Subjectify interviewed Vanessa Yao, who joined the cast of Kung Fu for season 2 as the mysterious Mia. As Nicky’s long-lost cousin, she’s played a central role to the drama of the season as the power in her bloodline presents itself as a previously unknown element – and possibly a threat.
Season 2 of Kung Fu has focused on the wider power of the Warrior and Guardian bloodlines after the eight weapons were destroyed, preventing Biange. When the Shen family learn about the existence of Mia, the hidden daughter of Nicky’s Aunt Mei-Xue, the lost family member is brought into the fold, albeit reluctantly, and Nicky does her best to mentor her young cousin, who is also a skilled and powerful fighter.
Mia’s mother Mei-Xue was the Warrior of her family from the prior generation and Nicky is the heir to that role, but as the season has unfolded we’ve learned that Mia herself is in fact a hybrid – the child of someone from both the Warrior and Guardian bloodlines – and wields a special legacy of her own, which makes her extremely valuable to Kung Fu’s current big bad, Russell Tan. In this exclusive interview, Vanessa Yao, who plays Mia, tells us about her journey on the show so far and where to expect Mia’s mind to be at for the final few episodes of the season.
Vanessa Yao was born and raised in Montreal, but moved to China at 17 in order to pursue acting. She began her career in the Chinese entertainment industry, and it was only during the pandemic when she started considering roles based in North America. When she began auditioning, the role of Mia on Kung Fu stuck out to her as interesting and relatable — “I felt like that was very organic to who I was as a person,” she told me early on in our chat. Yao says that like Mia, she herself has quite a hard shell protecting a very vulnerable interior.
Vanessa Yao of Kung Fu discusses her career shift from China to America and how quarantine helped her channel Mia’s isolation
Despite English being her mother tongue, Vanessa Yao, who is trilingual (English, French and Chinese) had never done a professional role using English — prior to Kung Fu, all her parts had been in Chinese-language films and TV. She admits that it took her a while to tune into that element of performing, but the displacement and adjustment that she felt when coming back to Canada for Kung Fu season 2 helped in some ways.
Mia is someone who has been raised in almost total isolation, and she doesn’t really know how to respond when she finds herself thrust into the lives of a close-knit family, so Yao, whose first day of filming began with the scene where Mia is introduced to her long lost Aunt and the whole Shen family for a meal at Harmony Dumplings, was able to use the nervous energy she built up when isolating upon entering Vancouver in order to channel the frightening feeling of being a newcomer to an established group.
“I was actually in quarantine when they flew me into Vancouver. So you know, I was just in my hotel room, I have too much time on my hands, so what do I do? I think too much, right? So I’m just thinking like, ‘What if people don’t like me? What if this is a bad idea? What if I don’t belong?’ So all these were great, like this is exactly what I needed to kind of not feel like I was part of anything. So I feel that was a good part to add to Mia’s awkwardness and not being able to be inclusive in the group and the family.”
In terms of what we’ve seen from Mia in Kung Fu season 2 so far, Yao spoke about developing the relationship with Mia’s mother Mei-Xue in her mind, the particular parallels she relates to about Mia being a lone wolf in order to protect herself, and the reason Mia decided to accept the offer of a home with the Shen family and come back after running away (the first time, at least.)
Vanessa Yao of Kung Fu on how she created Mia’s guilt and grief when witnessing her mother’s death
In the above clip, Yao also took us through the process she had in digging deep into the grief about witnessing her mother’s death in “The Alchemist” and delivering a very raw performance.
“To get into that headspace, it’s quite interesting. So Kee Chan, the actor who plays Russell, it was actually my first time meeting him, and I remember — the day before we shot that scene in the cabin, which was all shot in one day — I remember thinking to myself ‘I know we’re actors, but like, I can’t talk to him tomorrow. He killed my mom, I can’t sit in the green room with him.’ I was in it so deep, and that’s the only way for me to not lie to anyone. I never want to lie to the audience or whoever is watching about what I’m feeling. So unless I’m feeling it, I don’t show it.”
Related: ‘Kung Fu’ season 2, episode 7 in conversation: Why is my beloved acting so unbeloved?
