Fei Ren talks Polar and empowering women


Fei Ren on her latest film Polar with Mads Mikkelsen and the importance of having women making films, both on the camera and behind it.

Fei Ren is an actress and director who has been featured on television series such as The Magicians and Supernatural. She has also had lead roles on Canadian television series such as This Blows and The Romeo Section.

Culturess spoke with Ren about her recent role in Netflix’s new film Polar, in which she plays Hilde and stars alongside Mads Mikkelsen and Vanessa Hudgens.

Let’s just start by talking about Polar. When did you first learn about this film, and what made you interested in being a part of it?

So, in 2017, I think in December, I got the audition for Polar, so that’s my first time of learning about it. Then, I bought the comic book to read, to study, and prepare for that audition and that’s how I got to know the graphic novel and the series and Jonas Åkerlund’s work. Then, last year, I think it was February we started filming, at least I started filming. I think they started a little bit earlier and they prepped us for months for it. So, that’s how I got involved.

You were filming alongside Mads Mikkelsen and Vanessa Hudgens. Did you get a chance to interact with them a lot on-screen or off-screen? Do you have a lot of scenes with them?

My character is trying to kill Mads Mikkelsen the whole time, so we didn’t get to have a scene until [it was] pretty final. But then I got to interact with him a lot off-set because he was always there and we were having lunch together, and he’s super fun and goofy. I’ve seen his work before on Hannibal and Casino Royale and meeting him in person, I’m kind of starstruck. But, also I was like, wow, he’s so different. He’s not a villain and really funny and super down to earth. I think that’s one big thing from the film, everybody on set, in the movie are some type of assassin or badass killer but off-set everybody were so friendly. We have such great chemistry just like working together. It was fun.

Vanessa Hudgens, same thing. I didn’t know who she was before, shamefully. I was just talking to her about the character, about prepping for the roles. We were just nerding out as actors and eventually when I asked her how did she get the role, she said that she was offered the role and I was like, wow, you must be famous!

Mads Mikkelsen mentioned in some of his interviews that he had to film scenes in freezing temperatures and some extreme conditions. Did you have to encounter any of that or was it not so bad for you?

Yeah, it was a lot of cold weather. I had the majority of my scenes indoors. I have some outdoor scenes where it was really freezing cold but not as bad as for Mads. Mads has to be naked in the snow. I mean he was actually naked there, and I can’t believe it. It was minus 20 and when we were shooting in the countryside where it’s so humid besides the lake, it felt like minus 40. So I was holding the gun in the gloves, but I still felt after 10 minutes, I felt like I couldn’t feel my hands anymore. So, I can’t imagine being naked in the snow. Yeah, at least I’m covered and well taken care of.

Let’s talk about the character you play, Hilde. You’re the leader of the assassins that are trying to kill the Black Kaiser. What was it like to take on such a dark role, and what did you love most about that character?

So, Hilde, my character, she is the leader of A Team. A Team is the young group of assassins who are going after Duncan or Black Kaiser, Mads Mikkelsen’s character. It’s really cool. Like I love playing badass females, and Hilde is very skilled in killing. She’s very confident because she’s so sleek, so fierce, and she’s in a very empowered position, and she earned it. So, for me, whenever I approach roles like villain characters, I had to find the reason for her being so good at killing or enjoying killing in some way.

When I talked to the director we kind of agreed on that [Duncan] has a path that might be softer, and Hilde had to learn her way through her harshness and hardness, so her focus and ambition comes from possibly a traumatic past. I think everybody who is in this line of business in that graphic world is not going to come from a very happy family.

So, it’s interesting because my character’s makeup has a different eye make-up each time, like different eyes. The whole artistic team and the director loved the look of just being very asymmetric and for me, it totally makes sense like one is always softer and always represents the past, and the other eye is always sharp lines, sharp colors, red and black. It’s just like mission accomplished, like get things done, and it’s very rigid. It definitely adds masculinity and edge to my character.

I was really happy when I heard that Hilde was the leader of the assassins because often those roles are meant for men.

I love the fact that she’s so efficient. So, she’s really focused on the team. On the team, everybody contributes in very different ways, and they’re all larger than life characters. It’s definitely a very colorful palette, and my character is very black and red, kind of grounding. We decided on the animal for the character is the black panther. So, it’s sleek and she always makes the final kill.

Jonas Åkerlund, the director, said Polar is dialed up to 11. Is there a particularly extreme or wild scene that you can tease us about?

Well, it’s definitely going to be a lot of blood. It’s interesting because when I was filming some of the scenes when it’s not my close-up, I couldn’t stop cringing. It’s really hard to watch. So, in that sense, you’re going to be expecting a lot of gore, but it’s a comic style, it’s hyper-realism. I think it’s still acceptable in that world because I think if it’s super realistic, it’s gonna be too hard to watch. Jonas had such a distinct style; it’s highly stylized and very noir. It has a comic, graphic novel feel with fast-paced editing.

