It wasn’t enough that Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy faced the biggest acting challenge of his life stepping into the title role of the new Netflix series, “Marco Polo.” He also had to go through training in martial arts, archery, kung fu, horseback riding and sword fighting to be able to handle the part.
But wait, there’s more: Richelmy didn’t speak English six months before the filming started.
“I have traveled a lot and knew just enough English to order a meal,” Richelmy says. “It was an intense half year. It all went so fast I didn’t have to digest what was about to happen. I stepped on set and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
The results can be seen as Netflix releases the 10 episodes of the first season at 12:01 a.m. Friday. The series is based on Polo’s adventures in Kublai Khan’s court in 13th-century China.
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Along with Richelmy, the cast includes Zhu Zhu, Joan Chen, Benedict Wong, Remy Hi, Olivia Cheng, Claudia Kim and Tom Wu.
Richelmy had a rudimentary knowledge of Marco Polo before landing the role. As soon as he was cast, John Fusco, who created the series and is executive producer, passed on some of the research he had done. The actor used what he calls “tons of books” to better understand the atmosphere of the time and the characters.
The massive production takes Richelmy from tender moments to massive battles. He found it easy to slip into the role the day he put on the armor, grabbed his sword and charged into battle with more than 300 extras fighting all around him.
He even enjoyed getting to work on horseback. The horses were just part of the large cast and crew – representing 27 countries – that went into making the series.
One of the international actors in the cast is Joan Chen, the Chinese-American director, screenwriter and film producer best known for her work in “The Last Emperor” and “Twin Peaks.” She plays Empress Chabi, the only person Kublai Khan truly trusts.
After being cast, Chen read as many books and looked at as many documentaries as possible to prepare.
She was a little worried when she read the first two hours of the series because the character wasn’t well defined. That changed with additional episodes, until Chen felt like she had a full understanding of the role. The empress became someone Chen “truly admired.”
American audiences haven’t had may opportunities over the past decade to see Chen. She took time away from acting to have two children. She kept working with some projects in Asia, but this is the first major project for an American audience in years.
“When I directed ‘Autumn in New York’ (2000), my first child was not 1 year old, When I had my second, I knew I needed to be home more,” Chen says. “The second reason was that there wasn’t any great material. So, I went back to China to be with my children more, and I am really, really happy I did. Then this came up.”
The time away with her children proved beneficial to this role. The empress is a mother trying to mold her son into an emperor.
Both Chen and Richelmy agree that the adventures of Marco Polo are enough to make this an entertaining production. They both say the story is about how Marco Polo wanted to embrace other cultures.
“We really need people like that, to try to understand other cultures,” Richelmy says. “We have wars because people are not willing to understand how truly interesting other people can be. We will find there is no need to have war. I hope (this) is going to wake up people a little. I want people to be horny about history. The base of the script is true. We have built on all the entertainment.”
In the series, Marco Polo is told that he’s about to enjoy the greatest adventure of all. Richelmy easily could relate.
“This is greatest adventure I’ve ever faced in a job way,” he says. “This was the biggest challenge ever.”