Based on the famed explorer’s adventures in Kublai Khan’s ornate court in 13th century China, the 10-episode Netflix original series Marco Polo is set in a world filled with greed, betrayal, sexual intrigue and rivalry. Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) is a young Italian merchant who arrives in China with a father he barely knows, who then offers him to the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) as a servant. Captivated by the traveler’s way with words, Kublai Khan and Marco Polo develop a deep trust and bond that leads to many tales of adventure and legend.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Joan Chen (who plays Kublai Khan’s wife, Empress Chabi) talked about first getting this script a long time ago, why the role was a no-brainer, what she liked about the character, what it took to be a strong woman in that era, what most surprised her about the Mongol queens, her most memorable moment of the shoot, and why she thinks such an ancient story will still appeal to audiences today. She also talked about how special her experience on Twin Peaks was, that it’s a very intriguing and mysterious world that can certainly be explored more, and that she hopes to be involved in its 2016 return on Showtime. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: How did you come to be a part of this?
JOAN CHEN: It first came to me a long time ago. It’s been at least two years now. It took them awhile to get it all together. I read the script and I met with the creator, and I was very interested and intrigued by his vision. John Fusco’s enthusiasm and integrity is very impressive. It was a no-brainer for me. I wanted to do the part.
What was it about this particular woman that made you want to take her on, explore who she is and embody her?
CHEN: She is very strong. That’s what I like about her. And also, she has a vulnerability. She does have to deal with other women in her husband’s life. That sometimes makes her somewhat vulnerable. And she’s extremely sharp. She has good instincts. When she senses danger that her husband doesn’t yet know, she will have to use a very intelligent method to convey that to him. It took more consideration and thinking to be a strong woman in that era.
She’s married to a man that other women seem to think that killing themselves is preferable to serving him, which leads to a very interesting dynamic.
CHEN: Yeah. It’s unimaginable for me, in today’s life, if I had to do this. But in their time, in the culture, they did take more wives than one.
In the research that you did for this role, what most surprised you about the place and standing for women, during this time?
CHEN: I didn’t read about the Mongol queens until I arrived onto the set. We had a cultural consultant from Mongolia. I knew that Chabi was a strong woman, but I didn’t know that that was the norm for the Mongol queens. They actually would go on battlefields. Because of the nomad life, they would have to be on horseback, carry things, set up the tent, and go to the battlefields. They had to do what they men did, so they were respected and they were equals.
Every actor talks about how their character is the hero of his or her own story, so how do you think Empress Chabi is the hero of this story?
CHEN: I think we have more than one hero, but from my point of view, Chabi is the heroine of that world. She is the one that balances Kublai’s empire. She is the calm in the storm. Without Chabi, it would be out of balance. There is this yin-yang balance in Kublai’s life.
How do you view the marriage between Kublai Khan and Empress Chabi?
CHEN: I’m sure she did her part in her youth. I think they had a passionate relationship, they had a sexual relationship, and they deeply loved each other, but the culture dictated that he could acquire other women and acquire other children. She was wise enough to be in charge of that. As she became older and he became fatter, it worked out very well that there were other women taking care of him, in the sex department. But, I still think that she enjoys sex with him. It’s a different world. It’s not something that I would do. That’s Chabi’s grace. She makes things work. She makes everything work for him, for the empire, and for herself. When it doesn’t work, she’ll try to make it work.
What is the coolest or most memorable moment you had, being a part of Marco Polo?
CHEN: We escaped into a world that was Marco Polo’s world, and that was very special. The town that we filmed Marco Polo in is called Johor. It’s a very small Malaysian town, and we stayed in the newly developed area that was less than five years old. Our world was just Marco Polo, and that’s very special. There’s one shopping mall there. If you go there, you’ll see hundreds of people roaming around in that one place. That was a very memorable town, along with Pinewood Studio. And my favorite moment was when I raised the bow and used it. She is that person, but she’s been in the court for so long that she actually misses horseback riding, hunting, and using her bow. So, that moment was a really defining moment for Chabi.
CHEN: I think people are people. It’s about love, betrayal, trust, treachery and political intrigue. It’s really the same. And this has never been done before. It’s a brand new world. You are presented with a new world that you have never encountered before.
Marco Polo marks your return to television, after having done Twin Peaks, and now Twin Peaks is returning to television, on Showtime in 2016. How do you feel about that? Even though it’s been talked about, over the years, is the return of that show something that you ever imagined would happen?
CHEN: I didn’t imagine it, but it’s great news. It is a very intriguing and mysterious world, and it can certainly be explored more. I think Twin Peaks might have started a different TV world. I’ve only done two U.S. TV series, and one is Twin Peaks and one is Marco Polo. They’re both really, really special to me.
Have they reached out to you, at all, about being a part of the show? Is it something you hope to be involved with?
CHEN: Yes, I do hope to be involved.
Marco Polo is now available on Netflix.