Yvonne Chapman, who stars as Zhilan in the CW’s Kung Fu, opens up to Subjectify about where it all changed for Zhilan, her drive to save her sister, her difficulty accepting love, the joy of creating new dynamics with new characters, and what she hopes people take away from Zhilan’s arc over the past three seasons.
In Kung Fu season 1, Zhilan’s ruthless villainy left little room for compassion. We were introduced to her as the murderer of Nicky’s shifu (and her own sister) Pei-Ling, and by the end of season 1 she has betrayed and (mostly) murdered her boyfriend, Kerwin. In between, we learned enough of her backstory to start to root for redemption, but Zhilan stubbornly refused to get on that train, choosing violence until the bitter end.
Zhilan started season 2 in prison, vacillating between anger and guilt, but by the end of the season, she was finally ready to admit, at least to herself, that there were more important issues than her own personal vengeance, but it came too late. Zhilan chose to sacrifice herself to save Nicky, Nicky’s cousin Mia, and the whole world from Russell Tan’s machinations, and this sacrifice left her trapped in another universe without the means to escape.
This redemptive moment gave Zhilan the opening, once she was rescued by Nicky from the alternate universe part way through season 3, to begin to atone for her wrongs and navigate how to make better choices. Accepting being part of community continues to be a challenging new experience for Zhilan, but one we’ve loved to watch her struggle with!
We spoke with Yvonne Chapman last year about Zhilan’s season 2 journey and a little about her new role as Avatar Kyoshi in the live action Avatar: The Last Airbender series, and now she’s back for a season 3 interview to discuss the latest updates in the life of her snarky and fashionable villain turned anti hero turned Shooby-ally. In our chat with Chapman we discuss when and how everything changed for Zhilan in terms of accepting her place in a community, her singular focus on saving Pei-Ling, the difficulty she had accepting love in all forms, and the joy of creating new dynamics with characters like Henry and Althea. Read on for our interview with Yvonne Chapman and check out the rest of our Kung Fu season 3 coverage!
This season has been pretty amazing for Zhilan and over all three seasons she’s had such a fascinating arc. Did you always know that Zhilan might be headed for redemption? Or if that wasn’t always in the cards, was a point at which you thought “Oh, she could get redeemed.”
The short answer, I didn’t know past season 1 what would be the plan for her. So I was really thrilled that they brought her back, for starters. In playing Zhilan, I could never have played her if I didn’t empathize and sympathize with her. And so knowing her backstory and being able to justify all her actions, as horrible as they were, for me it was always a possibility that she could be redeemed because of that understanding of why she was doing what she was doing and having an empathy and understanding of that.
So for me, the redemption was always possible for her, but whether or not that would actually happen in the show past season 1, I had no idea. Season 2 was where that plot really started to play out, that she was on a path to redemption, but she never lost her bite. And even this season, she never lost her bite as well. So it’s fun seeing somebody really go through the motions, and playing somebody that really goes through the motions of reckoning with what they’ve done in the past and trying to be that better person in the situations that they’re put in. And I’m really happy that she got to go through that arc because it has been a lot of fun to play.
You said she hasn’t really lost her bite, and that is one of the things that’s still very fun about her — watching her toe that line between still being herself, but making better choices. Even this season, up until episodes 10 and 11, Zhilan’s willingness to team up with Nicky and the gang hasn’t always been a given. She still has her own priorities that don’t always fully align with Nicky’s agenda. But I’m wondering: is something else holding her back from committing? I think in 10 and 11 we see things shift a little bit there, but what is Zhilan’s mindset about working on her own versus working with the team?
She is a person, I think, that has a lot of trust issues, and rightly so. She’s been betrayed many times, and we looked at the past in season 1 and season 2 — the girl has been through a lot. So it’s always worked out for her, in her mind anyway, up until certain points, that doing this on her own, and venturing out on her own, in her own way, has worked out for her up until she met with Nicky. And then we saw in season 1 that didn’t work for her. Season 2 she kind of toed the line between being — she’s kind of the trickster, right? — between being an ally and an enemy. And we could see that every time that they worked together, things worked out a lot better for her. And yet she was still stubborn. And in fact she’s like, “No, you know what? I’m still on my own agenda.”
