It was a jaw-dropping surprise in last week’s episode when HELL ON WHEELS revealed that the heroic young Chinese man Fong was actually Mei, portrayed by the lovely. Whether to protect her or to ensure that Mei could find work on the railroad, Fong was invented and Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) only found out after he tried to administer emergency medical aid. It is a masterful illusion that the show not only fooled Bohannon and the railroad men around him, but also the television viewing audience.
So to find out just how this charade was pulled off and just what is up with Mei aka Fong, in an exclusive interview, we talked with newcomer Angela Zhou about her dual role and just what other insights she could share about creating Mei and bringing her life as Fong on HELL ON WHEELS.
What a delightful surprise it was to find out Fong was actually Mei. What can you share about who Mei really is?
ANGELA: Actually, coming up this Saturday, you’re going to get a glimpse into her old life and why she came over to America. It’s really interesting, but I’m not sure how much I can spill about that. But there is still plenty to see. She is a very, very strong woman who comes from a background that was basically destroyed — her village and her family — so she set off to America to create a life for herself. In a way, being a boy, I think it was an opportunity for her to allow those stronger elements of her personality that were always there to shine out freely instead of having it censored. Back then in China, it was very much a male-dominant society and women were more seen as household creatures and, particularly, not even a part of their own family because they were always there to be married off to another family, and would often have to move away from the village and never be seen by their families ever again.
What first drew you to the role of Mei? Why were you excited to do it?
ANGELA: Oh my gosh, why wasn’t I excited to do it?! It is so incredibly rare to see an Asian female character that is a character that is fully-formed and multi-dimensional, that goes for an arc and is incredibly strong. I’ve seen so many roles that were like nerdy-Asian girl or hot Asian girlfriend who doesn’t really speak and just follows her boyfriend around. Whereas this character is so nitty-gritty. It is the hardest character I’ve ever had to play in my entire life. It is scary that it was my big breakout role. There were just so many layers to the character and it was such an acting challenge having to put on the Cantonese accent in a way that I felt wouldn’t poke fun at the Asian community. I actually spent a lot of time and effort trying to assimilate, especially with a language barrier and having to learn the Cantonese for it. I’m very fluent in Cantonese already, but some of the more specific words having to do with railroads and engines and all that, I had to learn. Then, obviously, having to figure out how to pass as a boy. (Laughs) It was so much fun though.
What one particular quality do you most admire about Mei?
ANGELA: Oh my gosh, just her guts. It’s easy for me to be there as an actor, particularly on that mountain in episode 2 which we shot on Fortress Mountain in Calgary. We up there and we’re shooting long hours and it’s cold. But I’m an actor, the moment they yell, “Cut,” I can walk into a heated up tent. But for Mei, this actually happened in real life. When you are up there in those mountains and for 360 degrees all you see is never-ending snow across peaks and peaks, I found myself thinking, “How on Earth did they ever think they could dig their way through this?” Basically all they had was a bit of black powder. What in their minds made them think, “this is a feat we can accomplish”? To wake up day in and out, freezing their butts off and working long hours, while having all your friends die off all around you and to have no contact with your family, and yet still keep going because they thought this was the way to build a life for themselves in this new country — I am in awe of their persistence and bravery. Mei, in particular, not only did she have to deal with that, but to push through those type of conditions, she thought, “I can do this as a man and not get found.”
For you, how long did it take to make the transformation into Fong? You look so different in that role. They did a lot of work to make you look like a boy.
ANGELA: Thank you! (Laughs) It’s good to know that people think I look different. It would be a little upsetting if they thought I looked exactly like my character. But it’s amazing, right? I think we take gender norms as a given and we take them as very separate things, the female and male form. But what I realized is that make-up makes a lot of difference. There was so much make-up contouring on my face. It took about an hour and 20 minutes to get through hair and make-up everyday. They started off putting purple make-up under my eyes and then they took a dark contour and put that around my eyes and down my nose and underneath my nose and on my upper lip and then under my lower lip. Then they put some under my chin and into the hollows of my cheek to bring that out. There is so much detail. I actually had an amazing make-up artist who hand brushes on hair-by-hair my eyebrows every day to make them look thicker and more unruly because I don’t have very thick eyebrows, but the character does. A strong brow makes it look more masculine. As for how I prepared for the role, at the call-backs they made us sign a non-disclosure agreement because originally they just said that she was a tomboy. Then once I signed the non-disclosure agreement, they said, “well, actually she is pretending to be a boy.” So at the call-back scene they said, “We want you to do it disguised as a boy so that no one can tell,” and I was like, “oh my gosh.” I found out only the day before, so I had essentially only 5 or 6 hours to prep. I am just glad that I have nice neighbors because I was pacing up and down my little L.A. apartment complex outside saying, “I am Fong.” Just walking and yelling and making a big ruckus. Then I would sit down and think, “I can’t do this.” Then I would tell myself, “I can do this” and I would push my shoulders up and relax into the voice. I felt just ridiculous. But I was super lucky because the company set me up with a gender consultant and we had a big talk about it. I was still feeling nervous and I felt like if I could convince a room full of real people in a bar that I would feel a lot better about it. So I asked if I could be taken out to a bar during a big hockey game or something, and we did that. It actually worked out really well. It was such a great experience. After that, I felt a lot more comfortable about doing the role.
