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Performer of The Month - Readers’ Choice Most Outstanding Performer of December - Olivia Cheng

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This article was written by Aimee Hicks and Sandi. The article was edited by Donna Cromeans (DJRiter). The open and close of the article were written by Aimee Hicks. Prepared for publishing by Aimee Hicks.

Taking place in 1878’s San Francisco, Warrior showcases the incredible resiliency of Chinese immigrants striving to make their mark on America amidst the hardships and cruelty heaped on them by a country that hundreds of years later still hasn’t left behind the darkest parts of its nature. The incredible production team and cast of this series are committed to doing justice to the spirit and stories of what Chinese immigrants had to do to survive. This is a story that is as much a grim reflection of the present as the past. Warrior owes its excellence not only to the quality of its storytelling but also to its compelling array of characters that demonstrate the unfathomable fortitude that sustained the real-life counterparts of the people represented in the series. Chief amongst the ensemble is Olivia Cheng’s Ah Toy, the embodiment of countless identities: madam, survivor, entrepreneur, protector, and, beyond all else, a warrior. To be all these things at once requires singular talent and proficiency, and Cheng infuses heart and soul into Ah Toy with the same ferocity and conviction that Ah Toy wields when striking down her enemies.

Cheng propels Ah Toy through a perilous world of dangerous battles, complex business dealings, unexpected romance, and brutal injuries. In every moment, she shows her character as both a seasoned, unforgiving warrior and a woman alone in a world determined to destroy her; even as most people wouldn’t dare to cross her. She also impressively captured the deep spiritual loneliness that the character had to endure. Cheng spent the first half of the season showing Ah Toy as that powerful protector thwarting those trying to kill her fellow Chinese and captured the equally electric vulnerability of her character when Ah Toy found her heart unexpectedly captured by Nellie (Miranda Raison). As the season ended with Man On The Wall (2x10), Cheng knitted Ah Toy back together as the latter realized she needed care from others and found endurance through the same vulnerability and strength that had always enabled her survival and triumph. Ah Toy went on a hell of a journey during this season and Cheng brought every intense moment to life with profound fervor. For her work in the season finale, Man On The Wall, Olivia Cheng is SpoilerTV’s December Readers’ Choice Performer of the Month.

Continue reading below to find out our thoughts regarding her performance. After reading, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

The lead-up to the season finale saw Ah Toy confronted with a fight for her life, her business, and the woman she was rapidly falling for. The injuries she sustained carried over into the season finale effectively sidelining her from the fight and leaving her vulnerable. That put Cheng in a position to have to portray Ah Toy in a more subdued way, reliant on others. How do you think Cheng portrayed the recovering Ah Toy differently in comparison to her normal fierce warrior ways? Were you surprised to see Ah Toy so vulnerable? Beyond the makeup that portrayed grave injury, how did Cheng’s performance help to convey what the character was physically experiencing?

Aimee: Ah Toy is a complicated character. She can be a calculated businesswoman then easily transition into warrior mode to defend her fellow immigrants. She seems comfortable in all aspects of her life, but the one thing that is constant is she is almost always in control, that is until these injuries put her on her back fighting for her life. Suddenly she was reliant on others which was almost as jarring for the audience as the character. Even with the character critically injured, I think Cheng did a brilliant job of not letting Ah Toy’s light fade. Not even those horrific injuries were able to dim her inner strength. It takes extreme control for a performer to show vulnerability and strength at the same time. In this episode, Cheng played Ah Toy a little more reserved and even allowed the character to smile a bit more than normal even despite her horrific injuries. The injuries and need to rely on others seemed to humble Ah Toy ever so slightly and it was interesting to see Cheng show this aspect of the character while, as I mentioned above, not losing the inner strength that defines the character.

Sandi: Ah Toy made incredibly good use of masks when dealing with people, especially in her business dealings but to a certain extent in her private life too, as I suppose many successful women of her time had to learn. Hiding who she really was and what she was capable of from so many others is the only reason she would have been able to amass the wealth and standing she had, yet she never forgot how vulnerable she could be or how easily it can be taken away from her in the blink of an eye. As she could not rely on her physical strength after the fight that took place in All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic (2x8) she had to open herself up to the help of others in a way she may not be entirely comfortable with. Her scenes with Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) in a previous episode helped her realize this I think, as has her relationships with Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) and Nellie.

In some ways, I was surprised that they took her injuries so far in the show, mainly as most other characters recover from theirs quickly, although I realize this is done for necessity's sake. Seeing Ah Toy in this new way was vital not only for her own character but for those who reacted to it too; how else would we have seen the frank and honest side of Mai Ling during Enter the Dragon (2x9), or have Nellie come to accept the darker side of her lover’s past without living through it with her. Robbed her of normal sass it could be easy to overplay the role of broken woman or indignant patient, yet Cheng pitched the defenselessness and wounded Ah Toy perfectly.

