Kung Fu’s Shannon Dang spoke with Subjectify in advance of the season 3 finale to reflect on some of Althea’s biggest moments of the season and tease a little of what we can expect to see in the final episode.
Shannon Dang portrays Althea Shen-Soong on the CW’s Kung Fu. Althea is the oldest Shen sibling, and she has been a firm favorite since her introduction as the bubbly, popular former cheerleader who, years after graduation, ended up marrying not her high school sweetheart, but a DnD-loving nerd who once idolized her in the hallways. Althea is slightly highly-strung, super-organized, and excels at things like math, tech and code. Her career has always been tied to the web development industry, and she also used her expertise in a less above-board way to help out with Nicky’s missions.
In the season 2 finale, this had unusual consequences for Althea. She used her hacker genius via a privacy breach within her own app to warn the city about the impending earthquake, and she received a rather creative punishment from the DA that saw her forced to take a new direction in life. During season 3, we’ve seen Althea struggle under the restrictions of her internet ban and find fulfilling work as an old-school PI at Evan’s new legal firm. She’s also helped her husband to reconcile with this sister and parents, and done plenty of backseat driving as she talks Evan through all of Nicky’s secret hacking needs.
In the last few weeks, things have moved quickly for Althea as she is sent undercover on a dangerous mission to retrieve Delta Security data, and is later offered a government cybersecurity job with the National Security Agency, who have apparently been spying on her for a while! But as a carrier of the Warrior bloodline, she was one of the character’s affected by Xiao’s attempt to drain the remnants of bloodline power from across the world, and came close to death before Henry was able to deliver the cure.
Related: ‘Kung Fu’ season 3, episode 12 in conversation: All those bloodline-flavored souls
In advance of Kung Fu’s season 3 finale, we spoke with Shannon Dang about some of Althea’s biggest moments from this season, including her recent near-death experience and her team-up with Zhilan, as well as her childhood experience working with her onscreen father and Tzi Ma and her main scene partners this season, Olivia Liang, Tony Chung and Gavin Stenhouse. Of course, we also try to fish a little about what we can expect to see in the final episode of Kung Fu season 3, “Beginning.”
We saw Althea get this job offer from the NSA and then in “Loss” we saw her have a very close near-death experience. So are we going to see how that experience in the last episode, the near-death experience, impacts whatever decision she makes? Or rather does that experience impact whatever decision she makes?
Yes, so, in the last episode as everyone has seen, all the Shens have a near-death experience and it was really fun to play, but also an emotional episode. I think I cried watching it on two separate occasions. One was when Mia dies, sorry, spoiler alert, and the second was when Henry had to use his compass powers and had a flashback moment where he was searching for Nicky and all the Shens and it was like a flashback of seasons 1, 2 and 3, of all of our faces in different parts of our show and it was really so emotional because I felt like I was pulled out of it like, “That’s not the Shens, that’s us! That’s us from three years ago!” and I got all emotional, we were blubbering.
It was like we were watching a flashback of all of our lives together in the last three seasons, seeing baby Nicky from season 1 with her straight hair, and baby Ryan and everyone, it was so cute and so it was definitely emotional. But naturally when you have an almost near-death experience, you definitely reconsider life and I think it definitely affects your decisions moving forward. So you will see that, you know, the Shens survive. And the finale without spoiling it too much, is definitely closing up chapters, but also planting seeds for what’s to come if there’s a season 4. So it’s a bittersweet moment where it definitely does both.
And you think that that experience does affect whatever decision Althea makes about this job offer?
It’s hard to say because I’m trying to see if that specifically has anything to do with it. She does make a decision whether or not to accept the job offer, and I think it is definitely fueled by that previous episode. I think every character definitely has an arc of whatever happened there, they’re going to close it up in the season finale.
