Exclusive: Jayden Zhang Talks Playing Young Shang-Chi, Acting Alongside Tony Leung and Representation
An actor’s first-ever role is something they can’t easily forget and for Jayden Zhang, that rings true. He gets to play the young version of Marvel’s first Asian superhero on screen for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. But more than that, he also gets to work with Hong Kong acting legend Tony Leung. Before we see Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, we’re first introduced to Jayden as the young Shang-Chi, helping shape the characteri that we see in the bulk of the film.
He might be a newcomer to the acting scene, but the young actor already proved that he can lift his own, sharing emotional heavy scenes with other veteran cast members while portraying the young Shang-Chi that the audiences need to see. “I also wanted people to think of him as a curious little kid who just wants to be taken seriously,” he says.
In an exclusive interview with Tatler Hong Kong, Jayden Zhang chats with us about bringing young Shang-Chi to life, sharing scenes with Tony Leung and other cast members, representation for young people like him and which superhero is his favourite.
(Warning: There may be spoilers ahead!)
You’ve only started acting seriously over the past year and a half. What made you decide to do acting?
When I was younger, my greatest dream was to be like all the characters that I saw on TV, and my parents told me that they were just actors playing parts. Back then, I didn’t even know what actors were, I just thought that they were all very cool and that they could trick my little three-year-old brain into thinking that they actually had superpowers!
Can you tell us about the acting showcase you put in that got you noticed? How did life change for you after that?
The showcase was arranged by the acting school I was attending at the time, and I was performing a scene from the film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when my agent spotted me and signed me. Afterwards, she started sending me auditions, and my life got much busier with memorizing lines and recording self-tapes.
Coming into your first role, what was the audition process like? What made you decide to audition for the film?
My agent sent me a self-tape request so I taped it, sent it over, and kind of forgot about it afterwards. At the time, I didn’t even know that I was auditioning for a Marvel movie. When I received the news that I had gotten a role in an upcoming Marvel film featuring the first-ever Asian superhero, I was so surprised, I ran five circles around my house!
As a newcomer, was sharing scenes with veteran cast members, Tony Leung and Fala Chen, challenging? What was it like?
It was such an honour to be able to act with world-class performers for my first film, and I was shocked at how well both Tony and Fala could immerse themselves into their characters. It made me more comfortable working with them, and I was able to learn from the way they were acting. They were also both so kind to me and they would take care of me on set and even played with me sometimes!
Speaking of those scenes, a lot, if not all of them were quite emotional compared to the lighthearted parts of the movie. How did you channel those emotions?
I would channel emotions by thinking about specific moments in my own life that featured the emotions my character needed to express, and I would take myself back to that memory and try to channel what I was feeling at that moment. Another way I would bring emotion into scenes was just by becoming Shang-Chi, and sometimes I was able to forget that I was even on set, playing a role.
Shang-Chi is your acting debut, how did you prepare for your role?
I actually didn’t get any scripts beforehand and most of the time I got the lines for each scene on the day we filmed it. The director of Shang-Chi, Destin Daniel Cretton, would talk me through what I was supposed to do in each scene and would also give me tips on how I was supposed to do it, which really helped me.
To most people, maybe playing the younger version of a titular character may not be so memorable but it’s actually a huge role because you have to show the character’s origin story and how they came to be. What kind of Shang-Chi did you want to portray, more than just the younger version?
I wanted to portray young Shang-Chi as happy and energetic sometimes, but also a bit nervous and slightly shy at other times. I also wanted people to think of him as a curious little kid who just wants to be taken seriously.
You acted in English and Mandarin, which you're both fluent in. Was there a difference in how you approached both?
My personality changes with the language I’m speaking as well, and I am a bit more myself when I speak English, and more well-behaved when I am speaking Mandarin because I usually speak English with my friends and Chinese with my parents. I approached both languages with the same amount of preparation, but when I spoke Mandarin, I felt more professional compared to when I spoke English, which was more comfortable for me to work with.
What’s your favourite scene in the movie?
My favourite scene, or actually, scenes, were the ones where my whole on-screen family was hanging out, playing Dance Dance Revolution, and watching movies. It was just so fun to film, and it really felt like we were a happy family.
My favourite scene in the whole movie was in the final battle where there was a shot of Morris, being insanely cute as usual, walking over to a seemingly dead Trevor Slattery, but then Trevor sat up and told Morris that he was just faking and then told Morris to play along. Morris grunts his agreement and attempts to play dead by flipping over and not moving, which was adorable!
I am very honoured to be able to represent so many unrepresented young kids out there. If you work hard, who knows? Your dreams might just come true one day as they did for me— Jayden Zhang
As a young person yourself and Shang-Chi being an Asian superhero—I could imagine so many young people feeling represented. Do you feel the same, especially since you played young Shang-Chi yourself?
Yes, I am very honoured to be able to represent so many unrepresented young kids out there, and I just want to say to all of you readers, if you work hard, who knows? Your dreams might just come true one day as they did for me. Never give up!
To you, besides entertaining its viewers, what message does the movie send across?
I think the most important message in this movie is to never give up on family, because even though Shang-Chi’s dad, Wenwu, was very mean to him as a kid, Shang-Chi still tried to save him in his last moments, and Wenwu willingly gave the rings to Shang-Chi in order to try to protect him, despite being very mad at Shang-Chi during the start of that fight.
You didn’t get to do any scenes with Simu Liu, Meng’er Zhang, Awkwafina or Michelle Yeoh but in general, how was your time like on set? Did you still spend some time with them? Did you get to shoot in both LA and Australia?
I got to shoot in both LA and Australia. At first, I went to Australia, and believe it or not, there was no pandemic back then! Australia is so different from Canada, and there is so much exotic wildlife there! I saw a Cockatoo, a few bright green parrots, a koala, a kangaroo, an Ibis, and even a lizard!
On my first day at production, I got to meet Simu, Fala, Tony, and Destin. They were all super nice and welcoming to me. After we had to shut down production due to Covid-19, we went to LA to do some reshoots and finish the film, and it was also really fun, although we had to quarantine a lot.
Was there a particular cast or crew member that gave you advice or served as a mentor?
Destin helped me so much, and he gave me many tips about tiny but essential details that I should include in my performance, and he would coach me along with every scene on set. He took amazing care of me, and without him, this movie would not have been possible.
You’re recently cast as Young Ming in Sight. Could you tell us more about this exciting new project?
Sight is another film advocating Asian culture, and it is about how a Chinese kid who grew up with a dream to become a doctor and went to America to pursue his dream. I don’t think I’m allowed to say anything else because the movie hasn’t come out yet, so I guess you’ll just have to watch it and see!
What kind of roles or stories do you want to portray in the future?
I’m open to all opportunities and chances I can get, but something I would really want is to get a lead role in a film that centres on supernatural powers because that’s super cool.
Is there any celebrity or director you’d like to work with in the future?
I would love to be able to work with Robert Downey Jr. because he plays Iron Man, and Iron Man is one of my favourite superheroes of all time. Also, Robert Downey Jr. is very cool.
- PhotographyMichael Becker @michaelbecker88/Instagram
- StylingEnrique Melendez @mrenriquemelendez/Instagram
- GroomingDavid Song @hairby.song/Instagram
- OutfitNeil Barrett, Thome Browne