The second season of Our Flag Means Death introduced us to some new characters. One of the new folks we meet is Zheng Yi Sao, a pirate who brought China to its knees, and who also is more than a little interested in Oluwande and his “softness.”
Zheng Yi Sao is based on a real-life pirate (though she lived decades after Ed and Stede roamed the open seas), and her introduction to the crew we’ve come to love is a welcome addition. And just like Ed and Stede are markedly different than their real-life counterparts, Ruibo Qian, who plays Zheng Yi on the show, brought her own take to her character as well.
“I had just closed a show—it was an adaptation of Dial M for Murder—so I was in this heightened 1950s kind of mid-Atlantic thing,” Qian told me in a recent interview. “And when I saw the scripts for Our Flag, I was like, this weirdly slots right in, like a continuation of this character that I was already playing.”
Qian shared more about her experience working on Our Flag Means Death, including how a fragrance sweepstakes portended the audition, what it was like being the newbie on set, and a certain prop she kept after production was over. Read on for our full discussion, which includes some mild spoilers for season two.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
What was your audition process like? How was Zheng Yi framed to you?
Well, it’s a funny story, and I’ll give you the short version of it. I collect fragrances, and there’s this great indie perfumer called Marissa Zappas. She was doing a giveaway of her newest collection. I never entered this kind of stuff, but she had a fragrance called Zheng Yi. And I said something in the comments like, “I’m not trying to be a pirate, but I am Chinese, I am turning 40, I want to embrace this power,” and I won the perfume. And when I got the fragrance, I looked up the character and said, “Oh, I want to play this character one day, don’t know how that will happen.”
Two weeks later, I am driving into Big Sur to go camping with my husband, and I get an email from my agent saying can you tape this by tomorrow? So I end up taping the audition in the tent, and I booked it. And it took me a long time before I figured out Zheng Yi and Jenny Sao were the same person. I was like, wow, what are the chances that I have this perfume and now I have this audition, right?
But what’s interesting about it is that I had just closed a show—it was an adaptation of Dial M for Murder—so I was in this heightened 1950s kind of mid-Atlantic thing. And when I saw the scripts for Our Flag, I was like, this weirdly slots right in, like a continuation of this character that I was already playing. And when [showrunner David Jenkins] and I spoke for the first time, he said something that made a lot of sense. He said, “Your interpretation of Zheng Yi reminded me of Don Draper of the sea.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s actually exactly what I was going for.” I didn’t have words for it but that’s exactly the archetype that I wanted to slot that into.
I can totally see that with the character as well, and also how she goes from being so chipper to so murderous at the flip of a switch. How did you approach walking that line of being a character who’s really good at her day job but her personal life’s a little bit of a mess?
I think it was all pretty intuitive because, again, the script is so brilliantly written that the nuances of it just pop out. And when you read a script like that, as an actor, everything just slots into place—there’s not that much you have to think about. It’s almost like the nooks and crannies just fit like a puzzle piece, right? At least for me, there’s not that much intellectual maneuvering about how and when to switch tactics. And I think that the cool thing about Zheng is that all of those things coexist at all times, like her level of facility with the tactician aspect of her is in direct juxtaposition to her lack of ability to be emotionally available or vulnerable or whatever. It’s all just kind of one holistic thing.
I also saw you posted on Instagram, you practicing with a sword. What was it like getting into that side of the role, of being a swashbuckling pirate?
That’s my favorite part of it really, in a lot of ways. I’ve always been interested in stage combat—that was always my favorite class in theater school. So it was really exciting to be able to marry all of those elements. And you know, in a lot of ways this project is my dream project. It’s a character that embraces humor, and vulnerability, and some drama and action, and I was just like a kid in a candy shop.
You were one of the new characters in season two: what was it like for you entering the Our Flags world and becoming part of that family?
It was really scary and very intimidating at first. These are people I’ve looked up to for most of my adult life. And I’m extremely shy, like pathologically shy as a person. I think people are sometimes surprised to hear that. But it was a process to learn a new way of working because I don’t have a lot of experience on camera, which is a whole different way of working as an actor. I learned so much by watching the seasoned professionals and everyone—the whole cast and crew—are just the most loving, welcoming group of people, so I couldn’t have been in better hands, but it was terrifying.
You also posted some great behind-the-scenes images, and it looks like everyone on cast had a good time. Do you have any particular favorite memories of scenes that you shot that stick out in your mind?
It was very early on when we shot the scene of taking over John Bartholomew’s ship, and that was the day we were walking through fire, the hallways like we’re on fire. And that was so amazing and super cool to have that level of imminent danger.
Were you able to take any props home, like that sword you have in that Instagram post?
I have one of my practice swords at home.
Do you ever bring it out?
After the third or fourth whiskey that comes out [Laughing.]
And at the end of season two, the Republic of pirates is no more, but obviously they’re still together and they’re still a family. Assuming there’s a season three, what do you hope to see happen with your character?
I mean, fucking everything. I totally defer to the genius of David and the writers, and I’m ready to dive into whatever they want to see or do.
The first two seasons of Our Flag Means Death are now streaming on Max.