And then she met Mia, which was a huge changing point for her, and seeing this girl that was so much like her, that reminded her so much of [herself], she’s like, “Well, maybe this is finally a kindred spirit that I could share this journey with, of taking down this man who destroyed my family.” And what really changed things for her is seeing that dynamic of having a community around her. So even in season 3, you’re right, it hasn’t always been a given. She’s still battling with the idea of not doing this on her own and it’s still a struggle for her to let people in. She’s very guarded still. She’s not somebody who’s cuddles and hugs, as we all know and love about her.
So for her, coming in with that snarkiness, I think it’s really fun because it is part of her personality. It’s who she is. And she’s reluctantly working with these guys and knows in her heart of hearts, she’s like, “This is working out. And it’s weird that it’s working out, and it’s weird that I’m here. It’s weird that I’m with these people, considering where we started.” And she’s just trying to reconcile all of that in her head. So I think that’s what we’re seeing — the stickiness that’ll play out of her willingness to be with them.
This season the idea that Zhilan does have a yearning to be a part of the group is so strong, even though she’s holding herself back, and we did discuss that it probably started with Mia. Getting a little taste of having that small community, does that make the idea of actually being a part of Nicky’s extended family more appealing, even though she’s having a hard time accepting that?
I think it definitely does, and I think there were moments in season 2 and this season of having that dynamic with Nicky. I think Zhilan has really enjoyed it, even though she’s not someone to outwardly say that in a very plain way. I think there’s moments that we can definitely see that she’s enjoying not being alone anymore. And I think Mia really was the catalyst that started that and really crystallized for her that she didn’t have to do it by herself and that there’s a different way of doing things, with what Nicky showed her through the vessel of Mia.
So they have that thing in common, or had her in common in season 2, and through those interactions and those circumstances, you’re absolutely right, I think it really just showed her that community is really something that she could have, should she want it. But it’s not something that she’s still fully, fully embraced, because, again, old habits die really hard. And that’s just Zhilan, and she’s just trying to figure out, like, “OK, who am I now? Where is my place in all of this?” And I think for her, the answer is Pei-Ling. That is the connecting thread between these two groups, of her and the Shens, and that’s what she’s really focused on right now.
That leads really well into my next question, which is, Zhilan is very focused on finding Pei-Ling to the point where she has more or less said, at various points when it looked like they couldn’t get her back, “Well, then just screw everything.” She’s willing to give everything up if she can’t get Pei-Ling. So theoretically, if Pei-Ling can’t be saved, what will that do to Zhilan? Could she find meaning without being able to save Pei-Ling? I guess I’m just wondering if you can give us any clues about where Zhilan might end up at the end of this season.
For Zhilan, that’s the question that, even playing her, I’m still questioning too, because I don’t think she’s been able to answer that yet. If she couldn’t save Pei-Ling what would that look like for her? And I think for her, she’s like, “I don’t have the space right now to even think about that. There’s so much going on. I don’t know where my sister is. I don’t know what Xiao’s up to. We have to figure out this. What’s in front of us right now?” I think she’s just put blinders on for anything beyond that, and especially for herself.
In a way, we’ve seen a very selfish Zhilan in the first two seasons, who has always justified everything being like, “This is vengeance for my family.” And all those things were very true, that in her own way she wanted to save the world from Russell Tan and what he was capable of as well. But she was doing it as this way of healing herself too, because of everything that she’s had to go through in her life. She blamed it on this man. And right now, for her, she’s like, “I’m not even going to think about myself. I can’t think about myself. I just need to save Pei-Ling and this is so urgent right now. We don’t know where she is. We have to find her.”
So I think she hasn’t been able to even entertain the idea of thinking, “What does life look like for me if she couldn’t be saved?” For her, there is no “she can’t be saved” — she’s going to be saved. I think that Zhilan is very lovably stubborn in that way, where the girl wants to get what she wants, and we’ve seen that she will stop at nothing. That is a very common characteristic of her throughout the three seasons that we’re definitely seeing right now as well.
Zhilan’s team up with Althea in episode 10 was probably my favorite of the whole series. I just thought they were so funny together and it was such a good mix of really badass Zhilan bumping up against softer Althea while being on the same side. When you got that script, did you immediately know how funny and really stand-out that would be?
