We’re on set in a Sydney photo studio in early July, and in walks Chris Pang, straight off of a flight from Melbourne. He’s been camped there, at his parents’ place, for the past three months, having made a last-minute exit from Los Angeles as the pandemic started ramp up on American soil and Australia made the decision to shut its borders. None of us—the photographer, the stylist, the hairdresser—had ever met Pang in person before, but we certainly weren’t expecting the brawny fellow that stood before us. “I’ve put on 10 kilos in isolation,” he quickly admits, explaining that he and his brother have been working out six days per week in their home gym during the COVID-imposed isolation. He jokes that this cover shoot will mark his big reveal to the world when it comes out. “People are not going to recognise me when this is all over.
Pang’s always been in good shape, but it’s the consistency that he struggles with, he explains. “Sometimes I’ll bulk up a bit, but then I’ll get lazy, or I’ll get a job and I’ll be travelling on different time zones and there’s just so many variables. Unless you’re super, super dedicated then it’s really difficult to keep a consistent schedule. “I’ve had nothing to disrupt me since I’ve been back here—I’ve barely left the house—and my brother is just really good at training, and to be honest, I’m feeling great. This might be the new version of me.”
For those that are unfamiliar with The Original Chris Pang™, here are some facts for context. He was born and raised in Australia, but he fluently speaks Mandarin and Cantonese. He’s distantly related to Bruce Lee on his father’s side. His first job was selling phones as a door-to-door salesman. His father, Barry, runs one of Australia’s most famous kung fu schools, but Chris is reluctant to describe himself as anything beyond amateur at the sport. And he starred as the groom, Colin Khoo, in that small, indie movie about Singapore—with an all-Asian cast—that hardly anyone saw. At least that’s what a lot of film executives perhaps thought about green-lighting the juggernaut that was Crazy Rich Asians, which went on to bag some USD239 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the past decade. It was an experience that changed him.
"I grew up calling Australia home but not feeling Australian, because, because I never saw people like myself on TV or in magazines or on posters, and as a kid that affects you because you come to feel second best."
“It sounds so clichéd to say but we were actually like family,” he says of the cast, which included Henry Golding and Gemma Chan. “Whenever you get a bunch of people of a similar age and background and with similar motivation, then you can’t help but have a good time, and the thing that connected us all was that we’d all been fighting that silent fight throughout our careers. We wanted to make a change, and all of us do what we do in part because we want to see more representation on screen, to identify as being Asian, and that really bonded us instantly,” he says. “When we were on set we knew—although not to the scale—that we were part of something special, something once in a lifetime.”
And indeed, Crazy Rich Asians did for Southeast Asian culture in Hollywood what Black Panther did for African culture, proving to producers and financiers that, while there have always been stories to tell about other cultures, there’s an audience appetite for them, too. “I think it’s definitely the start of something,” says Pang. “I don’t think there’s necessarily been a turn yet, but the trajectory seems to have shifted. To have a film come out of a big Hollywood studio with a logo on it that we recognise with a cast that’s completely Asian… I mean it hadn’t happened for 25 years, since The Joy Luck Club, and it proved that there’s so many people out there that aren’t seeing what they want on the big screen. Crazy Rich Asians helped to open the door and present opportunities for Asians to exist more in Hollywood.”
Pang’s point of view on the matter is personal. “I grew up calling Australia home but not feeling Australian, because, because I never saw people like myself on TV or in magazines or on posters, and as a kid that affects you because you come to feel second best,” he says. “It gives you a complex that’s incredibly hard to shake off. I was really lucky to have discovered Hong Kong cinema as a teenager, and all of these stars—Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung, Andy Lau—they became my idols. I think you go one of two ways when you’re marginalised: you either embrace your culture or you reject, and I had friends that went in the latter direction and that’s sad. It shouldn’t happen, because that’s such an unfair journey to go on. Growing up, you don’t understand concepts of bigotry or racism or equality—all you know is that you feel different and you’re made very aware of that. A lot of claiming back my heritage was seeing these guys on screen, and it made me want to give that to a younger generation.”
