CHEN TANG | ©2023 David Christopher Lee

CHEN TANG | ©2023 David Christopher Lee

WARRIOR is now in its third season, streaming on Max, with new episodes dropping on Thursdays. (Seasons 1 and 2 are also available.)

Based on an original idea by the late Bruce Lee, whose daughter Shannon is one of the executive producers, WARRIOR was developed by Jonathan Tropper, who also serves as showrunner. The series is set in the Chinese immigrant community in 1870s San Francisco, when gangs known as Tongs battled for control.

Chen Tang plays Hong, a Tong soldier who is an exceptional fighter, recently brought over from China. Hong is an ally of Ah Sahm (series lead Andrew Koji). Ah Sahm who accepts that Hong is gay (something the Tong frowns upon).

Tang was himself born in Japan. His family soon moved back to his parents’ birthplace of Guangxi, China, where Tang was raised. Then the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee.

Tang’s first television role was on an episode of 30 ROCK. His other TV credits include a series regular role on STEEL WULF: CYBER NINJA, and recurring appearances on DELOCATED, MYTHOS, BEING MARY JANE, THE THUNDERMANS, BOSCH and AGENTS OF SHIELD. Tang has also been in a number of features, including the science-fiction film RIFT and the Disney live-action MULAN.

Speaking by phone, Tang talks about WARRIOR and developing the skills needed for his character.

ASSIGNMENT X: What, if anything, did you know about the Chinese immigrant community in 1870s San Francisco before you became involved in WARRIOR?

CHEN TANG: I’m going to be honest with you, and I’m ashamed to admit it – I did not know too much about that period of history, especially around these stories of our people, Chinese people. I knew just the basics – that there was a huge population of Chinese who came over for work, to build a better life, and there were a lot of struggles around that.

When I immigrated to the U.S., we were taught U.S. history in public school. And most of our [Chinese-American] history has glossed over those stories. It was literally just a footnote in our classes. We didn’t even know about these stories of immigrants and what they went through in that period of time, and when I started digging into it, I discovered so many of these human stories that just weren’t taught, that were sort of forgotten by history. So, for me, that [research] was a critical experience, and it helped me to discover more about my heritage, my culture, and our immigrant stories.

AX: How did you become involved with WARRIOR?

TANG: I actually had auditioned for main role, for the first season, way back when it was just starting. I thought, “This is a really cool concept.” And then they called me back for the second season. I was actually in New Zealand at the time, because we had just wrapped on MULAN. I got an audition through my rep, [who said], “They’re adding this new character. So, they thought you should read for it.”

AX: Is Hong ambitious, or does he just see himself as a good soldier?

TANG: We all have hopes and dreams, but I didn’t particularly find Hong to be ambitious. He was more about survival. It wasn’t even so much of a conscious thing of thinking, “Oh, I’m just going to be a good soldier and a good servant.” I think it was more, this is all this guy has ever known, and that’s just the way things are done. You serve, you fight, you take orders.

In this new season, it’s the first time that I think Hong really starts to say, “Okay, I’ve got to think for myself. I’ve got to figure stuff out.” In the story, he’s being moved into a place of real authority. And that’s exciting for him. I always felt like, with Hong, deep down and in his heart, he really wants to be happy, and just be at peace. He comes here to this country, and violence is all he’s known, and he just craves peace. Maybe a little piece of land somewhere out here in this big old world, this big wilderness, with wild horses.

AX: Did you have to learn how to do anything to play Hong, either in terms of martial arts, or anything else?

TANG: I’m lucky, I have a martial arts background [from] when I was growing up. Not to the extent of some of these guys on our stunt team, obviously, and some of the other actors, but that definitely is a part.

My character’s signature weapon is a steel necklace that unclasps into a steel chain, so I whip it around, and I take out people with it. It was really fun, but really challenging, because I had to learn to wield it like an expert, like I’d been using it my whole life. That was one of the main things that I had to spend a ton of time for, learning how to fight with a weapon that basically can swing back and hit you in the head if you don’t use it right [laughs].

WARRIOR key art | ©2023 Max

WARRIOR key art | ©2023 Max

AX: What does it say about Hong, that this is his weapon of choice?

TANG: Creatively, the weapon gave me so much about the character. What you choose to use all the time says a lot about you. It’s a chain, it looks like a piece of jewelry, but it unwraps into a deadly weapon. It’s a hidden strength, always knowing you have something around your neck that you could use, but people may not even see it [as a weapon], they just see the surface.