I was so excited. I remember I think I texted Shannon right away. I’m like, “Oh my God! Did you see the script? I’m so excited!” Because I love Shannon and we never really get to work together. So to have so much time for these two characters to really interact! This is the first time that we actually get to see this and in such a fun way. And for both of them to be very different than they usually are, the pretense of different identities and espionage? I’m like, “This is just great, how fun is this?” And then she slaps her…
Oh my God.
Shannon was like, “Yeah, yeah, let’s do it. Go really hard.” I was like, “OK.” Obviously, we’re not making contact, right, but we’re really playing it up and we just had so much fun doing this episode. It was one of my favorites too, I must say.
Another unexpected team up has been Zhilan and Henry, who actually have a lot of chemistry together, which I wouldn’t necessarily have thought beforehand. And it’s a shippable combination, I’ve seen that floating around, but for me, I really like the bickery nature of their friendship, because it feels like a safe space for both of them to be, for lack of a better term, a little bit bitchy. I feel like when Zhilan is cranky at Nicky, there’s always an element of trying to see, “Oh, will Nicky push me away?” or trying to prove something. But I feel like with Henry, they’re both just kind of letting it out. They know it’s going to be fine, but they can just bicker and still have this solid working relationship. Can you tell us anything about where that relationship might be going?
Yeah, totally. I think it’s funny, because who saw that coming? I didn’t see that coming. I don’t think Eddie saw that coming. We’re like, who would have thought that these two would be here working together without Nicky? In moments where it’s just the two of them, I think you see that history of like, “I don’t know how we got here, but here we are and somehow it’s really working.” And we have respect for each other and the ability that we’ve had, to be able to unearth all of this information — there’s that level of respect of the skill there.
But the bickering is a defense mechanism, it’s still a barricade of, “ Yeah, I respect you, but also… ugh!” and I think that’s what the really fun thing about it is. It’s like the buddy cop system where they know that they work well together, but are reluctantly willing to say that out loud and like, “OK, fine, this is working. We’ll make it work, But we’re going to have our fun and this is how we have our fun. I’m going to take the mickey out of you and you can take the mickey out of me.” And it’s all good, because that’s just how we’re laying out our frustrations that this is actually working and it shouldn’t be.
I have to ask about Kerwin. You know, we miss him even though he’s long gone. I feel like there’s an unresolved aspect to that relationship between Zhilan and Kerwin that still weighs on me, because I was so sure that we were going to get to see at least a little hint of them both working together on the same side there at the end of season 2. And of course that got derailed by Russell Tan. So, if by some miracle, we were able to get Kerwin back, do you have thoughts about that relationship? Do you see that as an unresolved issue for Zhilan and that she needs to process?
I think for her — I mean, what a way to say goodbye to your ex, huh? — I think for Zhilan the unresolved issue there, and one of her flaws, is how difficult it is for her to receive and believe in love. And he really, really loved her, for all of her faults, you know? And I think for them, what we saw in season 2, for example, after they had that huge fight and then for them just to sit and kind of talk, I think was the beginning of them to be able to just resolve and be like, “OK, it is what it is we. We knew what we did wrong.” We got out our frustrations and there was a semblance of peace in that.
So I think for Kerwin, if, in another world, he came back… For Zhilan, I think what that would present for her as a character is like, can you actually accept love? What does that look like for you? And I think that’s what we’re seeing unresolved there. Yeah, I think that’s just one one of her fatal flaws and something to be explored. Hopefully, if we get a season 4.
In the unfortunate case that Kung Fu is not renewed for season 4, what would you want to be the take away from Zhilan and her arc over these three seasons?
I think that what I would want people to take away is that people have the capacity to change. Yeah, I think that’s what it is. That no matter someone’s mindset, no matter how horrible certain things are, and this is something that I truly believe too, that people do have the capacity to change, to change their circumstances, to change their mindsets, to change their life. But also, aside from all of that, I also just want them to see her as this kickass woman who goes after what she wants and she can be independent, but also starting this season she really embraced community and has that balance of both.
I just hope that there is something that resonates with people to be like, “OK, she is a strong woman that we’ve seen on TV and hopefully that we can bring into our real life as well.” That would be my hope, is to have those two messages come across. That’s a really good question. I actually haven’t really thought about that until now. So yeah, thank you for that. My goodness. I was like, “If this is the last season? Oh gosh.”
I mean, hopefully it’s not. Hopefully we have more that we can take away.
Yeah, but thanks for that. That’s a really good question. I think I’m going to think about it a little bit more for sure.