Cover Actor Jon Prasida talks about playing Shen on 'Kung Fu' (Photo: Christopher Shintani)

The Australian, who plays Ryan Shen on The CW’s martial arts TV series, talks to Tatler about portraying one of the few openly gay Asian American characters on screen and what we can expect from the new season

Chinese Indonesian actor Jon Prasida is reprising his role as Ryan Shen in the second season of the hit show Kung Fu, which comes out on March 9. Based on the 1970s programme of the same name, the reboot is one of the few American network series to have a predominantly Asian cast.

The Sydney-based actor’s character Ryan is a medical student and only son who recently came out to his parents and is still trying to navigate life as an openly queer Asian. Ryan is also one of the few openly gaw Asian American characters on screen.

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Kung Fu is one of few shows to have a predominantly Asian American cast. How does it feel to be part of that?

It’s an absolute honour to be part of this series. It brings me a certain amount of joy and satisfaction knowing that people can watch our show and see themselves on screen; and for those who might not see themselves specifically represented to be able to empathise and enjoy the company that is the Shen family.

Asian Americans have long been typecast and stereotyped into roles involving martial arts. How does Kung Fu break the mould?

Stereotyping is viewing the world without glasses when you need them. It doesn’t provide a clear and overall picture of what’s going on so I don’t think we necessarily “break” the stereotype, but in fact, lean into it. The problem with stereotypes is not that they’re true or untrue but that they place us into a box as seen from another person’s perspective, and in doing so, dehumanise our experiences. The characters in Kung Fu are Asian. There are Asian sons becoming doctors to appease parents; Asian parents are running a restaurant; Asian people can be good with technology and math. All of these exist in Kung Fu.

But the problem occurs when it just ends there. If my character Ryan Shen was a guest in another show, you wouldn’t know that he’s studying medicine to help the community he loves so dearly. If [Ryan’s sister] Althea Shen (Shannon Dang) was on another show, you wouldn’t know the sacrifices she’s made to hide the abuse from her previous employer, something that can resonate with a lot of women regardless of race. If [Ryan’s parents] Jin (Tzi Ma) and Mei-Li (Tan Kheng Hua) were running your local [Chinese] restaurant, you probably wouldn’t know the adversity they overcame and the racism they faced when they opened up.

Stereotypes don’t provide the full story. They only give you some idea, and you fill in the rest of the blanks which may or may not be true. By telling the story the way we want to, we won’t just be seen as a by product of our culture. Our show provides the corrective lenses that you need so you can humanise us and not generalise us.

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The scene where you and your father, played by Hong Kong American actor Tzi Ma, finally talk about you coming out is one of the most heartfelt. Can you tell us more about the experience of filming that?

It’s crazy because I grew up watching Tzi in all sorts of shows and movies with my family, and now I’m here crying in this man’s arms. As an actor, to be able to play this type of scene is an absolute delight. Filming it was also unbelievable because a few things went wrong on the day which led me to only get one take. But I’m glad we got it. Tzi himself was so easy to work opposite; just him saying “I love you” is enough to make any grown man become emotional.

Ryan is a rare gay Asian American on-screen character. As someone who identifies as straight, how do you ensure you represent him accurately and respectfully?

On top of being able to represent the Asian American community, the same honour and privilege [extend to] being able to represent part of the gay community. It was cool to sit down and chat with GLAAD [a non-governmental monitoring organisation that ensures coverage of LGBTQ+ people in the media is not defamatory] to get their blessing, so to speak.

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“By telling the story the way we want to, we won’t just be seen as a by product of our culture. Our show provides the corrective lenses that you need so you can humanise us and not generalise us”
Jon Prasida

There wasn’t much preparation [in becoming] ‘Ryan’; my job is to find the humanity within him. All of his reactions and mannerisms are my own. The easiest way to bring genuineness to a character is to incorporate your personality. Ryan’s sexuality, whilst important to him, doesn’t define him as a person. He’s comprised of a lot of other factors such as being a loving son and community leader. All of these are very human experiences that a lot of us can relate to and, having lived similar experiences, it’s easy to bring that to the table.

But I have such a wonderful group of people in my circle that are part of the LGBTQ+ community and we’ve had multiple chats about the discovery of their identity, to coming out, to having a family, and I’ve been unintentionally educated with each conversation. All of these interactions have helped cultivate the essence of Ryan and who he is.

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What do you like most about Ryan’s character?

I love how much he loves his family and community. I also love how snarky and sarcastic he can be in his responses. He’s definitely the most grounded one on the show; quite possibly the audience might relate to him the most. I would say that I’m also quite grounded, but I’m not anywhere near academically inclined as Ryan is. That guy worked hard to be where he is in that field, so at least my mum can be proud of me through Ryan’s profession.

What can we tell us about season two?

Ryan’s graduated from medical school and is waiting for the results of his residency lottery. In the meantime, he’s been hanging out with his sister Nicky (Olivia Liang) and has noticed her strength and abilities increase, which fascinates him. We also have a new family member but they’re a little mysterious and we’re not quite sure how to handle the situation. 

It has everything you love about the first season, just multiply that by two for this one. Ryan may or may not have his eye on someone else since [his ex-boyfriend] Joe’s (Bradley Gibson) departure so we’ll see how that unfolds throughout the season.

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Kung Fu season two premieres on March 9, exclusively on The CW.

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