This is how I first encounter Fala Chen: at a photo shoot, wearing comically heavy black boots. Twirling in swathes of crimson fabric, she drops down into a warrior’s crouch, and her gaze darkens to match it. The camera flashes; her cheekbones glint like razors. I’m terrified of her.
Chen is languid; graceful yet loose. When the photographer asks her what pose feels most natural, she swings around in a circle and plops down on her butt like a toddler. He requests a power walk, and she slams her heel so hard against the concrete that I actually flinch. It’s as if she’s holding us all hostage on set—and relishing every moment.
To some degree, this is true. Chen, whose first Hollywood film credit will be Marvel’s highly anticipated Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, certainly has our attention. She’s experiencing a record year, personally and professionally: In February, she and her husband, French tech entrepreneur Emmanuel Straschnov, welcomed a daughter. Her first American TV show, The Undoing, was nominated for an Emmy in July. And in September, she’ll join the heralded ranks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the studio’s first film with an Asian American lead and majority Asian American cast.
So my perception of her, on this June afternoon, is that she is comfortable, self-made, and wearing it like a bejeweled tiara. But, as I’ll come to learn, it’s easy to be wrong about Chen.
“I was screaming inside,” she recalls of the photo shoot at Borsalia, an Italian café in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. “I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable posing for a photographer; I was never trained. I always feel like I’m very alone. I might look like I know what to do, but sometimes I regret it when I go home.”
This is a tactic Chen, 39, employs often: coy admissions that evolve into thoughtful dramas. She’s constantly reassessing what, when, where, and how she’d prefer to present herself, and in the process, she wields her emotions like carefully selected power tools. Contradictorily, she is naturally disarming, with a playful, even childlike aura of joy. Still, she’s aware enough of her elegant mien that she theorizes it stops directors from casting her in comedic roles.
“I’m not physically a super expressive person,” Chen says. “I think I’m pretty put-together.” Even in her current ensemble of a black cardigan, pastel pink pants with rolled cuffs, and white Chuck Taylors—little to no makeup, just a simple gold chain adorning her neck—she looks polished enough to attend a luncheon. Perhaps that’s how Chen nabbed her first TV role on HBO’s The Undoing as Jolene, one of the affluent, entitled mothers in Nicole Kidman’s PTA-adjacent friend group. Jolene snootily refers to a fellow member as “lactator-in-chief,” a line you can tell Chen relished in delivering. (Still, she hasn’t watched The Undoing for fear of hating her own performance.)
A unique proclivity for self-possession is how the actress stumbled into performing in the first place. In 2002, a few years after Chen’s family emigrated from China to Atlanta, Chen’s mother tore a page from a Chinese American newspaper: an advertisement searching for the next Miss Asian America. Chen had never competed in a beauty pageant and didn’t consider herself particularly good-looking, but the premise intrigued her—as did the multi-thousand-dollar prize money—so she applied. When she made the finals, she flew across the country by herself, and when she ultimately won, she was similarly on her own—dressed in a gown like a cake topper, she called her parents to share the good news from the stage.
Two years later, Chen was named Miss New York Chinese. Then, in 2005, she finished as first runner-up in the Miss Chinese International Pageant, which was hosted by TVB, a major broadcasting company in Hong Kong. Enthralled by both her charisma and appearance, the network signed her to a six-year contract—later extended to eight—that she fulfilled first as a variety show host and later as an actress.
It wasn’t exactly the life her parents had wished for her, Chen admits with an affectionate smirk. In Chengdu, a capital of more than 16 million people in China’s Sichuan province, she spent her childhood and early adolescence in a dormitory shared by teachers and their families, one of whom was Chen’s mother, a dance instructor. Chen’s father tuned pianos for the school, but he wanted Chen to have a career that was only marginally fine arts-adjacent. (He suggested library science.)
Like most families in China during the ’80s, Chen’s parents had only one child, and it was important that she have what Chen calls “the calmest, safest job that you can find.” She adds: “That’s what my dad wanted for me, especially since he knew I was a real rascal. He was like, ‘It would be cool if you calmed down.’” Chen had just graduated from Emory University with a business degree when TVB offered up the gig. “I’m sure they were probably terrified,” Chen says of her parents. “But at least they didn’t show that to me.” She faxed TVB a signed contract and jetted to Hong Kong, where she proceeded to spend the next nine years.
After her time as a host, the company cast her first as a supporting actress in a handful of series, including the power-struggle drama Heart of Greed, a flirtatious dance drama called Steps, and the culinary-inclined family comedy The Stew of Life. In 2011, she earned a leading role in the crime thriller Lives of Omission, in which she played both commander to and romantic interest of Michael Tse’s Laughing, a rakish undercover officer in Hong Kong’s police force. But it was one of Chen’s last projects in Hong Kong, the 2013 aviation drama Triumph In The Skies II, that knocked her entirely off her axis.
