‘Kung Fu’ star Vanessa Kai reflects on her surprising pivot from mentor Pei-Ling to the show’s new antagonistic alchemist

Subjectify interviewed Kung Fu star Vanessa Kai to talk about her villainous new role as the alchemist Xiao, as well as the metaphysical nature of Pei-Ling’s post-death manifestations.

This week’s Kung Fu episode, “The Alchemist,” sees Vanessa Kai, who has appeared as Nicky’s shifu Pei-Ling since the pilot, take on an unexpected new role as Xiao, the titular alchemist – the somewhat sinister creator of the ancestral Warrior and Guardian bloodlines. Based on the end of the episode, Xiao appears to be sticking around, and I was able to chat with Vanessa earlier this week about this shocking twist and what it might mean for my precious Pei-Ling.

When I watched the pilot episode of Kung Fu, I was instantly smitten with Pei-Ling. Having your favorite character brutally murdered immediately after you fall in love with them is always a terrible feeling, so I was delighted that Pei-Ling continued to play such an important role. Throughout season 1 we see Pei-Ling via flashbacks and also appearing to Nicky as a ‘spiritual guide’ in times of uncertainty.

In the season 1 finale, we even very briefly see a biange-powered Pei-Ling, appearing to help Nicky make sense of the biange energy. Then, before Nicky and Henry head back home at the end of the finale, Nicky gets some closure for that relationship when they burn incense for Pei-Ling at the monastery. In some ways, it could have been a natural conclusion to Pei-Ling’s arc. While I could see the logic of ending Pei-Ling’s arc there, it certainly wasn’t what I wanted, and, luckily for us, the writers agreed with me.

In season 2, Nicky is more settled and sure of herself and sees Pei-Ling sparingly, but early in the season we see Pei-Ling appearing instead to Zhilan, who is at her lowest point. It remains my deeply personal obsession, to discover the true nature of Pei-Ling’s post-death existence, as evidenced by our Kung Fu season 2 conversation reviews. I was ready to grill Vanessa until she gave up the goods. Instead, without giving too much away Vanessa was able to weigh in with her thought process on how she gives each of Pei-Ling’s scenes depth and meaning.

As for Xiao, our new addition to Kung Fu’s villain roster, Vanessa gave us some insight on how to build a complex character on the fly. Questions, external and internal, and collaboration are hallmarks of Vanessa Kai’s process and she has definitely given us a new character we can’t wait to find out more about.

So I want to get right into episode 7, “The Alchemist,” because it was quite a departure for you. I was wondering when you found out this was coming and what did you think, both of the twist and the character herself when you first read the script.

Well first, I actually didn’t see her coming at all. It was a huge surprise for me and in fact, at the start of the season we all had a one-on-one with the showrunners, with Christina Kim and Bob Berens, and they alluded that they weren’t ready to share with me what was going to happen, that there were still a lot of things that needed to be worked out. So actually I didn’t even learn about Xiao until while we were shooting maybe episode 4 or 3.


Right? So it’s not like I had months to think about her. It just really kind of happened. So by the time that I learned about her, first I was like, “Oh my God, what is this?” And then of course, feeling incredibly privileged and honored to be entrusted with such a role and such a character, so impactful and so dynamic. And then I just dived right into doing the homework, right? Just try to figure out how to ground her, and how she fits in this world that we’re building.

So I spent a lot of time asking a lot of questions about her backstory to the showrunners and I also did a lot of my own – what was helpful for me, whatever information that that I didn’t have – I just sort of filled in the gaps of what I felt was helpful for me and a lot of that I relied on the language. So the language of that was, specifically, I think, to anchor her, there’s this one particular sentence that she says, as Pei-Ling, she says, “Xiao’s design was for a better world.”

And so then that launched into this deep dive of, well, what was her world like that she felt she needed to change or to create to make it better? In what ways her environment, her experience, her trauma, whatever that may be, motivated her, compelled her to want to create the Warrior and Guardian line. So I just dived right in and just had an absolute blast.

