When viewers first meet Z Nation’s Cassandra, played by Pisay Pao, she is trapped alone in a cage surrounded by zombies. Between the bars, their arms stretch out at her while she keeps her head down and her body curled. How did she get there?
Set three years after a zombie virus has ravaged the United States, TV series Z Nation sees a group of strangers banding together to protect Murphy (Keith Allan), the only person who has survived the virus (failing to turn into a zombie even after multiple bites).
As his antibodies are key to discovering a vaccine for the virus, the group, which starts out in New York, must safely bring Murphy to a research lab in California.
The mysterious Cassandra eventually becomes a member of the group but it seems like she’s hiding something.
“Cassandra being a woman alone in the apocalypse makes her very vulnerable which is the reason why she has so many walls up,” Pao says in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
“She’s got a lot of secrets. She doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve … She’s very protective of herself and I think a huge part of that has to do with being a woman, alone, in the apocalypse,” Pao reveals.
The Cambodian-American actress recalls landing the role on Z Nation, which has been renewed for a third season in the US: “I remember feeling like I didn’t want to do it because it was a zombie show.”
Pao was later persuaded by her agent to audition for the role and the rest is history.
Pao was born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Cambodian parents. At the age of two, she moved to Seattle, Washington in the US.
Asked what sets Z Nation apart from other zombie-themed shows, Pao says there’s a sense of humour to it. “It’s so so funny. Obviously stories about zombies and the apocalypse are going to be scary and they are going to be really dramatic. And not to say that we don’t have drama and horror in our show, but it’s a really fun journey,” she says.
1. You didn’t want to star in a zombie show initially. Why?
I’m scared of zombies! (laughs) I believe that they are real. I believe that one day there could be a virus that gets released and that people could run around and be eating each other’s brains out. I was scared.
I’ll be honest with you. I thought that I’d be scared everyday going to work and that just didn’t sound like a fun job.
2. Are there similarities between you and your character?
The thing that made me go in for the role was that I really did relate to Cassandra. My parents are refugees of war and we were in a Thai refugee camp before coming to America.
So I feel that there is a part of me which is very much about survival because of my parents. I really related to Cassandra’s strengths and the fighter in her.
I think that we’ve seen in certain zombie shows and movies that it’s not people just getting eaten by zombies or dying from being attacked but how some people give up when something horrific happens.
So I really related to her inner strength and her willingness to hold on to life no matter what the cost was.
3. Was it tough breaking into Hollywood?
I started out acting in Seattle, Washington and there weren’t a lot of Asian actresses there.
So, surprisingly, getting into acting was very easy for me and then when I came to Los Angeles, I always knew it was going to be hard. I never ever thought, “Oh my god! I’m going to become a movie star and it’s going to happen so quickly.” I always knew that it would require a lot of hard work and I think that when you have that mindset, anything is possible if you’re willing to put the work into it.
For me, it hasn’t been as hard as what I’ve been told it would be. It’s been a really beautiful experience and because of that I feel very, very blessed.
4. A number of Asian actors are playing lead roles on TV these days such as Daniel Wu and Priyanka Chopra. Do you think it’s a good time for Asian actors?
Absolutely! A thousand percent. It’s a really great time for Asian actors.
Growing up, I didn’t relate to any Asian actors that I saw on TV, and there were a few. But they all, to me, seemed like they were from China or Japan or Korea. They were lighter-skinned …
Now we have people like Mindy Kaling who I relate to and admire. Asia is a really big place and so we’re going to have a variety of people from all looks and backgrounds and I love that the scope has opened up.
5. How connected are you to the Cambodian culture? Do you speak Khmer?
Yes, my parents refused to learn English. I think a part of them wanted to retain our language. So, I actually only speak Khmer with them.
My father is very proud and patriotic. I’ve had family members who were in the Cambodian parliament. We have a patriotic family and so I feel really strongly about my culture and where I’m from despite the fact that I wasn’t born in Cambodia.
Z Nation airs every Wednesday at 10.50pm on Syfy (HyppTV 611).