It’s funny how life has its twists and turns. One minute you are living as a warrior, training four hours a day and pushing your body to its limits; the next you are crashing at a friend’s place, in search of somewhere you can call home whilst not totally sure of your next move. For Mulan’s Yoson An, stepping into the role of Chen Honghui on a project of this scale came with a lot of unknown. From the rigorous schedule that whipped him into the physical condition of a real fighter (and its accompanying psychological challenges) to the inescapable shift from incognito - his preferred mode - to the public eye.
Yoson is fresh off an appointment with the California DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) when we meet to chat. Having officially registered a car of his own, it is a situation symbolic of the chapter he is about to begin in Hollywood. Yoson explains that since landing in Los Angeles, everything seems to be in overdrive - a far cry from the breezy pace of the pacific that he grew up with. Yet even in that dissonance, the Macanese-New Zealander emits a quiet understanding that for now, he is right where he is supposed to be.
If 'imagination is the key to creating a brighter future', then composure is the key to staying in the present. Yoson appears to possess both in abundance, and photographer Amber McKee lends her camera to these qualities in a dreamy pastel-tinged haze. A self-professed introvert, ‘boy-next-door’ doesn’t seem to quite cover it - for there is nothing ordinary about attaching yourself to one of the world’s most iconic franchises - however, there is an approachable charm about the actor that stylist Alvin Stillwell dresses with perfection. Clean-cut lines and relaxed fits return Yoson to his native time zone so that in these frames and these words you will find a young man who is simply riding the wave of life.
How are you finding LA - have you made the permanent move?
Kind of! I’m still crashing at a friend’s but I think I’m going to be here for a while. Things are picking up. We’ll see what happens!
To begin with, I wanted to touch on your roots. You moved from Macau to New Zealand when you were seven. What is your connection to your heritage, having moved around?
Growing up with parents from China, keeps the heritage grounded in some ways - regardless of where you're travelling to. When I'm at home I do speak English. Sometimes from time to time, I speak to my mum in Cantonese. I have a lot of extended family in China, Hong Kong and Macau, but I haven't visited in a while… Yeah. Life has been pretty busy!
The world is about to meet Yoson in a big way. Who is Yoson in your eyes?
I’m a pretty chill dude! I enjoy spending time out in nature. I’d like to say I’m pretty friendly. A bit of a goofball at times… I don’t know! It’s hard to describe who I am.
You're a black belt in karate, right?
Yes. When I was 10, maybe even younger, my parents just threw me and my sisters into these karate classes. My sisters got to brown belt and I kept going, but the moment I got my black belt, I was like, 'ok I’m done! And just dropped it'. There’s so much to progress after that though - black belt is still just the beginning. I really enjoy martial arts, and I love the philosophies behind it.
I was going to ask - what draws you to martial arts as a practice?
One of the biggest impacts of practising martial arts has been self-discipline. That’s one of the best assets anyone can have. I watched a video where Will Smith once said that any type of material success stems from self-discipline, and I believe that.
Were these skills that helped you land your role of Chen Honghui in Mulan?
I would say it may have helped, yeah. During the audition process, they did ask me to show them a few moves during takes. But ultimately, I think that being the right fit for the character came first. We were trained by these amazing stunt coordinators.
How were the physical demands of filming?
The whole filming process was pretty physical. During the prep - even all the way through filming - we would wake up at 7 am to do strength and conditioning for an hour and a half to two hours. Then we’d go straight to stunts for like two hours, so we would train around four hours a day. A lot of physical activity.
Even during the filming process, we would film for 10 hours and right after filming, I would go do more strength and conditioning. It was about getting into the shape of a warrior, essentially; a real fighter. So that when people saw the posture and everything - the way the character holds himself – they would know that he’s a fighter; he’s a warrior.
Honghui is one of the only characters that are not in the original story.
He appears in this new adaptation. I love the animated movie: it’s one of my favourite childhood films. But I wouldn’t say that that’s the original story because that film itself was adapted from a poem. So, what the creators of this live-action version decided to do was to go back to the poem and adapt that into this new re-imagining that is more relevant to audiences today. The relevance of these themes come through these new characters, which people will see in the film.
How were you able to build Honghui from the ground up and really make him your own?
I see all characters in any movie like puzzles: every character plays a certain role. And because Honghui is essentially a new character, I was given free rein to collaborate with Niki Caro, the director, to discover who Honghui is and how he fits into the story.
Do you see aspects of yourself in Honghui?
There are certain aspects of Yoson that are similar to Honghui. The character has to come from me because I’m the one playing him. You know, anything the character holds, I have to have within myself first. I may not always exude whatever that character is, but I had to have it because otherwise, it wouldn’t come off as truthful or real.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered whilst filming?
Probably the physicality of it all. Just keeping that physical shape throughout the entirety of filming - and making sure I'm well-rested so that the next day I'm not like a zombie. Pacing myself that way. Before this movie, I've actually never had a six-pack but right before we started filming, I was like, 'oh my god, it popped!'. I was so sceptical, haha. I was like, 'are you guys sure it’s going to come? I’ve never seen it in my life!'.
