Published on October 19th, 2020 | by gareth0
Talking Mulan And Warrior With Actor Chen Tang
Recently I spoke with Actor Chen Tang who is staring in the new live-action version of “Mulan” as well as the new Cinemax series Warrior.
How did you get into acting and what was your big break?
I wish I could tell you a crazy epic story of how I got into it, but it’s pretty pedestrian. I never really thought I would ever be an actor growing up. I actually originally wanted to join the military, but my mother at the time persuaded me to give college a try for a year. So, I was at the University of Miami studying business at the time, and I had to take a fine arts class, so I chose acting since it sounded fun. Turns out I really enjoyed it, and the professor at the time asked me to audition for some of the school plays. I ended up getting into a show and I just realized that it was so enjoyable that I wanted to pursue it for a job. The great thing is it never really felt like “work” if that makes sense.
As far as “big breaks” go, I’ve actually never liked that word. It makes it feel like there’s some sort of mythical destination or something. I’d say, every job is a big break for me–it’s always ongoing. Journey is the reward kind of thing you know?
What sort of prep work did you do for “Mulan”?
Four words: Running. My. Ass. Off. We were thrown into this crazy boot camp as soon as we arrived in New Zealand, and we pretty much trained every Monday through Friday six to eight hours a day total for the rest of the shoot. A big part of it was the physical fitness, since Niki Caro wanted to give us the opportunity to feel and look like we were these farmer-laborer-soldiers, but we also had hours of stunts, weapons training, even archery and horseback riding. It gave us all so much–the chemistry and relationships you make going through something that intense just helps so much when it came time to shoot.
What do you remember most about your work in Mulan?
I’m actually really happy that I looked and felt so different that my everyday self as Yao. I get the comment all the time that people couldn’t fully recognize me, and that’s a high compliment for me. I wanted to find this gruff, manly man–the kind of guy who works with his hands his whole life, as well as bring in the essence of the cartoon version of Yao. And the cool thing that I experienced was when I was living in that vibe for a while, it really just changes you on a deep, subconscious level. I’d do and say things off set without realizing that I would never do normally, and it just felt good to live in a different side of myself.
Any memorable moments that stand out?
One of my favorite parts of my experience in New Zealand was that I learned basic blacksmithing! To go off the question before, I just had this inkling that I wanted to find a connection with a gruff masculinity–I just needed to do stuff with my hands, you know? So I had created for myself that Yao was a blacksmith’s son from the hill tribes of Southern China. It was a secret thing for me, but I just connected to that vibe instantly. I actually went and found a blacksmith in Auckland–and he happened to have the only traditional furnace in the entire Australia/New Zealand region. I found him at the Auckland Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) and he actually had a working workshop there. I asked him for lessons and… well, he taught me how to work the fire. I actually made a knife by the end of it. You can’t imagine how much that gave me–just smelling the fumes and hammering steel when it comes out of the fire–I just felt like Yao!
How would you compare/contrast the live action Mulan vs the Animated original?
I like to call our live action a spiritual successor to the animated. Actually It’s funny that you guys call it the original since the original to me is our folklore story of Hua Mulan, but nonetheless I’m still a big fan of the cartoon. We wanted to bring some elements and some of the essence of the cartoon while really taking a creative risk with the fantasy, as well as bringing in lots of elements of our Chinese culture. Overall, I feel that it’s much more grounded emotionally, and it just feels wide and epic.
What do you hope that audiences will take away from the film?
I really want audiences to just be entertained, and enjoy themselves! It sounds simplistic but honestly, I really mean it. Sometimes we get so caught up in the world (especially these days) and forget to just have some fun. It’s the entertainment industry after all, right? The film is really emotionally honest, especially in the moments with Mulan and her family, but overall I just loved our film because it’s a really fun, exciting ride for me!
In regards to Warrior; what can you tell us about your character?
So I play Hong, and in a nutshell he’s a happy-go-lucky, not-quite-right-in-the-head, genuinely nice guy… who happens to be a vicious mass murdering gang member. I’m a new addition to the cast this season, and Hong is a new fighter for the biggest gang (called “tongs” in the story and in history) who was brought over to America from the old country to add muscle for a simmering Chinatown gang war. And Hong has secrets… and it’s a fresh start for him. He will go on some merry adventures in the wild west, let’s just say that.
How is the action in the series?
Best on TV. Yes, I’m biased. No, I don’t mind. But seriously though, the action and stunts on this show, I’ll stack it up to anything out there right now. Everything was so well thought out, so nuanced, and specific and grounded. And it’s always weaved into the story in a way that tells a story in itself. But it’s really stunning, and epic and thrilling to watch too! I’m honored to have been able be a part of a legacy that Bruce Lee himself started. For me, the action and stunts were a big highlight of our show.
How is the stuntwork and action compared to other projects you have done?
Well, the truth is, Warrior is the first show I had done extensive stunts for. Mulan had action, and we trained plenty, but it’s not in the same style and intensity as this one. Warrior was the first show I’ve done that I felt like, “wow, THIS is what doing action and stunt work takes!” I have so much respect for stunt performers, and even more so now that I felt like I had a taste of just what it consists of. The amount of training (as well as recovery for your body to do more work) made me feel some days like this is what being a professional athlete feels like.
How would you like your character to grow as the series unfolds?
Personally, I’d love to explore and show more of the backstory of where Hong came from. What’s his deal? What matters to him? Why does he do the things he does? Who does he love and care for? As a Chinese person, let me tell you: during that time in the 19th century, China was not sunshine and lollipops. I had created all this backstory for Hong, and to be able to express that would be incredible. It would shed a light not only on this human being, but also the people who lived in that time and a history that is often, sadly, underrepresented.
What challenged you the most about the part?
Definitely the physical part. And not in the way you probably think. What made it very challenging for me was the fact I was coming from this completely different physicality as Yao in Mulan. I shot the series right after finishing up in New Zealand, and I was super duper tight and wound up. Like, if Yao was a compacted concrete brick, Hong was a lithe, snakelike whip. I couldn’t have imagined just how much work and how painful it is to loosen your body up in that short of a time. We did hours and hours of mobility work, followed by hours and hours of recovery work with physical therapy and training to keep my body healthy. Day after day. There were some days when I would be put through stretches that the discomfort was blinding for me. But it was so worth it, to be able to move and fight like how we wanted to.
What else do you have coming up?
For now, I’m exploring different projects. Nothing for sure on the horizon, but I’m looking at some scripts, and auditioning as usual. I’d love to do an indie character-driven drama in the vein of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Something that lets me transform again.
How have you been spending your time in isolation?
Workin’ on my craft. Workin’ on my craft. Luckily I’ve been staying pretty healthy, but I’ve made good efforts to stay mentally healthy and positive as well. It can be easy for me to go into this dark hole if I’m not careful. So I really am vigilant about stayin’ workin’. I just love what I do, and I love working on my game, so it really keeps me grounded and motivated.
Photo credit – Ryan West Photo