Rosalind Chao On Starring In Disney’s Live-Action ‘Mulan’ And Growing Up In O.C.

Photograph by Ralph Palumbo

Though her family lived in Garden Grove and Orange throughout her childhood, Chao says she spent much of her time across the street from Disneyland at her parents’ restaurant in Anaheim. “It was called Chao’s Chinese and American Restaurant, and they were known for pancakes. That’s where I worked, did my homework, and took naps. I never got to go to Disneyland, though I eventually worked there briefly as an international tour guide in plaid. But now I have an annual pass!”

Chao was 16 when she landed a part on “MASH” and its spinoff “AfterMASH.” “At the audition, I gave Alan Alda a pen from Chao’s Restaurant. I don’t know why—it was probably something I’d seen my father do. When I look back, it’s so embarrassing!” She was almost passed up for the role as Klinger’s wife because of her age. “My agent said we’d tell them I was 10 years older than I was. Unfortunately, after all these years that extra 10 years has followed me, and my age is wrong everywhere online (Wikipedia says 62). Oh, well.”

Though her list of credits in film, TV, and theater is staggering, Chao says she experienced dry spells in her career that caused her to doubt herself. “People said to me, ‘What are the chances? There are only so many Asian people on screen.’ I came to a point when I was like, ‘Maybe these people are right.’ But I heard an acting teacher say, ‘Don’t just wait for jobs. Live your life.’ So I got married, had two kids. I wasn’t waiting by the phone.”

“Orange County was not as racially mixed back then. My parents used to send me to Taiwan in the summers to learn Peking opera and practice Chinese.”

She had her first child right before filming “The Joy Luck Club,” going straight from the hospital to director Oliver Stone’s office for the makeup test. “I didn’t know that having a baby entails a lot of stuff afterward. I didn’t know that the weight stays on, the breastfeeding issues … I didn’t know any of that. I was supposed to play a dual role in the film, and I bowed out of the other role because it was too much.”

When asked which roles she’s most recognized for, Chao cites “The Joy Luck Club,” “What Dreams May Come,” and her two Star Trek series—“The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine.” “Lately it’s been a lot of ‘Star Trek’—what a great experience that was. They originally wanted me to test for a series regular role, but at the time I was in London visiting my now-husband (actor Simon Templeman). They wanted me to fly back the next day and I said, ‘I’m not coming, I really like this guy.’ Plus, who is going to be watching another ‘Star Trek’ show? I was really clueless.”

Chao returned to London in 2018 to act in a National Theatre production after years sticking close to home. “It’s important for me to do theater; it’s like a reboot. With my kids, I put my career on the back burner. But now they’re out of the house.” Chao also spent part of 2018 in New Zealand filming “Mulan,” where she plays the warrior’s mother. “It’s more true to the original folk tale, and it’s not a musical. I did some (dialogue rerecording) recently, and it looks stunning. I don’t think people will be disappointed.”

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