Earlier this year, Chen Tang battled beside Mulan; now, the actor is joining season 2 of the Cinemax epic, Warrior, a lush exploration of tensions within Chinatown in 1800s San Francisco. Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki caught up with Tang to discuss his experiences revisiting a Disney classic, tackling martial arts, and what he hopes to do with a career on the rise.
Read the full conversation below:
Awards Daily: Mulan’s release was delayed because of COVID. So it’s been quite a while since you shot the film. Has that time away from it changed your perspective in any way?
Chen Tang: You know, it was a pretty quick process for the casting, but as far as when we shot it—it feels like a lifetime ago. We went to the South Island to shoot those battle scenes two years ago. And so, it feels like another lifetime, the world has changed immensely obviously. But, I can’t say that my relationship with the film has changed because it’s still, even to this day, one of the great memories of my life, a great experience in my life. And I’m very proud of the film—Very proud of what we did, very proud of the final product. And just being able to have that experience.
AD: The animated version of Mulan is a touchstone of animation and a defining film for our generation. What is it like to know that this version could be that for a new group of kids? And it’s hopefully going to have a lasting legacy of its own. Is that something that you’ve grappled with?
CT: That is too majestic to think about for me. Honestly, it just feels surreal. From what I’ve heard from many of the fans that reached out to me, friends with kids—they really love this movie. It hadn’t really hit me until I started hearing that.
Look, everybody has different opinions. Any piece of work, some people are going to love it. Some people are going to hate it. But, somebody said that to me last week or so, it was an old friend from my hometown, And he was like, ‘Yeah, my daughters love it, this is the first Disney thing that they ever really saw.’ It didn’t hit me until then, and I was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s the power of the film.’
AD: You were born in Japan, spent most of your childhood in China before moving stateside and growing up in Memphis. How has the combination of those cultures impacted you? And how does it impact the way that you choose roles and approach characters?
CT: I think it teaches me that everybody has stories, and there’s a galaxy of meaning behind everybody’s story. So, you can’t take it all for granted. I’ve gone to so many different places and met so many different people, and grew up with them. It makes me really believe in the malleability of the human spirit. There’s a malleability to our minds. There’s like, you know, when someone says, ‘Oh, just be yourself.’ Well, what part of yourself? It depends. It really depends. And because of that, I always try not to take that for granted. I always try to keep that at the forefront of my mind when working on a character. To put myself in those shoes and let myself experience that, and it might be different than you had expected.
AD: With Mulan and with Warrior, in some sense, they’re both these existing projects that you’re coming into; with Warrior, you’re coming onto season two. And like I said, Mulan had such a legacy. How does that shape the way that you go on to prepare for something?
CT: It actually helps; I believe it helps if you let it because there is already such a rich palette to come from. Everybody else has sort of done the hard work. [Laughs]. You’re like, ‘Okay, I’m going to like borrow and steal from you guys, but do it my own way.’
With something like Warrior, these guys already had a whole season together, and they’re very clear about the feel and tone of the show and the world that they’re in. And so all I had to do was really listen, pay attention, and see what that could give me creatively.
I see how these guys relate, especially between the main character, played by Andrew Koji, and the second main lead played by Jason Tobin— I might see how their dynamic is. I just have to enter that. And it gives me a lot of freedom, freedom to be like, ‘Oh, okay. How can I complete this triangle?’ So yeah, it helps a lot. It gives me a lot to quote-unquote borrow from.
AD: You get asked this question a lot. I’m so sorry! But, as far as the training that you have to do both for a project like Mulan and Warrior, talk me through that a little bit. What I’m curious about is what happens when you’re spending so much time engaged in this physical activity, and especially with martial arts, needing to make sure that your mind and your body are connected. What does that do for you in your personal life?
CT: [Laughs]. That’s actually a great question. I’ll give you a short version. Our body and our mind and our emotions, in fact, our being is actually pretty interconnected. And if a character has a physical trait, I love to make it a part of that life and see where it can get me if I explore that.
I got the chance to go from Mulan and literally, a month later, I was in South Africa shooting Warrior, which is a completely different show. It’s a completely different feeling, physically, and the character is completely different. It’s a 180-degree switch, And I can experience that first-hand.
When I was on Mulan, we did a lot of physical labor— that was intentional. It wasn’t about whether you could see us shirtless, they wanted you to feel like we were doing physical labor, and we were going through Bootcamp and suffering together to have that kind of chemistry.
AD: Something you’ve talked about is how you consider yourself a little bit of a chameleon with the roles that you take on. And now you’re having this watershed moment in your career. Where do you go next?
CT: You know, it’s funny, someone just asked me if I had a dream role, and I have to say, at the top of my list right now would be to do the role of Song Liling from M. Butterfly. It’s a wonderful play by David Henry Hwang. It’s set in 1930s China, and it’s basically about a French diplomat who falls in love with a Chinese opera singer. He thinks she’s this beautiful butterfly. But the girl was a man because back then, female roles in the opera were played by men, but he falls in love with her, and they have a relationship for many years.
I just would love to explore that side of that stuff, playing an opera singer, and ultimately the femineity. I just find that fascinating to go through.
AD: Lastly, if our readers are unfamiliar with Warrior, what is your elevator pitch for why it’s must-see TV?
CT: It’s Peaky Blinders with kung fu. How about that?
AD: That’s fantastic!
CT: Let me put it this way, it’s a pulpy, slightly-heightened version of 19th century Chinatown gang wars in San Francisco that’s based on a Bruce Lee story. And it’s got the action to match.
Warrior season 2 is airing now on Cinemax. Mulan is available to rent with Premier Access on Disney+.