Angela Zhou, who plays Mei on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, talks about revealing her character’s true identity, filming the tunnel blasting scenes and the showdown between Cullen and Chang.
Q: Though you’re fairly new to the show, what was it like to join it for its last season?
A: Our last season had so many new players – We had Reg [Rogers], Byron [Mann] and Tzi [Ma]. It felt like being a freshmen in college, but we were joining a family, so I had a lot to work with already. It was my first show, so it was an advantage to step in on the last season because there was so much support already in place.
Q: What was the most interesting thing you learned about the Chinese immigrant experience?
A: The tunnel blasting scenes were really interesting and you really get transported. I started thinking, “Oh my gosh. I can’t believe people actually did this!” It sounds almost silly when you’re acting because you feel a sense of comfort and you’re ultimately in a safe environment. You realize people risked their lives building this railroad in hopes of a small piece of an American dream for themselves. That little tiny stick of dynamite and one wrong move could just be the end of you.
Q: When did you realize Mei might be falling for Cullen? Were you worried about him being her boss and Chang’s growing suspicions?
A: Mei is very inexperienced in the realm of romance. She’s never had the opportunity to explore her sexuality because she was in China during a revolution, and she’s been pretending to be a boy. When Cullen discovers she’s a woman and he shows he’s on her side, she starts feeling a sense of security. She’s from a foreign land and she has no friends, so she develops that trust. She also has respect for him and looks up to him, and the feelings start to grow. When Cullen comes back, her father is gone at that point and she wants connection. She longs for a physical connection as well, and she can’t have that with anyone else because nobody knows who she really is.
Q: In Episode 12, Mei reveals her identity to Chang and delivers the line, “My name is Mei.” What was it like to deliver that line considering how long she’s been hiding her true self?
A: Saying it to Chang is a relief in some sense, but she still has to be a man to go about the rest of her life. Even if she got rid of Chang, that would not change. He is symbolic of the suppression of her people and he’s her father’s murderer. There’s a sense of victory there. She feels she’s able to say that to him because at that particular point, she’s holding him at gunpoint and she’s not in a place of weakness. There’s a flip of power there.
Q: Were you surprised Mei pulled that gun out on Chang? Do you believe she would have pulled the trigger had Cullen not showed up?
A: I’m not entirely sure still. I really think she had been running and she was trapped in a corner with a gun. The only thing she could do was that. During that moment, I think she was debating if she could do it and she was running through the emotions of hatred and revenge.
Q: Do you think Cullen’s killing of Chang was a profession of his love for Mei, or did he have it out for Chang anyway?
A: I feel like that side of him is not a side that Mei has ever seen – the Cullen from the previous seasons is a total stranger to her, and he has to open up to her about his past and who he used to be. When he walks in, I think Cullen wanted to save her from the feeling of having to take somebody else’s life, so he did it for her. I think he was protecting her innocence.
Q: In the end, Mei chooses to leave Cullen and go back home to China — leaving Cullen with nothing but a tea box. What was your reaction to her decision?
A: When I read about it, I was like, “No! She’s giving up?!” [Laughs] That was my gut reaction, but I understood it. I was trying to figure out why she didn’t just take her dad’s money and leave before Cullen came back, but I guess maybe she was always holding onto hope that he would come back. She wants to have a life with him, and he turns her away. She envisioned a happy family together, and that’s really not possible. How could they get to that point? I think it dawns on her that she can’t just pretend to be a man forever. She would always be bringing trouble to him.
Q: What did Mei represent for Cullen, and vice versa?
A: I think they both represented an oasis in a grueling desert. It’s a relief for both of them to have found a person who they can be honest with, and they feel safe with each other. Cullen feels Mei doesn’t hold his past against him.
Q: What’s the biggest thing you’ll remember about your experience or about your character?
A: The most important thing is the people that I worked with. So many cast and crew members took me under their wing. Anson [Mount] helped me with character development, John [Wirth] helped me by sending me books and DVDs, Tim [Guinee] trained me in the gym so I would get more of a dude shape… [Laughs]. I just hope one day I’ll be back on another show that’s filled with such amazing people as well.
Read an interview with Anson Mount.
The final episodes of Hell on Wheels air Saturdays at 9/8c on AMC. To stay up-to-date with all the latest Hell on Wheels news, sign up for the weekly Hell on Wheels Telegraph.