Hollywood didn’t want a skinny Hmong actor who grew up in St. Paul for the new Disney live-action “Mulan” movie. They wanted a chubby actor for Po, one of Mulan’s soldier pals.
The skinny Hmong actor, Doua Moua, gained 40 pounds for the role. “Mulan” had its Hollywood premiere in early March, but due to the pandemic it skipped a theatrical run and was released on Disney+ on Sept. 4. Moua says it took him more than six months to put on the weight, because workouts for the film were very physical – horseback riding, learning to use weapons for fight scenes.
When filming wrapped up, he waited to see if any additional scenes needed to be done, Moua said by phone from Los Angeles this week. Hearing nothing after a while, he lost the excess – plus 10 more. Then he got the call: They needed to shoot more scenes.
Moua put the weight back on in a couple of months thanks to a lot of protein shakes – and burgers and cupcakes and cheesecake. “At first it was fun,” he said. “Then it was, ‘I just can’t eat this.’ ”
Growing up in St. Paul’s Hmong community, Moua says he rarely ate more than two meals a day.
But the 30-something actor’s message about “Mulan” isn’t about ups and downs on the scale. It’s a message about empowerment for women, growing up strong for girls. It’s a message about the power of working with director Niki Caro and her female production team.
The movie is a live-action adaptation of Disney’s 1998 animated film of the same name, based on the Chinese folklore “The Ballad of Mulan.” The songs in the first “Mulan” are background orchestral versions in the live-action movie. There’s less Disney silliness, no goofy tiny dragon sidekick for Mulan. The story is much the same, though. Mulan disguises herself as a man to become a soldier and prevent her elderly father from having to join the Imperial Army.
Moua says his character Po is “a little piece of the animated film.” He’s comic relief.
Mulan’s tale of bravery and smarts should inspire girls, Moua says. “It’s trying to bring a different story to this generation.” It speaks to the patriarchy he says is still prevalent in Hmong society, and he’d like daughters and fathers – or grandfathers – to watch it together.
Working with director Caro (“Whale Rider,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife”) was an amazing experience, Moua says. She and her crew work as a team. “It’s just beautiful to see the way they just flow,” he says.
Moua also worked with director Clint Eastwood on his 2008 film “Gran Torino.” He was impressed by Eastwood’s loyalty to the people he works with, many who have been with him on other films. “His sense of family is amazing,” Moua says.
“The one thing I can say about Clint and Niki is they believed in me,” Moua says. “They allowed me to bring myself and my character to life.”
Moua says he grew up in “the projects,” McDonough Homes in St. Paul. Eventually his parents bought a house about 10 blocks away. He went to Phalen Lake Elementary and a Catholic school before going to Eden Prairie’s International School for high school. That meant three hours on the bus every day. “It seems my whole life was either on the bus or in school,” he says.
He sang in his cousin’s church and was in four different school choirs. It was fun, he says, but it didn’t seem like it could be a career. His choir director suggested he try drama.
Moua was in Minnesota Fringe Festival productions, worked with Asian Media Access and Theater Mu in the Twin Cities before moving to New York. Then it was on to Los Angeles, where he’s lived for the past seven or eight years.
Moua’s father, mother and sister, who live in Maplewood, went to L.A. for the premiere on March 9. They were all able to see “Mulan” on the big screen, which is how it was meant to be viewed, Moua says.
Though the pandemic has shut down a lot of work, Moua says he’s working on screenplays and writing children’s books. He’s written a movie called “The Harvest,” that’s supposed to start production in late spring next year. The story is a combination based on his relationship with his dad and the difficulties his cousin faced when he came out to Moua. LGBTQ is not an issue, Moua says, “but it’s still a taboo subject in the Hmong community.”
Moua wants his work in film to get people to start having conversations about difficult subjects. “I’m writing the untold stories no one wants to talk about.”
He’s disappointed he won’t be filming “The Harvest” in Minnesota. The state doesn’t offer financial incentives to movie projects, so they’re taking the filming to Illinois.
Moua would some day like to return to the Twin Cities and start a theater company. “The Hmong community always struggles to hold our culture and hold our arts,” he says. “I want to give them a voice and a safe place to perform.
“My home and my heart are still in Minnesota,” Moua says. “It really shaped who I am.”
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