Get to Know Fala Chen, the Emotional Core of ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’

The actor opens up about landing the Marvel film, her intense prep, and the surprising role she wants next.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s latest addition to its Cinematic Universe, has been out less than a week and is already setting box office records with nearly $100 million in ticket sales. If you were one of those theatergoers (and with numbers like that, it seems likely), then you know: It’s not just one of the best action-packed films in the MCU—it’s one of the best action films, full stop. 

Led by director Destin Daniel Cretton, the cast is a large part of what makes Shang-Chi so successful. Star Simu Liu clearly put in the work to play the titular Shang-Chi, a skilled martial artist and the son of a powerful man named Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). It’s perhaps no surprise that Awkwafina, who plays Shang-Chi’s best friend, brings the best comedic moments in the film. I also can’t wait to see more of Meng’er Zhang in the MCU as Shang-Chi’s badass sister, Xu Xialing.

Walt Disney Co.

But at the emotional heart of it all is Fala Chen. As Ying Li, the mother of Shang-Chi and Xialing, she is the driving force behind much of the film’s story and portrays the character with equal parts warmth and strength. Even when she is not on screen, her presence is felt. That skill only comes with years of experience performing on stage and screen—which Chen has, in both Hong Kong and the United States. Here, we caught up with the Juilliard-trained actor about what life was like on and off the Shang-Chi set, what her dream role looks like, and more.

Glamour: You were on your honeymoon in Antartica when you got the call you got the part. What was your reaction?

Fala Chen: I was generally just really surprised and literally in shock. Because my mind was going through all the possibilities—what if they had not been able to reach me? There are so many ways it could have not happened, if my agents didn’t call the satellite phone and all of that. If it didn’t happen, I would have been really, really sad.

Did you do anything to celebrate after you heard the news?

Yeah, my husband and I opened a bottle of wine. It was just two of us, and I didn’t have any internet connection or way to reach the outside world. So we kept the secret for a very long time. I didn’t tell my family or anyone until I was on my way to Australia to film. I had to leave my husband two days early [from our honeymoon]. He was a little bit sad but also really excited for me. He had to take all my luggage, because we had these giant down feather jackets and boots and all that. He took them home, and I went on my way to training.

That’s what husbands are for. It sounds like you dove into training right away, but I’d love to hear more about how you prepared for this character. 

I jumped in with the training without knowing much about the character. They didn’t reveal anything about my character when they made the offer, which made me wonder: How do managers and agents negotiate for the contract? Because they don’t really know what I would be doing in the film, but kudos to them! 

When I landed, the first thing I did was a physical assessment of how flexible I am and how much I know about martial arts and stuff like that. I think I failed miserably, but they were like, “We’ve seen you in other films where you did a little bit of that before. You seemed okay.” I was like, “Well, it’s called filming. I’m an actor.” But I really enjoyed the training. The first week was so tough, I barely could walk. I was so sore all over.  They gave us these cryo treatments, where they freeze you for a couple of seconds so your body recovers quickly. That helped. Also, I had massages. That was so good; it was my favorite part of the training. 

It was really great to train along with Simu and Meng’er, to see each other every day and goof around on the training ground and hang out. We got to know each other really well and became friends. It was really great to warm up everybody as a team before we even started shooting. Also, I loved working with Destin and meeting him. 

I remember our first meeting, because we didn’t meet prior to me arriving to set. He was so reassuring. Sometimes when you get offered a role—and I didn’t audition for this—so I was just like, “Why did you pick me?” He told me, “We saw hundreds of people and we wanted to offer you this part.” I asked, “What can I bring to the story?” And he was like, “You just being yourself. We’ll give you training, and we’ll let you do your own thing. We trust you that you will bring yourself to the film.” And that’s very much what he did during the shoot. He allowed me to step into the role. It was very much an open conversation, where I didn’t feel like I was just taking directions but was also outputting ideas—thoughts about the translation, the backstories, and all that. It was a pleasant, collaborative experience. 

Do you have an example of an idea you had or a collaboration you were happy to see included?

So many. There was a scene where they were not recording the dialogue but wanted it to really happen spontaneously. So Destin asked me and Tony to improv the scene together. It was a very intimate, loving scene. We were sitting by the lake, and Destin was shooting from behind so he didn’t really even see our full faces, and he just let us improv.

