Catch Joan Chen in the Netflix Series ‘Marco Polo’


Netflix’s elaborate original series Marco Polo was met with some criticism from the Asian American community for being an outsider’s fetishization of the East. But actress Joan Chen urges skeptics to look at it differently. “It’s such a great opportunity for so many Asian actors,” she says. Other than the lead, Lorenzo Richelmy as Marco Polo, almost the entire cast is Asian or Asian American, with Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan, Rick Yune as the leader of the Golden Horde, Zhu Zhu as the Blue Princess, Chin Han as the villainous chancellor, Olivia Cheng as a suffering concubine with some tricks up her sleeve, and Claudia Kim (who was just named the first Asian face of cosmetics brand Bobbi Brown and can be seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron this May) as the warrior Khutulun. “I see how excited these kids are to work on this grand production,” says Chen. “They have dialect coaches and personal trainers, and this series gives them a year to work on their craft and express their talents. I think of it as completely positive.”

Chen has been acting since she was teenager in China, where she became a household name and was dubbed the “Elizabeth Taylor of China” for her role in 1979’s Little
Flower. She was “discovered” twice. Legend has it that Madame Mao discovered her at a school rifle range, impressed by her skilled marksmanship. She was soon chosen for the Actors’ Training Program by the Shanghai Film Studio. At 20, she decided to move to the United States to study filmmaking. Though she had no connections in Hollywood, she was discovered again by legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, who honked at her in a parking lot. His line was: “Did you know that Lana Turner was discovered in a drug store?”

“I was like, ‘Who’s this dirty old man?’” she remembers. “I didn’t talk. I just kept walking.”

He managed to convince her to take his card, and her managers couldn’t believe she had met the Dino De Laurentiis. She soon landed her first Hollywood role in 1986’s Tai-Pan. In the last three decades, she’s been juggling films in both China and the U.S., from the Oscar-winning Bernardo Bertolucci film The Last Emperor to the American cult TV series Twin Peaks, to big Asian productions like Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and smaller Asian American indies like Saving Face. She’s also a writer and director in her own right, directing the feature films Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl and Autumn in New York.

In Marco Polo, Chen plays Empress Chabi, Kublai Khan’s first and favorite wife. Though the creators researched the history for their fantastical story, there wasn’t much historical information on Empress Chabi to go on. So they worked with Chen to develop a more complex character who drives the plot and would be more fulfilling for the veteran actress to play.

The grand production, overseen by The Weinstein Company and reported to be one of the most expensive TV shows ever made, was shot mostly in Malaysia. “The costumes are made of real silk and ornaments,” adds Chen. “They’re so heavy that you know they didn’t spare a cent to make every detail luxurious.”

She also loved going to work and seeing all the stunt tents, where actors and martial arts performers trained every day. Though Empress Chabi doesn’t have a lot of action, Chen was able to learn some archery for some of her scenes. This brought her back to her days at her high school rifle range.

“Even though they’re two different sports, there are some principles that are the same,” says Chen. “The way you aim, the breathing techniques, the way you use your cheek and how you use your body. I took it up pretty fast. But obviously, I could take a lifetime to learn it.”

Though she knows that the show is romanticized and operatic, she hopes viewers of Marco Polo enjoy it for that very reason. “It’s a visual feast,” she says. “In the beginning, you have to set up all these characters and the historical background, but by episode 10, it’s really powerful. It’s cooking. It’s hot.”

All episodes of Marco Polo are currently available on Netflix, and the series has been renewed for a second season

Photo courtesy of Netflix
This story was originally published in our Spring 2015 issue. Get your copy here.

“Crazy Rich Asians” To Become a Movie: Audrey’s Picks for a Dream Cast

Kevin Kwan’s debut novel is a ridiculous read — and we mean that in the best way. Set mainly in Singapore, the story follows the homecoming of Nicholas Young, who’s in town for the highly anticipated wedding of his best friend Colin Khoo to model/hotel heiress Araminta Lee. Nick is bringing his American girlfriend of two years, Rachel Chu, to the wedding. What Rachel doesn’t know is that Nick is a member of Singapore’s elite, and apparently everyone is out to end their relationship, from overbearing mothers to cutthroat exes.

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What really makes Crazy Rich Asians so fascinating is that the novel is a hilarious insight into the social intricacies and hierarchies of the Singaporean jet set — new money vs. old money, Mainland Chinese vs. Overseas Chinese, traditional Chinese culture vs. traditions that are actually remnants of colonial rule. Calling upon his own childhood experiences, Kwan weaves great (and greatly exaggerated) details into his story that makes for a read you can’t put down. It’s got all the makings for a very entertaining movie, so when we heard that the production team behind The Hunger Games films had nabbed the rights to this summer’s best guilty pleasure read, we just had to come up with our own dream cast. Hollywood, better take notes!

