Amongst the cast of Warrior, the martial arts crime show that blends old western and eastern film elements together, actress Olivia Cheng stands out as Madam Ah Toy, a brothel owner that challenges the traditional expectations for a leading lady in 19th century San Francisco. 

In an exclusive interview with EnVi, Cheng offers a candid glimpse into her seven year long journey with the series, diving into the complexities of her character’s evolution, the found family within the Warrior team, and her own aspirations both on and off the screen. As Cheng settled into the conversation over Zoom in a comfy gray hoodie, it became clear that her passion for storytelling goes beyond the surface, weaving a recollected narrative that celebrates the triumphs and tribulations that have shaped the legacy of Warrior and its unforgettable cast. 

Keyword: Resilience  

After the show’s second cancellation on Max (HBO Max) following their move from Cinemax, the prospect of Warrior continuing their engaging storylines seemed hopeless. However, just like the resilient fight the cast’s on-screen counterparts often put up, the series was given new life on the global stage of Netflix, much to the delight of fans worldwide. Navigating the ever-shifting landscape of streaming platforms, Cheng reflected on the rollercoaster of emotions that accompanied the show’s transition from Max to Netflix. 

She often found solace in the resounding support of fans, whose fervor reignited her own excitement for the series’ newfound home. Cheng shared candid moments of anticipation she had with co-star Dean Jagger and Chen Tang on the possibility of returning to the canceled series, saying, “We were sitting there going, ‘Like that’d be crazy if we actually came back,’ you know, and other people have been asking, ‘Well, you know, have you guys thought about season four storylines?’ And we’ve definitely thought about it. But I think we’re just also trying to keep our expectations in check.” As whispers of a potential season four brewed, Cheng and her fellow warriors grappled with the weight of expectations, balancing hope with the sobering reality of the industry’s unforgiving terrain. What has truly motivated the cast in their digital battle for survival has been the unyielding dedication from viewers. 

A Legacy to Uphold

Back in 2015, the new world of Warrior was ripe with unexpected endeavors for Olivia Cheng and the rest of the cast, as they adjusted into their roles and found their footing with a highly anticipated pilot series. Transported to South Africa, far from familiar surroundings, the Warrior team embarked on a journey in the looming shadow of Bruce Lee’s legacy. Despite the daunting task, a sense of camaraderie emerged among the cast, fueled by their shared commitment to supporting each other and honoring Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, and her vision. 

Navigating the delicate balance between honoring and introducing Bruce Lee’s cinematic legacy was a challenge for Cheng and the Warrior cast. Admitting her initial limited knowledge of Lee’s impact, Cheng commented on the profound influence of the show on deepening her understanding of his legacy, sharing, “I probably represent a certain, you know, segment of folks out there who knew that a Bruce Lee existed, had seen him on a t-shirts with the staff, had seen all your male Asian friends want to be Bruce.” However while witnessing Shannon Lee reclaiming control of her father’s likeness and intellectual property, Cheng saw the significance of Lee cultivating her own style whilst guarding his legacy. 

Cheng noted that lead actor Andrew Koji, who shoulders the weight of embodying Bruce Lee’s philosophy, had the increasing pressure to authentically represent the martial arts legend. “The biggest question for Andrew Koji,” she said, was that he “probably felt a lot of pressure to find his version of an authentic expression of [him]self, and you know, not imitating others.” However, through his conversations with Shannon and studying source materials, Koji found guidance in channeling Bruce Lee’s essence while staying true to his own interpretation. Infusing subtle nods to Lee’s mannerisms and physicality, such as his distinctive weight distribution and shoulder staggering, Koji wove Easter eggs into his performance. His efforts paid homage to Lee’s legacy while crafting Koji’s own unique expression of the warrior spirit. 

The Many Masks of Ah Toy

For Olivia Cheng, becoming the enigmatic Madam Ah Toy didn’t demand as strict of a balance between historical accuracy and fictional interpretation. In fact, the actress found herself navigating uncharted territory, devoid of firsthand accounts or personal recorded insights from Ah Toy. This allowed Cheng more creative freedom. 

Unlike her castmates with rich martial arts backgrounds, Cheng approached Ah Toy’s fighting style with a unique perspective shaped by her gymnastics background and a reliance on her skilled stunt double, Tong Yau. Even with her lack of formal martial arts training, Cheng was able to adjust to stunt choreography through direction and her meticulous attention to detail. Her dedication and adaptability shines through her action scenes, underscoring her commitment to authenticity for the screen.  

