Meng’er Zhang on pursuing a dream and becoming a part of the MCU in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Photography by
Daniel Kim

Styling by
Kevin Ericson/The Only Agency

In Mandarin “Meng” (梦) means “to dream.” So for Meng’er Zhang, whose name quite literally embodies the meaning, she is achieving her dreams as the newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) playing Xialing in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Despite not even knowing she was auditioning for Shang-Chi when she sent in her audition, Meng’er’s life took on a new direction when she received the message that she is now, and forever will be, part of the MCU as Shang-Chi’s sister.

Born into a life of musical theater, Meng’er is no stranger to acting, but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be her first ever movie appearance. Take it one step further. The film itself has already achieved quite a few milestones. Not only will this film be the start to a new generation of beloved superheroes in the MCU, but Marvel’s first ever Asian superhero is coming to the big screen. Meng’er is truly experiencing a dream come true.

Online, there is not much known about Meng’er or her character Xialing. Yet, she is ready to command the scene. After months of intense martial arts training, bonding with a star-studded cast, and taking part in a huge step forward for Asian representation in Hollywood, Meng’er is ready to show her talents to a long-awaiting public.

So going from a movie watcher to watching herself on the screen as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings makes its way into theaters, I got a sneak peek into how Meng’er entered the movie scene, her preparation for her role, and well, what it is like to dream big and make it.

Outfit Alberta Ferretti

Theater is my playground so that is my root. My parents always supported me, watched my shows and gave me notes. I never had a doubt to be an actor since I was little.

With both your parents being tied to the theater, acting is pretty much in your blood. Did your parents have any influence in you pursuing theater?

Definitely! My mom is an actor and my dad used to be a stage designer so I was born and raised in the theater. Theater is my playground so that is my root. My parents always supported me, watched my shows and gave me notes. I never had a doubt to be an actor since I was little.

Through the years, you have been a part of countless theater productions. In the Mood for Love, Oliver Twist, The Street of Dawn and so many more. Is there a role that resonates most with you, or perhaps one that you enjoyed playing the most? 

I miss playing Dodger in Oliver Twist. Unlike most musicals, Oliver Twist is acapella so I could really feel the support and trust on stage. 

If you could star in any musical or play, is there a dream role you wish to play?

I would love for Marvel to adapt musical versions of their films and would definitely audition for all of them! I mean Shang-chi is like a dream come true. I never thought I would become a part of anything as monumental as the Marvel universe. 

Speaking of Marvel, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is your first time acting in a feature film. Performing for a live audience is quite different from screen acting, so did you find any difficulties switching from live theater performances to acting in front of the camera? 

Actually, it took a little while to get used to. But, our director Destin was incredibly patient with me and helped me understand the actor’s relationship with the camera. I remember the very first day I was on set and the scene was my character, Xialing, revealing her childhood bedroom. When the camera started rolling, I stopped by the door and looked in. Destin said “I know why you did that, but don’t do it again. It’s a very good choice for the character, but this is not on the stage. It is in front of the camera. What you did was beautiful but it was not even in the frame so the camera won’t read it!” Then I understood. Because I came from theater, I thought that was right for the character and I couldn’t help it. 

I could definitely see the switch being difficult, especially given that you are so new to screen acting. Props to you for making the switch so flawlessly! 

Thank you! Destin helped me to understand the differences between being on stage and in front of a camera because they work differently. The audience can see everything you do once you step on stage. So I thought… once the director says “action”, everyone sees everything I do. But it’s not like that. It is about the frame, so that was a lesson learned. 

Dress Nanushka; Coat Thom Browne; Shoes Christian Louboutin; Ring Misho

It wasn’t until I was asked to do a screen-test with Simu that I realized I was auditioning for Shang-Chi.

Marvel has always been pretty secretive about their film plans, so there is quite a lot of uncertainty of what to expect from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Before taking part in Shang-Chi, did you know anything about the Marvel comics or the movies? 

Yeah I’m a Marvel fan, I’ve watched ALL the Marvel films and series. Ant-Man is my favorite character! 

