Actor Chen Tang, who played Yao in Disney’s Mulan and is currently on Cinemax’s Warrior as the lethally happy newcomer Hong, is the kind of actor U.S. studios are clamoring for right now. Someone who is able to perfectly balance his American and Chinese cultures while also stealing every scene he’s in.
In part 1 of my interview with Tang, he talked about his unique background immigrating from China to Memphis, TN, growing up in the South, and how meaningful it is for him to be playing Warrior’s first openly gay character.
Tang gave me such incredible and thoughtful answers that I had to split the interview into two parts. Below, Tang talks about the intense training for Warrior, even coming from an already significant physical project like Mulan, how Joe Taslim stands out to him as a truly elite martial artist, and his thoughts on how U.S. studios can do a better job appealing to the ever desirable China box office.
Be sure to watch Chen Tang in Disney’s Mulan, streaming now on Disney+, and in Cinemax’s Warrior, airing Fridays at 10 PM!
POCCulture: I’ve heard you talk about the intense training regimen with Mulan. Could compare the training between Mulan and Warrior?
Chen Tang: Oh, absolutely. I had mentioned this in a couple other interviews, because I did Warrior right after Mulan, the shift in your body physically is vast. It felt like a two different…completely night and day. Because Yao…first off, I wanted to lose about 15 pounds because Yao was like sort of this brick, like a solid concrete block who’s very, very tight and that was by design of how I trained and everything. And now [on Warrior] I’ve got to be this loosey goosey, whip like guy. Almost like a dancer. I think in many ways the training on Warrior was more intense than Mulan because of that element. Because not only do we have incredibly intense stunt training, I also had the weapon training. And then I also had like…I’m talking I was in that stunt tent maybe 8 to 10 hours a day. Like hour after hour after hour of mobility training. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that kind of mobility training for like martial arts or anything…it’s blindingly painful sometimes because they are literally…because we had to do it as fast as we could and have as much mobility as possible to get what we wanted, where I wanted to go. You’re basically taking like a piece of taffy that’s been hard in the sun and just stretching it and stretching it. Hours a day! And then afterward, every single day, I would do hours of physical therapy and recovery exercise like ice baths. It felt like being a pro athlete, so you can train and don’t get hurt the next day. Yeah, so for me it was a whole process in and of itself.
You know, it’s one thing to get fit, because on Mulan, we were fit as f*ck. I mean fit as f*ck. But on Warrior your whole body is in fighting shape. And on top of that I was training a lot with that soft weapon, the chain weapon. I spent many, many, many hours in preparation for it. Learning the whip chain, it’s like a long chain that has many sections and you whip it around. And then I also trained in LA, I found a guy who specialized in a shorter Japanese weapon. It’s basically closer to the weapon that Hong actually has on the show. It’s like a short chain…imagine a short chain with two sharp heavy weights at the end. So you can use it to hit people with it. So I trained a lot with that, quite, quite a lot with that, just to be able to not only make it go where you want to go, but also to not be afraid of hitting yourself.
POCCulture: Wow kudos to you. That training sounds…I can’t even imagine. I think I may have seen some of that in like a Saw movie or something [laughing].
I’ve heard you also say in preparing for your character, you’re kind of a history buff. Were there any kind of resources or anything that you used to prepare for the setting of Warrior, that time in Chinatown, San Francisco, or just Hong generally?
Chen Tang: Oh, definitely. You know there’s a wealth of resources there. Like historical…not only historical fact about [Chinatown], but also as a Chinese person like from China. I know quite a lot about the end of the Qing dynasty, which is like late 1800s, early 1900s at that time. And that gave me so much because while doing the research…I love doing the research for it because it gives you such a very clear picture of where you’re coming from and where you’re landing. I did like boatloads of research on that, boat loads of just, not only like historical research in books and websites and stuff, but also material from the Chinese perspective. It’s like you know there’s a lot of stuff written about it from an outside scholar’s perspective. There’s a book called The World of a Tiny Insect. It’s a book written by a guy who…it’s a memoir of The Taiping Rebellion and its aftermath, written by a Chinese man who was there, and is literally like a first hand account of life that was like…he saw all this death and warlords and like, you know, people eating people…literally from a Chinese perspective. I wanted to get a first-hand view of that from a Chinese man’s perspective, not a scholarship perspective. It’s a big difference.
