TURNING RED Interview: Rosalie Chiang On Playing Mei And A Red Panda, Hopes For A Sequel, And More (Exclusive)

We caught up with Turning Red star Rosalie Chiang to discuss her lead role as Mei, and shares some fascinating insights into the making of the movie along with details on an alternate ending, and more...

Turning Red - which has a Fresh 94% score on Rotten Tomatoes - tells the story of Mei Lee, a confident, dorky thirteen-year-old torn between staying her mother's dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence. And as if changes to her interests, relationships, and body weren't enough, whenever she gets too excited (which for a teenager is practically always), she "poofs" into a giant red panda! 

With Turning Red now available to buy on Blu-ray, we're sharing our recent conversation with the Pixar movie's lead star, Rosalie Chiang. As Mei, the actress got to play both a reflection of herself as a teenager and a red panda who, from the sound of it, was an absolute riot to bring to life.

In the video below, Chiang talks in detail about the cultural impact of the film, her experience of playing a teenager in an early 2000s setting, what a normal workweek looked like while making a movie as huge as Turning Red, and the how it felt to be starting her career as part of such a high-profile project. We also get some intriguing details about a scrapped alternate ending to the story. 

Finally, Rosalie ponders her future as Mei, sharing some of her sequel hopes and an idea for a video game featuring the already iconic red panda. She also comments on possible future roles...

Turning Red is available on Digital April 26 and Blu-ray May 3.
 


It's lovely to speak to you today, particularly for a film as special as this one. I know the response these past couple of months has been great, so I wanted to start by asking what has your life been like since the film came out? Everywhere I turn, I'm seeing toys, t-shirts, and Funko Pops;  it must have been a crazy time for you?

It definitely has been crazy but I personally don't think I've changed. I've actually talked to my parents about how I don't really feel any different. I'm still doing homework. I'm still worrying about grades. It's more like I'm just busier now with press and more opportunities. 

During the press conference when the film came out on Disney+ earlier this year, I know you mentioned having worked on the film for some time before you actually learned that you’d been cast as Mei. Do you think that extra time you had working on the movie ended up better preparing you for when you then have to record her lines for the film itself?

For sure. The fact that I'd been voicing her for two years prior to booking it just meant that I truly understood Mei and all her aspects and motivations. Her character has changed quite a bit since I first started, so to work with Domee and understand who Mei is just gives me more insight to better portray her.

I was 12 in 2002 when the film is set so there's a lot here I know I could relate to, but what really surprised you looking back at what the world was like for teenagers like Mei at that time?

I think the fact that not everyone is just staring at their phones. Nowadays, whatever corner I turn, all my friend groups and in every class I go to, everyone is always on their phones. Whether they’re chit-chatting or not, they're still on their phones [Laughs]. Back then, when people weren't so obsessed with the internet, you can see everyone interact with each other and I just think that…you know, we always encourage each other to put down our phones and talk to each other. I think that's really cool but, at the end of the day, I don't think much has changed. The fact that they're obsessed with boy bands…my squad back home, we literally only talk about K-pop. The things we discussed and the way they're just dancing really awkwardly and silly is something I really relate to, and I don't think much has changed in that aspect.

What was the biggest challenge for you in taking Mei from being a teenage girl to the red panda, specifically in terms of your performance and the real heightened emotions you had to deal with in those scenes when she transforms?

Playing the panda at first was really difficult. Well, not really difficult but I still didn't really fully grasp exactly what I had to do. Do I just shout the lines? But Domee just said, ‘Add a little growl.’ Sometimes, when you're really angry, you go ‘Arghhhh.’ So, it was a case of adding that. At the end of the day, the panda is still Mei, just times 100. It was important for me to keep her personality there while playing the panda.

While you were playing the panda, was it quite a freeing experience as an actor, particularly as you then get to really explore these larger than life aspects of the character?

What's great is the fact that this is voiceover, and if it was live-action, it would be a completely different story. The fact that I can just do whatever I want, and especially during quarantine. In the past, it used to be everyone, like the director, writer, producer, and editor in the room, while I’m in the recording booth. After COVID hit, it was just me in the room, and everyone else was over Zoom or in a different room. The fact I'm able to able to run around and truly not worry about how I look and just make sure my voice can convey those emotions properly.
 

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In terms of working on an animated project like this and what would you say has been the strangest thing in terms of how long you spend working on a movie like this, and then having to wait potentially years before you get to share it with the world?

I started this when I was 12 and, at the time, I thought maybe one or two years or something and it would be done. But then, one day, Domee said, ‘Oh, it’ll be done in four years. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm going to be so old by then!’ [Laughs] Now we're here, my last recording session was on my 16th birthday, and so it was just kind of this big celebration and a nice, I guess, not an ending, but more of the chapter closed. I'm done with recording, and now we can see this movie soar.

Being a young actor at the time when you were making the film, what did a typical day look like for you working on the movie? Was it a five days a week sort of thing, or were you just jumping in and out when they needed you?

I was jumping in and out when they needed me. I would typically record for four to six hours, perhaps, and I’d just sort of stand there [Laughs]. There was a point where they called me in three days in a row, then there were times where it was once every month or two. As I'm recording, they are scared they're doing screenings every six months, so it always changes like that. There were times where they wouldn't call me back for another three months, and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, did they fire me? Did they let me go?’ Everything turned out fine [Laughs].

I talked to Domee yesterday, and she explained how her own childhood in Canada really influenced the movie, so did you both talk a lot about what she went through as a teenager and her life in Toronto, so you could maybe better inform this character?

I kind of did in that she told me, ‘Oh, this is how she's feeling’ and ‘This is what she's going through.’ She didn't need to explain too much because it was similar to what I was going through at that age, because I was Mei’s age. There are so many instances in the movie that have actually gone on in my life. I would go home and think, ‘Wait, I just recorded this like last week’ or I’d be in the recording booth thinking, ‘Wait, this happened to me last week!’ [Laughs] I think that was sort of the beauty of it; Domee’s story about a 13-year-old girl is so relatable that I related to it too.

Now we can talk a little bit more about the end of the film, there's been a lot of discussion online about what leads to Mei deciding to keep her red panda. What was your take on why she does that, while the rest of her family obviously decided not to?

I believe, actually Domee told me this and I remember recording it, but there was a line or two that they cut out where Mei is like, ‘Wait, you guys should keep your panda too!’ and they’re like, ‘We’re too old. I just want to sit around and watch soap operas all day!’ I think because Mei is the first one to really hone in and control and embrace the Panda as herself, I think that's really significant in that you don't necessarily have to hide it, but you can keep it and embrace it and nurture it. With the parents, I think the fact that they're too old and they just want to see what Mei does.

I know you did quite a few interviews with Sandr Oh earlier this year, but did the two of you have the opportunity, when making the film, to talk about what Mei and Ming’s relationship was like?

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to record with her or meet with her before we were done recording. But right before the entire press tour started, she invited me to her house and we just had lunch and we just talked. She's such a warm person and I'm really grateful to be able to work with her throughout this press tour, even if it wasn't during the movie.

Were you ever given the chance to go and actually get hands-on with any red pandas? I know you're obviously not doing motion capture on the film or anything like that, but I can imagine seeing them up close would have influenced your performance, to some extent.

Throughout the movie, the only time I got to see a real red panda was when my parents took me to the San Francisco Zoo. We got really excited. Recently, the San Francisco Zoo was naming one of their pandas Mei, and so I was actually invited to go and do a little press there. Unfortunately, I did not get to pet one and they said that they're a little vicious and there's COVID to worry about, but I told him it's worth it [Laughs]. I came out all scratched and was like, ‘Yes!’

What does it mean to you to see how many young people have really related to this film and also the way it's resonated with some older viewers as well who can look back at their lives and think of what they went through at Mei’s age?

For other people to see this movie and really relate to it is something so powerful. When I was younger and I watched coming of age movies, I never really related to the movies. I always thought there was something wrong with what I was going through and that what I was going through was completely different, and no and no one will ever understand me. The fact that there is a movie like this to explain it…and when I talked to Domee, she's like ‘Yeah, the same thing happened to me!’ I'm like, ‘Oh, so what I'm going through isn't weird or different or special, it's something that everyone goes through and I shouldn't worry about it so much.’ I hope other people get that too.

I think this film is a great example Hollywood really embracing Asian culture these past few years in a way that's actually meaningful that people can actually relate to. As a young person, what has it meant to you to see that happen, and for your feature debut to be a movie where that is at the forefront?

It's a true honour. When I first auditioned for it, I was told it was for Pixar, but it didn't really register that it could be a lead in a feature film because it's something that didn't really cross my mind. I didn't think it was a big deal when I auditioned, but when I got to the studio and Domee explained to me what exactly is going on, I said ‘Wow, there's going to be a Pixar film with an Asian lead? And I might be that lead?’ I think that the fact that Pixar is allowing their directors to tell their story, because everyone has such a different story to tell based on your culture, your age, or whatnot, I think they’re doing a great job.
 

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I know you said that you could relate to Mei being around the same age, but looking back again to that 2002 setting, was there anything about the technology or anything else from the time that surprised you, whether it be the Tamagotchis or what cell phones were like?

I’d say I was quite prepared for that because there are a lot of things in the movie I personally have as well. Slap bracelets…I don’t have a Tamagotchi, but I have a friend that has one. Also,  I think that a lot of this 90s and 2000s cheap little stuff is something that my parents bought me [Laughs] as a kid because we were too cheap to get anything better [Laughs]. I was like, ‘Oh, I have that, I have that, I have that.’ It was great!

I’ve got to go back to that final battle for a second because seeing Mei’s mum as a kaiju-sized red panda is such an insane ending, and your role as Mei in that was so funny. Was that a lot of fun for you to record?

When I recorded it, I knew it was very epic and I thought, ‘Wow, it’s really cool seeing her do and say all those things.’ I have a script and all I see are my lines. Like, ‘I'm panting here or I'm running there, I'm screaming there, and gasping there.’ I just do the lines. I don't worry about the action and stuff. Watching it on the screen and seeing everything, like the way that they harmonize with the chanting and 4*Town singing ‘Nobody Like You,’ and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is even better than I expected!’ [Laughs] I did have a lot of fun with that because there were so many different reiterations of how the fight would go down, but I did not expect the whole chorus harmony at the end.

At this very early stage of your career, you’ve ticked off this huge Pixar movie of potential bucket list projects to do as an actor, but looking to the future, do you have any other dream roles? Maybe Marvel or Star Wars?

I’m just going to take every opportunity that comes my way. I feel like as an actor, a lot of people are asking me, ‘Oh, what's your next step?’ and all that, but the truth is, as an actor, you can't really predict these next steps. You can’t say after this, I’m going to be ‘that, that, and that’ because it just depends on what people want. 

If there is a Turning Red sequel, have you given any thought to where you would like to see Mei’s story go, particularly as when the film ends, she's obviously still got that red panda by her side?

I want to see Mei go through her entire life, just as I am. I want her to go to high school. I want her to get her first boyfriend. I want her to go to college, and i'll be there. I’ll be half going to college and half recording for Mei. I’d be totally down for that.

Looking at other Pixar characters, they live on past their movies, whether it be in video games or cartoons or cameos. Have you thought about that the fact you could be returning to Mei again and again and again?

Absolutely. A video game with Mie where you can turn into a giant red panda would be super cool. I was saying that, ‘Oh, you could have totally have a TV show of this!’ All the characters in this movie are so funny and why wouldn't you want to see more of them? Just seeing Mei maybe navigate through life or whatnot but we'll see. We'll see.

Working on a film like this is not an opportunity a lot of young actors will get, so what would you say to people who may be looking to follow in your footsteps, and what was the biggest learning experience for you working on this film as an actor?

I’ve had so many people asking me ‘How do you get to a Pixar movie? How did you get to where you are? All I can say is. it's a long journey and not everyone's journey is the same, I can't believe I got here. I never did anything special to get to where I am. I just want through the ordinary acting process of getting an agent, auditioning, training for hours and hours. People think, ‘Wow she's the overnight sensation’ and it doesn't feel like that because I started acting when I was nine. To go through that process of ups and downs…I would have quit acting by now if it wasn't for this role, and looking back, I don't think I would have changed a thing.
 

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