In Season 1 of The CW’s Kung Fu, we saw Vanessa Kai shine as the guiding force for Nicky (Olivia Lang) in her quest for the truth. Now, in Season 2, fans get to see Vanessa transform into her new role as Xiao.
Kai has appeared in hit shows such as “New Amsterdam,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Gotham,” and “The Mysteries of Laura.” In addition to her TV roles, Vanessa has extensive stage experience and was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance as “Ruby” in the sold-out, extended world premiere of “KPOP”.
What sparked your interest in becoming an actor?
I would say my earliest memory is when my mother’s friend let me watch The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins on her VHS (does anyone remember those? Lol). Watching Dame Julie Andrews perform as Maria and then as Mary Poppins (my first introduction to the wonders of wigs!) and then, years later, watching her perform in the title role of Victor/Victoria on television, she is perhaps the first performing artist whose range of work my very young mind could follow. Then, coupled with the glorious re-runs of The Carol Burnett Show and the incredible ensemble of talented actors including Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, and Dick Van Dyke, together they unlocked for me the wide range of possibilities of the acting and performing arts profession.
Who are the people that inspired or influenced you the most?
I think people who are generous inspire me the most. People who are generous with their talents, their time and their experience. I have also been quite fortunate to have a number of mentors throughout my life. What inspired me about my mentors was the amount of grace and patience they had shown me, and the space they’ve held for me. Growing up, there were personal and professional lessons that were hard to learn. At times I could be impatient with myself and hard on myself. But, in addition to imparting their sage wisdom and practical advice, the greatest gift they gave me was the time and space to figure it out when I didn’t know how to do that for myself. That core lesson has continued to support me throughout my life and my work and has taught me to offer that to others.
Being an actor entails being in front of the camera most of the time. I know that this can be draining physically, emotionally, and mentally. How do you handle it?
To be honest, a lot of how I work and how I manage my energy all begin with how well I prepare prior to getting on set. Preparation is very important to me so I do what I can to study the script, upcoming scenes, and, of course, my lines.
There is also a lot of martial arts training and stunt choreography involved in the show, so physical recovery is very important – I take a lot of Epsom salt baths and use arnica and make sure to take my time stretching. Cooking is also very meditative for me and helps ease my mind and my emotional well being to know that what I’m cooking will help nourish my body and help support how I show up
for work. My go-to dishes are usually ultra loaded salads, Thai curries and baked salmon with vegetables and potatoes.
If I feel I’ve done all I can to prepare, then once I am on set, I can allow myself to have a bit of a laugh and chat with my wonderful castmates and crew in between takes. And if there’s a moment where I feel I need to conserve my energy and maintain focus, my immediate go-to is to be quiet and still.
I’m also very close with my castmates so once the work is done, we’ll sometimes have a drink or dinner together or have game night.
Rinse. And repeat. ☺
If you were given the opportunity to work with an actor/actress, who would it be?
My goodness, this is hard. There are so many! First and foremost it would be Sandra Oh. I’ve long admired her work and her artistic choices throughout her career, and the thought of playing with her in any scene or project is incredibly exciting. And, at the risk of taking some liberties, I would love to also include in this list, Michelle Yeoh, Audra McDonald, Corey Hawkins, Tony Leung, Fiona Shaw, Chow Yun-Fat, Danai Gurira, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Emma Thompson, Christine Baranski, Jennifer Coolidge, Stanley Tucci. And of course, Meryl Streep! There are, of course, many others whose work I also greatly admire but I’m trying to learn the art of brevity. (And I am failing miserably).
Did you face any challenges that really tested you as an actor?
Absolutely! With all things, there are certainly challenges. However, what I try to do is translate those challenges into opportunities to learn. And I think perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to be creatively limber. And to do that is to try to be informed of other works, other art forms, to be a fan of other people’s talents and contributions. And do my best to fill my creative cup.
Because every role, every project, and every person I work with is different. And the ultimate test, the ultimate challenge, is knowing how to be available and effective in contributing to the story I am helping to tell.
Is there anything we should be on the lookout for about your role with CW’s Kung Fu?
Yes! But unfortunately, I can’t offer any spoilers. What I can say is that Pei-Ling will be showing up in new ways.
What’s one piece of advice or knowledge that’s changed your life and why?
Oh my gosh, this is a deep question. I have spent literal hours trying to sort my memory bank. So here’s what I came up with. It’s unfortunately not one thing. But it’s a series of brief things. Because of brevity. And they are:
One of the most valuable lessons I learned in acting are the 3 P’s – “Be Present. Be Prompt. Be Prepared.”
“Excellence is not an exception, it’s a prevailing attitude.”
And finally, my own philosophy, “When in doubt, clean. The answer will come.”
For more on Vanessa Kai: IG: officialkaikai