Season 2 introduced the character of Nellie who ended up having a significant impact on Ah Toy. How does Cheng’s performance differ when she is portraying Ah Toy with Ah Sahm or any of the other main characters versus how she portrays her character opposite of Nellie?

Aimee: This is an interesting topic to look at. In most dynamics that Cheng gets to portray we see that Ah Toy is very much in charge. Even with Ah Sahm, she is usually the domineering presence in the scene. That allows Cheng to have a very dominant and commanding impact on a scene, but that also means she must convey a certain coldness in many of Ah Toy’s interactions. With Nellie, it is quite different, and we saw that in this episode. With Nellie we see Cheng allow Ah Toy to yield some control to her which is a fascinating dynamic shift to see. When Cheng is in a scene with Koji there is this ease between them. The way they play the dynamic allows the characters to appear as almost equals, but it’s always hanging there that at any moment Ah Toy could put him in his place if he starts acting in an unproductive way. Then to contrast that we’ve seen the scenes that Cheng shares with Raison and even from their very first scene together it was obvious that Cheng was the one who was pulling the bravado of her character in check to allow Raison’s Nellie to edge in and be the big presence. That was again showcased in this episode when Nellie enters the brothel to find Ah Toy in bed injured and sick. Cheng had let Ah Toy’s injuries show when she was working with Koji, however, Ah Toy still seemed in command of their interaction. As soon as Raison brought Nellie into the scene, Cheng let Ah Toy yield to Nellie fussing over her despite Cheng letting some of Ah Toy’s snark to still shine through. To so effortlessly transition between such different character dynamics in the same scene so readily is astonishing. Another great display of their unique dynamic came during a quick moment near the end of their scene together, just as Ah Sahm had left, where Cheng has Ah Toy study Nellie. In that singular moment, it was clear, just through the facial expressions Cheng was displaying, that Ah Toy had come to a decision that Nellie deserved the truth. The next moment Ah Toy admitted to having done “many bad things”, and the way Cheng delivered that short line expressed so much pain and showed a truthful vulnerability that not many other characters, if any other character, is worthy of. That short exchange showed how the Ah Toy and Nellie pairing is so different from other dynamics Cheng gets to portray.

Sandi: There was a lot of mistrust there at the start with Nellie, which comes from how the Chinese have been treated since arriving in the States. As I said above, Ah Toy generally wears masks to become what the other person expects her to be and then uses flattery or misdirects them to her benefit. The only characters with whom this charade has been lowered before was Ah Sahm to some extent, and of course, Lai (Jenny Umbhau), in whom she recognized something of herself, perhaps. It took some time for Ah Toy to understand that Nellie’s motives were not altruistic, that she was just taking a moral stance and attempting to better the lives of those she could in the best way possible.

I wish there had been more interaction between Ah Toy and Nellie throughout the season as their relationship has been a unique and fascinating one to follow. Cheng’s first scene with Raison in The Chinese Connection (2x2) is a long way from where we see the two of them a few meetings later, falling for each other during a visit at Nellie’s vineyard. Yet this is still a very believable affair between the two women, in large part thanks to the way Cheng has allowed her character’s fragility to be exposed when they are together. We have learned this season that, very much like the real-life Ah Toy, she too had to fight for her own existence ever since stepping foot off the boat from China, with an Alpha personality that shined through everything she did. Allowing her to fall in love let Cheng chip away at that part of Ah Toy’s humanity she had ignored for so long until she is able to finally admit to Nellie that she has not been a good person. It has been wonderful to watch it develop through the season.

Ah Toy has been portrayed as a businesswoman, an expert swordsman, and a fierce defender of those she cares about. Which of those aspects of the character do you most enjoy watching Cheng portray? If the show does get picked up by HBO Max for a third season, what do you hope the writers do with Ah Toy that will maximize their opportunity to capitalize on Cheng’s immense range and skill? 

Aimee: Cheng has been entrusted with a multilayered character in Ah Toy and that does require a lot of character work. While I adore watching her charm her way out of trouble regarding the brothel or wield a sword like an extension of her own arm, I have to say my favorite side of Ah Toy is when she is protecting the people she cares about. It is the gentler quiet moments with other characters where Cheng really gets to shine. The first time I saw Cheng portray Ah Toy’s more tender side it was a bit of a shock because I had this idea of her as just a calculated brothel mistress, but she quickly proved to be so much more. She fought with everything she had to defend those she cared about as she showed when she put it all on the line to protect her business and Nellie in All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic. What I’d like to see in a potential third season would be more of the same. What they have been doing with the character isn’t broken. In fact, what they write is a perfect match for Cheng and she delivers on their stories with expert finesse. I would like to see them further develop this fledgling relationship, both the personal and professional aspects, that they set the foundation for this season. Nellie allows Ah Toy to relax and be a version of herself that she may have been before she came over to America with her husband. It is entirely possible that Nellie is the first person she has loved since him. This storyline gave Cheng some prime material to dig into to explore the deep inner workings of Ah Toy and in her skilled hands, this is a storyline that could really produce even more extraordinary performances from this skillful actress.

