Angela Zhou on Her Gender-Bending Role on ‘Hell on Wheels’

Angela Zhou as Fong. (Photo credit: Chris Large/AMC)

The name of the actor who portrays Chinese American railroad worker and translator Fong, a character which debuted on this season of “Hell on Wheels,” was initially abbreviated to A. Zhou, and it wasn’t until after last week’s episode “Mei Mei,” where it was revealed that A. stood for Angela. Actress Angela Zhou was playing the “male” character Fong, who was actually a woman, Mei, disguising herself as a man in order to work on the railroad.

AMC’s “Hell on Wheels,” which is in its fifth and final season, tells the story of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, and this season focuses on the Chinese Americans workers. In addition to Zhou, storylines revolve around two new Chinese American characters: businessman Chang (Byron Mann) and Tao, Mei’s father, played by Tzi Ma.

Zhou was born in China and grew up in New Zealand. She went to college at Duke University before moving to Los Angeles to pursue her acting dreams. "Hell on Wheels" is shot in Calgary, Canada.

XFINITY Asia talks to Angela Zhou about her first major television role.

How did you get involved with “Hell on Wheels?”

[Laughs] I'm a total nobody, and they literally pulled me out from the bottom of the barrel in L.A. It was a very specific role, so they reached out further than they usually would have. At first, they told me Mei was a tomboy that worked on the railroad. But later, when they gave me a callback, they said, "We need you to sign this non-disclosure agreement, otherwise we can't tell you more about it." And then they said, "So your character is not just a tomboy. She's actually playing a boy." And I was like, "What? How am I going to do that??"

How did you prepare for the second audition, once you knew you had to play a man? 

First, I was walking around my place trying to talk in a low voice and probably annoying my neighbors. Then the next day, I started looking at YouTube videos online to see how to do makeup in order to transform a girl into a boy. [Laughs.] I was obsessed. I was a crazed lady.

Was the look you created for the audition similar to the look you ended up having for the show?

It was a very collaborative process. I told the makeup artist what I had learned from the videos. The first time I showed up on set, it was a meet-and-greet, so I just showed up as myself, but I think everyone got a bit freaked out. It's funny - the producers are guys, so they don't understand the power of makeup as well as women do. I think they were worried that I wouldn't be able to play a dude, so suddenly they moved up the hair and makeup test to that very day. [Laughs.] I was like, "Chill out. I look like a prepubescent boy without makeup on."

Also, they hired a gender consultant, who was a transgender man that consults with people who want to make the transition from female to male. And that was one of the most fun parts of the research. He and his roommate took me out to a bar and dressed me up in their old clothes that they used to wear to disguise the female body. I ordered drinks, I even went into the men's restroom, and that was what I needed to have confidence in myself. I figured if I could fool real people at a bar, then hopefully I could fool people onscreen.

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How familiar were you with the history of Chinese Americans building railroads before you took the part? 

I knew a little bit. I’m more familiar with Chinese history, like the Cultural Revolution. But the showrunner John Wirth and the writers gave me books they used in their research: “Nothing Like It In the World” by Stephen E. Ambrose was about the railroad, and it had chapters on the Chinese experience. “The Chinatown War” by Scott Zesch was about L.A. and S.F. Chinatowns, the gangs, the women, and how Asian Americans mixed their old and new cultures and made America their home. And there was also a PBS DVD series, “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience,” which really allowed me to visualize what it would have been like to live back then.

When did you first start performing? 

My family likes to tell me that I was always performing as a little kid. Apparently, I would stand next to the grand pianos in the lobbies and yell, and on my first trip to New Zealand when I was 2, I danced up and down the aisles.

I first took drama in high school because we were required to take performing arts, and I remember thinking it was a stupid subject, until I realized how much I loved it. I was a drama nerd from then on out. I did drama and musical productions both inside and outside of school, I competed in regional and national Shakespeare competitions and was eventually picked to be in the Young Shakespeare Company that trained and performed in London.

This was in high school, and I knew I was going to keep doing it, even if I was only doing community theater. In college, I tried everything from academia to consulting to casting - all these internships. And my senior year, I realized I should take this opportunity. I was lucky; I didn't have debts because I got a scholarship to Duke, so I figured I was young and could take the risk. I also knew it was a very exciting time in China-U.S. film production, so I thought there'd be a space for characters like me.

[Now that I've been cast on "Hell on Wheels,"] I'm trying to do this storyline as much justice as possible. The way I see it, I can never guarantee that I'll get another job, so I will put the most into what I'm doing right now and make it the best thing possible. Stuff like this will last. It's a big step for our community, telling a story that's never been shown onscreen before, showing that this big feat America was able to accomplish was only possible because all these different types of Americans who made these sacrifices [for their country].

“Hell on Wheels” airs Saturdays at 9/8c on AMC.

Follow Angela Zhou on her Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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