Chen Tang – Destiny
Words + Interview By Tyrone Davis
Over the last few years, Disney has released a few live action versions of its classic animated films. “Mulan” will be the latest release, tentatively scheduled for this summer. Actor Chen Tang plays the role of Yao, one of Mulan’s soldier buddies at a training camp. He and I discussed the process of him landing the role, the differences between the animated version and the live action version, working with the daughter of the late and great Bruce Lee, his upbringing and more. Very dope conversation and one of my favorites to date.
For the newer generation and those who may not have seen Disney’s 1998 animated version of “Mulan”, what is this film about?
At its heart, the Ballad of Hua Mulan is about a young girl who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her ailing father in the army, during a war against invaders. In essence, it’s about a girl who, driven by her love for her family and her duty to protect them, finds the courage and strength to lead her people and fight for what she believes in. This is a sweeping, epic story of her journey.
Other than the obvious, in what ways is the live action version of “Mulan” different from the animated film?
This version is a spiritual successor in many ways to the cartoon version. It’s quite different but still has so much of the iconic parts of the cartoon in its DNA. We wanted to tell an emotionally grounded version of the cartoon while incorporating a big part of the original Ballad of Mulan in an epic, sweeping backdrop.
Tell us about your character, “Yao”. Also, explain the process in landing the role.
I’m one of the soldier buddies Mulan befriends in the training camp. Every group of guys needs a tough guy. Yao is that tough guy. He has got a beard for God’s sake! He is full of machismo and thinks he knows what it means to be a man by throwing his weight around and sometimes bullying the weaker people around him to prove he’s a real man. But throughout the film, he finds out that being a man means to really fight for and take care of the friends around him.
The casting process for this film took a while. I heard it went on for almost two years! They wanted to make sure they found the right people, especially for Mulan obviously. My own audition process was actually pretty straightforward and I think out of the whole cast I got the easiest road in terms of how long it took. I know that some of us had multiple rounds that lasted a period of a year and a half with months of waiting in between. I, along with what feels like every other Asian actor in LA, first went in for the role of the love interest Chen Honghui (played really nicely by Yoson An). That was like in 2016! I didn’t hear back for coming in for my role until early 2018 and Debra Zane (our casting director) explained to us that they wanted to add a final guy to the squad and they needed a manly man kind of character. They brought back a bunch of us that they remembered from the initial audition. I did my first audition then got a call back with Niki Caro and felt like I really gave them what I wanted to give for this role. I found out I landed it shortly after. Overall, it was a little less than a month so I feel really fortunate about that.
You look a lot different than animated Yao, lol. Was that a conscious effort by this version’s creators or will costume, make up, etc. be a factor? Lol, they have to give you a black eye, at least.
Yeah, everybody has said that so far, haha! Don’t judge before you see me in it though! Wait till you see what I look like in the film, lol. Long story short, physically I think they wanted to keep everybody more on the real side but we DEFINITELY got tons of help with the look of our characters from costume and make up and hair. The team did such a fantastic job of making us look really “roughed up” and you really can get a sense that we could be this bunch of young farmer-laborer-soldiers. I think people might be pretty surprised at how different I look and feel in this film. We are actors after all…We don’t necessarily have to look like the character ;).
In the live action film’s trailer, I saw Mushu (the red dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy in the animated version) but I read that this character won’t be involved in that way. Being that the character was special to the animation, do you think it will matter this go round?
Yes, as much as I too loved Eddie Murphy’s Mushu, he won’t be part of this iteration. But the truth is, I’m not sure that the vibe of our film would have fit it exactly. The humor and companionship is present in a couple of other characters now.
What moments stood out to you most while on set of this film? Who did you bond with or learn from?
I’ll never forget the epic battle scene we shot in the South Island of New Zealand. They assembled a real-sized army of extras who actually all trained and marched together in their own training camp! Everything was there, drums, archers, spearmen, horses…everything. Also, we were shooting the part where we face off against the Northern Invader horde. I remember being there and we were all freezing since the mountainous highlands of the South Island was still really cold. Then, they put these huge industrial-sized fans in front of us all and turned them on to make the flags and stuff fly and every single person groaned out loud as if on cue! I remember just looking around that day, mountains and glaciers all around us and then being a part of this army and getting ready for battle and just feeling the epicness. It was thrilling and you really felt like you were in it.
I personally bonded so much with the guys in the “Squad” (Mulan and soldier buddies) that I ended up knowing everybody’s little quirks and idiosyncrasies and I just added that to the relationship we had as characters. Stuff like, Honghui (Yoson An) would totally try to take the lead in all our training or Po (Doua Moua) would DEFINITELY sneak to go get donuts on breaks even the night before battle. It made it so fun to add all these little but very real details for me.