Sandi: Ah Toy’s intense loyalty is one of the aspects I greatly admire about the character. She will fight tooth and claw for those she cares about or for her countrymen if they are being wronged and take in those who need protection. I adored her friendship with Lai and how it grew over the two seasons, for example, and my heart broke when she knew that she had to leave her behind at Nellie’s to keep her from becoming a monster. Cheng’s expressions and body language speak volumes in scenes like this where a single look can convey so many more thoughts and emotions than words.

If there is a third season then I can’t see Ah Toy hanging up her sword for good any time soon, although I could see that perhaps for a chance to make her and Nellie work. She may feel like she must. I would like to see more of how they go about rescuing more women from the brothels, and how they find the best way of doing that. We saw Mayor Buckley (Langley Kirkwood) mention that he was going to be enforcing laws, which was how the historical Ah Toy was finally put out of business, so I can see that becoming an obstacle that could force more violence into their lives no matter what. Seeing the push and pull of her choosing between Nellie or her countrymen would give Cheng some great material to play with.

This episode was largely about Ah Toy dealing with the physical and emotional repercussions of her injuries, but this whole season was really a showcase for Cheng. What were some of your favorite performances by her from throughout the season?

Aimee: I have three favorite scenes that are standouts for me that weren’t in the season finale. The first came in Not For A Drink, A Fuck, Or A Goddamn Prayer (2x5) in the wine storage at the winery with Nellie. It was the first time we’d really seen Ah Toy emotional and the way Cheng portrayed that was heartbreaking from the quiver of her chin when she told Nellie about her grandmother to her accepting and returning the kiss. That seemed to signal her accepting Nellie as the one person that she would allow to look after her for once. This scene was a departure from Ah Toy’s normal self-control which gave Cheng room to play with the deep emotional well inside of Ah Toy and it was perfectly executed. She made the audience feel the explosion of emotions that had boiled up inside of Ah Toy while visiting the winery and feeling as if she was back home in China.

The next scene came in If You Wait By The River Long Enough... (2x7) when Ah Toy made love with Nellie and their conversation afterward. This was the first time where we got definitive proof that Ah Toy had accepted Nellie as not just a lover, but an equal to whom who she was willing to yield some control. When Nellie pinned her down there was this telling smile that Cheng shot up that spoke volumes to Ah Toy’s surprise and her willingness to hand over control to her new partner for this moment, something we’d never seen before in a sex scene regarding this character. There was a lot of passion in that encounter, but it was given real depth by the conversation that followed. It showed that while these two characters enjoyed each other’s company it was also the birth of them as a powerful force together. This encounter sparked the ember that would lead Ah Toy to change up her business dealings because she saw the strength in her new partner. Nellie proved herself a strong woman both in her principal and action and Cheng plainly showed that Ah Toy was immensely attracted to that. This scene also held only the second deeply personal background story we’ve seen from her as she talked so lovingly about her murdered husband and so candidly regarding how she ended up in America. Throughout this part of the scene, you could see Ah Toy’s fond memory and deep pain in the way Cheng fought to control Ah Toy’s emotions while conveying such a deeply personal and heartbreaking story. Another scene that proved why Cheng’s at her best when given deep rich material to dig into.

The final scene was in Enter The Dragon (2x9) where Ah Toy and Mai Ling were a united front for one evening while Mai Ling tended to Ah Toy’s wounds. They had this deep discussion about how on that night they both were just Chinese but the next day they would go back to being the version of themselves that refuses to submit and go back to their old lives. It was the first time we’ve really seen these two characters be civil to each other and the first time Cheng and Doan really shared a significant scene. They were brilliant. Cheng really captured Ah Toy’s immense pain in this scene, but also her inner strength. When Doan’s Mai Ling was stitching up Ah Toy the anguish on Cheng’s face was so palpable that it was easy to imagine that needle piercing Ah Toy’s raw skin. Despite all the injuries her character sustained, she showcased how collected and focused Ah Toy is even in the toughest of circumstances with only an enemy by her side to survive a dark night. Cheng is fierce in her conviction to portraying Ah Toy’s strength no matter the situation. Even in immense pain she makes sure the audience can’t forget how powerful this character is.

