For Lily Ji, walking onto the set of “Pacific Rim Uprising” in Sydney, Australia, was like coming back home.
That’s because the actress studied theater at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney before nabbing spots in Chinese dramas and, most recently, the role of Mei Lin in the second film of the cult hit “Pacific Rim” franchise started by Guillermo del Toro in 2013.
Ji grew up in Yunnan, China, where her love of the arts began early as she dabbled in singing, dancing, piano, painting and acting. As Mei Lin, she is one of the Jaeger program’s cadets, led by Mako Mori (a returning Rinko Kikuchi) and Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) as they fight a new crop of Kaijus.
How did you get your start acting?
I had to start from scratch. I had no connections. I went to China and cut my own reels, sent out emails, met new people every day. That’s how I started. It’s snowballing now, but it takes time. Eventually, things get better.
How did you get the role of Mei Lin?
They were looking for a real 18-year-old girl. Obviously, I’m not that. (laugh) I was like, “Probably not my thing.” But my friends urged me to try. I didn’t expect anything at all. When I returned to Sydney to film, the first day meeting Steven [S. DeKnight], he came up to me and said, “Congratulations! You’re the only one who passed from an audition tape. Everyone else, I had to meet first.” I was like, “Oh my God. Thank you so much, sir.”
What was your training process?
I did some martial arts training while in Beijing to start. I had already been training martial arts, but we didn’t know what action would be a part of it, so we wanted to be proactive. I wanted to make sure if there was something more complex, my body would be ready. I was working out doing weights, cardio, muscle. On set, we had a trainer. All the cadets trained together, kind of like a real experience as a cadet, as we were grouped together in an army life. It was really fun. We basically trained every day for half a year. Now, I have to train every day. It’s a part of my daily routine, and I feel great.
Tell us about Mei Lin.
She’s from China. She had to work really hard to get there, kind of like working toward your dream college. She’s a top-scoring cadet, but she’s definitely not the nerdy type. She’s competitive. She thinks, “If a boy can do that, then I can do that, too.”
What did you want to bring onto the screen through her?
Definitely not a stereotypical Asian character. All I would hear growing up was laundry owner, prostitute, tai chi player. I was like, man. Can we just do more? We’re all different. I’m so glad [Mei Lin] is not that. She’s not typically sexy. She has brains, she’s driven, she’s interesting. I wanted to bring independence.
That’s definitely a conversation we’ve been seeing a lot in Hollywood lately.
Yes! Ever since I was young, and even in Australia, it was really white on screen. But I think slowly it’s getting better. We need more complex characters to watch. One day, I hope we have our own “Black Panther.”
Are you interested in creating your own content?
For sure. I am actually working on that. I want to produce and create focusing on female roles, on international casts. I want to be more proactive. We are all passive in terms of casting. If you are waiting, you might as well just start creating.