To my best knowledge, Xialing is a new character that was created specifically for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and isn’t from the comics. When you received that call that you got the role of Xialing, how were you feeling knowing you are now part of the MCU?

It was actually a message I received from my lawyer. It was very long and all in English, so I ignored everything else, scrolled down to the bottom and saw “Welcome to the Marvel Universe!” I didn’t know what to think, I just kept smiling! It felt like all my hard work had finally paid off.

Going off of that, can you tell me a little bit about what the audition process was like? 

I saw the audition call in a group chat for a feature film and didn’t know I was auditioning for a Marvel film when I sent in my self-tapes. It didn’t say anything specific about the character, just that it wanted someone who can speak fluent Mandarin. It wasn’t until I was asked to do a screen-test with Simu that I realized I was auditioning for Shang-Chi. Before going to the screen-test, I was expecting the people to be tense and serious. But actually it was unexpectedly casual, everyone was so nice, and they made me feel at ease. I guess they liked what I did. And that’s it! That was the audition process.  

Currently, there isn’t much information released about your character, Xialing. All we know so far is that she is Shang-Chi’s sister and will be joining him in the adventure against the Ten Rings organization. Are there any characteristics or personality traits you share with your character? 

I think… yeah! We are both pretty tough. I mean, she is definitely tougher than me but yes, we are both pretty tough women. We take the things we love very seriously. We hold our ground, find our voice, and use it.

It is a known fact that many Marvel superheroes have to undergo pretty intense training for their roles to pull off those flawless action sequences. What was the preparation like for Xialing?

It was pretty intense because I had no martial arts background before this film. They flew me out four months early to train and I practically lived in the gym. It was just gym training and martial arts training EVERY DAY. It was very hard work, but fun hard work! You could hear me and Simu screaming in the stunt stage from a mile away, because our stunt team stretched us everyday for four months straight, five days a week.

Did you do any of your own stunts?

I did not do all my own stunts but I did a good chunk of it. For some of the more dangerous parts I had my amazing stunt doubles to do it with me. We completed the character together. 

Dress Nanushka; Necklace Misho

On your first day on set, talk me through what was going on in your mind at that time? 

I was nervous on my first day on set and didn’t want to let Destin or the rest of the cast and crew down. After all, this was my very first feature film and my costars are legends, but they all made me feel at ease. We quickly became a close knit family. I immediately felt comfortable playing my character. 

The cast truly does seem like a big family. I saw they even prepared some post wedding surprises for you. Congratulations by the way! 

Thank you! In fact, I met my husband on this film, who is one of the action designers. Awkwafina threw us a big karaoke themed wedding reception. Simu and Destin were there, everyone sang at the top of their lungs and by the end of the night, we all lost our voices. I think we could make a very good band. 

You can’t have a wedding without karaoke! Speaking of them, the cast of Shang-Chi is quite legendary. You’ve got Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh and so many more amazing individuals. Do you have a favorite memory with anyone in the cast?

You asked me to pick a favorite one?! I mean all of them are SO unforgettable. 

Give them all to me! I would love to hear! 

Simu and I, we play siblings and he is truly like a real brother to me. Our brother and sister chemistry was just so natural on and off screen. We take care of each other and annoy each other. The first time I met Simu, they flew me to do a screen test with him and he showed up in the room wearing slippers. I was a little nervous before I saw him, but when I saw him show up wearing slippers I was just like “Oh… yeah! That’s just my brother!” When we did the screen-test, he was just so supportive. He gave me space to do what I want to show for my character and he was there to support me. That was an amazing experience. 

He seems like a very fun person to be around!

Yes he is!  

The release of the film is approaching quickly! During the premiere, what was it like seeing yourself on the big screen for the first time? 

(Laughs) I don’t know! It’s just exciting! It feels amazing, I don’t know how to describe it! It feels amazing, but it also feels a little bit weird. I can be my own worst critic when watching my own performances, but seeing myself onscreen for the first time was an unbelievable experience. I had a blast!

