I had the pleasure of interviewing Chen Tang over a Skype video call. The actor spoke with much poise and passion as he shared his sincere optimism on artist visibility and what it means to “speak your truth.” He plays “Yao” in Disney’s live-action film Mulan. He also plays “Hong” in Cinemax’s Warrior, and has acted in numerous other television shows such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Bosch, and Grey’s Anatomy. We discuss Chen’s life influences, journey as an actor, and his take on being an Asian artist.
Where are you from?
I have an international background. I was born in Japan and lived in China for much of my childhood, and then my family and I moved to Memphis, Tennessee. I would say the place I feel most tied to is probably a mix between China and the Deep South, but I feel like a citizen of the world. I love to travel and explore. Since I’ve moved around for so long and so many different times in my life, it’s become a part of who I am.
Did you experience any culture shocks when you moved to different countries?
You don’t subconsciously realize it when you’re really young, you just accept it. It’s why I believe in the saying, “just be yourself” because yourself in so many different places is so different. You can just be present, authentic, and be real with where you are. So for me, it wasn’t so much of a culture shock because I just assumed that was just the way it was.
Is there anyone you look up to?
Definitely my grandmother. She raised me since I was very young, so we’ve always had that connection and emotional tying. Her spirit and perseverance in life is profound given the adversities she’s faced in her life. She actually lived through WWII where her house had gotten shelled. When disturbing experiences like these happen to people, it can be really traumatizing or cause one to feel like they have a chip on their shoulder. Despite the hardships she’s endured, my grandmother has been incredibly loving, giving, and open. This is a woman who has crossed oceans to take care of the people she loves. She believes that what was in the past was in the past, and here is now.
What inspired you to be an actor and when did you realize your potential and passion?
I never really thought about it when I was growing up, not until I went to college. I actually wanted to be a soldier, but I decided to go to college instead since it was 2006 in the middle of the Iraq War.
I took a fine arts class where my professor had really noticed my passion and enjoyment. I absolutely fell in love with acting and had so much fun doing it. I realized I really wanted to do this as a career.
Do you believe being Asian impacted your acting career at all? Has it helped you to differentiate yourself, or do you believe that you’ve been overlooked due to your background?
I never really felt like I faced discrimination or thought I was less than anyone else. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder that I find many people do. I decided I could go out for all ethnicities, and I believe that’s what came.
I actually auditioned for a role named “Bradley Morgan” and ended up getting it! My Asian actor friend and I were talking about this and he said, “that name would have thrown me off!” But why not go for it? I’m not saying Asians in the entertainment industry don’t have struggles, everybody does. As much as there may be struggles, there’s also an equal opportunity to have a path that’s defined by yourself.
I genuinely believe being Asian has helped me. I mean, I got my role in Mulan! Why not see the good things in life, rather than the bad things in life? Happiness is seen through compassion and joy. That’s a choice. Yes, people have made mistakes in the past on representation, but I can’t speak to something I didn’t live through. I sincerely choose to believe that people really want something different now. People are a lot more open and accepting than before. The best we can do as artists is to be true to ourselves and speak our truth. We should share stories that we are able to tell, whether they’re about who you are or what you want to fight for. I share truths that speak to me, Chen Tang. By the collective of doing this, we become more visible.
What was it like working on such a massive and much-anticipated film like Mulan?
It was one of the greatest experiences of my life! Working in New Zealand was unbelievable. I’ve never worked on anything of that scale. We were shooting in one of the most beautiful places in the world, we were really living the dream. It’s an experience that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.
The cast was lovely, everyone was very well cast. Working with Niki Caro was absolutely incredible. She was such a focused, creative, and intuitive director. I’m so glad they had a female director for this, it really brings a different touch.
Where do you see yourself 5-10 years from now?
I know I want to go in a certain direction, but I can’t even plan for next week! [laughing] I don’t think that way. I just do my best today.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice, what would you say?
To know that who you are is enough.
Is there any advice you have for Asians or minorities who may want to pursue a career as an artist in the entertainment industry?
You can’t fake passion, that takes honesty to yourself. Authenticity and speaking your truth are essential for any artist. To be able to do that, it can be quite simple. But simple can sometimes be very difficult. You have to be brave enough to say, “I really believe in this dream and believe in what I’m doing.” And truly enjoy it. Art is joy; art is passion; art is what moves us inside. At the very least, I hope that they discover whatever it is they are passionate about. Their heart knows.
Follow Chen Tang on Instagram: chenlovesyall