(Featured image courtesy of Ryan West Photo)
While it just hit screens for the first time last April, a Cinemax period series called Warrior has actually been in various forms of development since the 1970s. The icon Bruce Lee came up with the idea for a show called Ah Sahm that would follow a martial artist in the American Old West era. He pitched it around to various studios, but likely due to the homogeneous nature of television at the time, it never really led anywhere. A series titled Kung Fu premiered shortly after, and while it was hard to prove that Lee’s idea was stolen, it was virtually identical, except for the fact that a white man was leading the show. However, decades later, Shannon Lee (Bruce’s daughter) and Justin Lin’s production company revealed that they would be retooling the original idea for Cinemax. Since, Warrior has been billed as being “based on the writings of Bruce Lee,” a mark of a lasting legacy.
Joining the martial arts drama in its second season is Chen Tang, who plays the deadly assassin Hong. TV Wasteland had the pleasure of talking with Tang about his long journey to discovering acting, the ways in which Warrior is far from your typical period drama, and what he hopes to see from Hollywood in terms of diverse representation in the future.
Contrary to most young performers, Tang didn’t grow up in a very artistic household. His parents were both doctors, and “I don’t think I saw my first movie until I was eight.” After being born in Japan and raised in China, his family immigrated to Memphis because of his parents’ new jobs as medical researchers at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital headquarters.
His original plan for after high school was to join the military, but as the country was about to enter the Iraq War, his mother convinced him to hold off on that plan and try college. He started out as a business major at the University of Miami, but after taking an acting class and eventually getting a role in a school musical, he found that he really enjoyed performing and the entire process involved with it. Rehearsals “didn’t even feel like work… I can’t believe people get paid for this.” That change of path brought him to Emerson College in Boston, and he never looked back.
Of Chen’s two big projects releasing this year, the first was Disney’s live-action Mulan. The hotly anticipated remake had a long road to the screen, with a lengthy development period and coronavirus complications necessitating shifting release date more than once. However, the film finally arrived in September on Disney+ as part of a new Early Access program. Tang appears as Yao, a military recruit in the same unit as Mulan. “Just from a filmmaker’s perspective, it was a dream come true… I don’t think it gets much bigger in scope or scale than working on a Disney tentpole… Epic doesn’t even begin to describe it.” For this film, the company wanted to make everything as practical and on-location as possible, so besides some necessary CGI, most of the settings you see on screen are real. Tang described Disney as a sort of “dream factory” where if a story calls for a castle, they can build one. The attention to detail was huge for him, and being able to participate in a story that was so important to his culture was very impactful as well. “You dream of that, you dream of just being immersed.”
Cinemax is currently running the second season of Warrior, which Tang has joined as a new main cast member in the role of Hong, a new recruit for the Hop Wei tong. He comes from the old country (China) and moves to Chinatown in San Francisco to assist the local gang. “I am sort of this nice, happy-go-lucky, fun and shiny kind of guy, not quite right in the head, who just so happens to be a vicious mass murderer.” The producers told him that the character was brought in to provide a different sort of dynamic to bring more fun and humor to the show. Dramas like this can be really heavy at times, and he’s grateful to be the source of some lightheartedness. After just a season in, Chen already called the series “close and dear to my heart,” and it sounds like he’s not the only one. For everyone involved, from the producers all the way down, Warrior is a true passion project. “We really know what a labor of love this project is.”
To work on something Bruce Lee created was “the honor of a lifetime” for Tang. “When I was growing up here in the States, seeing Bruce Lee for the first time, I remember that was the first time I felt proud to be an Asian American.” To work with his daughter and play out his vision felt completely full circle from when he was a child. The producers wanted to avoid a “Bruce-ploitation” type of series, but they also aimed to create an homage to the iconic martial arts star. Shannon told him that her father had always wanted to bring attention to the Chinese Americans in the Old West who are usually glossed over in American history. The show presents the history in a heightened and stylized way, but as the story builds to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, most of what has occurred in the show has a basis from real events and people that took place in the West during that time.
Joining the series in its second outing was like joining a team that already had a season of chemistry and practice under their belts, so Chen did feel like “the new kid on the block,” which became especially difficult when evaluating how his character fit into the “vibe” of the story. What he found most helpful was “realizing that that’s exactly how my character feels.” Hong is also in a completely new environment where he has to figure out the people and culture around him, and once Tang recognized that, he was able to bring his own new kid feeling into the creative process and relate to the character that much more. “I’ve spent a lot of time just getting to know them… Our cast and crew, I love them like family because it was all about the work. They were so open and so wonderful.” Tang remembered one scene where “all I’m thinking as Hong is to try to make Andrew Koji [protagonist Ahm Sahm] laugh because he’s so serious. That was the only thing I did the entire episode.” By the time he was shooting their last episode, it didn’t feel like work anymore to shoot scenes with his cast mates (just like those original rehearsals that introduced him to acting).