Trench coat Altuzarra; Earring Misho

Not all Asian kids have the same experience that I did, which is why this film is so significant. I only recently learned that kids who grow up in Western countries don’t have the Asian representation that I had. This film is a huge step forward because they finally have a hero they can look up to and say “This superhero looks like me!” and I am really proud to be a part of it. 

Hair by
Renato Campora/The Wall Group

Makeup by
Kara Yoshimoto Bua/A-Frame Agency

Photo assistant
David Paul

Special thanks
Slate PR, Pepper Studios, Peter C.Yeh

Shang-Chi was originally set to release in February 2021, but due to the pandemic everything got pushed back. Now that things are slowly getting back on track, the film’s release is quite highly anticipated. Without giving any spoilers away, what is something you hope the audience gets out of watching Shang-Chi

What the audience can get is definitely Asian representation. I am from China so I grew up watching Asian representation depicted on screen. I have access to Asian representation with the films and television I watch every day. However, not all Asian kids have the same experience that I did, which is why this film is so significant. I only recently learned that kids who grow up in Western countries don’t have the Asian representation that I had. This film is a huge step forward because they finally have a hero they can look up to and say “This superhero looks like me!” and I am really proud to be a part of it. 

Shang-Chi is Marvel’s first feature film starring an Asian superhero and is a great improvement to Asian representation in mainstream Hollywood. Presumably, there will be a lot of young Asian kids who are going to go watch your film. Do you have any advice for any aspiring Asian actors? 

Just work hard and don’t give up! My advice is to stay focused and surround yourself with people you love and support you. Just keep on working on your craft. That is the most important thing. 

Just like for the Avengers, I believe Marvel has also released an action figure of Xialing. Is it surreal seeing yourself as an action figure?

It’s really cool! I have one for myself and I cannot stop playing with it! I’ve been taking her with me to A LOT of places and even found her a little bull to ride on. I don’t know… everything feels so new to me and it feels a little bit unreal. I am still processing everything! My friends sent me some pictures of their kids playing with my action figure and I feel proud of both being a part of a superhero movie and a part of Asian representation on the big screen!

Since you are pretty new to the Hollywood scene, there are many opportunities out there waiting for you. What kind of legacy do you want to leave? 

I just want to play interesting characters and tell good stories. I want to continue to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and would love to star in the Star Wars franchise. I would also love to be in a Disney musical!

Keeping those musical roots! Then, after Shang-Chi, what are your next steps?

I think this time is very valuable to prepare myself more, like my English, my martial arts training. I am actually still training with my husband! Those muscles are still here! I also have a few projects in the works and can’t wait to share the news with you very soon.

Dress Comme des Garçons; Earring Misho

Since you are currently in Los Angeles, how has it been adjusting to the LA lifestyle?

There is not much of an adjustment actually! I just enjoy it here. The weather and the food is just so good. I am just enjoying life! We went to Disneyland twice already! I have been missing the cold weather lately though, and can’t wait to start wearing my sweaters and coats again.

Disneyland is a must-go when you are in LA. Do you have a favorite ride or section of the park? 

I have to pick my favorite?! All of them are just so good! The Guardians of The Galaxy ride, The Incredibles ride, Rise of the Resistance and Radiator Springs Racers are my absolute favorites. If we have time, we go on those rides twice. Oh, and Web Slingers is very fun too! Insider’s tip: go to the Web Suppliers store to get some cool sets first! 

Is there anything you miss about life back home in China?

My parents. I haven’t seen them for almost two years. I miss going to the market with dad and helping my mom change the bed sheets. I also miss my friends back home, and definitely homemade food! 

Then my last question for you is what is the first meal you will have back home?

First meal?! In Chinese it’s called Hong Shao Rou (braised pork). I also want pork feet, and just everything my dad makes. My mom is not a good cook! Over here in America, my husband is the good cook. He’s the one that feeds me!

Shang-chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings in theatres September 3rd 2021
Watch the trailer below

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