Australia can often be parochial—it’s a country that’s overwhelmingly white—but it still wasn’t smooth sailing for Pang when he got to the City of Angels in 2013, having first tried his luck in Beijing and Hong Kong. “Pilot season is a huge deal in LA, where you’ve got 70 or 100 shows trying to find their cast at the same time. It’s hectic, you’re inundated, auditioning every day, managers are frantic. That’s what happens when you’re white,” says Pang. “When I got there, I had friends that were in that situation where they had five or six auditions per day and didn’t even have time to learn their lines, so they’d come over and run lines with me and that became my job because I had nothing else to do. That was my journey today. Compare that today and there’s a lot more roles coming through, but our job isn’t done yet, and hopefully we can get to that place where everyone—no matter their skin type or their sexuality or their way of life—can feel represented and validated and seen. A lot of that motivation keeps me going because I feel like I have an opportunity to make change.”
"I loved—and I still love—getting dressed up and telling stories."
The actor followed Crazy Rich Asians by producing and starring in Empty by Design, a Manila-set film about the struggle of cultural identity, and the re-boot of Charlie’s Angels, in which as an international smuggler he performs opposite Kristen Stewart in intricate—and steamy—choreography. But pre-pandemic, 2020 was shaping up to be Pang’s biggest year yet. This month, he stars in the Hulu-released film Palm Springs—here as the wedding officiant—alongside Andy Samberg and JK Simmons in a comi-tragic infinite time loop that breathes new life into the Groundhog Day formula. The film, which marks the directorial debut of Max Barbakow, received standout reviews when it premiered at Sundance in January, and were it not for the closure of cinemas would likely have screened in theatres through the summer.
And then there’s the Jason Katims pilot, an autism comedy-drama based on the Israeli series by the name of On the Spectrum, which was recently green-lit for production by Amazon Prime and will film when social distancing restrictions allow. Katims, who’s best known for his NBC series Parenthood, has spoken about his son being on the spectrum, and has for his new series cast autistic actors alongside Pang and others. “We’re trying to bring authenticity of experience to this,” says Pang. “There’s real passion in this project for Jason, and it’s a show that allows us viewers to learn so much, and that’s really key. The solution to so many problems, so many stigmas and attitudes, is education. I’m really fortunate to be part of a project where representation is central to the concept.”
Until he returns to the LA—a place that, after seven years, he’s come to begin calling home—when international travel allows, Pang has settled into life at home where, despite the upending of world, things feel strangely normal. “Honestly, my life hasn’t changed that much,” he admits. “I’m so used to finding little nothings for me to do each day. Lockdown for me is my normal life, because what people don’t understand is that 99.9 percent of an actor’s job is just waiting. In many ways, the actor’s lifestyle was the original Instagram, because you only ever see the glamorous portion, not the behind-the-scenes.” It comes with its own challenges, the anxieties that come with not knowing what or when your next job might be.
“When we were on set we knew—although not to the scale—that we were part of something special, something once in a lifetime.”
“You go from the highest highs to the lowest lows, because when you finish shooting a film you’re out of work, and as an actor there’s nothing you can do. You can’t wait any faster. So you just wait for the writer to write a role that looks and sounds like you, and then you audition—and you get 99 of those before you might land one—and if you do then you wait for it to be financed, and you wait for it to be shot, and when you get there you wait around and maybe shoot for 40 minutes in a day. The most difficult part of this whole career is finding the motivation when nothing is happening. And selling phones can never prepare you for selling yourself.”
But Pang is a can-do guy with a seemingly infectious optimism. Over lunch on our shoot, he talks about his general aversion to food. It’s not a dislike, per se, but rather he just doesn’t find any particular enjoyment in the act of it. “It’s fuel for me—pure and simple. I just don’t think about it.” It’s an approach that’s seemingly inherent in all elements of his life. Eat: because you need food to survive. Move all around the world and suffer the blows that come with choosing a creative career: because you need acting to survive. “When I was five or six years old we had to draw what we wanted to be at school, and I drew a guy in a tuxedo because I wanted to be James Bond. I loved—and I still love—getting dressed up and telling stories. Growing up, mum and I would act out those Chinese kung fu operas in our backyard with all these props and costumes we made, which was just the best fun because your imagination goes wild. When I grew up and realised that I could be paid to be part of this, to do this as a job, I was sold.”
Photographs by Georges Antoni
Styling by Jolyon Mason
Grooming by Sophie Roberts