Well, it certainly looks like you’re having a good time in this episode. It was really amazing, but that sort of leads into a question that I had farther down the line, but it’s a good segue into it. A lot of the villains in Kung Fu have these pretty complicated and humanizing backstories. I mean with Zhilan and Kerwin and even Juliette this season, so far, it’s hard to pin down exactly what’s going on with her. But this seemed pretty black and white. It was like, “oh wow, she’s just doing some bad stuff,” but then with you saying that I guess I wonder: are we going to learn more about her backstory? Or can we sort of love to hate her for at least a little while?

Oh. Oh my God. Well, I hope so. I hope so. I think that without giving too much away, I think what we will learn in the coming episodes, and just very similar to all the beautifully written characters in this show, is nothing is at face value right? There’s always something that’s multilayered, there’s more nuance and I think that there’s always more room to dive deep. Are we going to learn more about her backstory? I hope so. I think that it’s delicious and it’s juicy, but I’ll leave that up to the big bosses.

Pei-Ling is so reserved and grounded as a character. How much fun was it to get to explore such a dramatic, volatile character?

It was so much fun and incredibly exciting. Again, I am so honored that they would entrust me with this kind of responsibility to allow me to stretch myself, my wings, my creative outputs, and just allow the space to play. So, it’s just a lot of fun and I really hope everyone enjoys it–enjoys her.

I think people will. So in this episode we got to see you fight with Nicky for the first time as an enemy versus just sparring, and we haven’t gotten to see you in a fight scene for a while, so were you excited to get back into it? And what can you tell us about filming that scene, particularly with this whole new look you had, much more glamorous–fancy hair, fancy makeup, you’re wearing that gorgeous hanfu. What was it like to fight in that get up?

First, it was incredible to get back to the fight choreography. I absolutely love it and I love to play and I’m also a very physical person, so that felt like just really coming back to home. Fighting in that costume and learning the choreography in that costume was definitely a collaborative venture. It involved both the stunt coordinator and the costume designer because while I was rehearsing, I was rehearsing in this sort of very lightweight I wouldn’t say muslin, but it was only the top half. And that was just so that I could understand these sleeves and movement and what does that look like. On the day, what you see there, that’s actually an additional six more pounds.

It looked heavy.

It was and I also really want to give so much credit to my stunt double, Jen Lee, because she does all the hard work, really, flying around in these six pounds of costumes. But it was truly exciting. And what a huge learning experience, and especially with all the leaves and the costume and the makeup. It was truly an adventure for me, it really was. And then to fight with Nicky also? I have to say, you know, because I love Nicky. Pei-Ling loves Nicky. Vanessa loves Olivia. And so suddenly to be in opposition of her, I must confess it was a little bit jarring for me. I was like, “Oh, I don’t know emotionally if I’m ready for this.” But I was like, “OK, you know, we’re gonna make this happen.” But it was definitely a new territory that I was very excited to explore. Absolutely.

I feel like you might not be able to answer this, but I’m going to ask it anyway. The alchemist tells Nicky that she’s been connected to all warriors and all guardians–while they live, she lives. The episode also implies that it was the connection to the gem that allowed her to infiltrate their consciousness. But is it possible if she’s been watching all along, that there has been influence before this?

[Laughs] I don’t think that I can answer that.

Okay. Fair.

I don’t think that I can answer that, but, however, that is not to say that it wouldn’t be fun to entertain these questions and I think that just leaves a lot of room for curiosity about–then is everyone else’s motivations or their behavior influenced, right? Yeah, so I can’t really answer that, but it’s a really fun question.

So a little bit back to Pei-Ling–I mean, if you’ve read our recaps, you know we are constantly questioning what is the nature of Pei-Ling. Is she a manifestation of the person who is seeing her or is she autonomous? Because in season 1 it made more sense that she was a projection of Nicky’s psyche. That Nicky was seeing her because she needed that emotional support and she needed her mentor with her.

Then in the finale, the biange energy seemed to power Pei-Ling up, at least temporarily — that she was real, in that part. And in season 2, Nicky’s not in that same emotional place, so it seems possible that there could be more of an independent consciousness of Pei-Ling coming to her — and Zhilan. It feels like it could go either way. When you look at her scenes with Nicky and also with Zhilan, is there anything you can confirm or deny about that? Or if not that, how you saw Pei-Ling in season 1 versus season 2?

