Rosalind Chao can tell a lot about people based on which of her roles they want to talk about. “If it’s ‘Star Trek,’ I know it will be an intelligent conversation. If they bring up ‘Joy Luck Club,’ I say something like, ‘You must love your mom!’ I get a lot of ‘What Dreams May Come’ and I know they’re open to different ways of thinking of the universe,” Chao notes, before adding, “Then there are people who just think I’m their gynecologist or their daughter’s teacher.”
Chao can add Mulan’s mother Hua Li to her long list of impressive credits; since the epic live-action adaptation of Disney’s beloved 1998 animated feature debuted on Disney Plus last week, it has already leapt to the number one movie on the service, despite an additional $30 price point. It’s also the second most popular of all content on the site, only behind “The Simpsons,” which boasts over 500 episodes. The film stars Chinese actor Yifei Liu as the titular heroine who doesn’t quite fit in until she dons the disguise of a man and goes to war in her father’s place. Chao and Tzi Ma play her patient and supportive parents, and while the epic battles are earning praise, the film also excels because of the personal stakes.
It’s a joy for Chao to see, as she rarely saw Asian representation on screen growing up. “If you were an Asian girl and this movie had come out when you were nine years old, wouldn’t that have made a difference if how you felt about yourself?” she says. “When I was starting out, everyone would say, ‘Why would you do that? Do you see any other Asians in movies?’”
The daughter of Peking Opera performers who relocated to Anaheim, Calif. just steps from Disneyland, Chao began performing at an early age but wasn’t thinking of it as a long-term career. For a time, she flirted with journalism. “I remember seeing Connie Chung on TV and that was my first memory of seeing an Asian-American woman who spoke like me and looked like me on camera. I think that’s why I flirted with being a journalist. I thought, ‘That’s something I can do.’” But opportunities kept arising, such as when she almost took a job as a reporter at a local Northern California station but landed a pivotal role as Klinger’s wife in the “M*A*S*H” TV series – which led to a starring role in the spin-off “AfterMASH.” And, Chao admits, she loves it. “Acting is an addiction,” she says with a laugh. “It kept coming back and there was nothing I loved more.”
Still, when the opportunity came in to audition for director Niki Caro’s “Mulan,” she hesitated – she was fairly sure she would be in London performing the play “The Great Wave” when the film was shooting. Casting director Debra Zane told her to come in anyway, as films push all the time. “God bless her,” Chao says. “Because you don’t want to go out for something and have to turn it down.” And, as it turned out, the scheduling worked.
She found out she landed the role under tough circumstances; she was in London and just been hit by a car and broke her arm when her agent called. When she said she had landed the part of Hua Li, she was still in the hospital and terrified at the idea of traveling. “The next day, once my arm was in a sling, I came to my senses,” she admits.
The filming was under such secrecy, she didn’t even know her dear friend of many years, Ma, would be playing her husband. Chao had to turn down another project with Ma as she didn’t want to be away from her family for too long and when Ma asked her why she was saying no she said she had to travel in September. “He got quiet for a moment and then said, ‘I’m also traveling in September…’” she says. “I was like, ‘Where are you traveling to…?’ And we figured out we were both in ‘Mulan.’”
Still, Chao didn’t allow herself to get intimidated by taking on such a beloved classic until she arrived on the set in New Zealand. “My first costume fitting was a ‘gasp’ moment,” she recalls. “The scope of the set, the people from all over the world working so hard to build this world.” And she immediately bonded with her onscreen daughters, Liu and Xana Tang. However, she wasn’t aware of just how well-known Li was for her work in Chinese films. “We went to dinner and that was when I got a sense of the scope of her fame,” Chao recalls. “At the restaurant, people would literally stand behind her and just stare. It was like nothing I’ve seen before. And she was so gracious through it all.”
The film was originally scheduled to come out in March and was pushed due to the COVID-19 pandemic before Disney decided to air it on its streaming service. When Chao first heard the news, she admits to being briefly disappointed. “But that didn’t last long because this gives people the chance to see it during a time when they really need to be uplifted,” she notes. “I’ve already received so many messages from people who are inspired and I love the idea of families watching together on the couch and talking about family and learning anything is possible and being seen.”
While Chao has a lengthy list of credits and is one of those actors who always seems to work, she admits there were times where she struggled to be seen, particularly as a woman of Chinese descent. She auditioned for the role of Thea in a prominent production of “Hedda Gabler,” only to be told it didn’t make sense to have an Asian person in a period piece. Another time, she was up for a “potentially life-changing” theater role when the show’s producer pulled her aside and told her the unvarnished truth: “She said, ‘You’re my choice but the director doesn’t want to cast you because you’re the face of the enemy,’” recalls Chao.
But she wants to be clear that the majority of her experiences have been positive. “For every backwards-thinking person, there were many people who were forward-thinking and gave me amazing opportunities.”
Chao also has taken breaks from work to raise her two children; she was pregnant with her first child when she was cast in “Joy Luck Club” and admits to still harboring guilt about it. “The first six months of my son’s life was on a set and he was starving because I was breastfeeding,” she reveals. “To this day, my son cannot be hungry for even a second. And after that, I really had to weigh whether it was worth it before working again.” When her daughter was born in 2000, she wanted to be present, particularly when her husband, Simon Templeman, landed the ABC series “Neighbors.”
When The National Theatre in London wanted to cast her in their heralded 2018 production of Francis Turnly’s “A Great Wave,” it was Chao’s daughter who told her to take it. “I was going to turn it down because it was overlapping with her senior year,” Chao reveals. “And she told me, ‘If you don’t do this, you’re sending me the message you don’t think I can handle senior year and pre-college and auditions all on my own.’”
Up next, Chao will appear in “The Starling,” director Theodore Melfi’s follow-up to “Hidden Figures.” Chao worked primarily with Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Kline on the ensemble story; she can only say that she plays Kline’s “wannabe love interest”; it’s fitting, as she admits to crushing on the actor in her youth.
Right now, Chao is enjoying the success of “Mulan” and enjoying seeing the world embrace a film with an Asian cast and a message of hope. Though it’s difficult to ignore those who want to spout anti-Asian sentiment due to the pandemic, she is also celebrating a time when she sees far better representation. “For a long time, we weren’t as visible, we were all about assimilation. With the success of ‘Parasite’ and ‘The Farewell,’ we had grown as a community and were used to being seen. So when we were slapped down again it really made us rise to the occasion,” she says. “I love seeing how strong our community is and how supportive we are of each other.”