It’s really interesting and very entertaining to watch. So yeah, it’s all up to 11, but it’s totally worth that. It doesn’t feel like over the top. It definitely feels unique and entertaining. I was on the edge the whole time. Even though I watched the film twice already, I was still shocked by or learned a lot of details because there’s just so much information.

You’ve been on multiple TV shows like Supernatural and The Magicians. What are some of your favorite things about acting for television?

For television, there’s a Canadian show on CBC called The Romeo Section where I played two seasons with the character. So, in that sense, you get to have the whole arc of the story and you don’t know this story until the week before, two weeks before you don’t get the scripts. So, that’s very different from film. Film, I know the whole character of Hilde before we shot it. But with TV seriously, I have to make the most sense of that with the given information. And, then the next episode, I’m learning something new about my character.

Right, so you have to adapt very quickly.

Film acting I feel like you got to have more moments. Like, [it] depends on the role, but you do have more luxury of time to marinate the characters. With [a] TV series, everything is much faster and you have to deliver more information in that 40 minutes or half an hour slot. So, it’s establishing conversation, moving along the plot line. For movies, you’ve got more luxury of time and artistic indulgence.

You also played a lead role on another CBC show called This Blows. What was it like to have a lead role? Did you enjoy that?

Very much. That’s a comedy horror and a feminist comedy show, so it has this over the top feeling, but it’s super fun. It’s a really guerrilla style of filming. We block shoot it, so basically, we had the whole season shot all at once. It’s a very different style of working compared to all my other experiences, but it’s really challenging and rewarding at the same time. Some days we have like 11 or 12 pages to film and I just go, go, go and you have like one take on each coverage. You have to bang it out. It’s a comedy so sometimes timing is really important and it’s really a test of your craft and professionalism. I think people, again, they’re so great to work with and everybody worked really well as a team, so it’s almost like magic how fast we finished filming that series.

Photo: Netflix

You also have experience directing plays and theater. Can you talk a little about directing and how that influences you as an actress?

It’s quite a different craft I think to acting, but definitely, my acting background or all my training definitely contributes to my style of directing. I totally rely on my background as an actor or my knowledge as a storyteller. I’m focused on the story, the message, the intention behind the playwright and the character of being really relatable and the moments are authentic. Slowly I’ve discovered those are my directing signatures.

The role that I play as a director — a lot of times it’s really helping actors realize the characters, flesh out the stories, get the point across. There’s also a lot more of a leadership position where you really have to facilitate, or hold for actors to explore, make mistakes, and feel comfortable and safe that you will be their guide and trim or direct them into the right storytelling point.

Yes, it puts you in that driving seat.

That’s something I feel like it’s very empowering. It has more creative control, and I’m also actually working with the other actors. Sometimes, I take for granted how hard acting is. Because when you are a director, you have a very distinct vision of how you want the story to be, but then you may forget that with these people, some of the story is costing these actors’ souls to perform each time. So, it’s so inspiring to see. And then when I come back to acting, sometimes I’m just like amazed at the fact that I get to witness all these actors doing this over and over at rehearsals. It’s just a beautiful thing that I feel very privileged to witness.

I feel like it’s really important to have female directors. We’re at the time of change where hopefully the female story will become more diverse and more complex and females will be more real. Even if it’s a larger than life character, [she] will be empowered like real women are.

I think that it’s essential that we have more female writers, producers, and directors because I can’t imagine myself writing a story about a white male. I can, maybe, but it has to go through my point of view. It’s going to be very different. To have a really authentic female story, I think we need to have strong females and real females in those power positions to help with the story.

Definitely, I was going to ask about that. You mentioned multiple feminist roles. Is that something that you try to seek out as far as the roles that you take?

Yes, the roles that I love to play, I would have hoped that it contributes positively to or impacts positively or empowered, somehow, female viewers or male viewers or any gender really. I had some roles where I’m just a sexy thing, and experiences are valuable in the sense that it informed me like that’s not what I want and not what I’m really interested in.

It’s really important for me to go for the roles that are empowering and artistically satisfying. And, now, so far I’ve had the privilege to play very different roles that I can make them human and make them complex and empowering.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re excited about or want to share?

So, Polar is going to be exciting. It’s coming out Friday, January 25th on Netflix internationally. I think that’s going to change the landscape of my career path quite a bit because it’s exciting to be seen in those empowering roles and a highly artistic movie, and hopefully, that will bring more interesting role opportunities for me to audition or work with.

Another exciting project that I’m currently working on is directing a play called Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. We already cast the play [in] Vancouver and it’s working with lots of really talented actresses. I’m super excited. It’s definitely a feminist play. It deals with females roles and the expectation of having to choose between motherhood and not compromise your own career path and all that. A very relevant topic.

You can check out Polar on Netflix now. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.