bit of weakness, she’s gonna be like, “No, you belong here,” and he doesn’t want her to feel that so I think at the end of the scene you can kind of see the cracks starting to form, he’s like, “I gotta get out of here.”

Natalie said “the glossy unshed tears.”

Right. And we played it a few different ways on set, but I think the best choice was was edited in, as far as keeping it together for her, so that he can firmly say that this is the best decision for everybody. And I do admire the nobility that they write into this character. It speaks to me and I love it. But with Ryan, I think because he’s already opened so much to him, he’s told him about his past, he’s honest with him about his feelings, I think that within any relationship, your partner that you come home to is somebody who you’re allowed to open those doors with, and he feels comfortable just crying on his shoulder in one of the hardest moments of his life at this point.

JB Tadena discusses Sebastian’s contrasting relationships with Ryan and Mei-Li

Yeah. I felt like that really did speak a little bit to where that relationship is, more so than the kind of funnier episodes that we’ve gotten leading up to it, where I was like, “Are they okay?” That was really more like “Yes, if that’s the reaction, then they are okay.”

The episode 4 competition stuff was a part of the whole humour, more broad stuff just to make the episode funnier, but, no, I think they’ve gotten to a point where the relationship is very close.

This is probably something that there’s nothing you can tell me about, but what is going to happen with Harmony Dumplings? Are we going to get to see Sebastian back at Harmony Dumplings? Are we still going to get to see his relationship with Mei-Li?

You do get to see more of MeiBastian. I’ll say that much.

Let’s just talk a little bit about this corporate control of Harmony Dumplings, because I have really strong feelings about this and I can’t tell where the show is going, in terms of — can this stand? This corporate control? It feels terrible.

I think it’ll make sense at a at a certain point, what the corporate overlords are trying to do. Because it’s like with any capitalistic idea when something popular happens. Like, what do you want to do with this? Oh, this is like this huge tourist trap now, because all these people are coming to Harmony Dumplings. What can we do with that idea? And I think it’ll make more sense as the season goes along.

Get them out of there, that’s my vote.

That’s the danger when you’re a small business and you take on that kind of help.

‘Kung Fu’ airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on The CW. Episodes stream free the next day on The CW website. ‘Kung Fu’ season 1 and 2 are streaming now on HBO Max.