LOS ANGELES – In an epic journey more emotional than in distance, “Mulan” star Yifei Liu joined her director, Niki Caro, last week for a car trip across town to 8560 Sunset Boulevard.
Liu’s warrior, Hua Mulan, was back in heroic glory on LA’s biggest billboard, five months after the Disney mega poster came down.
Wearing face masks, Liu and Caro gawked and took selfies to celebrate: After four pandemic-related delays, “Mulan” will finally be released Friday on Disney+ (with a $30 surcharge).
Showing just how new she is to Hollywood, Liu innocently asked, “Do you think at nighttime they will light this billboard up?” (Answer: Most definitely.)
Likewise, the world will learn about the unknown actress playing the beloved Chinese warrior in the new live-action adaptation of 1998’s animated “Mulan.”
Here’s what you need to know about Liu, who initially spoke to USA TODAY with Caro in March.
Fall streaming preview: 10 must-see new movies to stream while stuck at home, from ‘Mulan’ to ‘Rebecca’
‘Mulan’ will stream: The live-action remake is heading to Disney+ in September – but there’s a catch
The making of ‘Mulan’ was delayed to find the perfect warrior
Disney’s $200 million retelling of the Chinese legend, about a female warrior who pretends to be a man to fight in the Imperial Army, started in 2017 with a worldwide search for the perfect Mulan. After a year, Caro hadn’t found the actress who possessed the physical skills and dramatic power in English.
She started the search all over again, bringing in new candidates, including the model/actress Liu.
The actress flew from Beijing to Los Angeles and straight into an intense dialogue audition followed by an athletic audition. “I was so jet-lagged, but I knew I had to do this,” Liu says. Caro was so blown away by the ballet-trained actress, she convinced Disney to delay production six months so Liu could first fulfill a Chinese television commitment.
“I realized that we weren’t just looking for an actress with all this unusual skill set, but we were actually looking for Mulan,” Caro says. “And we found her.”
She’s made movies before
Liu is from Wuhan, China, but learned English while living with her family in Queens, New York, from ages 10 to 14. A model, she earned the nickname “Fairy Sister” for her innocent beauty in her home country.
“But that’s the least close way I would describe myself now,” say Liu, who has performed in English for action films such as 2008’s “The Forbidden Kingdom” (with Jet Li and Jackie Chan) and 2014’s little-seen “Outcast” (with Nicolas Cage).
“I’m not sure people know that one, the box office didn’t do so well,” Liu says. (The film made $5 million worldwide.)
Jet Li saved her in ‘Forbidden,’ but she’s improved her stunt game
Liu learned horse riding the hard way in her first scene with Li in “Forbidden Kingdom”: Her steed bolted out of control.
“I couldn’t stop the horse because it was too fast,” she says. “So he literally was riding next to me, putting one hand there to keep me from falling off.”
Starring in various action projects, Liu stepped up her skills. But it was nothing like the three-and-a-half months of action boot camp she went through to prepare for Mulan’s martial arts, sword-battling and, yes, horse-riding action. A stunt double was often required, but Caro loved putting Liu into scenes where she could show off her skills.
Liu was especially proud of riding her steed in a crowded, horse-filled action scene. “Horses were everywhere; there was smoke, a lot of elements,” she says. “You have to let go at that moment.”
A scene where she comes to the aid of the Emperor, played by Li, was especially satisfying.
“He said to me on set, ‘Yifei, you are saving me now,’ ” Liu says with a laugh. “He’s really sweet.”
She’s stepped into the controversy spotlight
Liu walked into her first global controversy last August when she retweeted a post supportive of Chinese-backed police against Hong Kong protesters. The action drew heavy criticism and intensified calls from global critics to boycott “Mulan.” But Liu isn’t engaging in political discussion as an actress, saying she was naïve to step into the debate.
“It’s obviously very frustrating and obviously this is a very complicated question,” she says. “I’m not a political expert, I’m an artist, so I just hoped this gets resolved soon.”
She loves herself some Christina Aguilera, even if she see no resemblance
As a young actress, Liu sang Christina Aguilera’s “Mulan” anthem “Reflections” for an early role and idolized the singer. So she was thrilled to know Aguilera would reprise the song in the live-action “Mulan.”
“I’m a huge fan,” Liu gushes. It was especially daunting for Liu to perform a Mandarin Chinese version of “Reflections” that runs during the credits. She tried to talk filmmakers out of it.
“I try to tell them I didn’t have her voice; I sing as the character feels,” Liu says. “But it was a really fun process.”
“It’s a huge song,” Caro says. “It’s a really hard song to sing, but Yifei has a beautiful voice.”
The new ‘Reflection’: Even ‘Mulan’ star Yifei Liu was surprised her rendition shines alongside Christina Aguilera’s version