Sandi: Some of my favorite scenes must be where Cheng has been allowed to stretch herself emotionally, such as when she says goodbye to Lai in If You Wait by the River Long Enough... (2x7) or physically during her fight sequences. The scene in which I think she stands out the most is probably in Enter the Dragon, where she is forced to accept help from Mai Ling. It was the first time Cheng really had a chance to dig deep down and bring a side of her character which Ah Toy had been burying for so long.

That weakness, which both see as being so detrimental to them if it were to be expressed now, they are both in such positions of power, is something I was surprised to see either of them admit, especially to each other. But as Mai Ling said, “Today, we are Chinese, they are not” and there is nothing like the threat of death to bring even enemies closer together.

Which scene from the season finale do you think Cheng delivered her best performance? What about that particular scene most stood out to you?

Aimee: The scene in Ah Toy’s bedroom with Ah Sahm and Nellie was a strong scene that carried on a trend from this season of allowing Cheng to portray the heart that Ah Toy normally kept hidden away. This scene highlighted the two sides of Ah Toy, the tough brothel Madame who can sustain horrific injuries and still be smiling and making it clear she can take care of herself. That in contrast to when Nellie entered the scene and Cheng softened Ah Toy exponentially almost allowing the character to melt into Nellie’s touch and comfort. There are these clashing sides to Ah Toy and Cheng knows exactly which side of the character to unleash given the dynamic she has established with whomever she shares a scene. She has a different acting dynamic with Koji versus Raison and the way she navigated sharing a scene with them both while not compromising the base for either dynamic was quite the feat. Then came the latter half of the scene she shared solely with Raison, it was just a sweet tender moment where we got to see Ah Toy genuinely surprised that not even her dark past could drive Nellie away. Cheng has impeccable control of her facial expressions and knows how to convey a lot of emotion through her eyes and in this scene her face and eyes conveyed awe and perhaps the birth of Ah Toy feeling true love for the first time since she lost her husband all those years ago. When she touched her forehead to Raison’s and closed her eyes the way the tension left her body allowed Cheng to convey so much with such a little gesture. It was a strong scene in my opinion, from her work with Koji and their fun banter to her poignant work with Raison, it all hit right on point to convey everything this scene needed to work so brilliantly.

Sandi: Of Cheng’s two scenes in the finale I think I preferred the first one more, only slightly though. She was one of the first people to take an interest in Ah Sahm, the itchy onion, and recognize his potential, so it feels right for her to be with him when he sees the huge portrait of himself up on the walls of Chinatown after the riot. For so long Ah Toy has been fighting in the shadows for her people, but now she realizes that they need a hero in the light to be the one to lead the way forward for them instead, which is as satisfying an arc as any to leave both two characters on, whether this show gets picked up for a third season or not.

What are your final thoughts on Olivia Cheng winning this recognition?

Aimee: I’ll be honest, I only learned about this series in the waning days of December. By happenstance, I had come across some scenes from this episode, one of which included Cheng, and they intrigued me. As fate would have it, a few days later both seasons dropped on HBO Max and I tentatively sat down to watch it only to get sucked in. Cheng’s Ah Toy immediately became one of my favorite characters, though I must admit that I like almost all the characters on the show for varying different reasons. There is just something about Ah Toy that is so enchanting and that is all down to Cheng and her performance. That charismatic nature is entirely due to Cheng and her ability to charm the audience as readily as Ah Toy charms her patrons. I am thrilled that she won this title not only because she is very deserving of it, but also because she is an amazing ambassador for the show to showcase the talent of this cast. She is an actress that has a lot more to offer not only as this character, if the series gets renewed, that is, but also in her career in general. Her physicality in fight sequences and her wide emotional range will almost certainly and deservedly help her name grow within the industry.

Sandi: This season of Warrior has built on the successes of the first, in no small part thanks to Cheng’s fierce yet sensitive portrayal of Ah Toy, the only character based on a historical person. It’s an award she thoroughly deserves, and I only hope that we will be seeing more of her, and the rest of the cast, in the future.

This season of Warrior threw one challenge after another towards Ah Toy giving Cheng a rich plethora of material to work with. She gave the fight scenes all the strength and ferocity they needed while giving the deeper emotional scenes all the heart they demanded. With the skills of an expert level juggler, she transitioned between all the different qualities and layers that make Ah Toy such a complex character. The season finale was a great culmination of the journey that Ah Toy went on this season and Cheng made sure that she portrayed the evolution in a profoundly compelling way. For her skilled performance in the season finale, Olivia Cheng is SpoilerTV’s Readers’ Choice December Performer of the Month.

Please use the comments to discuss all your favorite parts of Olivia Cheng’s performance in Man On The Wall.

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