When we think “Chinese-American,” we don’t typically think “Memphis BBQ.” Chen Tang clearly missed that memo. Born to Chinese parents in Kobe, Japan, Tang finds comfort in even the slightest American southern affect.
Chen Tang is a proud product of Memphis, Tennessee, his family having made the move to the states in his youth. His Instagram neatly positions “Reppin the 901” [the Memphis area code] ahead of his freshest Hollywood credits.
Pure Fandom had the opportunity to talk to Chen Tang about his starring roles in Disney’s Mulan and Cinemax’s Warrior, his future aspirations, and his clearly non-biased opinion on Memphis barbecue.
PUREFANDOM: Chen, first and foremost, I want to say thank you for taking some time out of you day to answer some questions to allow our audience to better get to know you.
CHEN TANG: Thank you for having me.
You are playing Yao in [Disney’s] live-action Mulan. Were you a big fan of the animated version?
Yeah, I really was. I’m Chinese and we have our own fables. We grew up with it, so this is sort of our Cinderella story. I loved the cartoon. It was fun. I saw it when I was a teenager because I got to the states late, but when I finally saw it, I said “oh wow, yeah, Go Disney!” – nice seeing us represented even [then].
Given your attachment to the source material, can you talk about what it was like auditioning for that role?
First off, the entire process of Disney making this film; we shot this in 2018, but they have been going through the process of casting for at least two years before that. So, it was a long process, but luckily I was not there for the entire time. I had a pretty standard process, but some of our cast, they had a year and a half long process from the beginning to the end.
Oh wow, that sounds pretty intense!
Yeah, and there is enough uncertainty being an actor. You never know, and now you have to wait. It was pretty intense for them. I would be lying if I said it was the most intense process I’ve ever been through, but with something like this, working for Disney, every Asian actor in town not only knew about it, wanted to get in on it. [I remember] auditioning toward the end of 2016; all the guys went in for the love interest and all the girls went in for “Mulan.” I thought I did a pretty good job, but I didn’t hear anything back. I thought “it is what it is” and forgot about it.
I get call from my manager [about a year later]. “We got another audition for Mulan.” They had filled most of the roles but said they were missing this “machismo” type… and as soon as they said “machismo” I knew it was Yao. “We are looking for this bully solider and want to see what you can do because we remember from a year and a half ago.” I [thought] “wow.” I went in for Niki Caro (the director), it was lovely, and a couple week later, I ended up getting it.
That must have been one hell of an audition you did to get a call back a year and a half later.
You know what? I’m so grateful. The casting department is amazing. They had to go all over the world for this, so even the opportunity to audition is a blessing. That’s the way I look at it. I’m here to do what I love to do.
Continuing on Mulan, the film is both powerful and beautiful in scope and scale. What was it like being a part of bringing something this epic to life?
One of the greatest experiences of my life and I will remember it to the day I die. When we got there, they don’t tell us too much. We really don’t even get the chance to read the script because everything is so hush-hush. Seriously, when we wanted to read the script for the first time, you had to make an appointment with Disney. You had to go to Burbank. They take your phone, hand you a sealed packet, and lock you in a room until you are done reading. So from my first read, it was already feeling kind of big. We didn’t know how big until we got there.
When you get down to New Zealand, none of it is green screen. You see mountains? You can walk to them. A big influence for them was Lawrence of Arabia; that scale. So, to be a part of something like that, there is no other way to describe it.
That’s awesome. Transitioning into your role as Hong in the season 2 of Warrior, without giving too much away, what can we expect from Hong this season?
Imagine an alien world; completely alien. You can’t understand the language. You’ve never seen these sights before. Let’s just say, Hong has a merry adventure in the wild west… and he kicks a lot of ass!
Well, on that note, the show consists of some really beautifully crafted battle scenes, really top-notch fight choreography. Did you have any training going in?
Actually, I have about seven years of kung-fu and Wushu under my belt. I had always been an athletic kid growing up, but I can’t sit here with a straight face and say [“I’m a martial artist”]. I mean, compared to some of the martial artists on the stunt team – oh my god! It’s like the difference in Peter Parker before he got bitten by the spider and after. But, I had enough under my belt that I wasn’t completely lost, and I did my due diligence. I wanted to prep and luckily, I was coming off of Mulan so I was already “fit.”