Oh, what an amazing question. Well, first, can I just say how much I love your recaps.

Thank you.

Love your recaps. They are fantastic and hysterical and I love them every week. I think, oh my goodness, wow, what a deep question. I want to say it has been very fun and a very interesting experience to navigate like how does she exist when she appears and how does she interact either with Zhilan or with Nicky and I feel like for me, and of course I check in with the showrunners and with the writers, that to my mind, I feel like in each instance, I think it’s whatever the takeaway is for the person who’s watching it and the person who’s experiencing it, right?

And I think that for me is the most important, because when I think about the people who are impacting my life or who have impacted my life, who I lean on for guidance, they may not necessarily be here, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t speak to them or address them or think about them as if they weren’t really there, right? And there’s like, sometimes you’re just really having these conversations. Now, by no means am I saying that this is exactly what’s happening, but it has sort of guided me in the way of like I feel like I use these moments with my scene partner to sort of ask what is the given moment and how is it most of service? Does that make sense?

That does, yeah.

But in terms of from season 1 to season 2, I think I don’t have all the answers for that, but I would say that given the world that we are building, there’s so much left, there’s so much room to play with. And I think that again, I’m just going to leave that up to the big bosses to decide.

Right, they get to work that out.

I’ll let them work that out. Also, as long as you’re enjoying it. I hope that you’re enjoying it..

Yeah definitely so. Related to that is–Pei-Ling appears to Zhilan this season in prison and we haven’t seen that again since she’s broken out. Which was also, in the mix of, well, is this Zhilan’s, you know, is she fighting with herself essentially? Using the image of Pei-Ling to sort of punish herself or to make decisions? And so I think it’s still not clear, but that relationship doesn’t feel over. They certainly haven’t had any closure. Is there anything you can say about that relationship or about where that might be going?

Related: ‘Kung Fu’ star Yvonne Chapman says Zhilan won’t lose all her bite even as she and Nicky find common ground in season 2

This question also reminds me, in tandem with your previous question, I think that, without giving too much away, I think I can say that there’s just so many building blocks and that we’re going to discover so much more as the season continues. Yes, I think that the way that Zhilan is manifesting–I think that the ties–I think that that a lot of these questions will be answered in the episodes to come

Great, we’ll look forward to that.

I don’t want to get in trouble.

I mean, you know this whole thing could probably just be “Wait and see. Wait and see.” And this is also probably a wait and see–It certainly seems like we’ve got more to come with the alchemist and personally, for myself, I don’t want our journey with Pei-Ling to be over, because, as you know, she’s one of my favorites, so just curious are both characters coming back? Or can we expect now that you’re playing two different characters, theoretically, can we expect to see more of you this season?

I think that the journey of Pei-Ling and Xiao are certainly not over. And I think that I can say that in the episodes to come, in the rest of this season, that you’ll definitely be seeing more of Pei-Ling and Xiao for sure. All I can really say is stay tuned because there’s so much more to come with these characters, with all the characters and the storyline hasn’t ended. I feel like it’s just beginning and it’s really going to be quite a ride.

The cast is so good with social media. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a young cast–So funny, so engaged and so thoughtful and encouraging to fans. I’m curious–Is that something that you think about or talk about as a group? Or has it just sort of sprung up organically as the fan base as grown.

I think it’s something that we initially talked about and it’s something I think that in season 1 we all made a concerted effort to do what we could to make this show, to promote the show, and to make it a success. So what started out as something like a “Oh let’s all tweet together, let’s live tweet,” then just sort of eventually evolved into what it is now.

But I think that we don’t really have that discussion anymore. I think that it’s now just a very organic way of expressing ourselves and sharing the show with our fans. And just a really organic way to connect and engage with our viewers. Especially because now we have so many viewers around the world, right? Now it’s on HBO Max and so social media is really allowing us to to really connect with them, whether they’re in Sweden, whether they’re in Latin America, whether they’re in the United States or Northern America, and elsewhere or even in Mexico.


Asia, my gosh. It’s really an opportunity that we don’t take for granted and that we really do want to do our best to to engage as much as we can and invite as much as we can.

‘Kung Fu’ airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on The CW. Episodes stream free the next day on The CW site.