The Many Layers of Kung Fu’s Ben Levin

The star of the CW series discusses the upcoming new season (which will include some of his own, original music).

by Max Gao

A portrait of Ben Levin
Photographed by Tony Chung

Ben Levin knows what it feels like to be caught between two worlds. As a mixed-race, Chinese-American actor, Levin—who is best known for playing an Alpha werewolf on the Vampire Diaries spin-off Legacies and now stars as an enigmatic vigilante on the CW’s modern reimagining of Kung Fu—has spent most of his career fighting to be seen and heard. And now, TV producers are beginning to take notice.

Born and raised in New York City, Levin first caught the acting bug after enrolling in a nonprofit youth theater company and going to local shows with his mother, who publishes a monthly trade magazine for entertainment technicians. He made his professional acting debut, as a teenager, opposite Kevin Kline in The Emperor’s Club and attended LaGuardia, the prestigious Manhattan performing arts high school. After graduating from New York University in 2009, Levin cut his teeth on the daytime soap opera As the World Turns and racked up a few guest-starring credits on Arrested Development and Time After Time—all while working odd jobs to make ends meet.

But it wasn’t until early 2018 that Levin landed his biggest role to date—on Legacies, the third show in the Vampire Diaries universe (which was unceremoniously canceled in May). For four seasons, the actor played Jed Tien, a student at the Salvatore Boarding School whose rugged exterior masked the abuse of a toxic father—and the complicated feelings he harbored for a similarly cursed demigod named Ben (played by Fire Island’s Zane Phillips).

The role, which marked his first time as a series regular, was particularly meaningful for Levin: Not only was he able to give the character his mother’s maiden name, but he has also received messages of gratitude from queer Asian fans, who never expected to see parts of their own struggles with identity play out on a major show. “That representation is what it’s all about for me, as an actor,” Levin tells W over Zoom. “If it’s meaningful to somebody, or helps somebody, that’s a gift.”

Phillips, an openly gay actor who played Levin’s love interest in the final season, says Levin’s sincerity is genuine. Phillips recalls feeling trepidation on his first day on the Legacies set, before Levin took it upon himself to welcome him with open arms. “One of Ben’s greatest talents is to make you feel extraordinarily comfortable, and I felt safe to invest in an actual working friendship with him,” Phillips says. “Honestly, I don’t know if the Jed/Ben relationship would have worked otherwise. He takes his work seriously without taking himself seriously.”

For Levin, life has a funny way of working out. Nearly three years ago, he was in the running to play Henry Yan on Kung Fu (the role ultimately went to his friend Eddie Liu). But when it was revealed Legacies wasn’t coming back for another season, Olivia Liang—who had worked with Levin on the drama prior to leading Kung Fu—texted her showrunners, Christina M. Kim and Robert Berens, to pitch him as her character’s new love interest.

While the producers still went through the formal casting process, it soon became clear that Levin, who did a chemistry read with Liang over Zoom while vacationing in Sweden, was the best man for the job. “We were about 30 seconds into the audition when we just knew Ben was it,” says Kim, the creator of Kung Fu. “He had everything we were looking for: gravitas, humor, charm, and this confidence that would make him the perfect character to play off of Nicky.”

“Ben thinks deeply about even the smallest moments, so that he can make the most of them,” Liang adds. “But what stood out the most was how excited Christina, Bob, and Joe [Menendez] were about him. Joe, our producing director, was freaking out so much that his Cuban-Floridian accent slipped out. He also got really excited about Ben’s floppy hair.”

In the new season of the hit action-adventure series, which airs Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. on the CW, Levin plays Bo Han, a mysterious jack-of-all-trades who crosses paths with Nicky Shen, a Chinese American woman who uses her martial arts skills to protect her hometown of San Francisco. “When Bo first sees Nicky [during a fight with a group of gangsters in Oakland], he doesn’t intend to jump into that fight, but he does, because he’s drawn to her,” Levin says. “Bo does have some secrets and a troubled past, and I think he sees righteousness in her.”

Levin didn’t expect to get emotional when he set foot on the Vancouver set of Kung Fu, which is the first network drama to feature a predominantly Asian cast. But having spent most of his career as one of the only Asian Americans in an ensemble, he immediately noticed a difference. (The tight-knit group, Levin says, often hits the local Chinatown and participates in Saturday laser tag sessions.) “Everybody is aware that we are lucky to be here,” he says. “There’s not this jaded feeling, which I know exists in most situations in this industry.”

The show has allowed him to reconnect with a part of his heritage that he had unconsciously put off, because he didn’t have answers about his own family history in China. “I think the show has a lot of integrity with the culture. I was just at a family dinner scene, and the food and dishware had to look right,” he says. “As somebody who is a little less in touch with that side of myself, I’m enjoying soaking it all up and slowly but steadily getting closer to seeing how some of these other actors grew up, which was different from me.”

In addition to acting, Levin is also a musician, using the moniker Grasshapa—an homage to both the original Kung Fu, in which the protagonist was nicknamed “Grasshopper,” and his half-Asian heritage and training in martial arts. Music, to him, is “a way to combat the chaos that is acting,” because it’s one of the few things he can control creatively. After releasing his debut album, Green, in 2019, Levin says he and his producer are now sitting on “almost a full second album.” One of the album’s songs, titled “Rotate,” will be featured on this week’s episode of Kung Fu.

Levin, who is set to recur on two soon-to-be-revealed animated comedies, says he aims to “do something immersive” next—something that doesn’t move at the same pace of a CW show. “I’d love to get on something à la Better Call Saul, Ramy, Masters of None, or a single-cam comedy—something really irreverent and out there,” he says. While he concedes that writing a song is much easier than writing a screenplay, Levin is also teasing out an idea for a personal project. “It would be about mixed identity: my Chinese and Jewish sides, which I know ostensibly little about, in terms of how it relates to me,” Levin reveals. “And it would probably include a bit of the struggling, down-on-my-luck character.”

Having diversity within Asian characters is ultimately Levin’s greatest hope. “It’s key that we see people who are a bit more confused with their identity, who grew up mixed and never felt like they had a foot in either door,” the actor says. “I’m rooting for more Asian characters that don’t fight; that are not sexless; that aren’t great at math or great hackers. When I think of a hero, I still think of a Matt Damon-looking guy, and I’m trying in my mind to change that. It’s more than just Keanu [Reeves]. I like the Steven Yeuns, the Randall Parks—these creators who are shining a new light. That is the way to teach the world and help that person who is not used to seeing a hero like themselves.”