“So that whole day, I remember we got picked up at 4:00 AM, thank God we were in different cars, and I saw him for the first time and I was like ‘I’m Mia, I’m sorry, but I’m not gonna talk to you today, OK? Just leave me in a corner.’ And I don’t know, I was just so in it. As soon as he pointed the gun, I was just imagining ‘That’s my mom, you’re about to kill her like I can’t do anything about it, it was just so upsetting. Just all very real and raw. And that’s the only way I can get there, it’s where I actually believe that you’re about to kill my mom. I have to just get completely there.”
Vanessa Yao has enjoyed filming many small subplots with nearly every character on Kung Fu — Evan, Henry, Althea, Ryan — but aside from her relationship with Nicky, the one that she is most interested in, and the one that she thinks fans will be most interested in, is the dynamic between Mia and Zhilan. In the video below, she explains how Mia was created and cast as a mix of Nicky and Zhilan, representing shades of gray between their black and white thinking, and how, as a part of that, Mia tends to change a lot depending on who she is with. After the dramatic events of Kung Fu season 2 episode 9 “The Enclave,” we see that Mia has chosen to run towards Zhilan for now, and follow her lead on making Russell Tan pay.
Vanessa Yao of Kung Fu on being cast as the ‘grey area’ between Nicky and Zhilan
So far, we’ve seen Nicky, Zhilan and Mia all fighting together only once – in Kung Fu season 2 episode 5, when Zhilan and Nicky team up to get Mia back after Mia’s father sells her out – but Yao promises that we’ll see more of the trio coming up in the final few episodes of the season. We asked what the dynamic is like when it’s all three of them together, and while Yao can’t give away any spoilers for the end of the season, she did give us something physical to look out for the next time Mia, Zhilan and Nicky are all together.
Related: ‘Kung Fu’ season 2, episode 5 in conversation: No waffles for Zhilan
“What I can say is — I don’t know if you guys will notice, but our fighting styles are different! So it’s quite interesting, a fun fact, but all three of us like when we are in the stunt warehouse practicing, we each have our own style and it has to do with our own personalities, the characters’ personalities, so in the future when more things happen, that could be something that people can note, and maybe they’ll notice. [With Mia] there’s no structure to her way of fighting. She’s very rough and she fights with a lot of her fists, so she just wants to get at it and just take you down. And for example, Zhilan, she uses a lot of claws, you know, to create damage and then for Nicky, it’s more… It’s monastery, right? Open hand. I just love how they put so much thought behind that as well.”
In the above clip, Vanessa also expands upon the first scene she shot at Harmony Dumplings (and shares what happens to all the real food that is used for Kung Fu’s many meal or kitchen-related scenes!) and tells us more about shooting “The Alchemist” with director Richard Speight, Jr, who, Yao tells us, will be back behind the camera for episode 12. (“the best thing he does is that he makes me feel safe.”)
Mia’s whole arc in Kung Fu season 2 has continued to surprise viewers as it escalates, and Yao herself is in the same boat. In the final clip below, Yao explains how, when filming the episode where Mia is betrayed by her father, she received a tip telling her to pull back her performance a little and save the true height of her sadness for further down the line. She’d expected the incident with her dad to be the worst thing that could happen to Mia; she hadn’t been prepared for what was coming in episode 7 and beyond.
Vanessa Yao of Kung Fu on Nicky’s lies of omission and what to expect for Mia for the rest of season 2
Episode 8 “Disclosure” and episode 9 “The Enclave” deal heavily with the big secret about Mia that Nicky discovers in episode 7 — her apparent destiny, as a hybrid Warrior/Guardian, to go off the rails and create great devastation to the world. Over the course of these two episodes, Mia is aware of this news via Zhilan, but she also knows that Nicky is keeping it from her. I asked Yao if she could explain a bit about how she interprets Mia’s headspace when she feels that Nicky is lying to her by omission, before the truth is finally revealed.
“I feel like even in real life, I’m an honest person and I love when others are honest with me and when people choose to either lie or just not tell me things that should be told, I will react to it, I will question them, I will question what are their intentions? Are they actually my friend? Do they actually care about me? So those were the thoughts that were going through my head when she did turn away and left me behind. It just made me think, well, you know why is she being nice to me then? What does she want from me? Is this genuine? Just question everything and then for me to rethink well, you know, Zhilan doesn’t even know who I am, but she’s actually watching out for me so what AM I doing here? Maybe I’m not in the right place, I shouldn’t be here.”
Many thanks to Vanessa Yao and say tuned to see what Mia and Zhilan get up to this week in Kung Fu season 2 episode 10 “Destruction.”