Actor Chen Tang plays Yao in Disney’s Mulan, currently streaming on Disney+ for an additional fee through Premier Access. We recently sat down with the Chinese-Amerian actor whose other credits include Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy to talk about bringing a Disney animated classic to life in a whole new way.
Laughing Place: Congratulations on the success of Mulan. For those of us that might be discovering your work through Mulan, can you give us a little bit of your story and what led up to you taking that role?
Chen Tang: I've been living that actor's life… I've been living now… Gosh, almost ten years… Full-time as an actor the last four, and it's really… you know what they say, that whole stereotype of the starving actor and you're struggling, just trying to make it… I went from Boston to New York for three years and now up in LA for the last six or so, and it's really true. I was just trying to make it, and for the first half of my career I was doing the whole bartending thing, and just trying to put a roof over my head, while also auditioning and taking classes and all that stuff. And then steadily working. And in LA, I had been working in television and films for a little while, and all the way up… And I'll give them the short version… All within the last couple of years leading up to Mulan, getting some roles here and there, nice little television stuff and just building up my credits. And when I finally got the interview, the audition for Mulan it was in 2018, early 2018. And it really just felt like, "Wow, okay, now you have this opportunity." But for me, honestly, at the time, I was just like, "You know what, it's another audition… It's a cool audition, but another audition, but just knock it out." And it was a whirlwind because it was so fast, and I was one of the last characters to be added to the main cast. And so I did it, and all of a sudden, "Oh my God, they want you to come back," and then boom. It's been a whirlwind the last two years.
Laughing Place: So suddenly you're on the other side of the world… I guess, was it Australia or New Zealand?
Chen Tang: Yeah, New Zealand.
Laughing Place: And that must've been quite the change from picking up TV work in LA to filming a big budget action adventure film in New Zealand.
Chen Tang: Oh my gosh, yeah. It's crazy because this industry… You know what they say, if you like to be in control, don't get into the arts. Especially don't get into the entertainment industry, because literally it's like you snap your fingers and the next day could change.
Laughing Place: Yeah. So, did you have familiarity with the animated Mulan before you took on the role?
Chen Tang: Oh, absolutely. I think all Asian-Americans hold that movie close to their heart. And actually, beyond that, because I'm an immigrant, I came from China as a child to grow up in the States, but I've always been very close to my culture. The story of Mulan means a lot to me as a Chinese man, a Chinese person. And we had grown up just like, "This is our Joan of Arc." So you just knew that it's in our bones, so it was extra, extra personal for me.
Laughing Place: Obviously live action is different from animation and there's several differences, not better or worse, just differences in the two iterations of the fable. But what did you want to bring to your character, maybe taking something from the animated, but would also make it unique to your interpretation?
Chen Tang: Yeah, absolutely, because when I got the role of Yao… Actually, when I got… And when I say, "When I got the role," it wasn't Yao yet because there's still all kind of assembling the pieces, and they actually just wanted a tough macho, much more filled young soldier who kind of was a bully in the camp. And even from the audition, I was like, "Yao, that's Yao." And then when I got it, they were like, "We haven't added Yao yet." But then when they were looking the way I did it, they were like, "You know what? We already have Ling, we have Po, let's bring him in." So that was the way I did it, but when I thought about it, for me… I was so inspired by the cartoon because it's such a memorable character, Harvey Feierstein… I try to bring in some of that voice, that growly voice, and the machismo into this. I wanted to do honor to the cartoon as well as bring my own interpretation of what it means to be sort of a guy who knows what… A guy who thinks he knows what being a man means. And a guy who is also from sort of the… In my mind, Yao was always from the wilderness, the mountains of Southern China. So he's like the king of the mountain over there in his family, the king of the mountain. So you're going to come in and sort of be this… Now you're going into a camp that you're with these boys who aren't as manly as you are. Does that make sense?
Laughing Place: Yeah.
Chen Tang: And also, because when I first got the role and people were like, "Oh, you play Yao? How is that going to work?" Because first off, I don't act anything like what I portrayed on screen. Not anything like the way Yao was in the cartoon. Listen, I'm not four feet tall, I don't have a black eye, I'm not middle-aged, but I wanted to make it my own because Niki Caro also gave us a lot of ownership over it. She was like, "You know what? Make it your own. Don't copy the parts, you can bring in elements of the cartoon. Don't copy the cartoon because it's you now, you're Yao." So I actually wanted… In a nutshell, what I wanted to make was sort of what Yao was when he first joined the military, the army. A young Yao, not old Yao.
Laughing Place: The Yao origin story.
Chen Tang: The Yao origin story, yeah.
Laughing Place: So, Mulan has had this unique path in timing where we saw the film in March when they first started screening it, and in between the screening and the premiere and its release date the world changed and we ended up waiting a while. And it's been weird for us as entertainment journalists to remember we're reviewing a movie that we saw six months ago. But then also, what was that like for you to kind of have all the excitement and then just be put on ice, I guess?
Chen Tang: Oh, gosh. Tell me about it. March feels like another lifetime ago, doesn't it? It has been a… Honestly, I would be lying to you if I felt like I was really taking it poorly or taking this situation or experience and then say, "Oh, I'm not sad about it." Of course I don't want there to be a pandemic. Of course I want the world to be healthy. Of course I want the world just to be filled with light and love. But with this time, when… First off, I knew Mulan was always going to be this sort of a historical film, sort of a film event. I just didn't know that the universe would be like, "This is how it's going to happen, how crazy it's going to be." One thing that I am most disappointed about is… We got to see it in March on the huge screen, and that was always the intention. And seeing it on a big screen versus seeing it on a computer, a television, is two different worlds. I really wish that the world… and perhaps it might, just throwing it out there… There's been talk that perhaps it might go to theaters after all this stuff settles down. But I would love for the world to experience the magnitude and the scale and the majesty of it on the big screen. So, to answer your question, this whole process has honestly been a whirlwind, but whirlwinds sometimes can be quite exciting, with just the way… Because this is something that's never been done before. We were all curious how it would work. But with that being said, a lot of people have gotten to see this film and perhaps more people will. I'm hoping that more and more people will get to see this film, with virtue of being virtual like this.
Laughing Place: For all your new fans that discover you through Mulan, what's next for you? I know pandemic probably throws all that into haywire, but do you have any projects lined up that you can share with us?
Chen Tang: Yeah, when we wrapped Mulan, that was in December 2018, I was fortunate to get a role on a television show. So I immediately left New Zealand, came back to LA, and I flew to South Africa to shoot our television show, and the show is called Warrior, on Cinemax. And I joined the second season as a new series regular. And it's an incredible… Actually, I'm not being over-dramatic here, it's a very, very, very well done show. Very underrated, very good show. It is basically… I call it Peaky Blinders with Kung Fu. It's a Tarantino-esque fantasized retelling of 19th Century Chinatown gang wars in San Francisco. And it's a martial arts drama that is based off of a Bruce Lee story from the 1950s. And we wanted to bring honor to the history of Chinese-Americans in the US, but also do it in a really entertaining way.
Laughing Place: Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk to me. Congratulations on Mulan, but also on Warrior. And I look forward to following your career and your further success.
Chen Tang: Okay, thank you so much.