'Mulan' Star Jimmy Wong On Putting His Own Twist On A Beloved Animated Character [Interview]

Jimmy Wong is just happy to be here. In just his third feature film, the Chinese-American actor found himself acting opposite Donnie Yen, Gong Li — some of the biggest names in the Hong Kong movie industry. And he's playing a character from a beloved Disney animated movie, the laidback Imperial Army recruit Ling, in Niki Caro's remake of Mulan. It's a lot of pressure, but Wong wouldn't have it any other way.

"For me, I'm just happy to be able to be a voice in general for anyone that's out there looking for representation on screen," Wong said in an interview over Zoom with /Film.


What was it like getting to play a character who was kind of fan favorite in the animated films and putting your own spin on it?

It's definitely an honor to be able to bring a real life, and face, and voice to any character from the Disney universe, whether you're Star Wars or Marvel or in this case, the classic animations. For me, I'm just happy to be able to be a voice in general for anyone that's out there looking for representation on screen. Even like a younger version of myself that might see someone like me on screen and go, "Oh cool, that's a job I could do?" So I think like that's exciting for me it's just to be out there as a representative right now, even if it's Ling or just some other random brand new character. I think part of the reason that this movie is so special is that it gets to show the world that look we can all be on the big stage, and it's not necessarily just the one racist game or whatever it is. Acting and entertainment is something that's for every human.

So what was it like being in your first real major feature film starring alongside the likes of Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Jet Li. Maybe not Jet Li because you don't get to see him, but the bigwigs!

Yeah, I barely get to see him, but it's an honor, absolutely an honor. To think that we can bring both the Chinese film industry and the American film Industry together in a way that makes a movie that everyone around the world can enjoy too, is really special. Because, for me, those people you just mentioned are living legends, they are the top of their industry they're stars beyond stars, but the American world doesn't know them as much and so being able to show them in a light that is added on to this incredibly impactful movie is a really special thing to do. And in the same way, vice versa right, we get to have our faces seen around the world as well. And I think that's the beautiful part of doing a movie like this is that there's going to be a worldwide impact from it, and that worldwide impact is the kind of thing that I've always been looking for as an actor and someone that is a representative of my culture and my people as well as the entertainment industry. So I think, obviously, I'm beyond pleased to share the screen with them. And, if anything, I'm just so happy that the world gets to get a little more of seeing them on camera, and vice versa.

There is a great camaraderie in the scenes in the soldiers camp. So was that something that kind of came about naturally or did it come about from training together and being on set together?

So we came out two months early just to start training and we spent close to eight hours together every single day, whether or not it was in martial arts training, sword training, horse riding, or physical conditioning and all that. And in those moments, when you are sweating and tired and pushed to your limits, is when you really get to see the truth in other people that are around you. And we were really fortunate to have a group of kids and adults and veterans that were so tied to each other, and supporting each other because we all knew that this movie was historic, and we were doing something that was going to change lives. And we also were in it together because this was a huge opportunity for everyone. And so I think we were able to share that goodwill with each other. And as a result, over time, we got to really get to know each other and we would always go out to dinner together and spend a lot of time outside of set together as well, to learn from each other and support each other and that was really special, too. Because I know that not every cast gets along so well. And so to have that here, I knew from the beginning was something I'll always remember.

Do you have any fun stories from the sets and being in that kind of close-knit crew?

It was super close-knit, and I think it was fun because you know at the end of the day, the cast is almost, at least in the army side almost entirely male. And then there's the incredibly phased Mulan. And it's great because a lot of ways, Mulan needs to learn how to fit in with the guys, but the guys also needs to learn how to fit in with the army and fall into the sort of rigid control of training everyday and doing all this stuff. So it was an awesome balance of everyone's mannerisms and everything that we did every day to sort of mold us into these really crazy close-knit group of friends that we can trust each other with everything.

And that was like, you know, something that I'll never forget. Just being able to be there every day with these other people and share stories, and also goof off. We would eat oranges on set and one thing we would do is...the chancellor, who was played by Nelson Lee would sometimes be on set at the same time. He wears this awesome hat in the movie, and it was upside down because he had it in his lap one time, and we just started throwing orange slices into it from across the green room. And like it was small moments like that where it was just like harmless fun, but, you know, it added a game element to what we were doing and it made us all very happy to have each other there to laugh and be like, "Oh, I bet you can't do that again," and sort of do all that, like joshing around that wasn't at the expense of anyone but it helped bring us together.

So I'm sure you grew up watching the animated movie, as did many Asian Americans. What was it like knowing the legacy of that movie and coming into this film which is so important for Asian American and Asian representation in Hollywood in general?

The pressure is definitely there, and you feel it from the beginning because Disney fans are so passionate, especially fans of the original movie. I loved the original movie as well, and of course I want to see the songs again, I want to do all this stuff as well. But being able to be a part of something new and then, throughout the process, realizing just how special this version and why it was so unique and beautifully told, and the vision that Nikki [Caro] had as a director, really changed my mind about a lot of things. And for me, I think it's so important in this day and age to be able to bring a remake to life that adds something new to the table, especially when it comes to bringing a woman director like Nikki to the forefront as well and giving her such an amazing opportunity to shine with the fully supported crew as well around her with a woman DP and first AD and producers and all of that. So that to me resonated in so many ways because we're not just telling an Asian story we're telling a woman's story. In this day and age, I think there's nothing more important than being able to make sure that all of our voices are equally heard, and represented, and most importantly that we're empowering people that are watching movies like this to know and think that, " I too can be a part of this world." It's not a gate that I have to stand behind, there's no gatekeeper in fact. Movies and entertainment are for everyone, and we can show that those in front of camera and behind it.

So what would you say to the fans of the animated movie, who are maybe a little bit reluctant to see this film because of the changes made?

Well, as the old adage goes, don't judge a book by its cover. Don't knock it till you've tried it. There's so much about these live action remakes, the more that you dig into the story behind Mulan and the cast and crew that were all involved in it, if you read and hear what we have to say about it, I think that's all you need to know that this is really something special to us, and that we wouldn't be so passionate about if we didn't truly believe in it. And I think word of mouth is going to do the job by itself. But if you're feeling on the fence and all that stuff, you know, ask a friend about it, or just go watch it yourself. I think that's just the best way to really know how you feel about something. And I think a lot of people are going to be so surprised and so happy when they see the final product because it is something unlike anything else I've ever seen.

So it's been a long road to getting Mulan to the screen finally, though not the big screen as much. Why do you think it's important now for Mulan to be released at this time, in this climate, so to speak?

Well I've certainly noticed an uptick in the news, as well as in personal stories of Asians that have been attacked or harassed around the world during this pandemic. And it unfortunately, just goes to show that sometimes these issues, just need a little more attention. And sometimes it's as easy as just knowing that these people that you see as potential bad guys are not. It's something that it's so simple to vilify, it's so simple to put people in boxes when we get bombarded by news every day. And movies are meant to be an escape, movies are meant to show us a story or tell us a story about something that we may have not known before, and to teach us something. And I think Mulan is so important because it teaches so many human stories at the core of it: it's a father daughter relationship, it's about what it means to be loyal, it's about what it means to fight for something. I think all of those universal messages are great because they're applicable to so many people, and in this case he just happens to be centered around a really predominantly Asian story and from a culture that a lot of us aren't as familiar with. It just by showing that in a way that anyone can digest that anyone can connect with, is one of the most important ways that we can create real meaningful change in the world, especially for people that just haven't had the experience or ability to watch something like this before.