Angela Zhou, who plays Fong (a.k.a. Mei) on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, talks about her unusual first day on set and how a night out with Calgary’s transgender community helped her prepare for her role.
Q: You’re one of the new members of the Hell on Wheels cast for Season 5. What was your first day on set like?
A: It was a little out of the ordinary. We took a private charter plane to an island where we were shooting on a cliff. Anson [Mount] even said to me, “Angela, I hope you realize not every day will be like this. You won’t be flying private planes!” [Laughs] My first day on set was a magical experience.
Q: Season 5 of Hell on Wheels takes a look at the Chinese immigrant experience during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. What kind of research did you do to prepare for your role?
A: We actually had a lot of material from the writer’s room. There was a book, Nothing Like It In the World by Stephen E. Ambrose, which was about the railroad itself, and then there was The Chinatown War by Scott Zesch, which was specifically about the Chinese experience when they first landed in San Francisco. That book in particular talked about Chinese women’s roles in the frontier town. I also watched a DVD series, Becoming American: The Chinese Experience, which had great commentary and was a visual source to see what people looked like.
Q: At what point did you learn Fong’s secret? In what ways did portraying a woman who is disguising herself as a man change your approach to the part?
A: At first, I was told that Mei was just a tomboy. [Laughs] During the callback, I learned that Mei was disguising herself as a boy. After getting over the shock and thinking, “No! I could never pull this off,” I settled down and told myself I could do it. When I got dressed, I felt more like Fong and started to learn the mannerisms. When I actually got the role, they hired a gender consultant who is a transgender man. He took me for a night out on the town in Calgary, and he and his friends in the transgender community gave me some tips on how to walk and talk.
Q: Between the portrayal of hard manual labor and the cold mountain environment, Hell on Wheels is physically demanding. Has that presented any particular challenges for you? How did you deal with them?
A: I’ve never shot on a set like this before. It is really hard, but it’s something I really love doing. At the end of the day, these were the conditions people dealt with. Back then, they didn’t have technology or things to keep them warm, but they were able to keep pushing forward. I’m lucky because I was kept warm in between shots and could look forward to going back to my hotel room. You look at these huge mountains and think, “I wouldn’t even dare dream about inching my way through that.” That’s what helped me through: I wasn’t actually on the railroad! [Laughs]
Q: Fong seems to thrive in the Hell on Wheels environment, tackling the railroad work head-on and unafraid to relay orders to her fellow workers or to speak her mind. Can you relate to how she handles her world?
A: She believes in herself, and she believes she can do the same work as men. Coming from China, there was an intense division between males and females, because having a male child was the only way to pass down your name. Female children helped around the house, and then they would be married off and not considered a part of the family anymore. Unfortunately, you still see it nowadays in the more rural parts of China. In a way, this unfortunate situation is a silver lining for Mei, because now she has the freedom that her personality naturally gravitates towards anyway. She even gets a little cocky because she’s already comfortable being a man. I admire her for that.
Q: Talk a little about the emotional scene in Episode 502 in which Fong tells Cullen about losing her family and home. How did you prepare for it?
A: I stared into the fire and visualized my family going away. I thought about my mother brushing my hair and then going away. That was something that happened on a daily basis back then. On the railroad, people were dying every single day, and you didn’t know who to trust. For Cullen to share something from his past as well, and for it to come from a white man who is her boss, felt very fatherly and like they had a true connection. She understands what he’s going through.
Q: What have you enjoyed most about being a part of Hell on Wheels?
A: I never thought I would get to be on a Western. The Chinese were a huge part of these pioneer towns, but you don’t see that on a lot of shows. It’s like immigration just didn’t happen. A lot of the roles I get are cute Asian nerdy girls, but my character has so many layers and such a huge arc. There’s such amazing talent, and everyone does their job so well that I barely have to act because I’m already convinced. They welcomed me with open arms and took me under their wings. It’s just been great!
Read an interview with Anson Mount, who plays Cullen Bohannon.Read More