What reference points did you draw on for the warrior spirit that Honghui represents?
I think a lot of it just came from the training itself. Because we were training like warriors. We went through boot camp, and all the strength and conditioning training. My entire being just changed: the way I was holding myself; I was standing up taller; I felt confident; I felt like I was a warrior. It kind of came organically, which added a lot to the character. I have gained a lot of insight as to what it takes to step into a role like this. It was a huge journey for me.
This is your biggest role to date, particularly outside of Australia and New Zealand. Does it feel like the next natural stage in your career progression? Or did you feel out of your depth at points?
I'm not going to lie, when I first found out that I got the job, I was a little bit intimidated by the scale of this whole thing. But the moment I did my prep - the character prep, the physicality of things - and when the cameras switched on on the first day, it just felt like I was working on any other film set. All that other stuff was gone. I had to beat it out of the way. It felt like I was doing what I've usually done in my previous projects, regardless of the scale. I was focusing on the work.
‘Honour’ is one of Mulan’s central themes. What does honour mean to you?
Honour to me means integrity. Having the integrity to do the right thing: to speak the truth and be true to who you are. Your truth may be totally different from the other person's, but we all have to recognise that everyone has a different truth. We have to learn and accept that. Just because the other person's truth is different to yours doesn't mean that it's not valid to them and vice versa.
It’s interesting because this idea is probably now more relevant than ever. The visibility that the spotlight provides - being an actor - comes with a lot of responsibility. Audiences and fans project certain expectations of celebrities’ beliefs and behaviour. How do you hope to navigate this new platform?
I think in anyone’s shoes, the moment we start caring about what others think of us, natural anxiety comes into play. I think everyone on this planet can agree. So, I just have to live my own truth, and as I said, I have to accept that it’s different from other peoples’, but it doesn’t mean that it’s invalid. Whatever other people project onto me is their opinion. It’s their bubble - it’s not my bubble. Keeping that perspective really helps.
I can imagine your social following is going to change upon the film’s imminent release. Are you able to easily separate your public versus private life?
You know, I’ve really enjoyed being incognito! I’m quite the introvert. But I don’t know what to expect - I haven’t stepped into this realm before. This is a new experience: to be in a movie of this scale. I really have no expectations - to me, it’s out of my control, so we’ll see what happens!
How do you find quiet amongst the noise?
I like to meditate in the morning. Practices that help me are yoga, meditation and Qigong. I think practising a daily ritual really helps calm the nervous system and the mind. Everyone should try meditation! The world would be a much calmer, more peaceful place.
Tell me about your recent project for the BBC, The Luminaries, and your character Sook Yongsheng.
That was a very fun project. I really enjoyed working with such amazingly talented cast and crew. I love working with the director, Claire McCarthy - I think she's so wonderful.
It's an ensemble piece set in New Zealand. Ultimately, the story revolves around the unfoldings and interactions of the 12 zodiac signs. I play the Aquarius sign and my character crosses paths with Eve Hewson’s and Marton Csokas’ characters, and a few others, but I won’t get too much into it: I’ll leave the rest for the audience!
You wrote and directed short film Between the Parallel which draws on the magic of Ancient China. How was this experience?
That was wonderful. I’d love to do more of it. I feel that writing and directing are such personal things. You write what you know, essentially, so my story was written from what I've seen in life - my surroundings. But at the same time, I'm super drawn to the genre of fantasy and sci-fi because that really takes us out of our daily thoughts and the things that bog us down into a realm of imagination. I feel that imagination is the key to creating any sort of brighter future. My short film stemmed from mixing those two ideas together.
Have you got any other writing/directing projects in the pipeline?
I do! I am writing a lot more. I've written another short film. It's a proof of concept for a TV show idea that I have…
With the success of the film Parasite being a possible indicator, do you think representation within the industry for East Asian cinema is changing?
Yeah, I would hope so. But you know, Parasite itself was just an amazing film. I loved all the other films that were academy-nominated, but I hadn't seen anything like Parasite in a while. It just deserved to win Best Picture. The story and director were just amazing.
It could possibly open doors to more Asian cinema being... I don’t want to say ‘accepted’ in the Western World - but I fully agree with director Bong Joon-ho’s comment that when people start accepting the one-inch barrier of subtitles in Asian films, you’ll be opened up to a whole new world of cinema. There are so many amazing international films.
What’s next for you?
There are a few projects in the pipeline that I can’t say too much about! But I have a pretty good feeling.
And you’re about to start a new chapter in LA!
Yeah, so I’ve landed in LA indefinitely! I’m not sure how long I’ll be here - could be a long time, could be six months. I’ll see what the future holds and let things unfold naturally.
I can imagine it’s a very different environment to Australia and New Zealand…
It is. People say that LA is a lot slower than New York, like ‘I come to LA to slow down’, but for me, everything has sped up. That just goes to show the pace that I’m used to! Coming here, I feel like everything is in overdrive.
If you had one message for the world, what would it be?
Live through your heart.