The series newcomer credits star Anson Mount with helping her master a challengingly complex role.
In the beginning, she was a he. Specifically: In the Season 5 premiere episode of Hell on Wheels, Angela Zhou was introduced in the role of Fong, the independent-minded son of Tao (Tzi Ma), a worker and interpreter for the Central Pacific Railroad. Except that Fong really was — is still is — Mei, Tao’s daughter, disguised in male drag as part of her escape from what might politely be described as an unwanted suitor back in China.
Cullen Bohannon uncovered Mei’s subterfuge — quite literally, albeit by accident — one week later in episode 502. So far, however, Cullen has kept that secret to himself, and Mei has continued to pass herself off as Fong, even after the murder of his… er, her father.
A native of China who grew up in New Zealand, Angela Zhou turned to acting after pursuing studies in the United States at Duke University. Fong/Mei is her career breakthrough role, and she was very eager to talk about the complex character when we recently caught up with her.
Was it difficult for you to play along and help keep your character’s gender a secret until Episode 502?
So much so that it got to the point where I was so stressed, I was like breaking out all over my face. Because it was easy enough before the show aired to keep it a secret. I'd just shut my mouth, and not tell anyone except my parents and my boyfriend. But when it got to 501, the difficult thing was, I had acquaintances and friends who watch the show — and I didn't realize they were fans of the show. If you look, they didn’t bill me as A. Zhou — they billed me in the [opening credits] as Angela Zhou. Now a lot of people didn't catch that because I guess they weren't looking for it. But I had some friends watch it and they were like, “Wait, that guy looks really familiar. That guy — maybe that's Angela? No way, that's not Angela.” Then they rewound it, because they'd obviously taped it, and looked at the credits, and they were like, “Oh my gosh, it's you!” They were messaging me before the surprise was supposed to be out. I was like, “Please don't tell anyone. Don't post about it on social media.” I was totally taking full responsibility for that, and I was like, “Oh my gosh — if it gets out, everyone's going to blame me.”
All of which led up to the big moment in Episode 502 when Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon tried to tend to your character’s injuries — and discovered Fong really is Mei. Talk about your classic double take!
Yeah, he was brilliant. I was trying so hard not to laugh when we were actually shooting it. In one of the takes, I think he jumped back so much he shook the tent wall a bit from the back, and I was really trying not to laugh. I kept it together. It was definitely a fun scene to shoot. Actually, the joke around set was, we had been calling me Angelo Zhou. They're like, “Get me Angelo!” And I’d be like, “Hey, what's up everyone?” In the end, though, I think they decided to go with A. Zhou [in press material], because Angelo sounded too Italian for them or something.
Were you a fan of westerns before you signed up for Hell on Wheels?
Interestingly I hadn't known much about westerns until I took a Hollywood genres class [at Duke University]. What really sparked my interest was, I realized that the western genre is a foundation of what the American idea of the American dream is. It was such a big part of the history and building of this sort of sense of American independence in everyone. I just thought when I studied them that it's so cool that a specific genre in film and television has helped craft an identity of an entire nation. The idea of being a frontiersman, or being able to be an outsider going into a new place, and build a community for yourself. And then to build a family for yourself, and to make something out of just nothing in a dangerous situation. That's why I think westerns are super cool. There are not enough of them around right now to really get into them. We're one of the very few westerns still out there. I really appreciate the genre and I do like watching them.
You and Anson Mount certainly have developed great chemistry together — which was especially evident in last week’s episode, when Cullen and Mei attempted to bring their precious cargo to San Francisco. But as early as Episode 502, before the big reveal, you had the scene around the campfire that brought out the best in both of you.
Oh for sure. That campfire scene, we shot that probably at 1 a.m. at night. We're sitting there next to each other and the fire, because it was so dark and all the lights were out. That was one of our best scenes I think. All the crew members and everything were in the dark, and our backs were facing the crew so we were just looking out into tents and into the forest. Literally, it felt like I wasn't even acting at that point, because I was so convinced. I was dressed up like I was, he was dressed up like he was, there were tents all around us, we were out in the middle of the woods, and I couldn't see any of the crew because they were all just behind us. Yes, sitting there next to Anson when he was telling me about his family, I just kind of got lost in his own story. He's so incredibly believable. I feel like everybody makes my job easier, but particularly Anson. [Laughs] Not difficult at all to be sitting there next to him.