By David Ertischek ’01
In early March, Disney’s live action blockbuster Mulan premiered in Hollywood and Emerson alumnus Chen Tang ’10 walked the red carpet…and then the Coronavirus changed everything.
After previously having a scheduled March 27 release, the date was pushed back to July 24. For Tang, who plays Yao, a manly warrior buddy of title character Mulan, adapting to changes is a way of life. Actors must be fluid, able to transform into characters.
“I think for me, one of the most joyful things about how I approach acting is you get to live all these different lives through [yourself],” said Tang. “And the transformative process of acting is really, really fun for me. I like playing roles that let me change how I walk around normally.”
Playing Yao was definitely a transformation for Tang. To portray soldiers in a 7th-century farmer-laborer army, Tang and his fellow actors trained for four months, five to six hours a day, in New Zealand before filming. Training continued throughout filming, too. He bulked up with 15 pounds of muscle. They also learned stunt work, archery, horseback riding, marching, and more, to make themselves into a real army.
“Disney did a fantastic job making everybody up to feel very, very rough and real. Especially for me. They gave me a lot with my costume, hair, and a ton of freedom to look how I want to look. Which for a studio film, is quite different. They asked, ‘How do you want your facial hair?’, ‘Do you want a scar here?’ ‘Yeah, I want a scar.’”
Tang’s character views himself as the manliest of men, or at least he thinks he’s the toughest guy.
“He’s full of machismo and thinks that’s what it takes to be a man,” said Tang. “He thinks it means throwing your weight around, and bullying people around him. Then, through friendship and battle, he learns being a man just means taking care of the people around you.”
For Tang, whose credits include appearances in TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and 30 Rock, being in a live action Disney movie was “like filmmaking on steroids.” The sets were massive with real mountains as far as you could see as backdrops. They built a huge training camp the size of a city block. The camp’s details were intricate, even the tents not being used for filming had beds, weapons, and other items.
While disappointed about the movie’s release pushed back, Tang’s philosophic optimism prevails.
“I believe in the malleability of the human spirit. It really is, ‘what you think is how you feel,’” said Tang. “That’s really based on your environment, where your home is and everything.
“I grew up in Memphis. When I got there from China, we assumed all of America looked like Manhattan. … I grew up with a Southern accent because that’s what I heard. You just accept it. When you’re a child, it is Chinese Beginner’s Mind, and you just accept. That’s your truth at the time.”
Born in Japan, Tang feels like he’s truly bicultural because he also grew up in China, as his family would go back regularly.
“I love my country and my Chinese roots. On the other hand, I was raised in the Deep South, so I’m fully assimilated into American culture. When I speak to a Chinese person, I feel super Chinese, and when I’m speaking to an American, I feel very American. It’s like I have two different hearts and two different brains,” said Tang.
The ability to adapt served Tang well as a transfer student to Emerson. Starting college in Florida, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He saw an ad that Emerson’s Performing Arts Department was offering auditions around the country. He auditioned and was told Emerson wanted him.
Tang recalls learning from Senior Artist-in-Residence Ken Cheeseman and former Senior Distinguished Producing Director-in-Residence Benny Sato Ambush, who was his first scene study teacher.
“I remember taking his class and finally getting encouragement from an external source,” said Tang. “He said, ‘You know what, Chen. You can do this.’ I didn’t start acting until I was 19, and didn’t know about the acting field. I wanted to be a soldier and enlist in the military before that. Then having someone say, ‘Hey, this is a craft, this is an art, learn more about this, welcome to our world, and you’re talented’…To know that, it changed everything for me. I started to believe it.”
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