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Godfrey Gao as Nicholas Young, 32, a history professor at NYU with Cantonese pop idol looks (described as a Takeshi Kaneshiro lookalike) and heir to the Young fortune. Why: A ridiculously good-looking guy with international appeal is absolutely required for this leading man role, and the Taiwanese-Malaysian Canadian actor/model, touted as the world’s first Asian male supermodel, has been described as a younger Kaneshiro.

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Gemma Chan as Rachel Chu, Nick’s girlfriend, a 29-year-old down-to-earth, natural beauty, raised by a single mother, who is also an economics professor at NYU. Why: An up-and-comer in Hollywood, this Chinese British actor can pull off Rachel’s sensible, effortless and intelligent charm.

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Fan Bingbing as Astrid Leong, Nick’s cousin and closest confidante who also happens to be a double heiress and Singapore’s most sought after socialite. She’s married to Michael Teo. Why: The Chinese actress has the presence (and red carpet fashion cred) to play Singapore’s biggest style icon, oozing radiance every time she walks into a room.

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Daniel Wu as Michael Teo, a son of schoolteachers and a graduate of Caltech (he was a National Merit Scholar!), the co-founder of a start-up tech company happened to land Singapore’s most sought after socialite. Why: Michael is a straight-laced former Armed Forces Elite Commando who is facing an eventual meltdown because of his marriage into high society. A hunk on the verge of a breakdown? Wu’s got plenty of acting experience (and the good looks) to pull that off.

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Brenda Song as Peik Lin Goh, the youngest daughter of the new money Singaporean Goh family and Rachel’s close friend from Stanford. Why: Song can call upon her Disney days for the over-enthusiastic spunk it’ll take to play Peik Lin, one of Rachel’s few allies in Singapore.

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Wang Lee Hom as Colin Khoo, Nick’s best friend and heir to the Khoo Teck Fong fortune, one of the richest families in the world. Why: Wang’s recent roles have required a disguise — perfect for a man disguising his true feelings about his upcoming nuptials. (Basically, we wanna see the Taiwanese American singer/actor in a Hollywood film.)


Angelababy as Araminta Lee, a luxury hotel heiress and supermodel who is engaged to Colin Khoo, and has a serious obsession with Astrid Leong and her couture wardrobe. Why: The Hong Kong-based Chinese actress/model has the young supermodel look down. We think she’ll be gorgeous as the society bride of the year.

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Liza Wang as Shang Su Yi, grandmother to Nicholas and matriarch of the Young family. She inherited the Shang fortune, lives in a Euro-style palace that doesn’t show up on Google Maps (complete with secret service Burmese guards). Why: She is Hong Kong’s biggest diva, famously known as a stage and television actress. Her larger than life personality is very fitting to play the matriarch of the Young family.


Jamie Chung as Amanda Ling, a wannabe New York socialite who used to date Nick. Why: Chung is so gorgeous — and we’re sure she can do snarky well — so she’s perfect to play the posh and fashionable ex-girlfriend of a billionaire heir.

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Maggie Q as Francesca Shaw, who is still pining for Nick after a threesome with him and Amanda Ling one summer in Capri. Why: She’s the cattier of the two girls after Nick and we think Maggie can play one hell of an ice queen.

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Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor Young, mother of Nicholas. Why: The Malaysian actress is well-known for playing strong leading women, but we think it’s about time she plays against type and takes on a challenge: playing the over-the-top, crazed mother who stops at nothing to end her son’s relationship with his Chinese American girlfriend.

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Joan Chen as Kerry Chu, Rachel’s mother who works in real estate and harbors a secret past. Why: Kerry is the hard-working, resilient one of the cast and Chen can capture that perfectly. Chen is also a scene-stealer no matter what role she’s in, which is perfect for Kerry’s dramatic reveal.

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Archie Kao as Edison Cheng, a successful private banker who is obsessed with being in the media spotlight. Why: Kao has a certain charisma that can get under your skin — in an effective way. We’re challenging him to play one loud, obnoxious and fame-whoring husband.

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Charlene Choi as Fiona Tung, who comes from a politically connected family and has three children with Eddie Cheng. Why: Charlene Choi possesses a calm demeanor as an actress that’s effective in quiet moments, which is perfect for the role of Fiona, the wife who remains silent to her husband’s wild antics.

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Edison Chen as Bernard Tai, the quintessential bad boy heir of Singapore. Why: Because Chen is the quintessential bad boy actor. It’d be fascinating to see him make his return to the silver screen playing someone just like himself.

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Nichkhun Horvejkul (of KPOP group 2PM) as Alistair Cheng, the younger, good-for-nothing brother of Eddie Cheng, with puppy-dog looks and who works in film production in Hong Kong. Why: The useless son with good looks? Thank goodness Nickhun is really pretty to look at.


Clara Lee as Kitty Pong, a gold-digging TV actress from Hong Kong with a penchant for skimpy outfits and who has Alistair Cheng whipped. Why: She’s one of Korea’s hottest sex symbols — we’d love to see her play a tacky, money-hungry soap star that shocks everyone at every turn.