It’s a really short scene in the script, so we just thought it would be for a few seconds and what not. But he didn’t cut. As actors, if the director doesn’t cut, then you just keep going. So we chatted for about at least 15, 20 minutes. And I had the best time. Can you imagine, just talking and chatting with Tony Leung? I got to ask all my fan girl questions. He’s very shy in real life, so in the improv he was answering my questions. I had such fun time. I was feeding him food and talking and doing things I would never dare to do in real life. Eventually Destin cut the scene and said, “Guys, that was so interesting. You’re so beautiful to watch that I didn’t want to cut. I could watch you guys play forever.” That was a really memorable scene.

That sounds so lovely. Can you talk a little bit about how you connected to this character emotionally? 

There are so many aspects of this character that I feel I could relate to. She’s a very independent woman. I had to slowly learn about her and become her through the whole preparation process, through the physical training. I learned about her from her style of fighting, especially the style of tai chi. I feel like that was her inner strength. I wasn’t rushing; I was taking my time to figure that out. I had the luxury of time for over a month to find this character, and to also be informed by my scene partners, especially Tony. I could bounce it off of his amazing work and be in the room and be present and respond to him. That really helped me to find the character as well. I feel like there are so many aspects or stories about her that we haven’t exactly seen fully in this particular film. Hopefully the audience will get to see later on. But it’s very interesting to piece together, almost like a puzzle.

Was there a favorite scene?

There are so many things I really, really loved, even short scenes. We had so much fun dancing, doing the Dance Dance Revolution scene together. We laughed a lot. I think the most important—and also the most beautiful scene in the film for my character—is in the beginning of the film, where you see how she met Wenwu, Tony’s character. At the time when we filmed, it was the longest fight sequence in the MCU ever. And then we had other scenes in our own film that broke that record. We spent so much time learning and training and preparing for that scene. It’s a very special scene in the sense that it’s not just fights and effects and power without dialogue. It’s such a beautiful, romantic story where people fall in love. You see these two characters get to know each other and fall in love through movement. It’s a fight, but also a dance.

I just feel like it’s so  beautifully shot and framed, and the set was so stunning. It was an actual set; it wasn’t built by CGI. It was literally bamboo forest and waterfalls and trees and a pond with pebbles inside. All these movie magic things that made the set so real, but it also so safe to play in. I just love, love that scene so much.

Outside of the movie, how did you like to spend a day off?

Oh, there are so many funny stories because we hung out every day. We laughed so much together. I was one of the first ones to arrive, along with Simu and Meng’er, to train. So after training we would hang out, go out to dinner, and we got into playing board games a lot. We are all super competitive with each other, so at times it got too long and too late into the night. Simu bankrupted so much in Monopoly to me. I took his entire street.

We also cooked together a lot. We spent Chinese New Year together. Initially we were going to order some Chinese food, but I was like, “Maybe we should cook ourselves. How about making some dumplings?” So we made them from scratch. We got materials; I was the chef, and they were my sous chefs. I was pretending like I knew how to do everything…but I actually googled it before. I was like, “Guys, mix this. And why don’t you do the flour, and I’ll do this?” We had a fantastic time and celebrated Chinese New Year together. We took a lot of photos and videos, which I think will release later on for everybody. It really felt like a family, and this is a film about a celebration of our culture in many ways. That was the moment where we felt like we’re literally a family celebrating Chinese New Year together. That was really beautiful.

When people go see this in theaters and at home, what do you hope they take away from seeing the movie? 

I’m greedy. I hope they leave with many, many thoughts and enjoyment. This is not just a film about visual spectacle; it’s a story about family, about relationships, about love. I hope the audience will resonate with that. Also, I hope they have fun! I hope they enjoy watching one of the best action sequences in the Marvel Universe ever. And they get to learn a little bit more about the Chinese culture, but not from an exotic, distanced way. I hope that because it’s set in such an imaginary world, it’s something that opens people’s minds. They see it as part of the Marvel Universe, as just part of the world, so that we normalize the presence of Asian actors on screen internationally. Hopefully this is one of the first of many to come.

My last question is: If you could have any role after this, your dream role, what would you love to do?

I’ve been dreaming and thinking about this for a while. And Simu agreed, because we were like, “How cool would it be if I get to play the dragon?” There is a giant dragon that appears in the film. If I can do the motion capture of the dragon, I would love that.

Anna Moeslein is the deputy editor at Glamour. 

This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Condé Nast


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