Pride and a sense of accomplishment radiated through Cheng’s words as she recounted her evolution throughout the seasons. “It feels like it was the first time that I felt free to express the emotion of the moment instead of just [being] so caught up in trying to remember the choreography and these moves that aren’t natural to me,” she said. In particular the series’ season three marked a significant shift in her approach to portraying Ah Toy. She embodied a newfound freedom and embraced the raw emotionality of her character, a deep contrast to her eccentric, sharp outfits and sleek stunt choreography in earlier seasons.

Initially grappling with the character’s portrayal as a sex worker, Cheng admitted to confronting personal biases. “I think one of the hardest things as an actor to do is to always understand their circumstance and find that part in you that if you were in those circumstances, with the limited choices that were presented to you, would you be above doing some of the things they have to do to stay alive, to find some level of thriving.”

However, as the layers of Ah Toy’s character began to unfold through the script, Cheng found herself befriending the complexity in her role. As the series progresses, viewers are granted glimpses into Ah Toy’s inner thoughts and conflicts, challenging preconceived notions and allowing for a deeper understanding of her motivations. 

The season was a testament to Cheng honing her craft and pushing her physical and emotional boundaries. Her new approach enriched her performance as Ah Toy with a depth and authenticity that resonated with audiences. As she looked back on her trajectory, Cheng’s satisfaction is a reflection of the self-discovery and artistic fulfillment that Warrior has given her. She said it felt like season three is “the first time in nine years” where it felt like “now it’s starting to look like the way I want it to work.”

A Lady’s Armor 

At first glance, Ah Toy’s fashion sense may seem like a personal style choice, but is in fact a calculated technique. Cheng shared her insight on the layers of her character’s fashion choices, emphasizing their role in surrounding her persona in mystique. Each outfit is a unique spectacle that draws patrons in, but beneath the glitz and glamor are costumes that serve as both her shield and burden. Notably, season three unveils the unexpected emotional toll that donning her signature attire has on her.

It reveals the hidden struggles and sacrifices behind Ah Toy’s public image as she forces herself to put on the extravagant clothes to get back to work as a Madam after witnessing her workers slaughtered before her without being able to save any of them. Through Cheng’s nuanced portrayal, viewers gained a deeper understanding of Ah Toy’s complex relationship with fashion, witnessing the delicate balance between empowerment and vulnerability in her survival.

The actress’s fondness for Ah Toy’s wardrobe is understandable with the amount of thoughtful symbolism woven into each garment. Cheng reminisced on several iconic outfits, from her green dress in season two — a symbol of Ah Toy’s cunning intellect and prowess in navigating white society’s prejudices. She also recalled the unforgettable femme fatale moment orchestrated by show creator Jonathan Tropper, where Ah Toy descended the stairs in a custom couture gown. 

The meticulously crafted pieces, made to fit her body, convey deeper emotional layers. From her stunning gown adorned with roses to the symbolic cage motif, each outfit tells a story, amplifying Ah Toy’s character. Cheng gave a special nod to the collaborative efforts of the production designers, makeup and hair department, and wardrobe team for their integral role in bringing her character to life. 

Memories from an Era 

Within the seven years of work and passion poured into the show, it’s no surprise that the Warrior team became a family. During the filming of season one, the cast embarked on a journey to explore Camps Bay, a picturesque destination that left a lasting impression on Cheng and her co-stars. As they gathered on the shores of one of the world’s most beautiful beaches surrounded by the breathtaking scenery of South Africa, a sense of camaraderie enveloped the group. “And it was just that sweet spot where we weren’t completely exhausted and running on fumes. Because by the end of the season, you’re always running on fumes. It was just one of the first times we hung as a group and we didn’t really know each other yet.” 

Despite the demanding schedule and challenges of filming with new friends, the breathtaking views offered a chance for the cast to bond and forge connections amidst the golden glow of the South African sunset. For Cheng, it was more than just a casual outing, it was a teaser of the genuine friendships and shared experiences they would have in years to come, defining their time together on and off screen.

Directing her Own Future

Although she couldn’t share much, Cheng revealed that her talents extend far beyond the screen, as she’s been busy delving into the realm of documentary filmmaking. The actress teased that the unnamed project with Network Entertainment has been in the works for awhile. In fact, Cheng is currently immersed in directing the documentary that promises to illuminate untold stories. 

One thing became abundantly clear when speaking with Olivia Cheng: her passion for storytelling knows no bounds. From her transformative portrayal of Madam Ah Toy in Warrior to her ventures into documentary filmmaking, Cheng embodies a commitment to authenticity and excellence in every endeavor. 

While the future of Warrior remains uncertain, the show’s impact and the devoted fanbase speak volumes about its enduring legacy. Whether the series finds new life on the screen or takes its place among cherished memories, the contributions by its team ensure that its spirit will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come. 

Want more exclusive ACT!ON interviews? Check out our interview with Michelle Krusiec here!