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When actor Meng’er Zhang saw a casting call in a group chat, she had no idea what a life-changing opportunity it would turn out to be.
Zhang sent in a self-tape for the audition, which called for a woman who could speak English and Mandarin. Only later, when she found herself doing a screen test with Simu Liu, did she realize she was auditioning for Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. She went on to book the role of Xialing, a warrior and estranged sister of Shang-Chi.
The project, which just broke Labor Day weekend records at the box office, not only saw her join the biggest film franchise in history, it also introduced her to her husband, Yung Lee, an action designer on Shang-Chi. Liu and co-star Awkwafina surprised the couple with a Disneyland celebration.
In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Zhang reflects on a whirlwind few years and looks forward to the future of Xialing. She also looks back on her time with Brad Allan, the acclaimed stunt coordinator who died before Shang-Chi‘s release.
Take me back to early life, when you decided acting was something you wanted to do?
My mom is an actor and my dad used to be a stage designer, so I was born and grew up in theaters. Theater was my childhood playground. It’s always in my blood. I never had a doubt of being an actor. I always wanted it, and my parents really supported me.
They must be excited for you now.
Yes. I didn’t tell them at first because I signed an NDA. I couldn’t talk about it, so I didn’t tell them that. I can keep a big secret.
They thought you were going to Australia, where Shang-Chi shot, for fun?
Afterwards, when I told them I was doing a Marvel film, they were shocked. “Marvel!” I said, “Yeah Marvel.” They said, “This Marvel?” I said, “Yeah, this Marvel.”
You saw the Shang-Chi audition in a group chat. What happened next?
I didn’t know I was auditioning for a Marvel film. I saw that audition call in a group chat and it said they needed a girl who could speak Chinese and English, so I thought, “I can do that.” I sent my self-tape and I got a callback. They flew me to do a screentest with Simu and that’s when I found out I was auditioning for Shang-Chi.
You had four months of training. What is life like during that period?
I didn’t have any martial arts background before this film and they flew me out four months early to train. The training was really intense. I remember the first day I started my training, I was so excited, I remember Simu came to have lunch with me on my first day here. I was so excited telling him, “bro bro, we have our personal trainer, we have our multiple stunt trainers, we have a meal plan prepared every day. And we get paid! Nothing can be better than this.” And Simu was like, “I’ve been here more than a month. It’s just your first day. I will ask you again after a week and see how you’re doing.” After a week he saw me. “How’s it going?” I was like, “I’m so tired. I don’t have energy to talk to anyone. And I’ve been craving fried chicken.” And so, they took me to a cheat meal. Cheat meal became a tradition between us.
One of the great moments is you and Simu’s fight scene early on. How long were you filming that scene?
It took awhile. I remember the first day we shot that scene, that’s also the first fight scene we shot. I was really nervous, even though me and Simu practiced that 1,000 times. He encouraged me and he said, “It’s OK if you really hit me. I will be fine. You cannot hurt me.” So I was like, “OK.” I got into my character and I went for it and I did punch him in the face. I didn’t mean to. I was in my character and I guess it was not his favorite memory on set, but I did enjoy it. (Laughs.) It felt good.
What did you learn from having Tony Leung as your onscreen father?
Working with Tony was a dream come true. He is a legend. His work ethic is amazing. He never went back to his trailer. He never asked for anything. He never brought his phone to set. He’d just sit there and watch and was always prepared. I can watch his performance under a microscope. He’s so good. I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot from Awkwafina too. She’s the coolest girl I’ve ever met. She’s so witty. It was pretty intimidating doing improv alongside of her, because she’s so good at it. I want to do more with her because I can learn a lot. She’s amazing.
What are your memories of working with Brad Allan?
He was really nice to us. I remember the Christmas break, he treated the stunt girls to a very nice spa. He gave us gift certificates for us to enjoy a chill day. He was great. The action sequences in this film were amazing. So breathtaking, and it’s unlike anything you have ever seen in the Marvel Universe. I can’t even pick my favorite one, because I love all of them.
How much training did it require to master the rope dart?
It’s very hard at the beginning because when I started training, I tried very hard to control it. But the harder I tried to control it, the harder to control it [it was.] My rope dart trainer taught me that. “Don’t try to control it. Communicate with it and it will go where you want it to go.” When I got it, it felt really good. It’s beautiful and it became a part of my body.
You got married during this movie. What is the process of having a wedding while doing a giant movie as well?
Yes, you heard. (Laughs.) I met my husband on this film. He is one of the action designers of our film. We didn’t prepare anything for our marriage, we just decided to get married because that just felt right. The production through a very big celebration party for us and Simu took us to a Disneyland trip. He surprised us, and Awkwafina booked a whole venue to celebrate for us. We are a big family. It’s really special.
Do you hope to work with your husband on a film again?
Yes, I love him so much and he is still training me. (Laughs.)
Do you know when you will play this character again?
I don’t know. I really wish I knew, because I’m so excited what’s next for her. I just feel very excited.
Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton and the writers did a great job of creating excitement where this character could go.
A tip: just sit until the very end of the film.
What were reshoots like?
We constantly were missing each other when we got apart. I was just really happy to see everyone again and we enjoyed every moment we were together. We are a really big family and that’s what’s so special about this film.
What were you feeling when you saw Shang-Chi screen at the premiere?
That was my first premiere and I was nervous because I had never experienced anything like it before. Marvel fans, they are the best fans. They are so supportive and they are so creative. Someone had already dressed up into the characters in our film. Wow. I am really lucky.
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