The show not only transformed you from a girl into portraying a boy, it also hung you off a cliff in last week’s episode. What was that like to film?
ANGELA: (Laughs) It only looked super fun. I think I posted something on my Twitter account about that. When I saw it in the script, I thought, “That looks so fun. I can’t wait to be dangling off a cliff.” But what we did was they shot the part where I’m standing and I haven’t fallen yet on the actual snow mountain and I just had to make it look like I tripped, and then throw myself down the hill. That was kind of fun. I just got to let go. Then they shot the scene where it looked like I was dangling off it in front of a green screen on a fake cliff that they had made — that was so cool. My stunt double did about three takes before me and then she ran me through it and put this harness on me. But, oh my gosh, the harness is so uncomfortable! It is just a total wedgy. Your entire body weight is just being held by your groin area. But in that case, it was nice because it made the acting a lot easier because I didn’t have to act like I was in pain. I was actually in a bit of pain. But it was fun.
What was the best part of working on HELL ON WHEELS? What for you was really interesting or fun to do?
ANGELA: Oh my gosh, I love the role and I love the fact that it is a well-thought out production. Everything has so much detail to it. On a day to day basis, what I’m really thankful for is the amazing cast and crew. I cannot express just how much of a family they are, especially for me coming in as a series regular after four years of everyone already being on the show. I thought it would be hard, but everyone open up their arms and welcomed me in. It’s amazing to go work and feel like you are hanging out with your friends and making something you all really believe in. The cast is just great. We just hung out quite a bit afterwards, as well. Tim Guinee, he is to great. He had taken me under his wing in the beginning when I was getting into the role and he put me through intense training to be more like a boy. He made me do hand-stands and push ups that he would help assist me with because he is an amazing circus performer. He was just so incredible. He put me through the ringer. But we would hang-out afterwards, like Anson throws these movie nights and we all will go out and hangout and have a great time. So that is what I loved the most.
What would you say you learned from Mei? What has portraying her taught you?
ANGELA: In a way, she just reinforced things I’ve really thought about, such as through the character I realized that in those days, like you can think, “those times were really, really hard.” But when you actually think about it and put yourself in someone’s shoes, those were incredible conditions to live through. It makes you realize how the challenges of modern day life, at least in developed countries, pale in comparison. It makes you think about people still living like that in less developed countries. So Mei has taught me that the amount of courage and persistence people have — and how you can pull yourself out of nothing and create a community for yourself and a life.
Since you have an extended storyline this season, what kind of teasers would you like to share? What is the journey of Mei as Fong going to be like?
ANGELA: (Laughs) I guess the only thing I can say is a lot of things happen. So stay tuned. She’s going to be around. You’re going to see many, many sides of Mei as Fong in many different situations. It’s really something to be looking forward to. You’ll just have to watch!
For this next episode, would you say it is going to be a big episode?
ANGELA: The next episode is going to be more of a look into the Chinese life that Mei had back in China, giving more of a bit more context on why some of these people would have moved over to the U.S. — in particular, Mei and Tao (Tzi Ma). So there is that. You are going to get to know a bit more of the backstory of Mei, and because of that, you will see a softer side of her come out.
You must be excited for fans to get to know Mei a bit more then and seeing how the audience responds to her.
ANGELA: Yeah, I was freaking out so much before last week’s episode aired. My face was breaking out because I was so stressed. I was thinking, “I hope people like her and can see redeeming qualities in her, like her bravery, and don’t just think she’s weird.” But it was amazing the response from the fans. The fans are a great part of being in the HELL ON WHEELS family. They are so incredibly supportive.
To find out just who Mei is and what larger role she has to play this season, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of HELL ON WHEELS on Saturday nights at 9:00 p.m. on AMC.