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Mulan director Niki Caro confirms Yifei Liu’s strength was both emotional and physical

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Mulan is a woman dealing in a world caught in between two worlds. She is a caring and dutiful daughter who disguises herself as a male soldier to save her father’s life. On paper, Yifei Liu is the star of Disney’s new live-action remake of the beloved 1998 film. She 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 is insisting she has 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.”

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.)

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 dealt with 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.”

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

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