Overall, what do you think is the message of the film?
Never let anyone tell you who or what you should be. If you believe in something strongly enough, if something like your family and protecting them matters enough to you, you can do things you never thought possible.
The trailer looks amazing and I see quite a few Asian actors I am either a fan of or familiar with. What does the climate look like for Asians in Hollywood right now from your perspective?
I think we finally made it! Hopefully it sticks this time. Honestly, the world now is so open and receptive finally to diversity and it’s so encouraging for my fellow Asian brothers and sisters in the industry. We need our own truthful stories now more than ever and it’s so wonderful to see more opportunities open up for all of us out here.
I grew up a huge fan of martial arts films but it wasn’t until I became an adult that I started to see a few Asian actors being represented in roles other the what would be considered cliché’. The film, “Crazy Rich Asians” was considered a breakthrough. Do you hope to see more films like this and if so, what genres do you wish to see most?
I loved Crazy Rich Asians not only for the diversity and representation but also because it was a really fun movie! Of course, I hope to see more films with Asians in the forefront. I’d love to see more Hollywood films in the vein of The Farewell or Parasite; indies and character-driven dramas where they aren’t afraid of fully embracing the truth of their unique stories and culture.
I really liked “Train to Busan”. I saw it on Netflix a few months ago and although I haven’t seen it yet, I’m very interested in “Parasite”, which won an Oscar this year. Are there any Asian films that you know of that I should be looking out for? Name your “Top 5”.
You have to see some of the older classics from Asia. There is a whole world out there beyond just the Hollywood or Western-world films. Some of those classics are truly masterpieces. Akira Kurosawa, Wong Kar-Wai or older Zhang Yimou are fantastic places to start. Top 5 would be hard with so many to choose from but a sample platter might include Ran, Ikiru, In the Mood for Love, Raise the Red Lantern, and Infernal Affairs. Don’t forget Indian films, and Japanese anime either! One of my favorite movies of all time is Akira. I’d better stop talking since I could go on and on.
Speaking of martial arts and dope films, you appeared in “Escape Plan 2: Hades” as Yusheng Ma. In what way had Sylvester Stallone impacted your life prior to filming and what was working with him like?
I told him the first day I met him that he helped me learn English by watching his movies when I came to America. He laughed pretty hard and shook my hand. That was cool. He is really down to earth and actually surprisingly low key and a bit reserved. But overall, it was pretty fun to get to meet and work with an icon.
Tell us about the Bruce Lee Entertainment and Cinemax series “Warrior”. What is it about and how did you become involved?
Our show Warrior is a pulpy period martial arts drama that is set in 19th century San Francisco, dealing with Chinatown gang wars and race relations in that time. It is sort got the feel of Peaky Blinders with badass kung fu in a crazy mashup story and backdrop. It is such a fun, exciting show with great writing and character drama. I had the good fortune to be able to land the role of Hong in the second season and join the cast almost immediately after we wrapped Mulan. I was still over there in New Zealand at the time and I did several rounds of auditions through self-tape and then Skype. I thought I would have to end up flying back to LA to go do a network test but I was floored when they told me that the folks at HBO and the producers just really liked me and my performance and wanted to go ahead and cast me. I flew back to LA shortly after, got all my stuff together and then a couple weeks later I was in Cape Town, South Africa where we shot it. Honestly, needless to say it was a hell of a year and I’m so grateful to have gotten the chance to do it!
I’m ashamed I’ve never heard of “Bruce Lee Entertainment” until now. I was just saying to one of my best friends that the 5 films Bruce Lee is most known for will forever be in my rotation. I still watch them regularly till this day. Funny story: My senior year of high school (2001-2002), this same friend had just discovered 4 of those 5 films and fell in love with Bruce Lee. He hadn’t seen “Game of Death” yet so he didn’t know that Bruce had only filmed certain parts of it before his death. When I took the VHS tape over to his house to watch it, he was CRUSHED and with a disappointed look on his face he kept saying, “That ain’t the REAL Bruce!” We still joke about that and the last time I mentioned it to him he said, “Bro, that s**t broke my heart, fam.” Lol.
You should be ashamed! Jk. Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee runs the company and she is dedicated to making sure that his legacy lives on. She was also one of our Executive Producers on Warrior and is just the coolest person. When I first got to meet her I was starstruck and it was kind of jarring to hear her say stuff like, “Oh yeah, dad was just like this or that” so casually. I’m like, “Dude…’dad’ was freakin’ Bruce Lee!”, haha! I love Shannon and she is unbelievably down to earth and kind. Being a part of a show that is so linked to Bruce Lee was a dream that I never wanted to end.
