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

Subjectify interviewed Kung Fu star Yvonne Chapman about Zhilan’s transformation from the show’s primary antagonist in season 1 to someone we find ourselves rooting hard for in season 2.

But to tell the truth, we’ve always kind of been rooting for her anyway. Yvonne Chapman’s Zhilan Zhang may have been the main villain of Kung Fu season 1 — the baddie who killed the heroine’s mentor, who also happens to be her own sister! The woman Nicky Shen is racing across the world to beat in her search for the eight weapons to bring on or prevent Biange! — but her cool elegance, complicated past, amazing action scenes and incredible jumpsuits made her into a highlight of the show. Or, to quote someone in our Kung Fu group chat: “I think I might be developing an unfortunate crush on Zhilan, psycho murderer.”

Whether it’s the clothes, the moves, the reveal of her family trauma, the conviction of her righteousness, or the doomed love story with the son of the man who wronged her, Zhilan quickly became someone we looked forward to seeing and learning more about, and even though she could have relatively easily been relegated to a case-closed villain when she was convicted of her crimes at the end of season 1, Kung Fu has built her into a much more nuanced character with plenty more stories to tell. For season 2, Yvonne Chapman was upped to series regular, and Zhilan’s presence has made for some of the season’s most impactful moments, including her struggles in prison, her breakout, and her heated reunion with Kerwin, the son of her enemy Russell Tan.

In our Kung Fu season 2 conversation reviews, we’ve dedicated plenty of time to discussing what we want for Zhilan, like whether she’s redeemable — she has killed, like, a lot of people, including Pei-Ling — and wondering how characters like Nicky and Kerwin will react when they learn that Zhilan is, in fact, alive and back in the United States. In this week’s episode, “Reunion,” Nicky and Zhilan will be face to face for the first time this season, and Subjectify got the chance to speak with Yvonne Chapman herself to preview Zhilan’s next moves as she finds herself sharing aims with her sworn enemy throughout Kung Fu season 2 when it comes to a bigger foe.

Yvonne Chapman will also, thrillingly, soon feature as Avatar Kyoshi in the Netflix adaptation of the hit Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and as both we and various members of the Kung Fu cast are big ATLA fans, we had to ask a little about the response from the Kung Fu family to Yvonne’s big Avatar news!

Nicky and Zhilan are very different, but they share Pei-Ling as a formative influence and for better or worse, they have this common goal now of bringing down Russell Tan. What kind of potential for growth does the relationship have over the season?

I thought about this when I first was reading this script and personally, I have two older sisters, right? And with me and my sisters, we can be a lot alike sometimes and we can be really, really different. But we still grew up in the same household with the same influences. And it’s interesting looking at that dynamic and seeing that kind of play out. Now, I know that’s a bit of a stretch for Zhilan and Nicky, however, there is an undertone of that familiarity, having, as you said, Pei-Ling being that common denominator between the both of them.

And now this season, you really see that come to heads because we’re even more aligned in what we want to do. We both want to take Russell Tan down, though we have very, very different methods of doing so. It’s almost inevitable that the two of us would have to come together at some point to realize that we need each other’s help in order to reach this common goal. We just need to find common ground on how that’s going to be done because we have different methodologies.

So I think that’s really where the fun comes in, because you see these two women who are both kickass, who have the skills and the technology to do what it is that they need to do, but have very different approaches. And to me, that’s the exciting part because you get to see how they navigate through those differences together.

We’ve seen Zhilan be a lot more open about some vulnerabilities and emotions this season, while still being quite adamant that she had to make the choices that she made. The reunion with Kerwin for example — I was expecting emotion from him, but I wasn’t expecting quite as much emotion from her as we got. So do you think Zhilan, at this point really believes that line that she keeps saying, that she will do what she has to do for the greater good that she has in her head? Or is she kind of fooling herself, to avoid the guilt of facing up to her methods?

I think it’s a bit of both actually. The way that I felt was that in season 1, she put up all these walls because she didn’t have, and still, to an extent, doesn’t have a lot of trust in people — very much still doesn’t. But having had all of what she’s worked really hard for stripped away from her and that time in jail, it’s given her time to really be vulnerable and sit in that vulnerability and measure, again, what it is that she was doing previously. So it was an amount of growth for her, to show that more vulnerable side, and not so much as a weakness but as something that she’s trying to come to terms with — as almost like a reckoning for her and especially, you know, killing the person that she loved and still loves and then being able to see them again. I think it was a really emotional beat for her. I don’t think there was any other way that she could have reacted to that situation.

So for her, coming into this, the distinction [between whether she believes her choices were ones that she had to make or something she says to alleviate the guilt within herself] you know, I think habits die hard, right? Like I said, I think it’s still a bit of both, because as we go throughout the season, I think we come and see her toe the line between the middle and understand that maybe there is a different way of doing things and that what she’s been doing isn’t necessarily the only way. However, she comes from a world and a methodology where that has been the way that she’s gotten it, and so she’s trying to find what else is there? And as that happens, she’s not going to lose all her bite, she’s still going to go back to her old ways, right?

So it is more of a process which I really appreciate. It’s not just a quick 360. To me that seems not earned. I think she still kind of finds a way of figuring out well, what is the better way of doing these things and it’s through her interactions with other people. Because she’s very much a lone wolf for the first season and this season, we see her far more integrated into the other lives of the characters, so it’s not until she has those interactions does she actually find her footing in that.

