Actress Olivia Cheng, who plays Mei Lin in Netflix’s drama Marco Polo (the second season premieres this Friday) is a true badass warrior on screen. The life of her character – a prisoner in 13th century Mongolia fighting to keep herself and her daughter alive – may technically be a far cry from Cheng’s real life in Vancouver, but we still consider her a badass nonetheless.
With the second season of the show premiering this Friday, we could think of no better time to chat with Cheng about the ways she keeps in shape for the role, her ideal food day and foods that make her skin feel its best and worst. We also found out she thinks the new potato is wearing sneakers with dresses…this is a woman after our own hearts.
What would be your ideal food day?
I travel so often for work, so I end up eating whatever is available at various restaurants more often than I’d prefer. So for me, an entire day of high quality home-cooked meals and organic fruits and juices would be ideal! Plus, a treat such as bubble tea in the afternoon.
In terms of diet and wellness, how do you practice beauty from the inside out?
I’m only now starting to understand how important prayer, meditation and cultivating pockets of quiet can be to my beauty and wellness. If my mind is cluttered, I’m less likely to eat well, exercise and conduct small acts of self-care. I enjoy starting my day with a talk by Abraham Hicks, Marianne Williamson or Tara Brach to push that inner reset button and be more mindful of my inner life.
I’m also a high achiever. I burned out my adrenal glands for a long time and didn’t recognize the symptoms (bad skin, stomach problems, low energy and disrupted sleep) until I sought help. When your hormones are out of whack, it affects your weight, skin and overall health (read Dr. Libby Weaver’s stuff for more information).
What are your morning and nightly beauty routines?
Cleanse and moisturize morning and night, and relax with soft music and candles as often as possible.
What foods make your skin feels its best? Its worst?
Water with lemon, fish and avocados make me feel like I’m moisturizing my skin from the inside out and fried anything makes me feel like I’m clogging my skin from the inside out. But I’ll be real; I eat foods I know I shouldn’t eat, especially when I see Onion Rings on the menu or hit Dim Sum.
Marco Polo season 2 debuts on Netflix July 1, where you play a warrior. Does it make you feel empowered to be playing such a strong female character?
This is an interesting question for me – and one I get a lot. I think women watch me project a sense of empowerment through Mei Lin, and if that’s the case, it makes me happy because I want dignity and humanity to color a character who is put in dire and humiliating circumstances.
Looking back on two seasons worth of Mei Lin, I can now say I’ve been forced to face a lot of fears and insecurities to serve the character and her story. I’m a very modest person; in a dressing room full of naked women I still try to cover myself with a towel. So playing Mei Lin – an imperial consort who’s sexuality is weaponized – has required an emotional alchemy in order to get out of my own way and literally stand naked and unflinching in front of complete strangers.
In doing that, what I found after Season One, was that I went home and my spine (figuratively speaking) had grown in ways I hadn’t realized. You can’t find the guts in yourself to match a character like Mei Lin and then go back to your own life and continue to allow yourself to be bullied and walked over by people who take you for granted. I found myself setting boundaries, calling people out on bad behaviour and letting other people go who just sucked my energy. So in that way, I found a sense of empowerment through Mei Lin.
Do you find any similarities between your on-screen persona and your real life personality?
Yes and no. If you know me, even slightly, you know I’m a massive dork. I’m a dork who can get deep on you, but I’m a dork. However, for all the people who say to me, “Wow, you’re nothing like your character.”— they’re incorrect. Mei Lin is my shadow self come to life. I had to make friends with all the things in me I’ve judged and denied my whole life, including, rage, duplicity, a capacity for violence and an ability to recognize bad intentions in others. I love acting because it exposes me to roles like Mei Lin that call for me to be compassionate and understanding of my own darkness so I can give it over to a character. Plus, I’m an incredibly privileged North American. I have never known war or poverty the way Mei Lin does. If I was a blackmailed prisoner of war fighting to keep my daughter alive, I would probably find it in me to do what I had to do to survive too.
What beauty products can’t you live without?
What’s always in your handbag?
How do you stay in shape for the role? What are some of your go-to workout?
I don’t. I rest – a lot. I mean, I do exercise but lately it’s taken on a different objective. This role is hard work and it takes a toll on my body. I’m very lucky, as Marco Polo supported me in between seasons and put together a team of teachers, sport therapists and trainers for me. I thought they’d push me to train, train, train, but they saw how depleted I was and focused on healing, modified drills and teaching me how important recovery and down time is.
My functional strength trainer, Glenn Tagulao, actually brought up the adrenal gland issue and has focused on strengthening my muscles slowly rather than kicking my adrenals into high gear to power through a session. So my main go-to workout now is a long walk along the Vancouver sea wall – and I love restorative yoga.
What advice do you have for women looking in the mirror and getting dressed in the morning?
Ladies, iIf you’re like me, you may have a bad habit of looking in the mirror and looking straight for the things you don’t like. This may sound so corny but now when I catch myself doing that, I interrupt the pattern by looking myself in the eye and saying, “Hi, good morning! Nice to see you.” It’s a reminder to show some self-love. It’s crazy how negative self-talk can get and I think the first step to changing the behavior is catching it and course correcting immediately.
What are your favorite food cities? What restaurants do you go to in each?
I live in one! Vancouver is a foodie town! The city has an abundance of high-quality food and world class hospitality. If you’re ever in Vancouver, check out Chambar for amazing Belgian cuisine, Vij’s for wonderful Indian food and the entire chain of Glowbal Group restaurants. For more off-the-beaten-path places, I enjoy Baoguette Cafe for Vietnamese eats or New Town Bakery in Chinatown for Hong Kong style cafe food (a.k.a my comfort food).
In the same vein as the new black in fashion, what’s the new potato for you right now?
Ladies of New York, I am astounded by how so many of you rock sneakers and funky flats with dresses, palazzo pants and other pairings to look so effortlessly chic! I tried to rock a ball cap, sneaker, maxi dress combo but I just looked lazy and trying too hard at once. So in honor of where The New Potato is based and of my recent trip to New York, The New Potato is looking easy breezy in flat shoes that are as fashionable as they are functional!
*Olivia Cheng, photographed in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann