The Hong Kong-born actor has made Chang a formidable foe for Cullen Bohannon.
Throughout the first four seasons of Hell on Wheels, Christopher Heyerdahl held uncontested claim to the title of The Man You Love to Hate, thanks to his chillingly persuasive performance as the psychotically cunning Thor Gundersen (aka The Swede). During the fifth season of the AMC series, however, a new contender has emerged: Byron Mann as Chang, the ruthless labor contractor and empire builder who will let no man — not even Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) — stand in his way as he amasses a fortune by fair means or foul.
But really: Off-screen, he’s a nice guy. Honest.
A native of Hong Kong, Mann made his professional acting debut in the 1990 TV-movie Last Plane Out during a sabbatical from his studies at USC Law School. He subsequently appeared in a variety of films and TV dramas, most notably as a continuing character on the series Dark Angel and Arrow, and as an exuberantly wicked warrior in the 2012 martial arts action-adventure The Man With the Iron Fists. Before starting work on Hell on Wheels, he co-starred with Steven Seagal in the thriller Absolution, which currently is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital platforms.
We recently caught up with Mann to talk about the challenges of being Chang, and the rewards of Hell on Wheels. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Have you and the writers come up with a backstory for Chang?
Remember that scene in the first episode where I’m shaving, and you see the scars on my back? Well, that was sort of like a happy accident. That wasn't in the original draft of the script. Basically, what happened was, they told me that Chang is someone who came from the Taiping Rebellion — the civil war in China — so I read up on that. Did you know that 30 million people were killed during the Taiping Rebellion? Thirty million. Civilians, soldiers, children, women — they were all slaughtered, beheaded, during the Taiping Rebellion. So the more I read about it, the more I realized that Chang has to be a war-weary, war-ravaged kind of a soldier, right?
But he is reinventing himself, just like Cullen Bohannon is. He is reinventing himself as a businessman, as a labor contractor. All the nice suits, the way he speaks, the hair — everything is a facade. He is reinventing himself. So I said, “Wouldn't it be interesting if he had a scar on his face somewhere?” So they added a scar on my forehead. And then I said, "Wouldn’t it also be interesting if there were some scars on his torso? From war, or from torture?” They said, “Well that's a good idea, maybe we'll do that later on in the series.” But then when it came time to shoot the first episode — I think we were running a few minutes short, and they said, “Well, why don't we just put it in there?” So we shot it. And lo and behold, I think it really sets the tone for this whole character, in a way that we didn't expect. For example, we had that scene, and then we went to the scene with me and Collis Huntington [played by Tim Guinee] tying his bow tie.
And Huntington is very condescending to Chang.
Yes, exactly. So actually what happened is, if you look closely, you see I did that obligatory thing where I help him put on his coat — but the last shot is a close-up of my face. Because that's when I am thinking what my next step will be. Which is, “You and Cullen Bohannon will receive a lesson you will never forget.”
Speaking of Cullen Bohannon: So far, you’ve developed a nicely edgy chemistry with Anson Mount. What’s he like to work with?
About a month before we started shooting, he actually emailed me and introduced himself, and welcomed me. Then I called him and we just chatted. The first thing he told me was, “Make sure you bring your boots.” I said “What do you mean?” He said, “When you come out of your trailer, when you're filming on the set, you could be stepping on mud.” The first day I came out of my trailer — and I stepped into a big pile of mud.
So right from the start, you knew Anson Mount was a man to trust.
Yes. Anson is a very good actor, a very good reactor, a very generous actor. I think because he comes from the stage, he comes with all these disciplines and habits that are so essential. Actually, doing this show is unusual because, usually, when you do a network television show, you work with a bunch of very good-looking people, and then you have maybe one great character actor. But then you do a show like this, where almost everyone comes from the stage and has an extensive film background — everyone is a veteran, and they’re all good actors. Colm Meaney, Tim Guinee — great actors. So it's kind of like an actor’s dream. It’s not very often you get to work with an entire cast of great actors.
“Hell on Wheels” is, at heart, a western. So we have to ask: Will we ever see you on horseback?
I don’t know yet if I will be riding on a horse. But, strangely enough, I grew up in Hong Kong, but I actually rode horses while growing up. Remember, Hong Kong was a British colony for one hundred years, and so there are all these jockey clubs there where you ride horses. So that’s where I rode. Also, we had a family vacation one summer, and my father took us to a dude ranch in Colorado for a week. Yes, I was like 14, 15 years old, and I was riding horses all week. It was fantastic.
Little did you know at the time that you might be preparing yourself for a role in a TV western.
That’s right. Who would have thought?