By this point, she’d become a sensation in Hong Kong, especially after quietly marrying her first husband, Daniel Sit, in 2008. “I didn’t react well toward paparazzi,” she confesses. “I just was really protective of myself and constantly hiding myself. I didn’t know the long-term effect until a couple years later, when it was affecting my relationship.”
Chen’s mother noticed that her daughter was often slouching in public, shrinking away from strangers. “There were a couple years of me just living with my curtains closed at home, and I always had curtains in the car,” she says. “It was just too much.” Chen gestures toward the archetypal New York chaos around us, and says, “Here, I’m starting anew.”
It was during Chen’s time on Triumph In The Skies II that the combination of press fatigue and muted passion collided. She didn’t know what she was accomplishing at TVB anymore. Her scene partners, largely men, were well-established actors who’d developed a somewhat laissez faire system for production that allowed for constant last-minute changes. Chen floundered in this environment, disconnected from the show’s chronology and how it shaped the person she was meant to be playing. But at least her frustration triggered an epiphany: She loved acting, but she wasn’t entirely sure she knew how to do it.
“I always felt like I was kind of faking it,” she says. “I wasn’t sure how to create a character; I wasn’t sure how to carry a 20-episode show.”
Despite Chen’s phenotypic calm, she can be prone to extremes: When the predicted pandemic baby “boom” went bust, she was one of the few who decided 2020 would be the perfect year to get pregnant. When she first competed in pageants, she became one of the best in the span of a few years. And when she wanted to learn how to perform, she went straight to acting’s metaphoric Fountain of Youth: The Juilliard School in New York City, one of the most competitive programs in the world.
Chen was the only Asian American in her drama class of 17 students. When she describes her time at the revered institution, her voice wobbles. “All I ever wanted in my life as an actor was a safe, exploratory environment to just play and act,” she says, “without being worried about if it’s going to turn out alright on camera, what the box office is going to be, what is the press going to say, what’s the review going to be like. Acting in its purest form.”
Chen put her entire life on hold for school. She didn’t date for two years (including Tinder: “I would probably get a lot of Chinese fans.”) She didn’t perform in any film or TV. (Per Juilliard rules, she wasn’t even allowed to audition.) She had a contract as a spokesperson for Olay, and she made it clear with the brand that she would not take any trips or carry out ad campaigns if they interfered with her classes.
“To stop and suspend her very successful career to go to Juilliard for four years, that was really impressive,” says Richard Feldman, one of Chen’s drama instructors at Juilliard. “That’s the kind of artist we’re hoping to find and help grow.”
Chen describes each of her four years at Juilliard as if they were themed spirit weeks in high school. The first year was Exploration: “Exploring yourself as an instrument and unlearning bad habits.” The second was Suffering: “Throwing you into the fire and letting you burn.” The third was Mastery, focused mainly on Shakespeare and other classic texts. And the fourth was Preparation: gearing up for the precipice, when you’re shoved off to fend for yourself in the industry.
If there was one particularly challenging course, it wasn’t improvisation or movement. “Clown was hard for me,” Chen says.
It takes me a long pause to realize Chen is referring to the honking-red-nose, Ronald McDonald-type clown. “That whole year I cried every day,” Chen continues. “It’s the quintessential actor’s challenge, because you don’t get to hide with Clown. You have to fully use yourself.” The idea, Chen says, is that the actors must make the audience laugh, but mainly through the farcical slapstick of their own bodies. It’s meant to be degrading, but also invigorating. For example: As part of Chen’s final project in the clown course, she played a character called Stinky Hamster Discharge.
I am still shamefully skeptical until, outside Borsalia, Chen decides to illustrate her point. Her face does something extraordinary, perhaps physics-defying. Her head stretches, funhouse mirror-style, into roughly the shape of a balloon. Her eyebrows shoot to the top of her forehead. She crosses her eyes and twists her mouth into a slack-jawed guffaw, all teeth and lolling tongue. This is her Clown face, I realize too late, because it has already disappeared and her composure returned. But it was there. I saw it.
“We all felt that’s one of the reasons why she wanted to come to school—to break out of the things that people project onto you,” Feldman says. “Clown, why it’s so essential in our school and in many schools, is that it [forces actors to bring out] the things we’ve hidden away for family reasons and cultural reasons.”
Chen’s female classmates used a chant in the locker room to hype themselves up before their Clown classes: “Throw your pussy in the ring!”
