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Q&A: "Hell on Wheels" Star Byron Mann

Written by Sarah Osman. Published: August 08 2015


Talented actor Byron Mann currently stars as Chang on the AMC hit series, “Hell on Wheels”, now in its fifth and final season, which tells the tale of the construction of the railroads in America, a task that truly epitomized the phrase “the wild wild West”. Chang is a Chinese contract worker who brings other Chinese workers to work on the Central Pacific Line and is having a bit of trouble getting along with his less than accommodating caucasian co-workers. “Hell on Wheels” is, at the moment, the only Western on television, and the first to truly delve into what it was like to be a Chinese worker on the railroads.




In addition to "Hell on Wheels", Mann can also be seen in Paramount’s The Big Short, starring Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell. He is also an accomplished martial artist who has shown off his moves in “Arrow”, Street Fighter, and The Man with the Iron Fists.


Originally from Hong Kong, Mann is unfailingly polite and highly intelligent. He gave me some great travel tips (I definitely need to visit Hong Kong) and warned me about the trials of law school. During our chat, he filled me in on where the inspiration for Chang came from, what it’s like to work with Steve Carell, and what happens when you run into a wooden box!


YH: Can you tell us a bit about Chang in “Hell on Wheels”, and what may happen in the next episode?

BM: This season introduces the Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad Line that Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount, switched to. He switched from the Union Pacific Line that runs East to the West to the Central Pacific, which runs West to the East. The Central Pacific Line has about 15,000 Chinese workers on it. Chang is the one who brings them from China to Truckee, this railroad town. He provides the right shops, restaurants, whorehouses -- he basically runs the town for the Chinese workers. What people forget is that he actually negotiates the rights of the Chinese workers. What will happen is that the agendas of the railroad workers, like Thomas Huntington and Hannen, and Chang’s agenda will continue to collide and the tension will escalate. In Episode 3, several Irish workers felt that their jobs were stolen by the Chinese workers. They went to Strobridge to vent. They were looking for trouble. One thing lead to another, and there was a fist fight, and they hung one of my men and killed him. They tried to kill me as well. I tried to seek justice from the railroad workers, since these Irish workers went back to their homes after they killed one of my Chinese men and almost killed me. I said that there had to be some retribution from these Irish workers, otherwise my Chinese workers will not feel safe working here. What happened was that they said there can’t even be a trial, because Chinese people cannot testify against white people. So, essentially, white people can do whatever they want and go back home. That’s where Episode 3 left off. The next two episodes will show what Chang ends up doing for what he thinks is correct. It’s a very intense period of time to live in.


YH: While your character is not based on any particular historical figure, “Hell on Wheels” is based on actual history. Did you do any research into what it was like for Chinese immigrants during this time in preparation for the role?

BM: I did some research. That research trickled onto the screen in a very haphazard way. During pre-production, I read some information about the workers. Chang is a contract laborer, and 15,000 Chinese workers were contract laborers. We’re just one TV show, so we are condensing all of these people into one person. In my research, I found out that Chang came from the Civil War in China. It was called the Taiping Rebellion. During the Taiping Rebellion, 30 million people were killed. That’s a lot of people. Troops would go into villages and towns, and if they opposed them, they would slaughter children, men, and women, and behead them. It was brutal. I figured that Chang is someone who has been through war, and that he’s a war-damaged individual. Even though he appears very clean-cut and dresses very nicely, I just said to the producers, "Maybe this guy is covering up. Maybe he’s just trying to reinvent himself. Maybe he has a scar on his face," so they added a scar on my forehead. I thought that, maybe underneath his clothing, there are scars on his body from years of war. When you’re in battle, you are going to have scars. You’re not going to look as though you came out of a spa in Santa Monica. Therefore, in Episode 1, they added a scene where, when Chang is shaving, you see his back, and you see a lot of scars on his back. That all came through research and a random conversation between the producers and myself.



YH: What have you enjoyed about being on “Hell on Wheels”?

BM: I am actually in the middle of filming “Hell on Wheels” right now. I think that “Hell on Wheels” is a very unique television series. It’s unlike other television series in the sense that it’s a historical drama. Most of the characters are based on real-life people. For example, next Tuesday, I will be filming a scene with Collis Huntington, who was a real guy. He was a railroad owner and a very rich man back in the day. All of the actors are top caliber actors. I think it’s the only Western on television currently. For me, as an Asian actor to be on a Western, I never thought that would happen. I think it’s bizarre. But Chang is a great character. It’s also the first time that a Chinese railroad worker’s story has ever been portrayed in Hollywood. Everyone knows that the Chinese worked on the railroad, but there has never been any television series or films about that. This is the first time it’s been dealt with in an in-depth way. For me to do that, is quite an honor. Most of the railroad workers came from this village in China called Taishan. I’m from Taishan. My great-grandfather is from Taishan. There is serendipity to my involvement on “Hell on Wheels” which I’m very grateful for.


