By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 03, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Yifei Liu shot for Disney's MULAN CR: Chen Man/Disney
Chen Man/Disney
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Mulan is a woman caught between two worlds, a dutiful daughter who disguises herself as a male soldier to save her father’s life. On paper, Yifei Liu — the star of Disney’s new live-action remake of the beloved 1998 film — shares some similarities with her character, having experienced a divided upbringing of her own: Born in central China, Liu spent some of her formative years with her mother in New York City before returning to Beijing for acting school.

In person, the actress demurs at the parallels, insisting she took more from the role than she gave. “I try not to compare myself to the character,” says Liu, 33, noting that she gleans more personal insight from her roles than anything else. “Mulan makes it happen — not through big drama, but through little decisions and bravery and self-awareness.”

Mulan director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) confirms Liu’s strength was both emotional and physical. “I needed a warrior more than an actress,” says Caro, who describes the worldwide search for Mulan as looking for a needle in “a global-sized haystack” through an audition process replete with a training gauntlet. She details a scene in her film where Mulan bathes in a lake: “It was really important that the actress we chose was open to building her body to a state where she could pass as a man in a man's army. I wanted to see the shoulders of a soldier.”

© 2019 Disney

Now, the fate of a reportedly $200-million Disney film that sits at the intersection of China and Hollywood — and could change the fabric of movie-going as we know it — rests on those capable shoulders. The Chinese-American actress rose to fame on China’s fantasy series Chinese Paladin and scored international acclaim in hit Chinese co-productions like The Forbidden Kingdom alongside Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

As China’s influence on the entertainment industry increases alongside Disney’s reach, Liu is uniquely positioned to become a global movie star — a metaphor that becomes literal when sitting down with Liu at the Hollywood Roosevelt, in the shadow of a building that has spanned the gamut of Hollywood history, home to the first Academy Awards, and a one-time hotspot for the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. On such hallowed ground, a new star more befitting our globalized era is being born. (Liu spoke with EW for this story in February, in the lead-up to Mulan's pre-COVID-19 release date of March 27.)

Chatting poolside (cue strains of “Reflection"), Liu is warm and painstakingly considerate, pausing the interview to fix the dripping lid of a reporter’s coffee cup. She apologizes for her nerves, her casual jeans, and sneakers belying her guardedness.

It’s understandable, considering the last time she was publicly forthright she faced criticism. In August 2019, as political unrest in Hong Kong boiled over in protests in the streets, Liu sparked an online backlash and calls to boycott Mulan after sharing a social media post in support of the police force, which was under international scrutiny for alleged brutality. The actress came prepared to address the issue, her talking point repeating comments she’d already made on the matter. “It’s obviously a very complicated situation, and I’m not an expert. I hope this all gets resolved soon.”

Her smile blooms when the conversation turns to her grueling audition and the intense three months of physical preparation Mulan required. Liu’s daily decathlon-esque regimen, which regularly clocked in at six to seven hours, featured cardio and strength conditioning, as well as equestrian, archery, sword, and martial arts training. “It’s not just about the muscle or the look or the fight, it’s more about your energy,” says Liu of the impact the regimen had on her approach to the character.

Film Frame./© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

That mentality won Caro over too. “Mulan is not a superhero, so her physical action needed to be anchored in a strong female body and bounded by the laws of physics,” she adds. “What you see of [Yifei] fighting on the ground is purely her. She's not on wires. We haven't switched her out with a stunt performer. There are no tricks. It's just cinema and extraordinary performance in every way.”

Liu met the challenge and then some, performing what she and the crew approximate are 90 percent of her own stunts. “As long as they gave me the chance, I wanted to try it,” Liu says. She admits she surprised herself, sustaining far fewer battle scars than she expected (though there was the time she slammed her knee into a beam while performing an intricate wall-run sequence). Even in comparison to the technical proficiency of a stunt double, Caro says, “Everybody's jaws hit the ground to see how fierce, how graceful, how beautiful, how potent [she] was. She never complained, she never stopped, she woman-ed up.”

The capacity to woman up is what the star hopes female audiences take to heart from Mulan. Says Liu: “If they can see how powerful they are and get a glimpse of themselves in her, then I’ll be happy.”

This team player attitude, this forsaking everything to honor something bigger than herself, brings Liu closest to the folk legend she’s bringing to life. As she deliberates on each answer and effusively praises everyone from her trainer to Caro to her cast-mates, she routinely pivots away from her own background, keen on drawing a distinct line between her life and her work. As Caro puts it, “Many people over the course of the shoot covered themselves in glory, and they were our most valuable player on any given day. But the only person that this movie could not have been made without is Yifei. [She’s] the most valuable player of the season, the century.” Even if she would never acknowledge it within herself — not unlike the hero she's bringing back to life.

Mulan is available for a premium price on Disney+ beginning Sept. 4.

Related content:

Mulan (2020 movie)

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  • Niki Caro

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