POCCulture: That’s fascinating. I’ll have to look into that book. On a lighter note, I’m dying to know…on Mulan you were around Donnie Yen and Let Li and on Warrior you’re with Joe Taslim, Andrew Koji, and others. These are some epic martial artists. Is there anyone who really stood out to you?
Chen Tang: Joe! Joe! Joe Taslim man! Joe because he’s an actual…he was like in the World Championships for Judo. The actual National Team. You can see. You can tell. Sometimes I was like, “I did martial arts too…” but I can’t stand here next to Joe Taslim be like “I’m a martial artist.” I don’t know, it’s something about the way he moves. And you can see it actually in his fight scenes as Li Yong. I’ll never forget that first season he had a fight scene with Andrew Koji. Just the way he stood and moved…the way he walked and moved his feet…I was like, no way that Koji is winning this fight. [Laughing] Joe can actually fight. And the dude just never gets tired. We were working out all the time and you’d see him work out…the dude’s like in his 40s! He’s like a solid brick. When you’re with an elite athlete you know just how far away from that you are! [Laughing] Yeah, it was crazy. I was like, Joe does not need to work on the martial arts aspect of this.
POCCulture: You know what, it’s so funny because I’ve talked to so many members of the cast and everyone says that. Everyone talks about Joe and is in awe of him.
Chen Tang: He’s just the real thing, man! There’s a difference between an actor. who’s pretending and trying to be that, versus the guy who just is that already. Like, wow, the distance is vast! [Laughing]
POCCulture: And isn’t he just the nicest guy?
Chen Tang: So warm! So humble! You would never know he’s like the Indonesian Brad Pitt! [Laughing] The dude is the coolest guy. I just was like instantaneously…I was like, you have zero ego! Very, very rare to find.
POCCulture: Two more questions for you and they’re more big picture things. You’re in these incredibly important projects like Mulan and Warrior. U.S. studios have a keen interest in China. What are your thoughts on what it takes for an American project to do well with Chinese audiences?
Chen Tang: You know what? With art, very subjective, you cannot aim for things. That’s the thing. You cannot aim for things. And I know a lot of people do, because that’s part of the industry, but if you look at something like The Farewell, they didn’t aim for anything. They were just like, you know, this is the story that we’re going to tell. And it’s a very specific, close, personal story. And that is what makes great art. So for me, what would it take to do well in China? You know, China has a very thriving film industry in and of itself. You know, I think what they really actually want to see is just what America does really well. They love big Marvel, big budget action and stuff like that because it’s done so well. But make no mistake about it, they enjoy it because it’s entertaining. It’s not about like we need to see…representation is big for us as the diaspora. However for them…like me as a Chinese person when I’m back in China, I see this all the time, I don’t need to see…like, you don’t need to beat me over the head with it. There’s nothing wrong with that because it’s just not what speaks to them because they don’t understand, right? So with that being said, I would just like to see well made movies and just a great story in general. I think that’s universal. And what that entails is, if you’re making some piece of art, what it entails is being true. Being authentic to what you want to stay. What do you want to tell? And if that means it’s like a superhero movie, great. If that means it’s The Farewell or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, do that! And do not worry so much about how it’s going to be received, as hard as that is when you’re investing this much money into it. Tell your story. Tell your story. Tell your story.
POCCulture: Completely agree! Is there anything else we can expect to see you in or hope to see you in in the near future?
Chen Tang: More Warrior baby! I’ll be there throughout the season and and right now, you know, 2020 has been a weird year just because it’s been a pause button on everything. But currently, I’m just okay with waiting. To quote the great Gong Li, I don’t believe in being productive. I believe in finding the right thing that speaks to me. And what that means for me is, hopefully, I would love to work on a great character driven indie drama. That would force me as an actor to transform. Honestly, like what really speaks to me right now, I’d love to either play something on Wall Street or a drag queen. The world of drag. Because I have friends that that is their world, and I find it fascinating. So something that is completely different and that really is focused on character. If that’s like with A24 or something that would be a dream. But I’m okay with…right now, I’m just absorbing a lot of scripts, but safe to say, the next thing is going to be something that connects to me.
POCCulture: That’s incredibly exciting. I hope that you get the chance, and I’m sure you will, because if any casting directors out there have brains, they’ll want to jump on the Chen Tang train.
Chen Tang: Oh, thank you so much. And thank you for being in the good fight with us, baby!
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.