Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings broke records during its weekend debut, and whilst Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung managed to garner a new circle of fans who were previously unaware of the acting legend, audiences also left the cinemas in love with newcomer Meng’er Zhang.
The Chinese actress plays Shang-Chi’s (Simu Liu) little sister Xialing. Ostracised for a big part of her life due to her gender, Xialing grew up self-learning martial arts and mastering the rope kunai dart in the shadows, whilst her older brother earned the undying attention of their father Wenwu (Tony Leung).
Whilst Shang-Chi is a first for many involved in the project – director Destin Daniel Cretton’s first Marvel movie, Leung’s first entrance into Hollywood, Liu’s big move from the small screen to the big screen – and of course, as Marvel Studios’ first Asian superhero, Shang-Chi bagged several firsts for Zhang.
It’s the 34-year-old actor’s first English project, her Hollywood debut, her first time starring in a big action movie, and possibly, the first of many Marvel movies to come for her, as well as when she met her boyfriend turned husband, action designer, Yung Lee. Funnily enough, the Chinese actress had close to zero clues about what she auditioned for when she first heard of the opportunity.
“I didn’t know I was auditioning for a Marvel film when I sent my tapes. I just saw an audition call in a group chat that said they needed a girl who can speak Chinese and English, so I thought, “Well, I can do that!”, so I sent my tapes,” shared an overjoyed Zhang in a roundtable interview with Geek Culture.
The actress only found out that this role was bigger than she had imagined when she received a call back to do a screen test. When finally offered the role, the actress barely thought twice about the opportunity.
“When they flew me to do a screen test with Simu, that’s when I found out I was auditioning for Shang-Chi. I was so excited!” said Zhang. “After five days, I got a really long message from my lawyer. I didn’t read through, I just scrolled down to the very bottom and I saw, “Welcome to the Marvel Universe” and I mean… Wow!”
Upon securing the role, the actress flew to America four months ahead of her co-stars, to train for the movie. Unlike her co-stars Liu and Leung, Zhang has no martial arts background and made up for it with an incredibly intense training process. Claiming that she’s more flexible now thanks to training, the actress has grown an appreciation for the martial arts, and fondly looks back at screaming together with Liu at the stunt stage.
Speaking of Liu, Zhang flew to America completely alone, and found family on the set of Shang-Chi in more ways than one.
“Me and Simu are both the only children in our families, but the brother and sister chemistry between us is so natural. He’s like a real brother to me and he really takes good care of me,” smiled Zhang.
“I still remember the first day of my training and he came to have lunch with me. We have a meal plan prepared every day, and after a week I said I really craved fried chicken and that night, he took me for a cheat meal, and cheat meal just became our tradition. It’s really fun to work with him.”
Fellow Shang-Chi cast member Awkwafina, who plays Shang-Chi’s best friend Katy can also concur that Liu is a joy to work with.
When asked about how she developed the chemistry between Katy and Shang-Chi with Liu, in a separate interview with Geek Culture, the actress responded: “I don’t think there was any formula to it. Me and him have a similar sense of humour so we would improv so much that 90% of it is likely useless but it was a pleasure to work with him.”
As for meeting her husband on set, it was just the cherry on the top of a very satisfying dessert.
“It just happened. We didn’t plan anything for our marriage celebration, but the production threw a really big party for us to celebrate and Simu took us to Disneyland, and Awkwafina booked a whole venue and had a big karaoke party for us,” giggled Zhang.
“We had so much fun and I can tell you, it’s really a very loving family, this production, and I think the love translates on screen.”
Zhang is really proud of the work she’s done with Shang-Chi and was actively involved with the character development of Xialing, especially since this was a character she felt connected to very strongly.
“She’s a very unique person, and she has many layers. She has a cold and unapproachable exterior, but she also has a sensitive vulnerable part, deep down inside of her. She knows to stand her ground and find her voice and use it. I really loved her. I feel like she’s always a part inside of me somewhere,” said Zhang.
Seeing how Shang-Chi marks the debut of a female Asian heroine too, Zhang wanted to ensure that her character didn’t play into any stereotypes.
“Originally my character had a little red colour extension underneath my natural black hair, and we have already shot the film for over a month. And one day I read an article from Teen Vogue, talking about how Asian female captures in Hollywood films always have some colour in their hair to show that they’re rebels, they can fight, they’re tough, and I don’t want my character to follow that trend,” shared Zhang.
“I called our director Destin, asked him if we could take that out, and the second day, we took that out. The whole production [was] so supportive and they really care. Asian representation is so important and I take it as a responsibility seriously.”
The cast of Shang-Chi have been actively speaking out on Asian representation and why this movie is important for the community, especially since hate crimes towards Asians have grown tremendously in the United States as a result of anti-Asian rhetoric linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to the movie’s premiere, Liu took a stab at Disney CEO Bob Iger for his comments about the movie’s release strategy. Likewise, Awkwafina realises that being involved in a Marvel movie, or any Hollywood movie for that matter, is a large privilege bestowed upon her thanks to past Asian actors and actresses who hustled their way into Tinseltown.
“I came into the industry at a time where there was a kind of a need for diversity and representation. I’ve worked with a lot of predecessors, people who were acting years before I was even on the scene, and they talk about an industry that is not like the one we have today,” explained Awkwafina.
“So when we talk about progression and how we are moving forward, we have to realize we’re moving forward from something. And so I’m very lucky that I came into the industry at the time that I did because it was a lot different back then.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now out in theatres. Read our review here.