With that near death experience, we saw how everyone responded to that situation of fading away or getting quite sick, but we had a lot of emotion from everyone’s partners as well. From Jin, Sebastian and especially from Dennis, that felt like a very strong moment for him. We’re always talking about how he’s this massive wife guy but it also seems like, and you’ve played into this a little bit before, that he has almost a little bit of an inferiority complex about Althea. That he seems really still like a high school boy in awe of her. Seeing him play that episode — out of everyone he was the most manic about this potential impending death. What was it like for you guys to work within that relationship throughout the season and to get it to that point where he is having to face this and have this reaction that is so upsetting?
I remember filming that episode and I think it was all in the same room that day, where the director wanted to show all of us in our own ways and pockets of what it looks like, how we’re dying, and how our partners are receiving that and what they can do. And I remember working with Tony, aka Dennis, and he’s so great, he is so generous and he just gives it all he has. And it was really nice to see him get vulnerable and open with the idea of what would it look like if he lost his significant other, his Pebbles to his Bam Bam, Althea. And something I took away from that episode, from that moment, was when Jin pulls him away and he was like “I wish there was more I could do” and Jin says “fear is contagious.” And I’m like “Ooooh! Oh, you’re right!” Because as much as everyone is panicking on the inside, everyone has a different reaction of how they hold it together and what is it like to be “strong,” or who needs to do what in that balance? Jin doesn’t want to show anything because he refuses to let Mei-Li think that he’s afraid, just not putting that energy out there. And so I think it was lovely.
You worked with Tzi Ma a long time ago as a kid. What has it been like over these three seasons, to develop that relationship with him as a dad again?
I worked with Tzi back on a film called Baby, it was maybe 2007. But he played a dad and I was the love interest of his son. So we weren’t quite father-daughter yet, but my parents were big fans of him. You know, this was after Rush Hour, and we were like “Consul Han!” And all of us always joked that we wanted to be Soo Yung, who was his daughter in Rush Hour, when she’s singing in the limo. So we always had that “Oh! Tzi Ma! Number one on screen dad!” Every Asian American’s favorite dad. And so I think that was a cool opportunity. Never in my wildest dreams did I think, fast forward over a decade later, that I would be reunited with him and playing father-daughter.
And I remember when we were going through the audition process for Kung Fu, they were still auditioning the kids but they had two people cast already. They’d cast our parents, Tzi and Kheng, and they had a Deadline article on it and we saw it and we’re like “Wow! These people are gonna play our parents! Tzi Ma is the dad! This is serious, we definitely need to book this.” And so I remember being like “Oh my gosh I’ve worked with Tzi before, I wonder if he remembers me? Maybe this is a sign!” and so throughout the audition process I was like “Oh my gosh we’re about to be reunited!” and then we were. And then I found that photo, it’s been so popular because the writers love it, the set decorators love it because they just put it up in the Shen house and at Harmony Dumplings.
So you can actually use it? That’s so cool!
Yes, they use it! Yes! It was a legit real photo that’s in the Shen house and people were like “Is that photoshop?” I was like “No, that is a legit photo taken from 2006!” It’s been really cool. And I think we have that natural automatic kinship. He plays everyone’s father, but I feel, selfishly, I’m like “Well I’ve been his daughter twice,” or you know, close enough.
You’ve had a lot of other strong relationships on the show as well. And one of the things I love about Kung Fu the most is that element of backstory that we don’t see. This season you’ve had a large percentage of your time with Gavin, as Evan, and you’re meant to have been friends for over a decade, since high school, and see him have this close relationship with certainly the kids and then later the parents as well. Dennis, she’s meant to have known for a very long time as well. How do you approach playing those relationships? Particularly with Evan where this is meant to have been a friend who you’ve known forever, but are coming into a new kind of dynamic with?
You know, I sometimes forget that Althea and him were friends, because if Evan and Nicky dated, yeah, he was around, and so I guess I always just treat him like a real friend and it comes naturally. Gavin is so awesome to work with. He’s very generous, has a great work ethic, and so when we get together we always know that it’s gonna be a fun one — we’re serious on camera, but it’s a fun time and we make each other laugh and I think that relationship becomes natural. And I think it’s fun to see that, two friends being on a mission. They’re smart, they’re savvy, they want to do justice and help Nicky and I think it’s a really cool relationship to have. It’s like a brother and sister, brother from another mother relationship. We’re off to do justice for the world and Althea gives him girl advice like any other friend or sister would do and it’s fun. I’m really grateful that season 3 got us to work together more.
