Fala Chen Came to America to Find Herself—And Wound Up Being Cast in a Groundbreaking Marvel Movie

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Photo credit: Mary Fix
Photo credit: Mary Fix

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a history-making blockbuster. The first Marvel movie featuring an Asian hero and a predominantly Asian cast, it arrived in the wake of films like Crazy Rich Asians and Minari, at a fraught moment in America marked by anti-Asian rhetoric and a spike in targeted hate crimes. In the first two weekends after its release, it ruled the box office.

But actress Fala Chen had no sense that she was going to be a part of something so major when she got a call from Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton. She was in Antarctica on her honeymoon, about as far as you can get from the world of red carpets and stunt doubles. And while she had expressed interest in the film, she hadn’t submitted an audition tape—just reels from her previous projects. So she stood in shock as Cretton told her through limited WiFi that he wanted her to be part of his cast.

Chen was to play Jiang Li, mother of the film's hero Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and heroine Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), and love interest of shadowy warlord-antagonist Wenwu (Tony Leung). The casting validated the biggest risk she’d ever taken: leaving behind an already-thriving acting career in Hong Kong to start anew in the United States.

Chen grew up partly in Atlanta and partly in China. In Hong Kong, she was an established working actress in the TV industry for the better half of a decade, well-known for her roles in the series Steps (2007) and Triumph in the Skies II (2013). But she felt driven by a restless urge to leave it all behind. As her back-to-back projects in Hong Kong began to feel rote, she became increasingly consumed by the desire to look inward and gain a new sense of purpose around her choice to be an actor.

"Towards the end of my time doing TV shows in Hong Kong, I was hitting a bottleneck and I just knew I had to do something about it,” says Chen. “I worked so hard for so long, filming literally 20 hours a day nonstop for several months. It was so tough—it really broke me psychologically.” It was a huge risk, but one she felt sure of. "I really believe in fate and that everything happens for a reason," Chen says. "There's always a plan. Even things that happen to you that feel like an obstacle or a disaster in the moment will pave the way for your next step."

Finally, in 2014, she left Hong Kong to start over at Juilliard, enrolling in the school's four-year Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) program, where she took part in acting training that required a deep delve into her own psyche. Exercises weren't about following a script, but about discovering and accessing vulnerable parts of herself and channeling them into a more authentic performance. She wanted to be more dynamic on screen, and to create a stronger connection with the audience.

“All my life, even as an actor, I felt like I was really trying to be dutiful, which sometimes got in my way of being creative and being an artist," says Chen. "I wanted to break boundaries for myself as an actor, where it's not to tell the story and do a good job, but to go to another level where I feel free." Not long after, she received Cretton's call.

Photo credit: Mary Fix
Photo credit: Mary Fix

Chen’s on-screen time in Shang-Chi is limited, but she’s a commanding presence in every scene in which she appears. She says she was essentially trying to play herself, but she still felt an overwhelming sense of pressure. She’d never been granted so much creative freedom before, and it was challenging for her. “I was like, ‘How can I fulfill the script? What exactly do you want me to do, director?’" she recalls.

It was difficult at first to stop being dutiful and access a freer, more natural part of herself—and to trust it once she found it. "It's such a hard thing to break, especially when you were raised, even at school, to sit in a certain way," Chen says. "In China, literally in elementary school, we have to sit a certain way. You can't raise your hand anytime, you can’t speak in class. So it takes a lot of courage and experimenting to kind of try to break that.”

But Cretton was reassuring, reminding her that he wanted her to be relaxed and effortless. "Dustin kept encouraging me, saying to me, 'Even though the character seems regal and strong and powerful and mysterious, there’s that goofy and funny and humorous side to her that I see in you, and I want you to bring that part of yourself to the screen.' It was just so comforting and encouraging. I really, really appreciate Dustin for that," Chen says.

Photo credit: Mary Fix
Photo credit: Mary Fix

She tapped into her character’s energy through the film's rigorous Kung Fu-based martial arts lessons. “[It] really informed my presence for the character," she says. "Her physical energy and inner strength came from our martial arts training." The lessons were also a point of bonding for the cast. “We spent so much time training that we also became really, really close friends,” says Chen. “I've never been to a set where I'm naturally that close to all my cast.” The chemistry they shared is clear on screen.

The film's high-scale Asian representation was important to Chen, who, like many contemporary Asian performers, recalls growing up in an entertainment culture that offered few Asian role models. "Marvel has such a global influence," says Chen. “[This film] not only represents our unique cultures—there’s different Asian cultures in this film—but also shows that we, too, can exist in an imaginary world. It lets kids watch and admire an Asian superhero. That didn't exist before."

Ta Lo, the mystical land in the movie, is based on East Asian ancient civilization. "We had to do a lot of research so that the world feels authentic," Chen says. And it needed to feel seamless, without a hint of tokenization. "When Awkwafina's character walks into her parents' house, she just takes their shoes off. There's no special shots or close-up of the shoes. It's just part of their behavior and how people live in those worlds."

With so many people united behind a shared goal, filming was an emotional experience. “As Asian Americans, working in this film—not only just the cast, but our crew and our creatives behind the scenes—we gave a hundred percent and don't want any regrets," Chen says. "It was important not only to me personally, but also for all of us who were involved, that it sets an example of Asian excellence for a more prominent presence in Hollywood, and also globally.”

"Shang-Chi has united actors from all over the world, from England to Hong Kong to Canada," she adds. "We all came for one same purpose: to have a really good time. It's just a badass film."

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