OK, let’s take it back and talk about your background for a moment. Where were you born and what was your childhood like?
I was born in Kobe, Japan to Chinese parents. I was raised in the south of China and then we immigrated to Memphis, Tennessee where I grew up and gained a natural Southern accent, lol. It was a very international childhood with a whole mix of cultures honestly. But the truth is, when you’re little, I think you don’t really think about it too much and just accept and absorb what is around you. I just grew up being steeped in Southern culture, African American culture, the blues and country and everything in between and then going home and speaking Mandarin. It is actually interesting looking back and realizing how big of a cultural mix I had growing up. I feel like it gave me a lifelong love of different cultures and languages and it helped a ton with my acting work by just being able to be open to, accept and flow into different lives.
What made your family choose Memphis, TN over other cities when immigrating to the US? I grew up in Tennessee, by the way. Shout out to Clarksville, TN/Ft. Campbell, KY!
Oh, nice! Shout out to the South! I miss it every day. We settled in Memphis because that’s where St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is headquartered and my parents got jobs as medical researchers there. Thank God, because I love being from the South, lol.
What made you want to become an actor and how did you get started initially?
When I graduated high school, I actually didn’t know what I wanted to do. Believe it or not, I had serious thoughts of joining the military. My mom ended up convincing me to try college instead. In her words, “You could always try it for a year and then if it isn’t for you, you could reconsider enlisting”. I was a business major at the University of Miami (FL) and had to take a fine arts class and I chose acting thinking it would be an easy A. Boy was I wrong! Acting was actually harder than it looked, lol. But my teacher at the time was like, “Hey, you know you seem to really enjoy this and you’re pretty good at it! Why don’t you try out for one of the school shows?” I ended up actually getting a role in a musical (my first time on stage) and really falling in love with it. I remember during one rehearsal, I realized I had so much fun that it didn’t feel like work. I literally woke up in bed one morning and decided that I can do this and I would be an actor. So, I transferred schools to Emerson College in Boston where I majored in Drama and started doing professional auditions and gigs there.
Name your favorite:
Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
Impossible to say…too many to list. But, if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose, I say I could watch Gladiator any day of the week.
“You got no guts, but you do have courage.” My Grandmother! In Chinese, of course. “你胆子不大，但是很勇敢的.” Meaning, I was scared of everything but I would do it if I believed in it.
Being someone who supports the preservation of nature and the oceans, what did you think of the wildfires in Australia? I love animals but prior to that, I hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention to those types of issues. Seeing all of the news coverage of the injured koalas did it for me though.
Oh, it was heartbreaking! I’m glad that people started becoming more aware and it was a terrible natural tragedy but there is SO much more that people just don’t pay attention to. Like the dying of the Great Barrier Reef or the daily loss of the Amazon Rainforest. These things are continuously happening but I’m honestly kind of sad that it has to take media coverage of cuddly animals to make people care. I think we can do so much better.
Speaking of the news, the Coronavirus is a big issue at the moment with big events like the annual SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas being cancelled as a result. With panic setting in amongst the general public, what is your take on the issue concerning Asians being treated unfairly due to people being ignorant to the facts surrounding the virus? It reminds me of how people from the Middle East were treated post 9-11.
Hate is the strongest disease. You want my truth? Here it is: I can’t say that people don’t have a right to feel angry or upset. I can accept that but accepting it does not mean I like it. I obviously don’t like it. But, I simply believe that whatever emotions a person has is valid because it’s human. But, you do have choice of action. You can choose to act with hate and negativity or you can choose to act with love and empathy. It’s a choice to care but it also demands that we be vulnerable with one another. What do you think would be more useful in bringing people together?
I grew up a military brat so I was introduced to diversity at an early age growing up living in different countries and with people from all cultures. As a black man living in America specifically, I definitely agree that “empathy” is the word of the day.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Explain your relationship with social media.
I’m not going to lie. I’m not the biggest fan of it. I do enjoy posting about what I love to do for people who I know but it is because I love what I do and want to share it. But, I have to be really careful not to spend too much time on it. I can get addicted to things pretty easily and it is SO addictive! Gimme dem likes. It is a rush. A dangerous rush, lol.
What can we expect from you next?
My season of Warrior drops sometime in the fall on Cinemax. Have a gander!
Lastly, how can we connect with you via social media, lol?
So after my comment about getting addicted to social media, you put me back on that slippery slope, huh? My instagram is @ChenLovesYall, lol!
Photos By: Ryan West
Styling Grooming By: Maxi