Chen Tang Talks ‘Mulan,’ ‘Warrior’ and More.
Photography by Ryan West.
Chen Tang’s story is that of a modern-day warrior: complex but oh so interesting. Born in Kobe, Japan with Chinese ancestry, the actor is a modern-day international immigrant. His dashing good looks and raw talent make him quite the star on the rise to watch.
This year, Chen is set to star in Walt Disney Studios’ highly anticipated film “Mulan.” The movie is new, live action version of the classic 1998 Disney animated film. The new version (which was delayed multiple times due to the global COVID-19 pandemic) is a very different take on the original musical. The new version is more war heavy and draws a lot of inspiration from the original Chinese fable, “The Ballad of Mulan.”
Hello, Chen! How are you? How is your quarantine going? You know, I’m doing quite well, to be honest. Mostly because every day, I try to have gratitude for even the littlest things because I’m happy to be able to say that I’m staying healthy and my family’s health. That’s the top of my mind, but it’s been going well.
I feel like this is our new normal at the moment. At the moment, there is no normal. You know? You just go with the flow.
Mulan has always been one of my favorite Disney movies growing up. I know that people are very excited to see this film be brought to life in the live action way. I have to ask what was it like working on such an iconic movie? It was and always will be one of the great experiences and memories of my life. It’s something I’ll remember until the day I die. It’s was epic. The scope was huge. It was like you entered this world that they had created and it was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It was amazing. I get chills. I used to pinch myself some days when I woke up in New Zealand wondering if it was all like a dream.
This version of the movie is a little different than the original movie. It’s more of a war film than the original. Yes. It is. I wouldn’t say it’s a little different. It’s really different. We wanted to honor the ballad of Mulan. Which is funny, because I consider that the old version! We really wanted to honor the same DNA as the cartoon.
Was there a lot of pressure to make it different but not too different than the original? You get criticized for making some exactly as it was before. And then some people criticize it if it’s different. Kudos to Disney and Nicky Caro. They were like, ‘We’re going to take a creative risk here. We want to make it not exactly the same.’ And I personally, as an artist, enjoy that. It’s very different, but it has a lot of Easter eggs in the film.
What was it like playing Yao? When I first got the role, everybody was kind of shocked. They were like, ‘Wait, so you do know that you’re not 5 feet tall. And you do know you’re not middle-aged, and you don’t have a black eye.’ And I said that the energy was so much fun to live in because it is so different from my normal.
Yao was actually my favorite character in the cartoon. It was just so much fun to live in that vibration for a while. When I first talked to Nicky about the character, I said that I didn’t want to copy it exactly. And she said, ‘I don’t want you to copy it. Do it your way. Be you. Not Him.’ I love that characterization, and there was so much to draw from, and I also wanted to honor the cartoon in my own way.
I feel like you played a more youthful version of Yao. In my mind, I was always going to be young Yao when he first joined the army. Before the black eye. (Laughs) I found something that really creatively vibrated with me.
From the trailer, the war scenes look so incredible. It was incredible! The big battle scenes were actually my favorite to shoot. Disney mostly did this movie practically. All of those people you see, they’re not CGI. They’re real. First of all, it was freezing because we shot in the south islands of New Zealand, and everybody has on this heavy armor and spears. The winds are blowing, the flags are flying, and there’s the drums beating. And you’re just like, ‘Wow, I’m here.’ And it really felt like you’re ready to go. It was incredible.
What does that feel like? As an actor, you dream of these things, to be in something epic like that. But, Mulan isn’t the only place you will see Chen take on the role of a strong fighter. The actor will also be starring in Bruce Lee Entertainment and Cinemax’s series Warrior later this year.
You seem to really enjoy these strong character roles. You’re also starring in the Bruce Lee Entertainment and Cinemax series Warrior.
Yes, I really enjoy it.
It looks like a very fast-paced show that requires a lot of physically demanding stunt work. Believe it or not, I never sought out to do active or action roles. It just sort of happened. I had some martial arts experience, but Mulan and Warrior were the first real projects where I had extensive stunt work. For Warrior, in particular, where we had to do most of our own stunts, and it was quite the experience.
Can you tell us a bit about your character? I played a character named Hong, and he was so layered and interesting to create. I saw him as a golden retriever, but a golden retriever who was a stray and grew up living a lonely, starving, violent life on the streets. He learned to be truly vicious to survive, but deep in his heart, he’s still the sweet golden retriever.
He’s a guy who’s genuinely happy-go-lucky, somewhat eccentric, and mentally a bit off, who also happens to be a mass murderer by the situation he’s in. Hong is the newest soldier brought over from China to bolster the Hop Wei gang’s ranks in preparation for a massive Chinatown gang war. Through it all, he happens to make friends with the leadership and has some truly strange adventures in a foreign land.
How did you prepare for the role? Our stunt team on the show was like an all-star collection of the best of the best in the world. I had training daily, sometimes up to six hours a day, in mobility, martial arts, stunts, and choreography. I also needed to make sure I did daily recovery work (sports massage and ice baths, to prevent injury and just to be able to train more the next day. I really got a taste of what it felt like to be a pro athlete.
I feel like the show is deeper than just martial arts. It’s an incredibly well-done show. The actors in it are fantastic. It is a martial arts show, but t’s not just all martial arts. The stories are great, and it’s exceptionally well written.
What was it like being in that zone in that time period that we haven’t gotten to experience and that was so long ago. I feel like that would be so fun. First off, I love different time periods. I never want to be in the present.
Especially not now! Yeah, seriously! (Laughs) It’s especially meaningful for me as a Chinese person. I’m bi-cultural. I go back to China quite often. But also, I can definitely say that I know what it feels like to be Chinese American. It’s a time period in a section of U.S. history that’s often badly neglected.
There’s a race relations experience in the late 1800s in San Francisco and that Chinese American experience. You know, the railroads and the China Town experience of that time. It’s not often spoken about because they really wanted to touch on those relations.
I feel like the writing is so well done on the show. Our producers and our writing team really wanted to touch on those relations of cultural misunderstanding and race relations and violence that often comes with that and also do it in an entertaining way.
I heard that the story behind the show is very interesting too. Yes. I don’t know if you know this, but Warrior is based on a Bruce Lee story that the pitched to Warner Bros in the 1950s. It was about a martial arts prodigy who comes from China into the American old west and what happens. Long story short, Warner Bros passed on it because they didn’t think that an Asian American guy could carry a show. It wasn’t that time.