The Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star left a successful TV career in Hong Kong for Juilliard before scoring a superhero blockbuster. That’s only the beginning of her story.
This is how I first encounter Fala Chen: at a photo shoot, wearing comically heavy black boots. Twirling in swathes of crimson fabric, she drops down into a warrior’s crouch, and her gaze darkens to match it. The camera flashes; her cheekbones glint like razors. I’m terrified of her.
Chen is languid; graceful yet loose. When the photographer asks her what pose feels most natural, she swings around in a circle and plops down on her butt like a toddler. He requests a power walk, and she slams her heel so hard against the concrete that I actually flinch. It’s as if she’s holding us all hostage on set—and relishing every moment.
To some degree, this is true. Chen, whose first Hollywood film credit will be Marvel’s highly anticipated Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, certainly has our attention. She’s experiencing a record year, personally and professionally: In February, she and her husband, French tech entrepreneur Emmanuel Straschnov, welcomed a daughter. Her first American TV show, The Undoing, was nominated for an Emmy in July. And in September, she’ll join the heralded ranks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the studio’s first film with an Asian American lead and majority Asian American cast.
So my perception of her, on this June afternoon, is that she is comfortable, self-made, and wearing it like a bejeweled tiara. But, as I’ll come to learn, it’s easy to be wrong about Chen.
“Iwas screaming inside,” she recalls of the photo shoot at Borsalia, an Italian café in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. “I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable posing for a photographer; I was never trained. I always feel like I’m very alone. I might look like I know what to do, but sometimes I regret it when I go home.”
This is a tactic Chen, 39, employs often: coy admissions that evolve into thoughtful dramas. She’s constantly reassessing what, when, where, and how she’d prefer to present herself, and in the process, she wields her emotions like carefully selected power tools. Contradictorily, she is naturally disarming, with a playful, even childlike aura of joy. Still, she’s aware enough of her elegant mien that she theorizes it stops directors from casting her in comedic roles.
“I’m not physically a super expressive person,” Chen says. “I think I’m pretty put-together.” Even in her current ensemble of a black cardigan, pastel pink pants with rolled cuffs, and white Chuck Taylors—little to no makeup, just a simple gold chain adorning her neck—she looks polished enough to attend a luncheon. Perhaps that’s how Chen nabbed her first TV role on HBO’s The Undoing as Jolene, one of the affluent, entitled mothers in Nicole Kidman’s PTA-adjacent friend group. Jolene snootily refers to a fellow member as “lactator-in-chief,” a line you can tell Chen relished in delivering. (Still, she hasn’t watched The Undoing for fear of hating her own performance.)
A unique proclivity for self-possession is how the actress stumbled into performing in the first place. In 2002, a few years after Chen’s family emigrated from China to Atlanta, Chen’s mother tore a page from a Chinese American newspaper: an advertisement searching for the next Miss Asian America. Chen had never competed in a beauty pageant and didn’t consider herself particularly good-looking, but the premise intrigued her—as did the multi-thousand-dollar prize money—so she applied. When she made the finals, she flew across the country by herself, and when she ultimately won, she was similarly on her own—dressed in a gown like a cake topper, she called her parents to share the good news from the stage.
Two years later, Chen was named Miss New York Chinese. Then, in 2005, she finished as first runner-up in the Miss Chinese International Pageant, which was hosted by TVB, a major broadcasting company in Hong Kong. Enthralled by both her charisma and appearance, the network signed her to a six-year contract—later extended to eight—that she fulfilled first as a variety show host and later as an actress.
It wasn’t exactly the life her parents had wished for her, Chen admits with an affectionate smirk. In Chengdu, a capital of more than 16 million people in China’s Sichuan province, she spent her childhood and early adolescence in a dormitory shared by teachers and their families, one of whom was Chen’s mother, a dance instructor. Chen’s father tuned pianos for the school, but he wanted Chen to have a career that was only marginally fine arts-adjacent. (He suggested library science.)
Like most families in China during the ’80s, Chen’s parents had only one child, and it was important that she have what Chen calls “the calmest, safest job that you can find.” She adds: “That’s what my dad wanted for me, especially since he knew I was a real rascal. He was like, ‘It would be cool if you calmed down.’” Chen had just graduated from Emory University with a business degree when TVB offered up the gig. “I’m sure they were probably terrified,” Chen says of her parents. “But at least they didn’t show that to me.” She faxed TVB a signed contract and jetted to Hong Kong, where she proceeded to spend the next nine years.
After her time as a host, the company cast her first as a supporting actress in a handful of series, including the power-struggle drama Heart of Greed, a flirtatious dance drama called Steps, and the culinary-inclined family comedy The Stew of Life. In 2011, she earned a leading role in the crime thriller Lives of Omission, in which she played both commander to and romantic interest of Michael Tse’s Laughing, a rakish undercover officer in Hong Kong’s police force. But it was one of Chen’s last projects in Hong Kong, the 2013 aviation drama Triumph In The Skies II, that knocked her entirely off her axis.