Fala Chen comes full circle as she overlooks the iconic New York skyline from a rooftop in Manhattan— it was here that 23-year-old Chen became an actress, after participating in the Miss Chinese International Pageant as a representative of New York City. While few have the courage to start over at the peak of their careers, Chen dropped everything in Hong Kong at 31 and flew halfway across the world to pursue an MFA in drama at Juilliard. This year, the 39-year-old stepped into the global spotlight as Jiang Li in Marvel’s Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and wowed the world with her graceful aura and commanding on-screen presence. Now she is back where it all started and continues to take confident strides on the road less travelled.
There are a lot of challenges in life, but Fala Chen is not one to hide in her comfort zone. On screen, she is a successful Hollywood actress in a happy marriage with an adorable daughter. Behind the camera, the 39-year-old actress is a humble woman who is not afraid to look at her shortcomings, who welcomes difficulties head on with courage. Over the years, a certain confidence and maturity has come to adorn the features of the Fala Chen we know and love today. Calling all the way from France, where she is shooting her new movie, she shares with us the highs and lows of her journey into acting, into marriage and motherhood, and in re-discovering her identity.
You were very elegant in Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. How did you feel upon receiving the script? Were there any challenges during filming that you had to overcome?
I was actually informed about the role with an invitation to play it. Marvel likes keeping things mysterious, so no information about my character was revealed to me. I didn’t know if there were any fight scenes or who I was going to be working with. I was actually on my honeymoon in Antarctica with my husband when the invitation came. Since there was no signal on the ship, my manager couldn’t get hold of me for several days. So, he went and edited clips of my previous performances and sent it to the film director. After watching my videos, they thought I was a great fit for the role. If you think about it, the TV series and movies I starred in in Hong Kong helped me get this role — it was fate.
Can you share your experiences playing Tony Leung’s wife? How did you feel during your scenes together?
He is a really good acting partner and an experienced senior. He always thinks about his role, even when he is eating out or having fun with the rest of us. No matter what the conversation is, he will quickly shift the topic to filming and share his thoughts about different scenes. Other than heading out to eat, he often spent his time in the hotel with his script, constantly working on bettering his portrayal of his character so that the audience can enjoy his unique interpretations. He is hardworking and diligent.
He gave me a lot of freedom during our scenes together. No matter how I chose to interpret the role, he was always able to adapt his portrayal accordingly. Although he might have already prepared for his role, he never imposed his way on me, rather, he merged our acting styles together. As we played a married couple in all the scenes we shared, we naturally became closer, which made working together very enjoyable. At the very beginning of filming, Carina Lau would actually visit the set while we acted out intimate scenes! The film director also gave us a lot of room for improvisation and showed Tony a lot of respect by asking for his input. Tony would always respond with a casual “I don’t mind anything”, and even seemed a little shy while doing so. He is someone who always welcomes other people’s ideas, and is a very easy-going man.
What was the most memorable scene you shared with him?
There was this one scene that is particularly memorable for me — it was one where there was no dialogue nor audio, so our director told us we had to improvise. We were sitting by the river, and had to create a scene where we were conversing lovingly. 20 seconds into the scene, I was still looking at him and waiting for him to speak first. He just stared at the river in silence, and I got a bit anxious. Since there would be no audio, I suggested that we spoke in Cantonese, and he immediately said yes. It turned out that he found it difficult to get into character while speaking in English. So we started talking in Cantonese. As a fan, I asked him a lot of questions that I was curious about, such as “What’s your favorite movie you starred in?”, and his answers always made me laugh. During our chat, he confessed that he was actually a big worrier as he was very timid by nature. Oftentimes when he receives an invitation to act, like his role in Shang Chi, he would be afraid of trying. Although this scene only made up a small part of the movie, it was an unforgettable experience.
Breaking into Hollywood is a remarkable achievement to many. What do you think of your current achievements?
When I returned to New York to study, I was completely unprepared. My only plan was to let go of all my burdens, to concentrate on school and leave all my worries for after graduation. As I was already 31 when I enrolled, I was 36 by the time I graduated. The older you get, the more pressure you carry with you unconsciously, as 30 seems to mark the end of a stage in life. It was hard not to feel lost, and I honestly thought that people in Hong Kong would have forgotten about me by then. I thought to myself, “It doesn’t matter where I go, as long as I have a job.” So I was really surprised when companies took the initiative to contact me after my graduation. I found myself facing a myriad of opportunities and I wanted to challenge myself by working in a different environment. Since I studied acting in English for four years during my masters, I took a leap and decided to develop my career in the American film industry, despite the limited opportunities for Chinese faces.
I went through a lot of difficult auditions. At first, my manager thought that it was not worth it, as I was going from playing lead roles in Hong Kong to playing small supporting roles with barely a few lines. However, going through this process has forced me to reevaluate my attitude towards work, and made me realise that I act because I love acting, and not because of fame. Every actor should try their best regardless of the size of his role, so that the audience realizes the importance of supporting characters. So I spent a lot of time on auditions, and even devoted weeks to memorising scripts at home or recording audition clips. Of course, there are times when I fail, but I don’t think it is a waste of time as I get to learn how to prepare for a role and enjoy the process of exploring the nuances of different characters.