As this character, a gay man in the 1800s, really just a boy in this violent and gang-ridden [environment], I felt that gave me a lot. Number two, what I really love about it is, when you swing it around, it’s a chain, it’s soft. But it’s highly unpredictable, and it can swing around things, wrap around things, it’s highly flexible. So, I felt like that was such an interesting concept – our softness is our strength, our flexibility is our strength. I thought that was such a beautiful way to approach this character, to approach my interaction with the other characters.

AX: In production terms, are there multiple versions of the chain, a lighter one that you’re actually supposed to hit people with, and another version for swinging around if you’re not supposed to hit people with it?

TANG: Both, yeah. They have the prop version, which is like a heavy steel weight, that’s actually made of steel, so if you were to hit somebody with it, it would probably knock their teeth out. So, obviously, when we’re doing our stunts, that’s a rubber replica, so you can swing it around and you can hit others and possibly yourself with it.

AX: When you were growing up and learning martial arts, was that just the sport you liked, or were studying with an eye towards, “I want to be an actor, and this might be a useful skill in getting certain kinds of roles”?

TANG: Oh, not at all. I had no idea I would be an actor until I was nineteen, twenty years old. What I loved about it was, martial arts or kung fu was part of our heritage, but it was just something fun, and I didn’t think too much about it. I was just an athletic kid growing up. I played a ton of sports. My mom was like, “You should do this. It would be a great way to get back in touch with your roots, and it will be fun, but also, you need to stretch.” Because I played American football, and wrestled, and all that stuff, but I was getting a little tight [laughs]. So, it was more for that.

AX: What did you think you were going to do before you decided to be an actor?

TANG: Honestly, I thought I was going to go into the Marines after high school. And I was real close to doing it. That was 2006. We’d just gone into Iraq, I definitely would have gone straight to the front lines. My mother said, “Do you have any idea how hard it would be for us? Every day, we would be up while you were on deployment. You come from a military background. I get it. But you got a scholarship – just try to go to college, see how you like it.”

AX: What was your scholarship for?

TANG: Academics. I was fortunate to get some grants and a scholarship. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I started as a business major. One of the requirements was to take a fine arts class. I said, “Okay, that sounds fun. You don’t have to write any reports or anything.” And I got into it, and I really, really enjoyed it. The professor was like, “Oh, you’re quite good at this.” [laughs]

Once I found out I really enjoyed it, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to change my major.” Once I want to do something, I want to do it really well, and give it the time it needs. And so, I transferred to Emerson College in Boston, got into the theatre program.

AX: Did you come to Los Angeles at some point to do screen acting?

TANG: Absolutely. After I graduated from Emerson, I went straight to New York, I did theatre, I did TV, I did some film, I did everything under the sun, just trying to get some work, for three years. I couldn’t take the cold anymore, and I always wanted to be in Los Angeles, even when I I was starting this acting journey. I’ve always loved movies, loved TV, and L.A. is the heart of it, so I packed up my car and drove out.

AX: You were in MULAN, which shot in both New Zealand and China.

TANG: We were in New Zealand the entire time. They went to shoot some outside shots, the landscape, in China, and they also have a big replica city over there that’s a Tang Dynasty [618-907 A.D.] city, which they use to shoot TV shows and movies. I wasn’t in China.

AX: How was working in New Zealand?

TANG: Oh, my God. One of the great experiences of my life. It’s LORD OF THE RINGS, every single day [laughs]. It’s a country where everything is beautiful. It’s pretty hard not to believe that you’re in an epic story when every day you wake up and you’re outside, looking at glaciers and mountains as far as the eye can see.

AX: When you became involved with MULAN and then with WARRIOR, did the producers know you had a martial arts background, or did they ask you if you could do that style of fighting?

TANG: Up until WARRIOR, I didn’t do action stuff. MULAN was a little bit of stunt work, but more like Army fighting with a spear and a shield. I didn’t expect my martial arts background to come in handy. With WARRIOR, luckily, I can pick up the stunts and the training pretty quickly, but I didn’t expect it to be so helpful. When I started acting and growing in my career, it was never asked for. I don’t think there was this assumption of, “Can he do martial arts?” When I got onto the second season of WARRIOR, I wish I’d continued [the early martial arts training] longer, because it would have helped even more [laughs].

AX: How much of the stunt work do they let you do, and how much is your double?

TANG: Our show is a little unique, because the actors do about ninety-five percent of our own stunts. We train for it, and we train like fighters, almost every single day. It’s an action-heavy show, but especially, some of the characters are martial artists, and they’re fighting a lot, and I happen to be one of them.

