TORONTO - Olivia Cheng was elated when she won a major part in new Netflix epic "Marco Polo," but she didn't call her parents right away to share the news.
The Edmonton-born actress plays tough concubine Mei Lin in the series based on the famed Italian explorer's adventures in 13th century China. Cheng says she knew the sex scene-heavy role would shock her Chinese-Canadian parents.
"You should have heard the silence when I broke the news," she said in a recent interview. "I have such compassion and love for my parents, because I know I'm probably the most puzzling, frightening child.
"I'm stepping into things that really go against a lot of cultural rules, cultural boundaries. Honestly, I feel like the fact that I was born Canadian has given me that liberty to be able to make some choices that push some boundaries."
The 10-episode Netflix drama debuts Friday. Starring newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy, "Marco Polo" follows the traveller's time in Mongol emperor Kublai Khan's court. With a budget of $90 million, the sweeping period piece shot in Italy, Kazakhstan and Malaysia is Netflix's priciest production to date.
Cheng, who speaks Mandarin and feels a deep respect for Chinese culture, jumped at the opportunity to be part of the historic epic. She trained hard to play Lin, who is a kung fu master in addition to being a concubine.
"I think when people meet her, they may confront their own prejudices and they may want to define her by what she does, as I think people in her world would have," she said.
"As her arc progresses, you start to see who she is outside of what she may choose to have to do in order to protect her daughter, in order to get the mission done, in order to survive. I think what audiences will relate to is they'll see an absolutely vulnerable spirit who is also incredibly tenacious in some very raw situations."
The series also stars Joan Chen of "Twin Peaks" as Empress Chabi, Khan's favourite wife. Audiences may also recognize Chin Han, who plays ambitious chancellor Jia Sidao, from "The Dark Knight."
While the show is based on Polo's stories — his "The Travels of Marco Polo" helped introduce Europeans to China in 1300 — as well as other books about the explorer, it also freely fictionalizes events.
Co-executive producer Patrick MacManus said the writers used historical benchmarks and then had "fun with the rest."
"When Marco Polo was dying on his deathbed, they said, 'Listen, you can now confess, you actually didn't see these things.' His response was, 'I can only confess that I only told half of what I saw.' So we actually get a chance to fill in the other half," he said.
MacManus praised the Netflix model of releasing all episodes at once.
"Everybody uses the term 'binge,' but in reality it's just putting the control in their hands," he said. "I always wanted to be a novelist. And one of the great things about a novel, whether it's good or bad, is that you can pick it up and you can read it for five pages or a chapter or can read the whole thing all night long."
But when "Marco Polo" premieres Friday, Cheng definitely won't be watching it with her parents.
"That would be so uncomfortable," she laughed. "I think if I did, the only benefit would be that I would fast-forward through my scenes and just give them the Cliffs Notes... I would just be like, 'Here's what happens. Next scene.'"
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