‘Hell on Wheels’ exclusive: Byron Mann on the rise and fall of Chang

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We are only two episodes left until the end of “Hell on Wheels,” but before we get around to them, there is still one other matter to attend to: Closing the door on the episode “Any Sum Within Reason” that aired this past weekend.

In order to properly do that, we talked to actor Byron Mann who gave a heck of a performance as Chang, a railroad man and operator of the Chinese workforce, over the course of the season. His showdown with Cullen over Mei was fantastic, and it brought out a side of Bohannon that we had yet to see.  Take a look below to learn how Mann prepared for the part, what went into some key decisions on this past episode, and what he is working on next.

CarterMatt – How familiar were you with the story of the Chinese railroad workers going into the show, and this story that really has not been told on TV before?

That’s an interesting question, because my grandfather is from the village of Taishan in Guangzhou, Canton province, they used to call it. Now they call it Guangzhou. Most of the railroad workers came from Taishan.

Wow.

Yeah, it’s a wow. I think it’s kind of serendipitous that I get to play this role, because my ancestors were these people. Having said that, though, I know virtually nothing about what happened or the history. I had to learn it from my non-Chinese producer John Wirth (laughs) about my own history. I knew very little about the railroad history and, for that matter, the show. I hadn’t seen the show before, so it was all very new. So, I kind of learned it on my way to the set, so to speak. I read up about it, and they told me about this guy Chang and how he used to be a fighter in the Taiping Rebellion. I read up on that, and I found out that 30 million people died in that war. Six million people died in the Holocaust, roughly. This is 30 million; how come I never knew about it? How come nobody knows about it?

John and [the producers] wanted to him to look very polished and I said ‘great,’ but I said ‘this guy has been through war. He has killed people, he has slaughtered, he has battle scars.’ That’s why I added a little scar on my face, which you may not see since it’s right above my eyes. In the first episode of season 5 we reveal the back of Chang’s body, you see all of those scars. And I think you see that in the last episode too, episode 12. I think that came from the discussion with John and myself, just basically going ‘maybe this guy has a lot of scars. He’s a war-torn veteran, and if we have a glimpse of that, it may be interesting.’

What happened was in season 5, the first episode, I think they ran a little bit short, so they said ‘why don’t we add a scene where we see Chang shaving, and we see the scars? So we see that, and the next scene is him tying a bowtie on Collis Huntington, and it changes the whole complexion in that scene and all other scenes following, as it makes it clear that Chang is a dangerous man.

How did you play into the multiple sides and layers of this character? Given his background and everything he’s gone through, you want to root for him, but then you see his actions and they aren’t a reflection of that.

Basically, you just want to find the truth of this character. Whether it’s complex or not, that is usually other people’s label on it. I tried to find out who this guy is, and that’s from reading up on guys like him, and reading the script and talking to producers. People are complex, and usually if we do fail as actors, it’s because we haven’t dug deep enough. If we have succeeded, it’s because we’ve been able to have the opportunity to really think about and dig a little bit deeper into the character.

As it’s written, he’s actually a very complex guy. Here’s a guy from China, and he wants to reinvent himself as a railroad man, and that’s exactly what Cullen Bohannon is. He’s reinventing himself as a railroad man. He has to lead and take care of the Chinese people, the workers. He has to take care of them and provide for them, the opium, the whorehouses, the restaurants, the food, all of that. He has to negotiate with the white people for their rights. He himself was attacked and hung. He has to go through all of that. All of that gives him the layers, as you call it.

There’s no real shortcut to it. I tried to play it as truthfully as I can. I don’t judge, so there’s no judgment on him. The last episode where he takes a hammer and hammers one of the girls’ [legs], he does that because the girl was trying to kill him. It’s not a very comfortable era to live in, so the realities are quite harsh.

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When did you first learn about the gunfight, and that Chang was going to be killed off on the show?

Oh, John Wirth pulled me aside and was very nice about it. Usually with these series you get a call from the producer and that’s when you know you’re going to die. John is exceedingly nice as a showrunner. I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve never come across a showrunner like that.

…Two weeks before, he and Tom Brady pulled me aside and said ‘you’re going to go out in this episode and this is what’s going to happen.’ So I knew, and I was like ‘oh, no big deal. Time to go.’ But [Tom] wrote a really nice episode for Chang, so I was very appreciative of that. It’s all good.

What in your mind was the biggest reason for the character’s undoing? Can you pinpoint something?

His hubris. He just assumes, and he has, that he can out-think and out-work any and all situations, and he has proven himself to be successful at every level. In China, in the Taiping Rebellion War, in railroads as a businessman in the United States, even when he was hung in episode 3 [this season], he got himself out of that, as well. Over the course of dealing with the railroad and Cullen Bohannon, he’s been able to get what he wants, basically, in certain situations.

I think maybe what he did not realize was who he was up against. I think towards episode 512, I think he [viewed] Cullen Bohannon almost as a friend, who understood where he was coming from. He thinks Bohannon understands who he is, but a lot of people do. Bohannon is like a friendly foe, but what he maybe did not realize or underestimated was Bohannon’s own situation, which was that he had to do what he had to do, which was to go ahead and protect Mei. I think he probably underestimated Bohannon in that way. He thought Bohannon was there to help him, but he was there to kill him.

What was it like filming that death scene?

I’ll tell you, it’s all technical. I was shot in the head, and we had to add an effect in the back of my head, and we sprayed some blood into the plank behind me. That actually took most of the day, because we did it once or twice. We got parts of it right, but we didn’t get the rest of it right so we had to do it a couple of times … They wanted to get the bloodsplatter just right. Not too much, not too little, but just enough onto the plank.

As I remember, strangely it wasn’t emotional for me. I haven’t been on the show for five seasons as someone like [Christopher Heyerdahl], but having been on the show for the fifth season, it was okay. I certainly went out in a very grand-style way.

I had discussed with Tom Brady and John Wirth, when he dies, wouldn’t it be nice to have an unraveling of Chang? Meaning, you see Chang in all of the episodes very pristine and very nicely dressed. But, wouldn’t it be nice to have him be very unraveled, physically, as well? We see really for the first time the animal that he is. That is why I suggested having his shirt cut off a little bit, his hair bloodied and messied, he’s kind of unhinged like an animal. They went for the idea and that’s what you see onscreen. He’s not nice and dandy anymore. So I think that nice. I liked that.

Did you ever perceive Chang as someone who was happy, or someone who could be happy?

I think for a guy like Chang, to be happy is not that high on his scale of importance. There are other things that are more pressing and important. Would he like to be happy? Sure, but that’s not what keeps him up at night. It may be a cultural thing, to be honest, especially for a lot of Chinese people during that age and that time. To be happy or not be happy is a luxury, and really the more important notions are ‘can I survive,’ ‘can I not be hungry,’ or ‘can I be rich, can I be secure.’ These are the more important notions that come to his mind.

It’s a good question, but I’d say that to be happy or not is not a question that Chang thinks about at all.

So what’s next for you? Is there anything you’re working on, or are looking to do after this show?

Well I’m actually working on something right now — I’m filming a series on Syfy right now called ‘The Expanse.’ It’s in its second season, and I come in [during] the second season, and it’s with Thomas Jane. It will air I think in January. It’s quite a big show, and so I’ve been doing that for the past couple of months, and I will continue to be doing that until September.

Then, I will be filming a Chinese-language film in China from September until October. We’ll be filming that in Beijing and Yunnan in China. I have a few things that I’m producing and working on right now in development, but I’d rather not talk about that until they come into fruition.

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