The mobility alone [was different]. Just the ability to kick my leg as high as I needed to, we worked extensively – 6-8 hours a day, minimum.
So after 6-8 hours of training, at the end of the day, on my television at home, are we seeing more Chen or more stunt double?
Would you believe it’s 99% me? That is a policy on the show. Everybody does their own stunts! Later [in season 2] there is going to be a move that can be quite dangerous. They said “if you do this wrong, you could break your neck… and his neck too. So let’s get the stunt double to do it because we can’t see you face anyway.” That was literally the only move in my fights this season that was not me.
Between Mulan and Warrior, you’re becoming quite the “action” guy. Is this purposeful career trajectory?
Oh, no, not at all! Mulan and Warrior are my first real roles with stunt work. It came as a surprise and I took to it quickly thanks to my athletic and martial arts background. But it was not anything I actively thought of, it just played out that way. Later on, I’d love to show my dynamic range as an actor. I love acting for acting. I didn’t get into this thing thinking “I’m going to be an action star.” I didn’t think I wanted to do any kind of action stuff to be honest.
In you press bio, you’re quoted as saying you’d like to be an international film star, comparable to a Meryl Streep or a Daniel Day-Lewis. What do you believe is the perfect next role to take to continue towards that goal?
In the last two year, I’ve done some really cool stuff. I’ve worked on some big sets and gotten the experience of being a series regular. But, I really feel that the next thing for me would be to headline my own show; to carry that responsibility. It’s like a rookie [athlete]. Are you ready for the big time? Sometimes that takes a little bit and for me, it definitely did, but I can tell you in my bones right now: I’m ready![I would like] something very different from me, as Chen, in LA and different from the roles I’ve gotten to play. I love the process of transformation. The ability of an actor to change into someone that feels completely different. My soul is gravitating towards something on wall street; banker life.
That sound great. So let’s say it’s 30 years from now and you have achieved your international superstardom. Are you heading back to Memphis to retire?
I was just talking to my mom the other day; I may just buy a house [there] because I love Memphis! It keeps you grounded. A city that is gritty and has soul. Wherever you go in the world, you’ve always got that [with you]. That’s always home base.
So you feel that Memphis is a big part of molding you into the man and artist that you are today?
One hundred percent! It’s an extremely creative city. There’s no other way to describe it besides – people just have soul! Everything you do, you have to do with soul. From a young age, there was the sense of diversity; it’s somewhere completely different than where I came from. You can’t help but take in this other culture. It is helpful to me as an actor, that sense of open mindedness, that child like wonder of taking on a new role. It all only works if you are open to it.
Okay, last question. I would be remiss if I failed to ask a southern gentleman such as yourself such an important question. Does Memphis have the best barbecue in the US?
Fuck yeah! Listen! When the international barbecue championship is held in your city… Memphis barbecue is very different. We have a dry rub, no sauce, and they smoke it 12 [plus] hours. I can’t eat barbecue from other places. I don’t know what it is. It’s just not home! I will put it like this Memphis no only has the best barbecue, I’ll put it up there with the best fried chicken, the best soul food… I can go on and on. And I will fight that until the day I die.
More serious and actual last question: is there anything else you have working that we can look forward to seeing soon?
With 2020, its been such a weird year for all of us. For a while there was not even an audition to go to, but I’m taking a look and scripts. Hopefully, I long of something pretty soon, but I’m willing to wait for something that really speaks to my soul. As long as it’s the right role, I can be very patient.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us and best of luck selecting that next role.
I appreciate the interview, thank you!
Chen Tang has a magnetic and “fun” quality that will serve him well on his quest for cinematic superstardom. You have to respect someone who’s dreams will take them to the ends of the Earth, while their head and heart stay grounded at home – controversial soul food takes and all.
To see proud Memphis man, Chen Tang in action, Mulan is currently available on Disney+ with “Premier Access” or at no additional cost to subscribers on December 4th. Warrior Season 2 is available now on Cinemax and Cinemax Go.