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'Shang-Chi' star Fala Chen duels and woos Tony Leung, but she almost quit acting

By Tara Bennett
Fala Chen

When Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in North America on Sept. 3, actress Fala Chen will be a new face to most western audiences. However, the Chinese-American actress is a well-known face to eastern viewers for her string of popular dramas for the Hong Kong-based network TVB starting in the late-2000s. But after a whirlwind of back-to-back projects, Chen found herself at a crossroads in 2015 about whether to continue her acting career.

“When I worked in Asia for a long time, I just felt like I needed a break,” Chen admits to SYFY WIRE, explaining where she was before landing the part of Shang-Chi’s mother in the Legend of the Ten Rings. “I needed to relearn everything about myself and unlearn a lot of things.”

Chen decided to leave the paychecks behind and applied, and got into the Juilliard School to start mastering acting again from the ground up. “I learned so much about myself that I didn't know prior,” she says. “You're just constantly outputting, and giving all you know so you don't have time to look inside of yourself and to really reflect. The four years at drama school really gave me that time and space. I got to know myself much better, I think as not only as an actor, but as a person. I was reassured about my passion for acting. I was more confident coming out of drama school.”

That might be a bit of an understatement because as soon as Chen learned that Shang-Chi was casting, the re-energized actress pushed her team to get her an audition. Months into the process, she finally got a meeting with director Destin Daniel Cretton, and from that, Marvel Studios offered her the role of Jiang Li, the mystical guardian of Ta Lo, and eventual mom of Shang-Chi.

Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings World Premiere

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was the first film she landed post-Juilliard graduation, but she was happy to discover that it felt familiar stepping back on set. “I was like, 'Oh, I know this. I've done this before,'” she says. “But it was with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.”

It’s not hyperbole to say that Jiang Li serves as the emotional center of the film as her character has a tremendous impact on Shang-Chi’s decisions, both as a child and an adult, and the motivations of Wenwu, the leader of the Ten Rings played by acting legend, Tony Leung.  

Chen shares a lot of her screen time with Leung, in which their intricate dance of wushu-style martial arts sparring reveals much about both of their characters. Having never worked before with Leung, the actress recalls with more than a little awe the first day they met during pre-production training.

“I remember that moment, meeting him for the first time. I was just transfixed by his energy, but I was also surprised by how humble and how calm and how soft-spoken he was,” she says. “But then once he's on set, he's like a different person. He warms himself, and you can't take your eyes off him.”

On that first training day, Chen says she had already been at it for two weeks, still learning fundamentals and the choreography. “They knew I need more training,” she says. “He's done tons of martial art films, like he was in The Grand Master!” Chen says she was dressed in sweats when Leung arrived with an entourage and humbly greeted her, then went to another area to learn his choreography.

“At the end of the day, the choreographer comes back to me saying, 'Tony has learned all his movements already. He remembered them all.' I think he was trying to shame me,” she jokes. “I was like, 'Oh, no, I gotta practice harder!'”

Her persistence paid off because their extended sequence is a breathtaking flurry of motion, emotion, and character development. Shot over weeks, Chen says, “That scene is not just about fighting or falling love, it's very much the process of how it happened through the movement and that's what I love about that scene very much.”

Shot out of sequence, Chen says she relied on Cretton and the stunt coordinators to help remind her of the minute milestones that happen within the bigger confrontation. “They put together such a beautiful dance that really tells the same story as it was in the script; the movement informed the storytelling like who's having the upper hand. Sometimes, I fly higher. Sometimes he's smashed against the wall. That was the stuff that helped us to track the progression of that scene and the story so it was really easy for me to follow, and also I just have to look at Tony,” she says with a smile. “Just look at him and take him in. And you know what to do.”

“Eventually, when we got to watch that scene, I was just like, 'Oooooh! It's sexy!'” she says.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Still

Despite playing Shang-Chi’s mother, for many narrative reasons Chen doesn’t share the screen with Simu Liu. But that didn’t stop her from bonding with the lead of the film, whom she says became a true friend on the set. “The first time I saw Simu, he was like, "Oh, mom! Don't you feel old?" But we're a similar age,” she says.

Now, Chen and her Shang-Chi family are waiting in anticipation for how the world receives Marvel Studios' first all-Asian cast, and first Asian standalone superhero movie. But in her own family, she’s already feeling the love just based on her proud father swiping all of her Jiang Li action figures.

“My dad asked me to buy some, so I bought like dozens of them. He asked me to sign all of them and came to our house to visit me the other day and he took all of them! Chinese parents,” she deadpans. “They're like, 'Oh, we have this aunt and this friend...' They're giving them out as souvenirs, so they're all gone.”

Not a bad outcome for someone who wasn’t even sure if acting was the right path six years ago.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in theaters on Sept. 3.