What’s really nice about Kung Fu is that element of family, both the Shen family and the way that they have adopted people that might not be the norm to adopt. Evan is a part of the family, Evan’s new partner is a part of the family, even though he’s Nicky’s ex. Henry was kept in the loop even when they were split up. What kind of things do you think really make that family dynamic important when you’ve got so many different elements that it’s a bit of a patchwork?
The Shen family is so welcoming and I think at the core of it, it’s also because Nicky’s relationships bring those outsiders to the Shen family, to that nucleus, and I think of the parents as being so loving and welcoming for their children that they naturally just welcome these outsiders in. Like you mentioned Henry, Evan, Pei-Ling, Zhilan, everyone just becomes attached to the Shen family. Even Bo, even though he was doing something bad, he ended up with the Shen family, and Mia the cousin! No matter where each of those characters’ paths left or crossed later, they always felt it for the Shen family.
Now I’m going to get emotional, but for example in the last episode, episode 12, when Zhilan is dying, and then she tells Henry “thank you for staying.” He’s helping her die, you know, thank you for staying, because she didn’t feel right dying in front of the Shens, because already it shows that even though she’s been resistant to Nicky’s love or friendship, she still has that affinity and love for the whole Shen family and so you see that there and it was so amazing. We just bring in everyone and it’s just so nice to see.
You mentioned Zhilan, so we should talk about your adventure with her in episode 10. That was hilarious, but also a brilliant new dynamic. Did you think that you were going to have your own little side quest with Zhilan at any point, with Yvonne? What was your response when you found out about this episode?
So I did not find out until maybe an episode beforehand that Althea was gonna go undercover, because Nicky ends up in jail, and she’s not able to help with or lead the mission on the quest, so someone else has got to do it. And so when the showrunners gave me a heads up, I was like “Wow! Oh my gosh!” I was a little nervous to be honest because I was like “That’s a lot of pressure! Althea? Okay!” And then I found out that Zhilan will be there and there’s kind of a team up thing going on. Me and Yvonne were so excited because we are close outside of work, but we rarely do any scenes together and don’t share much screen time. So it was a really cool opportunity and I think people loved it, from the internet, the Twitter and Instagram fans that loved the episode also loved the Althea-Zhilan dynamic and duo. It was like the duo they never knew they wanted or needed and they need more!
Related: ‘Kung Fu’ season 3, episode 10 in conversation: Sometimes it’s just meadows and mind-palaces
I think what’s fun about it is because of the balance of their dynamic — you have Zhilan who is so serious and stoic and wants to kill people, but will resist. And Althea on the other hand is bubbly, light-hearted, she apologizes when she kicks Matthew! She’s like “Sorry! I have to do this!” And kicks him and then she takes the hard drive and she’s like “Sorry again!” They couldn’t be more opposite. So when they team up it shows that Zhilan does have a heart and I think audiences love to see that, when that tough cookie is actually soft on the inside and Althea brings that out in her. And I think it’s a really fun time to see it.
It really surprised me to see that final shot of last week’s episode, to see that Matthew was still around and that he was getting taken over by Xiao. It absolutely shocked me to see that the Delta plot was going to tie into the Xiao plot and I was curious how you guys reacted when you found out that these two things have actually been working towards the same point the whole time, and what that what that might look like for Matthew. I don’t know if Althea will see him again, but I was just so surprised to see him!
Yes. I think it was really cool to read that in the script when we first got it because the writers don’t tell us too many detail on the general plot of things because they need room to adjust. They mainly tell you about your story arc and what you can do to plan ahead. So when we found out I remember being like “What?” I was a little confused to be honest, you know what I mean? I’m like “Wait…” Putting the pieces together, I was like “Okay, that makes sense, that makes… ooh that’s cool!” So I think fans were probably really excited to put those puzzles together. Because it’s fun to find the puzzle pieces and now it makes sense. And we all find out right before the finale so what is that going to look like? And it’s going to be really exciting because who knows what happens to Xiao and Delta. Like there’s two of our big conflicts and bad evil forces and now they’re actually one.