YH: You are also starring in Adam McKay’s new film, The Big Short. Can you tell us a bit about your role in the film?
BM: The Big Short is based on a New York Times Bestseller called The Big Short by Michael Lewis, who wrote Moneyball. The Big Short delves into the mortgage crisis in the U.S. in 2008. During that time, you could buy a house for very little money down with no payments for two years. They wouldn’t even do a credit check. Except, two years later, your mortgage payment doubles. And then it triples. It was very bleak. This book focuses on that. It talks about what happened. How could these products sell in the United States? How could the public not be aware of what happened? How could the government allow these products to be sold? I play a real-life figure who was involved in the scandal. The other characters are played by Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carrell, and they’re trying to find out what happened, and they eventually track me down.
YH: What was it like to work with those actors?
BM: I mostly just worked with Steve Carell. It was wonderful. He’s a wonderful actor. It was really fun. We did a lot of improvisation with him and Adam McKay. Adam McKay, as you know, directed Anchorman and Anchorman 2. He’s Will Ferrell’s partner. He has a very comedic way of approaching scenes. It was very fun. I think it’s going to be a very entertaining film.
YH: You are a trained martial artist and you frequently perform martial arts in your roles. Have you ever experienced any injuries on set because of this?
BM: Every time you do action on film, there is a 50% chance that you will get injured. That’s the nature of the beast. If you’re going really fast and hard at each other, and even though you’re very well-rehearsed, chances are that accidents do happen. So have I ever been injured? Yes. I definitely have. On the first action film I did a long time ago that was called Street Fighter,  I basically did a banana peel and I landed on a flight of stairs on my backbone. I thought I’d broke my backbone when in fact I’d bruised it. I had problems sitting down for more than a minute for half a year. These things happen. I’ve gotten lots of cuts and bruises. I’ve never had any really serious injuries, thank goodness. I remember doing another film called The Man with the Iron Fists. I was filming that in China. I had a very serious injury. It was an accident -- I ran into the corner of a wooden apple box and I hit my knee. My knee ran into a sharp corner of a box. My knee bloated into a balloon and they rushed me to the hospital. The hospital basically did nothing. They just taped me up and put some Chinese herbs on it, and then I went back to set and I continued filming. I think it’s all a matter of tolerance. If you’re not used to it, then it becomes a big thing. If you are used to it, then it becomes less of a big thing.
YH: You actually have a Juris Doctor degree from USC (School of Law). How did you shift from law into acting?
BM: It wasn’t planned. I was intending to be a lawyer, and then I went to law school. In America, a lot of people go to law school without knowing what lawyers do. I think a lot of American students get romanticized by the idea of being a lawyer. They equate being a lawyer with what they see on screen. They think that everyday you’re giving really impassioned speeches. But everyday that’s not true. 98% of lawyers don’t do that. 99% of lawyers sit in their cubicles and look at regulations, codes, and templates and write briefs. That’s what they do. When I realized that, I decided that I could not do that for a living. I did acting in high school, and I was going to USC at that time, which is essentially Hollywood. I just tried acting while I was in high school. I remember in my third year I didn’t even go to class. I was actually filming a movie. I just came back to take the finals. I do have the degree and I did pass the California Bar.
YH: You travel quite a bit, and you’re originally from Hong Kong. Do you have a favorite city that you like to travel to?
BM: Absolutely. I’ll tell you two. My favorite city in the world is probably Hong Kong. It’s kind of hard to explain why. It’s like Manhattan -- you can walk around anywhere. You can see anyone, anytime, anywhere within 15, 20 minutes. It’s got cities, beaches, mountains, the water... It’s very active. There are a lot of different people you meet everyday. It’s very invigorating. It’s great for work. Taxes are low there. There’s a lot of energy. And socially, it’s fantastic. You’re seeing people all the time and it’s very fun. My second favorite city is Bangkok in Thailand. I’ve filmed there many times. The people are very nice. It’s very relaxed. It has great food, great restaurants. Everything seems to be half priced; it’s cheaper. You can get a two-hour massage for $50. It’s incredible.
YH: Do you feel that Asian-American actors are finally starting to have more representation in film and television, or do you feel that Hollywood still has a bit of a way to go?
BM: I think it’s moving in the right direction. It’s a complicated question because it all starts with writing and with the producers, and if they don’t write roles for Asians, then there’s nothing you can do. However, several networks, especially ABC, have had a big push for diversity. I find that quite refreshing. I think that helps them, because if you look at America today, it’s a very diverse country. People like to see what’s reflected in real life. I think there’s diversity in roles. Could there be more diversity? Yes. However, there’s pressure. In a television show, they want to cast bankable actors. Most of the bankable actors are white. This is because they’ve been doing leading roles for a very long time. So, it’s a cycle. In order to break the cycle, you have to break new talent. I think the scenario is good. Hopefully there will be more diversity in the future.
Catch an all-new episode of "Hell on Wheels" tonight at 9pm on AMC. The Big Short will be in theatres next year. You can also follow him on Twitter.

(Photo via Alex Law)

- Sarah Osman, YH Contributing Writer