I tried to approach it almost like a pro athlete. You’d be training every day, so you actually have to take ice baths, get sports massages, we have stretching. hours and hours and hours of physiotherapy. Obviously, we have an amazing, world-class stunt team, and they would teach us the choreography, or train us for certain techniques. So, we were sort of de facto stunt people in this. The only things that they brought in the actual stunt doubles for was if there was something that was quite dangerous, if [your character] is going through a window [laughs].

For this one, Brett Chan, our stunt coordinator, and the showrunners and the way we structure the story, we really wanted to bring in that sense of authenticity as much as we could, and also just get our faces on camera as much as we could, so [the audience can see] that you were actually doing things.

AX: And how do you relate to Hong’s costumes?

TANG: Oh, I love my character’s costuming. We’re in this gang, so we get this cool style of uniform. It looks and fits like an Armani suit. When we do our stunts, we have a separate suit that’s made of this very stretchy material, so you can actually fight in the suit pretty well.

My character is actually part of the same gang, but he was in a different branch, in China. So, when they brought us over to San Francisco in the story, I had a completely different suit, but the same color scheme. It’s red and black, but it was a Chinese kung fu outfit. It was loose and flowy and robe-like. And that was it. I loved that costume, but then, as I became more quote-unquote Americanized in the story, and got in with the American branch of the gang, I finally got a new suit. And now I felt very American. It gave me a lot, because actually, Jason Tobin, who plays my boss [the character Young Jun], said, “When you wear the suit, you stand differently, more like an American.” [laughs] So, I thought it was a nice touch.

AX: With Hong’s accent, are you going with anything that you heard growing up, or does he have a different sort of an accent?

TANG: With the accent, it’s understood that we’re speaking in Cantonese, as the people back then actually were, but we do this whole trick with the story and the camera, where it actually, in the first episode of the series, it starts with a guy speaking in Cantonese, and then as the camera loops back around, it actually changes to English. So, in the story, we’re speaking English without an accent, like I’m speaking to you right now, between the Chinese, if we’re speaking in Cantonese in the story, we’re speaking in perfect English. And then, when the camera jumps out, if the Chinese person is being watched by someone who doesn’t understand Cantonese, it shows that we’re speaking in Cantonese. And then, if the Chinese character is speaking to an American, we speak English with an accent.

My parents speak Mandarin, and when they speak English, it’s a different accent in English than a Cantonese native speaker. So, I had to learn the Cantonese accent. I wouldn’t say it was particularly hard. It was actually fun. I think an accent changes how you think, how you carry yourself. It’s all interconnected.

AX: How is working with Andrew Koji, who plays the series lead, Hong’s friend Ah Sahm?

TANG: Brilliant. He’s so talented. And he’s like a big brother. What I felt from Andrew Koji the man was, this is a guy, first off, who really cares. He would give everything, the shirt off his back, to try to do something that he believes in, which was this show, and we were lucky come back for a third season after the pandemic. And the guy killed himself during training. He was injured, he did fight scenes, and training on his off-hours, on top of that. That’s love. He cares so much, and I really connected to that, as me, Chan, but also as me as Hong. This is somebody who I could follow, that’s what I loved about him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor work that hard.

AX: You’ve done projects set in the past, and projects set in the present. Do you have a preference?

TANG: I’d love to go into the future [laughs]. I’m a huge sci-fi nut. Honestly, if I could just be on anything STAR TREK, I don’t care what it is, I think I can retire happy [laughs]. For me, there’s something hopeful and imaginative about what could come.

AX: Do you have any projects coming up that we should know about?

TANG: Yeah. I just shot this really cool feature film comedy. It’s completely different. It’s going to be called FOUND FOOTAGE, and it is a SPINAL TAP-style mockumentary about a feature film crew that is trying to make a BLAIR WITCH-style horror movie about finding Bigfoot. It’s a ton of improv. We were in Sequoia Woods, shooting it for about six weeks, and it’s going to be a really funny movie.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about WARRIOR?

TANG: I would really love people to see WARRIOR as an homage to Asian-American history, really overlooked Asian-American history, in a really fun, action-y, fun, action-packed, and epic way. And I would love people to know that, even though we stylized it, even though we dramatized it, obviously, it’s a TV show for entertainment, but the story topics – racism, history, politics, classism – all of that was honest to God real life. These things actually happened. That riot actually happened in the story. These lynchings actually happened. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which is coming up in the story, actually did happen. In a nutshell, what I would love people to know is, so much of this story, even though it’s for entertainment, is based on fact.

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Article: Exclusive Interview: Chen Tang on WARRIOR



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