I still have no idea what her aim is. Still to this point I’m like “I don’t know where this is going.” So we’ll see. I assume it’s too much to predict that the takeover of Harmony Dumplings is not also part of Xiao’s big plan, but now that this plan has been made for Mei-Li to move on from the restaurant, can we assume the finale has a big final family meal at Harmony? I kind of feel like that’s something that we need!
I think Harmony Dumplings will always be at the heart of Kung Fu. You think that is home, it’s a place where we come together and I can’t spoil too much but whether Harmony Dumplings is still around or not, I think the Shen family is always going to have those meals. And I think that some people’s favorite scenes, no matter where they are, is when they’re all around the dinner table and passing food along and you’re seeing the culture, and you’re seeing the happiness and the relationships and the crossover talks and it’s chaotic. Everyone loves that, so I would say stay tuned for more because you gotta have those moments.
In our recaps, we’re always like “When will Zhilan accept a seat at the table?” but in the last episode she did get to eat a bowl of grapes, so… That’s fine. Probably the most or one of the most important relationships with Althea is Nicky, having her close sisterly relationship with Althea. And we’ve got Zhilan and Pei-Ling having their slightly more difficult sisterly relationship. What is it like to have a sister in Olivia, and what lessons do you think Zhilan and Pei-Ling could take from Nicky and Althea’s more lovely sister relationship?
I love this. I love that I get to be sisters with Olivia and she’s such a generous partner. I don’t have a real life sister, and I always wanted one, but I am a big sister so when I knew there was going to be a sibling trio I was like “Oh. Love this I could be Big Sister all day, a little bossy, mix it with some sass, got that.” And so my favorite scenes, some of them are with Liv and I think the chemistry is natural, and the relationship, like, I was just texting her now, you know what I mean? We are, on and off the screen, close and I think when we get to have those scenes and show what sisterly love looks like it’s so cool and even recently, in 3.10, I had that full circle moment of “Wow, this show is really about sisterhood.”
Because here, Althea is fighting when Nicky can’t help her, and Nicky feels helpless so she sends Zhilan to go help Althea, who really “doesn’t care” about Nicky or her family, but wants to help her sister Pei-Ling, who is not there and Nicky loves Pei-Ling. So it’s this trade-off: “Okay, you’re helping my sister, I’m gonna help your sister” and we all just love each other in this sister land and I was like “Wow, that’s really sweet,” you know what I mean? And so I think it was a cool opportunity to show those colors too between Nicky and Zhilan and how they have that understanding because they both love their sisters.
In terms of teasing the finale, I’ll leave it in your hands, but what is something broad that you can tease about what’s coming up in the finale, and then what is something maybe specific you can tease, like a contextless quote or a contextless detail or a hint, that we won’t understand until we see it?
So I would say for the finale, obviously we’re gonna have action, it’s gonna be cool. And I think it’s gonna center around a lot of what the heart of our story is which is the family and the relationships and you got a little tease of it from episode 12, where it was kind of like a full circle moment of that flashback of all the Shens and their journeys right now. And I think the writers do a great job with balancing the closure of the season and the stories and the ties of loose ends, but also planting seeds for what’s to come or opportunities if we get another season. Because you can make a completely different show with how it ends. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a cliffhanger where you’re like “Oh my gosh, how could they leave us like that!” It was a nice balance of like, “Oh my gosh, that was so nice,” and now there’s a new energy and new storyline for the possibilities. There’s so many places where things can go from here.
Like a new era?
Yes, honestly, it is a new era and I think that’s what the writers always had intended for. Season 1 through 3 is gonna be a specific thing and then if we get a season 4, it would look completely different and you see that in the finale.
Cool. And do you have something little and specific you can tease us with?
Was that not specific enough?! No, let me see. Okay. Althea definitely loses something. But she gains another thing, and she didn’t need the thing she lost. And she has another superpower.