Chimerica: Interview with Terry Chen (Zhang Lin)

Category: Interview

What were your first impressions reading Lucy Kirkwood's script?

I was incredibly impressed. I was blown away by how full of life every character was and how poignant and timely the story is.

Could you set up the story of Chimerica for us?

Chimerica takes place in the run up to the 2016 US Presidential Election. Lee Berger, a photojournalist, goes back to Beijing to look for an anonymous subject that he shot back in 1989, during the Tiananmen Square massacre. He reconnects with his friend Zhang Lin who lives in China, and tries to track down the Tank Man from the iconic photograph.

What are some of the key themes of the piece that stood out to you?

Chimerica offers such relevant themes of love, compassion, empathy, free speech, self-expression, the battle against government censorship – which are universal.

The image of the anonymous Tank Man in Tiananmen Square is at the centre of this narrative, why do you think it’s such a powerful photograph?

I believe the Tank Man photo is such a powerful image, because it tells a story. I believe the story of Chimerica, and the image itself, is also about perception and subjectivity which is quite poignant, especially in the time that we live in now.

The series deals with our relationship to truth and how it has changed over the years, particularly due to advances in technology (photo manipulation, social media, 24-hour news cycle etc). Can you speak about Zhang Lin’s relationship with the truth and what it means to him, particularly in the context of the censorship imposed by the Chinese government?

We live in an age of social media and globalisation. I believe that Zhang Lin has a strong idea of what the truth is, but is also very aware that truth can be manipulated and can be viewed as very subjective. Images that we see these days are very much one perspective of a whole picture.

Can you tell us a little bit about Zhang’s relationship with Lee?

Zhang Lin's relationship with Lee is a long one, and is a very fraternal bond. I think what Lee offers Zhang Lin is an outside perspective and makes him feel like he is in touch with the outside world. I believe they have very similar ideologies.

What has it been like working with Lucy Kirkwood?

Working with Lucy Kirkwood on this project has been an education and a blessing. This is one of the most poignant and relevant projects that I've been lucky enough to be a part of. She's an incredibly intelligent and empathetic woman who understands the nuances of the cultural differences that exist and, she brings a voice to these characters in such an important story. It's very interesting when you have writers writing about other cultures that they may not necessarily have grown up in, and for me, coming from North America, reading the background of Chimerica was an eye-opener.

Have you found any ways in which you can relate to Zhang Lin?

I think we’re similar because we’ve both been outsiders. I was born in Edmonton, Alberta, which is in the middle of Canada, where we were one of the only Asian families around, so we had to forge our own path somewhat.

Zhang Lin lives in a world where he doesn't necessarily follow everyone else’s path accepting what they are being fed by the Chinese government. It’s an interesting arc because when we first meet him he's very much influenced by his wife Liuli - his political ideologies come from her, directly. After her death he struggles to really find his own path, he doesn’t have much hope or faith in the society that he lives in, because of what's happened in the past. Then he begins to recover his strength and his principles once again. 

Zhang is haunted by his young wife Liuli who died in 1989 and embarks on a relationship with outspoken human rights lawyer Joy who also challenges the Chinese government. Can you talk about how the Tiananmen Square protest affected Zhang Lin, and his journey to becoming politically active against The Party again in 2016?

Zhang Lin's journey after Liuli's passing is fairly typical for someone who has been caught in this traumatic tragedy - it takes him a little while to wake up out of it. He has a neighbour who is suffering from this tremendous pollution that exists in Beijing, and he sees her deteriorating daily. Her daughter Joy, who lives in Hong Kong, ends up coming back home to visit and Zhang Lin's very much influenced by her political activism. She's a human rights lawyer and he finds renewed hope in humanity through her, because of her strength. He comes back from this dark place of desperation by finding love again with Joy. Through that relationship he finds his own strength and passion for his country again and the will to fight for self-expression, freedom of speech and non-censorship.

What do you think the story of Chimerica shows about the power of protest, and the capacity of journalists and individual citizens to effect political change?

I believe that political protest is more relevant now than it has ever been. Ultimately, revolution is evolution and we as a human species need to evolve to survive this mortal journey that we're on.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned through the experience of filming the series or researching your role?

I've learned so many incredible, valuable things researching this role. Most of all, understanding culturally what's been happening in China over the last few decades – and that there is a generational disconnect that's purely because of the information that the people have access to.

This cultural divide is wide and at the same time, we are one species. We take so much time, we spend so much money and have caused so much death by trying to fight for our differences. Imagine what we could have accomplished if we hadn't been warring and we could agree on compassion and love and empathy?

We have to learn from our mistakes, historically speaking, which is why I believe this piece is so important. It’s a good reminder of what we've gone through and to learn from the past, because we're very close to repeating it.

What do you hope that audiences take away from Chimerica?

I hope that audiences take away from Chimerica that we are all part of a human race that needs compassion and understanding – and we need to focus on our similarities more than our differences.