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, co-stars Lorenzo Richelmy and Benedict Wong talked about getting involved with this show, how beautiful and ambitious the production was, shooting an adventure while they were on their own adventure, taking on the title role of a show of this size and scope, their most memorable moments, and how the story really has no heroes or villains, only human beings facing each other. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did you guys come to this show?
BENEDICT WONG: To be honest, I think we only had a couple of scenes. So, once they decided that we were going to play these parts and we had all 10 episodes, when you look at all 10, it’s daunting because there’s a lot that goes on. It’s an untapped world to introduce to an audience. We found out how beautiful the production was about to be after we were there. Personally, when I stepped on set in Venice, I realized that an army of 500 people were occupying two squares and three bridges and two canals of Venice. Normally, it’s impossible for a production to shoot in Venice, and I was in the middle of it. We built the show together. Playing these two characters, for me, I only learned a little bit of surface at school. I feel like we are reintroducing historical figures, with the explorer Marco Polo and the grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, the ruler of the Mongol empire, the trading place that everybody wanted to get involved in. Having Netflix and the Weinstein Company create this platform for us to play with, with a real international cast, we’ve aimed high and with ambition. We worked hard, six days a week and for six months, and I feel like we’ve got the battle scars to show it.
LORENZO RICHELMY: We shot an adventure, but we had an adventure, altogether.
Lorenzo, how intimidating was it to take on the title role of a show of this size and scope?
RICHELMY: It’s wonderful. I had the occasion to bring this character to the screen, and I’m having a blast. I’m Italian, and Italians now are known for bad politics, bad economy and pizza, but we were slightly better than. We were really a country of poets, sailors and travelers, and Marco Polo is one of them. When you first think of Marco Polo, you think of the merchant man. The creator of this series came to us and gave us a ton of books about the history to understand that atmosphere of the Mongolian empire. You find out that this guy stayed there for 20 years, and then he brought back nothing, so what kind of merchant was he? And then, we found out that he was not a merchant. He was the man who actually built the first bridge between East and West.
WONG: Kublai noticed this uncommon perception that Marco Polo has, with the idea to explain and talk about his country so vividly that he can see it. I think Kublai utilized that and got Marco Polo to become his eyes and ears around his kingdom. For someone who is essentially the CEO of this global empire, that really became something interesting. We’re not sure of the dynamics. He’s a prisoner, at first, but it’s a bit father and son. He also becomes like a therapist to him. It’s an interesting dynamic that happens. This is only just the beginning. We’ll see what happens in 20 years time.
Benedict, obviously you had to put on some weight for this role and you look very different, physically. How did that affect your physicality and the way you carried yourself and played the character?
WONG: I put on about two and a half stone, which is about 30 pounds. By then, I was weighing in at just over 250 pounds. It really informed the character, with the way I was moving and hobbling around. My character suffered a lot from gout, and he would eat a lot of organ meat and rich food. The emotional attachment to gout is someone who likes to dominate and is impatient, so I brought that into the character. Also, with John Fusco, I wanted to find out what his Chinese animal is. He was born in the year of the earth pig, and the characteristics of an earth pig is someone who is very business astute, has a wide circle of friends around him, and has a tendency to eat and drink a lot. It felt like it was already being laid out for me. Being the CEO and being at the top of his game, he’s always watching everybody. He has an obsession with legacy and family, and of breaking this wall of the Shenyang, that Genghis Khan could never break. Once he breaks that, if he unifies China, then he’s surpassed everything that any other Mongolian has ever done before.
Because this show is so epic and it seems like you all got to do such cool things, being a part of it, what’s the coolest or most memorable moment that you had?
WONG: It was when I was in Kazakhstan. We flew to Kazakhstan and drove five hours away from the city, where the roads were no longer roads. We stopped by a place where you would normally just stay overnight, but we ended up staying there for four weeks. Every day, we traveled an hour and a half to this incredible backdrop in Kazakhstan, with mountains surrounding you. When Kublai was there fighting his brother, with all of the soldiers surrounding them, it was an epic moment.
RICHELMY: For me, it was the moment we shot the war. On any other TV series, people say, “We are going to war!,” and then you cut and you’re back from the war. They don’t have the budget to shoot a war, but we did. My best moment was when we were in the middle of this set with 300 extras fighting each other, and I was on my horse, riding as fast as I could down the valley, where I would shoot three arrows and enter into the war. I am 24 years old. I can’t imagine something more beautiful than that.
Every actor talks about how their character is the hero of his or her own story, so how do you view your character as the hero of this story?
RICHELMY: He’s not, actually. He is the hero, but just because we follow him. He is the man. He is like Ulysses in The Odyssey. He’s a man that is a hero because of his curiosity and because he never judged. He’s 17 years old and he was able to do what he did. When we think of a hero, we normally think of a person that is fictional. Marco Polo is a man who actually existed. He went to the court of the most powerful man on earth where he gained his favor, stayed beside him and counseled him for 20 years. It’s just fascinating. I would say that Marco Polo is a cultural hero, and not the type of hero that we are used to. We are telling a story of world history, and that’s beautiful and humbling. You’ll see, at the end of this season, that there are no heroes and no bad people, just a lot of human beings facing each other.
Marco Polo is now available on Netflix.