Vanessa Yao: Playing Mia in CW TV series 'Kung Fu', Representation in Hollywood, and Dream Roles

Interview by: Orchee Sorker | Photos by: Evaan Kheraj Photography | May 26, 2022

Vanessa Yao talks with HAZZE MEDIA about her role as Mia in the CW network TV series Kung Fu season 2, representation in Hollywood, and dream roles.


To anyone who might not know you. Tell me a little about yourself. What aspects of your life contributed to your love for the arts. Why did you decide to become an actress? Was it something you’ve always wanted to do?


V: My name is Vanessa Yao and I was born in Montreal, Canada. I've always loved performing arts and public speaking. I love making everyone laugh. I love engaging everyone in a story. When I was about to choose where I wanted to go to university, I decided to go back to Beijing where my parents were from. I wanted to find out more what it meant to be Chinese. I ended up going there and got a Bachelor's degree in Film. Here I am today back in Canada. It's been a full circle.


I'm a very efficient person and I wanted to get more opportunities to show the world what I can offer. Speaking of my parents…at first, my mom was not supportive. She was worried and wanted me to do the traditional route and have a normal 9-5 stable life. My dad was like, “go for it.” I never felt like I fit in that traditional box. Now after some accomplishments, they're definitely much more supportive.


Growing up, did you have any Asian characters in fiction or role models in tv/film that you related to the most? Did representation on screen affect how you felt about your Asian identity?


V: I feel like, while growing up, there were basically almost no characters. They were either portrayed as comedic relief or it was never something serious. However, once I got to China, it was nice having more of an opportunity to play any kind of role. It was really eye-opening and I felt like there were more of a range of characters.


Kung Fu is the first network drama featuring a predominantly AAPI cast. What has been the most rewarding part about bringing that level of representation on screen?


V: I was coming in as a new fish. It was really nice to see that the cast were so bonded. You could sense the community. In Kung Fu, the way the storyline is portrayed, it's different from just having diversity in the cast. They don't overplay it too much, and it’s still relatable to people who might not be Asian as well.


You play Mia who is Nicky’s runaway cousin in Season 2. How did you get the role of Mia? What is your favorite scene you played as Mia? Do you see similarities with yourself and Mia?


V: I actually auditioned from Beijing through Zoom. After sending in my self tape, I got a callback and booked it. It was only a few days' process and before I could even believe it, I was flown to Vancouver to start shooting season 2.


My favorite scene I played was probably in episode 7 where I got to see my mom get shot. I could speak to her, but she couldn't speak to me. If I ran away from home, had so much guilt, and I got to see my mom again, but she couldn't hear me…it would be so damaging. She would never be able to accept my apology. That hurt so much. Hopefully everyone could feel how vulnerable, raw, and very honest I was about that whole scene.


I feel like Mia’s strength and her vulnerability comes from myself. I have a pretty hard shell. I don't let people in very easily. I am quite sensitive as well and I feel a lot. Obviously, Mia is definitely way more unstable…but I do feel like there are definite parallels to me.


What is one dream role that you’ve always envisioned yourself in that you’d love to do in the future?


V: Mia is already quite a dream character. I never thought that I would ever get to play someone with so much depth, layers, and baggage. I've always loved characters like that. I wouldn’t be opposed to getting more evil characters. Bad guys are never bad just because they're bad. Things happened to them that made them change. I’m open to any role, but those are some that do peak my interest.


It’s not just about representing diversity but also the type of roles we as Asians are given. What are some ways we can hold the media accountable to represent diversity accurately?


V: I think not focusing too much on cultural differences. We as humans are all very similar. I think not putting an emphasis on our differences will help with equal representation.