While Tang admitted that he was a little biased, he strongly believes that the stunts on Warrior are “some of the best on TV.” Showrunner Jonathan Tropper has a background in martial arts, and he became instrumental along with stunt coordinator Brett Chan in creating the specific fighting style of each character. Tropper will specifically describe the stunts in the script, which is a very unique thing for a writer to do, so that Chan could have a base from which to further develop the specific choreography. To prepare for the extensive stunts, Tang trained for about eight hours a day, not just to learn the moves, but “to loosen my body up and to be like a whip,” which was how Hong had been designed to move. “Especially coming off of something like Mulan, where I played Yao, who was this sort of mud brick, and I was really really tight. So to loosen that up completely and go 180 degrees, I felt like a professional athlete.” Tang wanted to nail down the way Hong moved, which informed how he played the character in every scene, no matter if it was a fight sequence or not. He highlighted how working with the stunt coordinators was an extremely creative space where he could voice his own opinions and collaborate on the best ways to play out the script. Eventually, they came to the realization that Hong’s movements should be very circular and flowing, avoiding some of the action, which was a very separate style from most other characters but would really set the assassin apart and emphasize his differences. “So I just took that and ran, and it gave me so much in how I approached the world.”
Tang came to work on Warrior directly after Mulan, and the century hopping proved a little jarring, but he was once again astounded by the attention to detail that the production team was able to create over eight or nine blocks of San Francisco. “Being dropped into that world… you don’t have to pretend, you just look. It’s all there, and you start to believe it.” He admitted to spending a few nights just walking around the set and admiring all of the details that had been put in to create an authentic depiction of that time’s San Francisco.
“Working on Warrior was so breathtakingly creative, and as a creative artist, you pray for that. And the environment has to be just right to be able to welcome that.” Everyone on the team encouraged that creative space, and it has obviously paid off with an extremely positively received program. “As grounded as it is in historical truth, what I think sets it apart is the fact that it’s so heightened. We wanted to make it entertaining and thrilling to watch.” Even as they pushed the boundary, it worked within that world, and combined with the elaborate stunt work, it created a highly addictive experience that is so uniquely rooted in real events. Tang also really praised the writers for showing all sides of the story and acknowledging that there are no true “good guys” or “bad guys” in this story, just different perspectives and motives. “You can understand why people will do what they do.”
One of Tang’s biggest ongoing goals is to portray stories that can connect the East to the West. Even though he’s lived in the States for the majority of his life, “I still feel so bicultural… Whatever culture you’re in, that’s what you sort of fall into.” Depending on whether he’s in America or China, he can feel himself instinctually mentally adapting to each society. But Chen thinks there’s something beautiful in that international upbringing. “When we explore other people’s lives and other people’s cultures and we’re exposed to that in a real way, we come to understand that we’re not so different.” Bruce Lee liked to call himself a mid-Pacific man, and that’s exactly what Tang would love to be.
Even as diverse storytelling grows, we still often only see the cultural extremes, the opposite ends of the spectrum. Crazy Rich Asians brings a fully American woman into the circles of the Singapore elite, the world of Wakanda is introduced to us partially through the eyes of a CIA agent, but the middle of the spectrum is seen in fewer stories. Especially in the States, as more and more immigrants from all over the world assimilate to American ideals, blended cultures are becoming increasingly common. However, the expectation to adhere to one extreme or the other is still in place. “You never feel like you’re quite at home anywhere.” Chen praised Lulu Wang’s The Farewell for depicting that sense of longing very well. The worldviews of the East and the West are very different, and “unless you’ve been living both cultures for an extended period of time, it’s hard to really understand that,” but being a child of two cultures provided a more nuanced way for Tang to understand each. One of his main objectives is to promote that type of storytelling, to show that push and pull between upbringings so that everyone out there who’s like him can have something to relate to.
Since traveling to Cambodia, Tang has supported the Cambodian Children’s Fund to aid and educate over two thousand children in Phnom Penh. He recalls the devastation and loss he saw in the “lost generation” there. “Every person you meet there has lost somebody in the war, or has been personally affected… There are many places in the country where you cannot walk because you could step on a landmine that’s been left there since the war.” He wanted to do something to benefit children, and he strongly believes that supporting strong well-rounded education is the best way to do that. “If you give them an education, you can help them help themselves.” He also supports St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the cause that originally brought his family to the States. He gives a percentage of his pay every month to one of those organizations or another charity, and he thinks it helps him stay “grateful and grounded.”
After two stunt-heavy period pieces, Tang hopes to try something radically different for his next project, maybe to transform for a “gravelly” indie drama. “Something has to catch me, but I’m okay waiting for that.” We’re sure that Tang will bring the same energy he’s brought to his more physical projects to any and all of his endeavors in the future.
Warrior is currently airing on Cinemax, and both seasons will be available in full on HBO Max in the near future. Mulan is also available with Early Access on Disney+ and will become available to all subscribers starting December 4.