A Look at Netflix Original Marco Polo with Olivia Cheng & Patrick Macmanus

Netflix’s latest series Marco Polo is the epic tale of the 13th century European explorer. Yes — this is the man who inspired the fantastic childhood water game and was falsely credited with introducing macaroni to Europe. No — this show is not about either of those things. Created by movie writer / producer John Fusco — whose noteworthy films include Young Guns, Hidalgo, The Forbidden Kingdom and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron — Marco Polo tells the story of Marco’s time in the Mongol empire in the court of Kublai Khan. The 10-episode first season is a sweeping saga about politics, war and conquest in Asia.

At a press junket in Toronto earlier this month, co-executive producer Patrick Macmanus and cast member Olivia Cheng, who plays Chinese concubine Mei Lin, shared their excitement and enthusiasm for the project. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that pulled in talent from 27 countries around the world: the powerhouse Weinstein Company, Oscar nominees and winners and high-profile film and TV directors. For Cheng, a Canadian actress, the challenge was appealing, but daunting as well.

 “For me the greatest fear was realizing that I’d been given this Alberta AAA beef steak three times the size of my head, figuratively speaking, and I was like, I gotta really bite into this. You know, am I gonna be able to rise to the occasion? Am I gonna be able to do this well?”

The creative team behind the series was very conscious of the fact that historical TV shows can fall victim to sensational storytelling and they were careful to balance accuracy with drama. Macmanus says at least 90% of the major plot points and characters on Marco Polo are based in real history, but it’s in the small moments and character dynamics where the writers got to play.

“We had carte blanche creatively and so following John’s vision to be able to really amp up some of the drama, the espionage, the intrigue, the romance all the epic nature, we got to kind of fill in. But we’ve always held true to the signposts historically and we took all that from Marco Polo’s own travels, his book.”

For Cheng, who started her career in media as a journalist, playing a historical character allowed her to geek out on research while she was preparing for the part. She watched documentaries, read articles and papers, and studied anything that helped her understand Mei Lin and the complicated reality of concubines in China.

“I came across a social sciences research paper and it talked about how concubines in the imperial court were given rooms full of mirrors. Because they were basically living objectified human beings, they were living sculptures, they had to practice their expressions. So they would stand in front of these mirrors and they would practice looking sad, coy, flirtatious, heartbroken, love-struck, happy. But the one emotion they could not show was anger. And they could only express anger through wit and sarcasm. That for me, like something went ku-chunk in my head because it was like the doorway into the character, into viscerally understanding something that I couldn’t necessarily put into words. And in fact the audition tape that Patrick ended up seeing it started with a moment where I did a quick private moment of practicing certain expressions in the mirror and then just having a moment where the mask comes down and comes back up and then I went into the first scene.”

Less than 10 minutes into the first episode of Marco Polo, one thing should be fairly obvious to viewers – these are not the kind of people, faces or ethnicities normally featured on television. The series stars Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy, but the ensemble is filled out with Asian performers from all around the world, playing Mongolians, Chinese and Arabs. It’s wonderful to see a show with such diversity and authenticity in casting. Netflix could have easily gotten off track and ended up with a ‘Jake Gyllenhall as the Prince of Persia (WTF?)’ situation.

Macmanus, who was a big fan of Netflix before he landed the gig on Marco Polo, believes that Orange Is the New Black really paved the way for diverse casting at the company. He remembers one of their casting directors telling him that Orange was such a liberating experience because it allowed her to go into the pile of actresses that other shows dismissed off-hand. Marco Polo provided the same opportunity for its creative team. Cheng was elated to work with an Asian heavy ensemble.

“I think 90-95% of what I’ve done I am the token Asian or I am the Asian ethnicity that came in as the ethnic wildcard and won out on a role that was maybe meant for you know Latin, Caucasian, black whatever. And it was very different to be amongst peers from all over the world who had similar experiences like mine, who had faces that looked like mine. It was a really, really special opportunity.”

The portrayal of women is one of the most fascinating aspects of the series so far. Even though society as a whole was patriarchal in the 13th century, the experience of the different women is so varied. All of the female characters have their own strength and power that is expressed in different ways. Macmanus explained the writing team’s approach to the their female characters.

 “There were really two worlds. There was the Chinese side in which women were ultimately subjected to … they were ultimately cast aside. They were either concubines or they were at the heels of the men of the world. And in Mongolia, Mongolian women were lauded. They were warriors, they were leaders, they were never thought of as second class citizens, so we always had to be very mindful that we were writing the characters, these women, in two distinct worlds which actually ultimately ended up contrasting quite nicely in terms of the stories themselves.”

Cheng’s Mei Lin starts out the series in China, where she is dominated and tormented by her ruthless and powerful brother Jia Sidao, which is pretty ironic considering his rise to prominence was dependent on her bedroom relationships with influential political figures. But she ends up traveling to Mongolia and coming up against a completely different system, which was exciting for Chen to play with.

“For my inner work I thought about how frightening must it be that the very qualities Mei Lin has suppressed and maybe even (been) demonized for, her strength and her intellect and her ability to maneuver things sometimes equally as her brother a man, who has so much power in society. And then she goes over to the Mongolian side and how disconcerting it must be for her to see a woman who is so open about those qualities and in fact celebrated and revered. And I’m speaking specifically about Empress Chabai. And how frightening it must be to see a woman like that who has that same strength and power and it’s mirrored right in her face.”

So we know that Marco Polo is a large-scale epic series with top-notch talent, an accurate historical perspective, a diverse cast, and compelling female stories. But let’s get down to the juicy stuff shall we? Is there nudity? Yes. And lots of it. I direct your attention to a a tantalizing ‘naked kung fu’ scene in which Mei Lin dispenses with a gaggle of lecherous men while wearing nothing but her birthday suit. But if you’re worried about tiresome Game of Thrones style sexposition or True Blood levels of titillating exploitation, you can rest easy. Macmanus swears you won’t find anything gratuitous in Marco Polo. All of the nudity is used to emphasize raw, vulnerable moments where characters are being violated, broken down, and stripped of their dignity within the context of the story.

“And there will come a point in time, where we drop all of that. You never see another naked body. You never see any more sex. And it’s because the story doesn’t support it. And like I said, I’m very serious about this because as a writer and as a producer am intimately aware when people are using sex and nudity for the sake of sex and nudity and, and I desperately went out of our way to make sure that we weren’t doing that.”

When Cheng was cast in the role of a concubine she made sure that any nudity would be handled tastefully.

“Before I said yes to the role, I wanted to have a conversation with John Fusco first to understand where is he coming from and what is his intention. And I said listen, I, don’t want me Olivia, the actress, the human being, to be exploited the way Mei Lin was as a character in this world. And I remember John said ‘Well that would be a cruel irony’ … and I really have a sense of gratefulness to these guys because I think they handled it so tastefully. I actually was almost expecting to see more in the Naked Fung Fu and I think I had steeled myself for it. I was like, why didn’t they show? And I was like no this is good, this is good, they silhouetted my body, they showed what was necessary for effect and I really feel like for me artistically I understood the nudity to show what dehumanizing and raw situations Mei Lin had to overcome in order to survive her circumstance and save her daughter and if anything I feel like it informs the audience of how much nobility in character she has in very vulnerable circumstances.”

All ten Season 1 episodes of Marco Polo are available on Netflix starting December 12th. It’s a beautiful, interesting and highly unusual story worth checking out. Macmanus says the producers already know exactly what the endpoint of the entire series will be and hopefully they will have the chance to get there!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *