Chinese folklore gets a Disney spin in “American Born Chinese,” an eight-episode series created by Kelvin Yu, which landed on Disney+ on Wednesday. An adaptation of the 2006 graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, the series centers on Bay Area teenager Jin Wang (Ben Wang), who becomes entangled in a fantastical quest after a new classmate, Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), reveals himself to be the son of the Monkey King and recruits Jin to help him search for the Fourth Scroll.
Featuring an all-star cast that includes Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Chin Han, Yann Yann Yeo and Sydney Taylor, “American Born Chinese” recontextualizes ancient history for modern audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with the original stories, bringing together the talents of some of the most prominent Asian actors, writers and directors in entertainment.
Yeoh, the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star who recently made history by becoming the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for best lead actress, says she was recruited for the role of Guanyin — the goddess of mercy — by Destin Daniel Cretton, who had already signed on to direct episodes of the television show. Yeoh and Cretton had previously worked together on Marvel’s “Shang-Chi.”
“One day I get a call from him to say, ‘I’m doing this, will you come on board? I want you to play the goddess of mercy,’” Yeoh says. She looked through the graphic novel and was impressed by its ability to bridge cultures; its references to mythology hit home for her. “It’s such a privilege and an honor to be asked to play [Guanyin], because she has always been important in my life. My grandmother and my mom, we have the goddess of mercy in our home,” she says.
Adapting the character of Guanyin for the 21st century — in a Disney TV show, no less — took much careful consideration. “We agreed that we have to treat this character with great respect, how it was portrayed, and we can’t begin to take too many liberties with it, because she is very, very revered in that way,” Yeoh says. At the same time, Guanyin’s main role is to keep watch over Jin and Wei-Chen, meaning she’d have to blend in on Earth. “I love the fact that we agreed that she should be in hoodies and sweatpants. You look at her, you see another big sister or auntie who is kind of trendy and having fun. We wanted to have that side so she was more playful when she was on Earth.”
“She’s very generous with her spirit in the actor capacity,” says Wang of working with Yeoh. “She’s one of the most talented people that I’ve had the honor to work with, but also one of the most warm and kind and welcoming too.”
Wang, whose previous credits include the Hulu film “Sex Appeal” and Disney+’s “Chang Can Dunk,” says that in his initial self-tape for the show, he recorded lines with himself. “I didn’t have a [scene] partner because I was shooting a movie, I was in a hotel by myself, so I recorded all the other lines on GarageBand.” He and Taylor — who plays Jin’s friend (and crush) Amelia — bonded over a mutual “chaotic energy” and a shared love of emo music, particularly My Chemical Romance, which they’d both listened to in middle school.
Their real-life connection provides the foundation for their characters’ nascent romance. “They both have a need to feel understood by somebody, anybody,” Taylor says. “They don’t feel understood by their parents necessarily and they don’t feel understood by anyone at school…They find each other in this beautiful way and connect in a way that I don’t think they thought they were going to.”
On set, Wang and Taylor formed a close-knit trio with Liu, who added to their aforementioned “chaotic energy.”
“If me and Ben have a scene and Jimmy’s around, we have to make Jimmy leave, because it’s too much chaos,” says Taylor. In between scenes, she and Wang would watch Liu sleep. “It’s like bird-watching, but it’s Jimmy-watching, and it’s, ‘In what position is Jimmy going to fall asleep in today?’” Wang says.
The show bridges not only cultural gaps but also brings together actors in varying stages of their career. Yeoh has nothing but glowing things to say about her younger counterparts. “They are so talented. It is such a joy to watch, especially when the young actors understand they have been given such a great opportunity and they grab it and they hold onto it, and you can see that every day when they come to work, they are there for a great reason.
“When I look at them, I really look at them with pride and learn from them, their good ethics, the way they are,” she adds. “Ben is so talented, he looks so unassuming. Then suddenly, when he gets into a scene, he just explodes with this amazing energy.”