“It’s just that vulnerable,” Chen explains. “You just have to, like, spread your legs open.”
In the opening of Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, Chen’s character, Jiang Li, is the first to speak. She narrates, in Mandarin, the mythology of Tony Leung’s Wenwu with the grace of an omniscient observer and the intimacy of a mother reading a storybook. She also has the unique pleasure of playing Leung’s love interest—a position of which more than a few audience members will be jealous—and the mother to Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi. An ethereal, almost sacred presence throughout the film, Chen sets the plot in motion, solidifies its emotional center, and steers the actions of the characters—all while largely off-screen.
Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton selected Chen for the role based purely on her tapes. She had the natural poise of a leader, the beauty of a lover, but—more importantly—the hidden depths of a heroine. “[Jiang Li] had to have a playfulness about her that would help to break some stereotypes of otherwise female mystic Asian characters that we have seen in the past,” Cretton says. “Fala has a magic about her that was really just in line with the character.”
Chen has been chasing Shang-Chi since she first learned the project was happening, just a few months after graduating from Juilliard. Marvel reached out early on in the casting process, but months passed before her manager finally called with a meeting request from Cretton.
By that time, Chen was a new bride, less than 24 hours from embarking on her honeymoon: of all places, a cruise ship to Antarctica, a continent not known for its exceptional cell service. “[My team] all freaked out, so I gave them the satellite phone number, like, to the captain’s office,” she says. “That was the only means of communication.” On the second day of the trip, she finally seized reliable WiFi and got the good news: Because her team had been trying to reach her for so long, Marvel made an offer without meeting in person. “I’m definitely the first person who’s ever gotten an offer in Antarctica from Marvel,” Chen says.
She flew directly from her honeymoon to Sydney, Australia, where she began physical training: martial arts, pilates, weights, massage, and cryotherapy. Jiang Li specializes in a particular form of mystical martial arts that can only be described as aesthetic telekinesis. The world seems to bend around her like light. So, it was important that all of Chen’s moves mimic the feeling of moving through water—slow but precise, smooth but powerful. She would be strong enough that she could best Wenwu in battle, leaving the darling Leung face-first in a shallow pool of water and hamstrung in love.
“In order to stand face to face with a legend like Tony [Leung], you need to be able to match his intensity, match his ability as an actor, and Fala had all of those things,” Cretton says. “I don’t think there are many actors on the planet who could stand in a scene with Tony and have the audience feel like, ‘Oh, I can see why he’s falling for her.’”
Before any given scene, Chen would run through her warm-ups from Juilliard, or consult the Alexander Technique trainer she requested be specifically brought to set for her. Although some of the cast teased her—Liu in particular—they knew who she was: an actor’s actor. She takes this stuff seriously! Acting is about connecting people, she argues, something of particular importance to her as a woman, as an immigrant, and as a mother. She’s a performer who can speak English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and passable Japanese, and can sing, dance, and play piano, but still worries that she’s not talented enough, that the work she’s doing is not important enough, that she hasn’t found the right character who someone out there needs to see. Maybe that’s a bit egotistical, she acknowledges, but isn’t that the point of acting? Convincing the world that you know who you are, that you know what you’re doing, that you understand the depths of another’s soul, even if you hardly understand your own? Showing the side of yourself that needs to be seen?
Before she landed The Undoing, Chen questioned her place in Hollywood as an Asian American actress. “I never felt like acting, especially in America, would be a smooth sail,” she says. But she doesn’t question anymore. Instead, she consults her toolbox. The last time Chen and I spoke, she was getting ready to fly to Paris to begin work on her next American TV project, HBO’s Irma Vep, a serialized adaptation of the 1996 French film in which a starlet attempts to remake a silent movie, only to lose her grip on reality á la Black Swan.
For Chen, it’s soothing to slip into the skin of another and challenge yourself enough that the body doesn’t reject you. “It’s always nice to push yourself to be the opposite of yourself,” she says. As we prepare to leave the café, I realize that the reason Chen seems so comfortable—“put-together,” as she says—is because she’s constantly practicing. She’s plumbed her own vulnerabilities so frequently that she can switch them on and off, choosing which face she’d like to present like a hand in a deck. It’s practiced but still authentic—a way of telling multiple truths at once.
Today, she’s the polite New Yorker, giving me an air hug—we’re still in a pandemic, after all—as we finally part ways. In a few days, she’ll be the warrior mother in a Marvel blockbuster. After that, only she gets to decide who we meet next.
Photographed by Tyler Joe; styled by Sarah Zendejas; hair by Walton Núñez using R&Co; makeup by Nina Soriano using Armani Beauty; stylist assistant: Nicole Guzman; visual editor: Sameet Sharma.