I actually obtained my first HBO role in The Undoing through my experience of playing supporting roles. I prepared a long monologue for the audition, but they told me to improvise for another role on the spot. If I wasn’t used to preparing for so many supporting roles, I would not have gotten the part. Although it’s already been three years since my graduation, I fail 99% of the time. However these experiences remind me why I started acting in the first place and make me cherish my opportunities even more.
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How do you stop yourself from self-doubt after experiencing failure?
If I didn’t spend four years studying, I think failure would make me feel very uneasy — which is exactly why I decided to drop everything and pursue a drama degree back then. I used to get discouraged really easily if I didn’t perform well in a scene, and blamed myself for all the problems I faced. My four years at Julliard enriched my knowledge in acting, but also rebuilt my self-confidence and helped me understand how to express myself through using my voice and my body. Now, even when I don’t perform as well as I expected, I don’t lose my confidence, because I believe in myself and my experiences. Moreover, casting processes for movies are always complicated. The crew will have very specific requirements and will often already have a type of face or appearance in mind, so when I don’t get chosen, I no longer blame myself.
When I don’t get the role even after multiple auditions, I will think, “Why isn’t it me?” But I think that self confidence is precious and difficult to build for everyone, especially for actors, so I have to work hard to protect and maintain it. If you don’t believe in yourself as an actor, the audience will be able to tell. In addition, I think it is important to be well prepared. If I did not prepare well for an audition, I will blame myself; but if I already tried my best to prepare for the role and memorised the script from front to back, I won’t have any regrets, even if I don’t get the part.
What was the most memorable experience during your time studying overseas?
When I auditioned for Julliard, I remember that the school was really welcoming and made me feel like I was going to a camp. During my second audition, I got to sit-in on a first-year class under the supervision of some professors and learnt about different acting techniques in a real class environment. It was then that I knew this school was for me, and I thought to myself “It would be great if I got in!” Although we were examined the whole time, I felt so free. When I left my audition, I remember looking back at the campus knowing that I’d found a school that was right for me, and if I didn’t get in, it would be alright.
Some people think that learning to act is the ultimate path to self discovery. Have you had any experiences that made you understand who “Fala Chen” really is?
I’ve come to realise that I am a person who is still growing and making mistakes. Change is really interesting. If you perceive growth and change as an everyday constant, you will not feel worried or afraid when you make mistakes because you know they don’t define you. The same goes for acting. If you didn’t do a scene or a line well, you can start over. Sometimes, you just have to trust your gut. Not everything requires an explanation — if you want to make a change, go for it. Over the past four years, I’ve learnt that as long as I don’t limit myself, there are many possibilities waiting for me. I am an actress who will stay open minded even when I already have a plan on how to interpret my character, and will still experiment with different things while I act. This gives me the chance to learn more about myself and to improve myself, and when I do fail, it doesn’t matter.
Your career is booming, you’ve built a happy family and you’re now a mum to an adorable daughter. How do you define happiness?
I think happiness is a verb, as we have to find and maintain it. Perhaps you lose happiness the moment you find it. Happiness is not an object, but a state of mind, so I never deliberately searched for happiness or tried to hold on to it. Building a family comes hand in hand with compromise and understanding. You must accept your family members’ flaws and try to be considerate, as well as find common goals in your life together. My husband and I are very supportive of each other’s career. Communication is key in letting each other know your goals and how to support each other. I am a rather stubborn person, and the fact that my husband is willing to calm down and apologise first in arguments really helps our relationship. Now that we have children, we have both agreed to prioritize our family. We work hard, but when our careers come into conflict with family life, we always put our child first.
As someone who juggles a lot of responsibilities, how do you keep yourself in tip-top condition? Have you built up a beauty routine?
I believe that a lot of modern day women are just as busy as I am with work and family, but I think it’s important to to take care of yourself! My skin now is not as good as it was in my 20s. My makeup used to last the day without retouching, but it’s different now, I really need to maintain a skincare regimen. Sleep is very important. When I know I have to stay up for work, I make sure to get a good night’s sleep the next day or a few days after.I also make sure to put on sunscreen. I am someone who is afraid of the sun. While many foreigners enjoy the sun, I am always under an umbrella.
How has VITAE by CosMax’s “FaceGym Facial Firming” treatment changed your views about skincare?
I think VITAE by CosMax’s “FaceGym Facial Firming Firming” is a new experience for women. The treatment is built on a very innovative concept as it treats the skin from the inside out, targeting three important parts of the face at once : the muscle layer, collagen layer, and epidermis layer, tailored to the needs of each layer. The results were amazing. The one-hour treatment was comfortable and relaxing, and it’s quality me-time I look forward to every month.
Not everyone has the courage to change like you. What would you like to say to those who yearn to change but can’t find the courage to start?
When I make decisions, I choose to be honest with my problems. I give myself space to reflect and listen to my inner voice. Everyone’s intuition is accurate, but we often doubt our own feelings. I like making decisions on my own. I’ve never looked to my parents for advice, I just followed my heart and told them I was going to audition for Julliard. The key to change is making the first step to try. Once you do, you will know whether your intuition was correct. You don’t have to overthink it, just follow your gut.
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Photographer: Walter Chin
Creative & Fashion Director: Sean Kunjambu
Stylist: Jolene Lin
Makeup Artist: Seong Hee Park
Hair Stylist: Yoichi Tomizawa
Manicurist: Kiyo Okada
Executive producer: Lee Kyung Kim
Set designer: Michael Altman
Coordinator: Even Yu
EditorVogue Hong Kong