‘Marco Polo’ offers grand look at adventurer

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 released the 10 episodes of the first season Friday. The series is based on Polo’s adventures in Kublai Khan’s court in 13th century China.

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.

“When I was in school, we read that Marco Polo was a merchant. I was a kid, so I didn’t ask too many questions,” Richelmy says. “Now I realize that he was gone trading for 20 years but brought nothing back. He didn’t stay in China for 20 years for the noodles.

“He wanted to see this great empire. When he came back to Italy talking about this empire that was greater than the Italians, the Pope couldn’t accept that anyone was more powerful than him. Now we know 85 percent of what Marco Polo said was true. He was so open-minded and the first man to build a bridge between East and West.”

Castmate Joan Chen – the Chinese-American director, screenwriter and film producer – 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. Making sure she understands a character’s history – whether the role is based on fact or fiction – is important to Chen.

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.”

“As soon as I get to a set, I begin to inhabit that world,” Chen says.

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 Marco Polo wanting 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 there 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.”