On December 12, 2014, Netflix and The Weinstein Company will unveil their new historical series, “Marco Polo,” based on the explorer’s writings about his time in Kublai Khan’s court in 13th century China. I have seen the first six of ten episodes. It’s a lavish production shot in Venice, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia, and the acting is excellent across the board.
It’s very violent, however, as you would expect of a show about that time period, and it contains a significant amount of nudity. In other words, it isn’t for everyone. The show is in English, which is a bit disconcerting, although constant subtitles would be cumbersome.
Along with other journalists, I had a chance to interview some of the show’s key stars: young Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy, who plays Marco Polo – his first role in English; Benedict Wong, who plays Kublai Khan; Joan Chen, who plays Empress Chabi; and Zhu Zhu, who plays Kokachin, the Blue Princess. Below are some of the highlights of our conversations:
Joan Chen on her character and the relationship with Kublai Khan:
The women in the Mongolian empire, they were strong. I think because times were hard, all the females had to contribute just as much…. And Chabi was known in history to be extremely compassionate and balancing Kublai’s murderous Mongol hot blood. So, they’re a very good yin and yang as a couple.
In their world – not in my world, I wouldn’t have it this way – but in their world, she’s in charge. She makes sure that he is happy, comforted. She is really the eye of the storm in his world, and she is confident. With all the beautiful women around him, she is in charge.
It’s difficult to imagine it for myself that way, but that is the history, that is the culture. So, it’s taken for granted that there will be other younger women. I think probably by a certain age, that’s good riddance. Someone else can do it, and you’re still in charge. I’m sure she loved orgies, which is something I don’t think I could do…. That’s why it’s fun to play her. She is not me. She is very different from me.
Joan’s reaction to the show’s nude scenes, in which she remains fully clothed:
It was a bit of a shock when I first walked into the room and see all of these nude girls, but I got used to it. I felt so different. I felt like I should be stripping also…. Those scenes were beautifully done.
Lorenzo Richelmy on what he loves about his character, Marco Polo:
His curiosity. First of all, I’m Italian, and I love the fact that he can bring with himself the good skills of Italian people. Now, we are known for bad economy, bad politics, and pizza. We were a bit better than that before…. It’s beautiful because in that time, Italian people were explorers and poets, and he’s one of them….
It’s a strange story. This 17 years old guy beginning from Venice walking towards China, living there for 20 years. We know about Marco Polo he’s a merchant. Now, we know he went there for 20 years, and he brought back nothing. What kind of merchant is this? He was not a merchant. He was an explorer. He was there because of his curiosity.
Lorenzo on learning English for “Marco Polo”:
When I did the audition, they said, “We like you, but you cannot be the leading role if you cannot speak English….” For one week, I improved my English 8 hours a day. I tried to chew the words. Then, a week after, I did an audition with Benedict Wong.
Benedict Wong on playing his character of Kublai Khan:
When I first knew I got the job – that was about 4 months ago before we started – I put on about 2-1/2 stone, 30 pounds or something like that to get the bulk and just the idea of someone who is the grandson of Genghis Khan. The Mongol Empire, the Silk Road, this incredible 5th of the land mass of the world – to be on top of that world.
I mean, people keep asking, “What was it like?” It’s like you’re so busy! You are so busy holding on and also making sure no one’s snapping at your heels, I think. It’s really interesting to play that and yet, also be a family man as well. The idea of legacy and making sure that your son, the next heir, will be ready and having to be kind of like a hard father.
Zhu Zhu on her pre-production training:
I got to Malaysia two months in advance, and then, I started doing horseback riding and archery around that time every day. Our schedule would be 7:30 pickups and two hours of physical training and two hours of dialogue training and lunch break and then two hours of horseback riding and an hour of archery every day for almost two months before I started shooting…. I really enjoyed it. I love horses.
Joan on working with Benedict and Zhu Zhu:
He is really the sweetest man. The Kublai on the screen is not what he is, not in life. He is really the gentlest, the sweetest, the most genuine human being. So, it’s so easy. We all feel very lucky that he’s the one who’s playing Kublai. It just felt really natural. When we kissed, it just felt more like a brother and sister, I don’t know. Brothers and sisters don’t do that, but it just felt like we were close. Yeah, the chemistry’s there. I’m really glad. It was really fun. Zhu Zhu and I did a lot of shopping and eating.
Lorenzo on working with Benedict as Kublai:
It was a holy moment when he was on set. Extras were terrified.
Lorenzo on shooting in Venice:
Venice – piece of heart. There, I realize how massive was the production because occupying Venice is pretty much impossible. An Italian movie could not do it. So, we were there, and when I realized we occupied two squares, three bridges, and there was a fake moon two kilos away just for the light on the river, I said, “Oh, my God!”
Benedict on shooting in Kazakhstan:
You could really feel how remote you were. We were driving to work, and then, all of a sudden in the distance, there was this furry thing that kind of rose up. And it was a Bactrian camel – an endangered species – and there was like 4 or 5 of them there in the middle of nowhere. Incredible.
Joan on the Netflix/Weinstein production:
I didn’t work in anything in an American production for a long time. I worked almost exclusively in China for like the past ten years. So, it’s great to come back to a production that is just of this huge American scale. We had about 800 people on the show, the entire studio, stages and workshops and people – well, they say 27 countries on the Netflix sheet, but we counted and it’s like 30-some countries. You get to be exposed and communicate with such a huge crew. It was fantastic. I wish I had more physical things to do because I am capable of that, but being the queen…