Getting to Know Z Nation’s Pisay Pao

Story by Pauline Yang
Photo by Mare Von Borstel

“Who is better off: the living or the dead?”

For Z Nation, the Syfy zombie series returning for a second season on September 11, the seemingly morbid question once asked by its creator and writer, Karl Schaefer, of the cast may seem apt. But for one of the show’s stars, Cambodian American actress Pisay Pao, who plays the mysterious Cassandra, the question is a particularly poignant one.

That’s because Pao and her parents are lucky to be alive. Pao’s parents are survivors of a civil war in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge wiped out an estimated 2 million, a quarter of Cambodia’s population, in the 1970s. They fled their native land, and Pao was born in a refugee camp in Thailand.

After her family settled in Seattle, her parents instilled in Pao values that stem from their survival. These include hard work, determination and mental and emotional strength. “I try to bring these traits to Cassandra because she is definitely a survivor and, in some ways, a refugee,” says Pao. “She is very willful, and you need to have a certain mental strength about you to go through what Cassandra has experienced.” (Spoiler alert: Not the least of which include using her sexual wiles to lure male survivors for her cannibal survivor group.)

Pao drew from a similar determined spirit when she first decided to pursue acting. She had always known in her heart that she loved performing, but as the obedient daughter, Pao focused on her studies as her parents wished, pushing acting aside as a hobby. But she was in denial about her dissatisfaction. “I was really afraid,” says Pao. “Growing up, I never saw anyone on TV or film that looked specifically like me.”

It wasn’t until a trip to an old video store that Pao realized she just might have a chance in the entertainment industry. While browsing through the DVDs, Pao came upon The Motel, the award-winning film written and directed by Michael Kang and starring Sung Kang. Never having seen the movie, she read the synopsis about an Asian boy running a motel. That was when the lightbulb went off.

“I will never forget that moment,” says Pao. “I remember picking it up and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s happening! People are accepting Asian American stories and characters into the culture.’ I just felt like this is my time. I can’t wait around anymore. I need to make my move.”

Indeed, Pao is grateful for the role models who came before her. “Other Asian Americans paved the way for me and made me feel like it was OK to do this,” says Pao. “Those are the people I really have to thank, like Lucy Liu and Mindy Kaling.”

But in a competitive industry where thousands of aspiring actresses are both beautiful and talented, how does Pao stand out? That’s when she draws inspiration from her backstory, as that of a survivor, determined to make her mark in Hollywood. Although she doesn’t remember much of her experience in the refugee camp (her family moved to the U.S. when she was 2), “it’s still a huge part of who I am and how I move about in the world,” she says. “I’m still discovering all the time what my parents went through and what they did to survive.”

And it’s that theme of survival that fuels Pao today, both in her role as Cassandra, who faces unprecedented challenges in season two (we won’t spoil that for you!), and as a human being. She hopes to one day be a strong advocate for women’s rights, especially in Southeast Asia. Her dream is to start some kind of school or program in Cambodia for the women there, the poorest of whom often end up in prostitution or human trafficking. “I don’t want them to feel powerless,” says Pao. “I don’t like to feel powerless myself.”

If her track record is any indication, she’ll tackle that project with the same determination and spirit she tackles everything else in life. And she won’t just survive – she’ll thrive.

This story was originally published in our Fall 2015 issue. Get your copy here.