A year ago, Edmonton-born actress Olivia Cheng says she was familiar with Marco Polo as an Italian traveller “and I obviously knew about the swimming pool game, but that is about it.”
Now, as the star of the new Netflix adventure series about Polo’s early years, she’s captivated by the story.
“When I saw the first script I said, ‘Where’s the second script? Then the third, fourth, fifth…’”
The handsome 10-episode season follows Polo’s travels on the Silk Road to the court of Mongolian emperor Kublai Kahn.
It’s a study of political skulduggery, greed and sexual politics, 13th-century style.
Imagine Game of Thrones with martial arts and an international cast headed by Rick The Fast and the Furious Yune and Joan Chen and you get the idea.
“All of my stuff was shot in studio in Malaysia,” says Cheng, who spent five months on location.
“I’ve never had an opportunity to immerse myself so fully in a role and be able to focus like that. You’re almost in a cocoon or a bubble, where you are constantly thinking about the story, constantly thinking about the nuances. I would often walk from set to set watching different scenes. I just got to immerse myself in the world of Marco Polo and experience a cultural adventure that I’m really grateful for.”
The actress, who also plays Linda Park on Arrow and The Flash, says the show’s elaborately tailored wardrobe helped her find the character of Mei Lin, a royal concubine and martial arts expert.
“When you have the beautiful costumes, you are able to step into a world and suddenly it informs you,” she says.
“That is a huge gift as an actor because a costume can make you move a certain way; you are in your body in a certain way because of the weight of the material. For me, I felt like it made me so much more graceful. You have to be, in order not to trip in those costumes.”
But just as interesting as watching the world of Marco Polo being built was a scene where she tries to pull it all apart.
“I can’t tell you how amazing it was to get to film White Moon — this epic fight scene with 200 extras all dressed in white,” she says.
“I felt so grateful because I saw all the effort it took to create this world for me to run in and try and destroy it.”