Murtz On The Scene: Exclusive Interview With Marco Polo‘s Olivia Cheng


Netflix has developed a profound credibility with its slate of original programming.

While House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black have both been the recipients of international acclaim, there are plenty of other quality original programs that the steaming service has developed and these include Lilyhammer, Hemlock Grove, and BoJack Horseman, just to name a few.

With that said, no series has received more worldwide attention than Netflix’s latest international offering, Marco Polo. The series (which makes its debut on Friday December 12, 2014 at 12:01 a.m. PST), chronicles the story of Marco Polo whose adventures in Kublai Khan’s court offer a profound glimpse into the greed, betrayal, sexual intrigue and rivalry found in 13th century China.

The series stars newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy in the title role and is the first show in Phase II of Netflix’s new original lineup. The show was produced by the Weinstein Company and is the brainchild of series creator John Fusco (The Forbidden Kingdom, Hidalgo, Young Guns).

After being offered an early look at Marco Polo and (as my usual Netflix experiences dictate), I tore through the initial six episodes in a matter of six hours. Heading into the series, my initial concern was that I felt it would not fall under the same scope of entertainment that Netflix has spoiled us with.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you had the same initial reaction.

“Marco Polo, isn’t that the game you play with friends in the pool?”

“Isn’t Marco Polo that explorer guy? Which country did he discover again?”

The fact is that I wouldn’t blame you if you did. It’s been a long time since I learned about Marco Polo in high school. That said, within the first 10 minutes of the series, I suddenly found myself wondering why I didn’t pay more attention in history class.

I was hooked immediately.

The series begins with a young Italian merchant, Marco Polo (duh!), arriving in China with an absentee father with whom he only recently reconnected. The merchants appear before Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) to ask for permission to cross the Silk Road in order to continue their trade. When the Mongol Emperor rebukes their request, Marco’s father offers his son up as a servant in exchange for permission to move past the roadblock. A horrified Marco looks on as the offer is accepted and just like that, his life under Kublai’s watch begins.  It’s in parallel to the viewer’s journey with the series.

While the clash between Eastern and Western cultures has always been fascinating one, it is particularly illuminated in this show by Marco Polo’s knowledge of the world (learned over the course of his journey to China) and Kublai Khan’s fascination with what is outside his walls. Instead of the emperor and servant relationship that they were supposed to share, the Kublai and Marco bond over their own curiosity with each other’s lives and the result is Marco finding a surrogate father for the one he never had.

The show is unquestionably Netflix’s most expensive production and features a variety of shooting locations including Italy, Kazakhstan and Malaysia while also employing a construction crew of 400 and an art department of 160. Every effort is made to remain true to the culture of the period and while some creative liberties were taken, John Fusco and company did their best to stick to the story at hand.

The show’s creator is an admitted Marco Polo junkie and Fusco apparently read many historical texts (from the works of 13th century Chinese and Persian historians to multiple translations of Polo’s own written diaries) to accurately represent things in the series. He also drew from his own trip to Mongolia in 2007 to complete the series.

“John Fusco infected us all with his passion for Marco Polo,” said executive producer Dan Minahan. “He has an encyclopedic knowledge of these subjects. And then along the way he even learned more stuff, and urged people to earn more, so it was very much a collegial exchange between all the departments: the people who were making the weapons, the people who were building the sets, the people who were doing the fights.”

Indeed, while there are some epic fight scenes in the show, it primarily succeeds because of its ability to transcend television’s traditional borders. It’s certainly not just a drama or just an action series.

There are rivalries between brothers fighting for power. There are multiple love stories. Marco even visits the House of Five Desires… a forbidden palace of sin, filled with concubines designed to please the Khan and those closest to him.

In advance of Friday’s worldwide release, I caught up with Olivia Cheng to preview the series.

Olivia plays Mei Lin on the series, a royal consort and the sister of Kublai Khan’s main adversary Jia Sidao (a chancellor in the Song Court). On Marco Polo, Sidao prostitutes his sister in an effort to gain even more control of the East and eventually manages to position her to be Kublai Khan’s primary concubine. Sidao tortures Mei Lin’s daughter to ensure she never deviates from assisting his ascent to the throne. Despite the hardships that she faces, Mei Lin remains a strong and independent woman and one who will certainly be a fan favorite. While I don’t want to throw comparisons around, it would be hard not see a resemblance between this character and Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones.

We chatted about a variety of topics including Mei Lin’s character and if her conservative parents had any issues with her playing a concubine. We discussed if the show has one defining theme or if it is a multitude of many. Cheng explained her character’s complicated relationship with her brother and if there is any part of Jia Sidao that actually likes Mei Lin (considering his deplorable treatment of her and his niece). We chatted about the importance of family on the series, given Marco Polo’s surrogate relationship with Kublai Khan, Mei Lin and Jia Sidao. In addition to offering a tease for what to expect during the course of the season, Cheng also was kind enough to teach me some badass Kung Fu moves to end the interview. If you are interested in seeing how I did, check out the interview above!

Here’s a featurette to see more of the show:

Marco Polo debuts December 12 on Netflix.

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