Photos: Ryan West
Chen Tang’s story stands as a testament to his deep-rooted love and curiosity for the chance to encounter new characters, cultures, and experiences. He began his acting journey while attending Emerson College in Boston with local and regional theaters. Soon after, Tang moved to New York to pursue a professional career in regional theater, television, and commercials before finally landing in Los Angeles and diving deep into film and television.
Tang strives to portray human stories that connect the East to the West. He recently achieved this goal by joining the cast in the Bruce Lee Entertainment and Cinemax series Warrior. Tang also stars in Walt Disney Studio’s Mulan, a live-action version of the 1998 classic Disney animated film, with the 2020 version drawing a lot more inspiration from the original Chinese fable “The Ballad of Mulan.”
With two minds and two hearts, Tang bridges the gap between two very strikingly different cultures. His aptitude to adapt and empathize is apparent as he shares how he has been handling the pandemic, learning to embrace his current self, and deciding the next steps in his career.
Sometimes my upbringing felt like a whirlwind of different languages, places, and people. My parents were among the first generation of students to study abroad when China opened back up to the world in the 1980s. They were in Japan for a while, and though I don’t remember much of it, I think their international experiences helped them be open-minded and accept new ideas, like when their son decided to be in the entertainment industry. Being from China has given me such deep roots that will always be a part of me. I love my country, its history, and culture.
No matter where I go or whatever happens, it feels comforting to know that I always have that richness of culture and background to draw upon. Memphis is still the greatest city in the world to me. We spent a lot of time in the inner city. I suppose it was pretty rough at times, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Growing up there kept me very grounded because most folks are really down to earth and often came from very modest means as we did. But more than anything, I think something in the water makes people really passionate about things. I even remember a guy asking for change on the street who would sing his heart out. I can’t really explain it--we just called it “having soul.” Being around that from a young age made me want to do whatever I did “with soul”--as in, with all your heart and passion.
All in all, these travels I’ve experienced gave me a lifelong love of exploration and curiosity for different cultures and people. I just want to see and know everything about other peoples’ lives. It’s fascinating to me.
Overall, I think the experience of being multicultural gave me the mindset to be open to many different ways of life. I don’t know why, but I’ve always just blended into my surroundings and sort of “flow into a different way of being.” Like, if I am in Memphis, I feel so Southern. And when I’m around Chinese people, I feel Chinese. In both heart and mind, the shift happens naturally for me. Maybe it comes from a survival mechanism to try to fit in or find your place in the world when you never feel like you quite belong. I think every immigrant has experienced that sense of not belonging anywhere to some degree. Whatever the case, it’s like second nature now. I believe in the malleability of the human spirit. That sense of opening yourself to a different life or background--to allow that to change you--has become the cornerstone of how I approach my work as an actor.
With what I mentioned above, I gravitate toward roles that give me the chance to transform. I want to look, feel, and be totally different for a while. One of the phrases I hate most is, “just be yourself.” Yeah, but “yourself” when? Talking to whom? Where did you grow up? How are you feeling at that particular time? And so forth. You’re still yourself, but you can be completely different, sometimes unrecognizably so. Honestly, I think I’m just a boring actor living in LA who makes regrettable taco runs late at night. I’m interested in characters that have vastly different lives than that. I’d love to get the chance to explore and experience those slices of life for a while.
How fitting! I love it. The thing that pops up immediately is, of course, the pandemic. It’s obviously been a tough year for so many people, and my heart goes out to anybody whose family has been affected by it. It’s been a wild year, but for me, I took it as a time that could also be a positive, growing, reflection-filled time. Being cooped up in quarantine gave me tons of time to improve myself and my craft and art. It made me do something to remind myself to give gratitude every morning for all the little things I always overlook. Even being thankful for something as simple as having clean water, a sunny LA day, and a roof over my head was a way to keep myself positive and grounded.
I try my best to lean into it. I’m a big believer in letting myself feel; however, I feel in the moment--to not make it right or wrong. Like, if being cooped up during the quarantine pisses me off that day, I just let myself be okay with being really pissed off. And that way, it’ll pass, instead of holding onto those feelings. I used to beat myself up so much and feel guilty about thinking I shouldn’t be feeling a certain way. I think we need to be a lot kinder to ourselves. And in my experience, leaning into these uncomfortable experiences often gave me a different perspective. It’s usually allowed me to understand and have more empathy for other people going through similar experiences. And I think that’s a gift that can bring us closer together.
Both seasons of our show Warrior head to streaming on HBO Max next year! So I hope tons more people can get a look at a damn good show I (and all of our cast and crew) are extremely proud of. Check us out!