We obviously saw Pei-Ling kind of haunting Zhilan, or within her mind, in prison. Is Pei-Ling’s presence going to continue to be an issue for her as she moves on and makes new choices? Or is there anything else that you can tease about the sisters?

Hmm. Interesting. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that it is going to be a continued presence for her that will cause problems. It is a really interesting dynamic that you will see. It’s not going to be the end of the Pei-ling and Zhilan story. There’s definitely going to be some interactions there that will impede on Zhilan’s psyche and the trajectory of where she’s going in this season.

This season you’ve had — including the episode that’s about to come up — three quite massive fight scenes. Getting out of prison, reuniting with Kerwin, and then fighting with Nicky and alongside Nicky this week. Do you have a particular favorite fight scene of the season, or is it one we haven’t seen so far? Which one were you personally most involved in stunt-wise, or felt the most like character importance?

Oh, so far, definitely the prison break. I was so grateful to the stunt team. We had the time and they allowed me to do most of that fight, actually. The only part I didn’t do is when Aliya Iskakova-Chiang, who is my amazing stunt double and coach and trainer, she lifted up the guy when he was taking all the bullets, but other than that it was it was me in the entire fight and it was so important for me to do and I saw the video the concept of what they had in mind for that prison break and I just remember jumping up and down in excitement because it’s so badass, right? It was amazing.

And then Joe Menendez and his idea with it, pairing it with the classical music [Dies Irae or “Day of Wrath” from Mozart’s Requiem] and I just think it’s amazing. But for me that was the most cathartic fight because in the first couple of episodes, she’s just completely stripped down, reintroduced as a completely different woman from season 1 which I loved about that, a totally different way of playing her and then you get to see her come back but in a different way, almost in a more raw way. It really set the tone for me of where she was going for the season.

It’s cool because she was our villain in season 1 but immediately you’re kind of wanting her to win. You’re setting up, in the start of season 2, that if it’s her versus the circumstance we see her in, we want her to win and get back in the game, so that was a really affecting moment. I feel the same about Ludi Lin’s arc as Kerwin. I love him this season, and I’m keen to see where that’s going to go. We weren’t sure if Zhilan and Kerwin left San Francisco with a plan to reunite — we don’t see the conclusion of the conversation they have after their fight, so we don’t know where they’re headed next. So what can we hope for with their love story?

Well, you’ll definitely see another run in between the two lovebirds. However, I think it’s going to be very surprising to the audience. I think that’s all I can say without giving anything away, but we can expect them to meet again.

Surprising is exciting.

They both have quite a transformation this season. You will see them, it’s just going to be exciting and surprising for the audience. That’s all I can say, but really, they’re not going to be disappointed in where the story goes.

This season, with Kerwin, we’ve been writing that I keep getting these massive Prince Zuko vibes off of him and stuff like that, and I know that a few of the cast are fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender and you are our upcoming Avatar Kyoshi in that series! So obviously, you’re not going to tell me anything from Netflix. I don’t even know if you’ve personally filmed yet or if there was a clash between Avatar and Kung Fu. I know they shot in Vancouver as well. But what was the Kung Fu cast’s reaction to finding out you were going to be Avatar Kyoshi? And how has that been for you in the Kung Fu family, because I can imagine a couple of people might have been quite excited.

Oh, they were incredible and it was killing me because the first little while I couldn’t say anything! I wasn’t allowed to, and so I kind of snuck away and filmed while I was off during the Kung Fu shooting but Kung Fu has been incredibly supportive and amazing. For Avatar: The Last Airbender, Michael Goi directed one of our Kung Fu episodes in season 1 and that’s basically how we connected. He’s like “I have this role, I think you’d be great for it” and Kung Fu — top producers, everybody, were just so incredibly supportive of me doing it. They really made it happen. So I really, really appreciate their love and support and the cast was thrilled for me. They were so amazing about it when I could talk about it. They’re like, “Oh my God!” So it’s such a nice moment for me to be able to share that with them, and they’re just… they’re amazing. They’re amazing coworkers. Like we really support each other in our careers and in the show. I hope that really shows, and it’s very, very true.

It’s a very delightful cast to watch, in terms of actually observing all of the interactions and the press and social media and the family feel of the cast members off screen. But yeah, I know a couple of the cast members have, you know, also been talking about Avatar and Kung Fu in terms of what I mentioned, Kerwin and Juliette’s Zuko and Azula vibe especially so, and it’s a fun connection. Were you a fan of that show before you got the role or did you know anything about it?

Oh yeah, yeah, huge fan. I rewatched the original anime series because I watched it quite some time ago. JP [Jon Prasida] is a huge fan of it, like him and his fiancee Perri know a lot about it. Actually our wardrobe in Kung Fu knows a lot about it so when I told them about it like they were all just really happy and we nerded out and shared our love for the show. I rewatched it. I read the Kyoshi books [by F.C. Yee and Michael Dante DiMartino] which are fantastic. So I’m just thrilled to be a part of it and I’m just so happy that the Kung Fu family from everybody from the cast to the crew, everybody was just so incredibly supportive and happy for me.

That’s really cool. I’m keen to see the difference between the action with bending and your hand-to-hand in this series, but really looking forward to seeing Zhilan for the rest of the season and where we might find her next!

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