For Jun Yu, starring as Cricket in Mulan is "a dream" he never imagined.
Before scoring the role as the lovable and innocent "mama's boy" — adapted from the animated Cri-Kee in the original film — Yu never saw this type of opportunity coming.
In fact, Mulan was his first-ever audition.
"I just never thought something like this was going to happen so soon on this scale," he tells PEOPLE. "I thought I would slowly work my way up, but to start out the gate with something like this is an honor."
His journey to the screen isn't the most typical and as a kid, he says he didn't think he could ever become an actor.
"When we watched movies and films, I never saw anybody like me," he says. "It was like out of sight, out of mind. If you don't see anybody like you, you don't really think that's a thing for you."
Growing up as one of the only Asian students at his Oakland middle school, he was the quiet, shy kid in class. He went into high school with the same mentality, thinking that one day he'd become a doctor.
But then came freshman year of high school. After the yoga class he signed up for ("easy credit," he says) filled up, he was placed in an acting class.
"It changed my entire personality," he admits.
And that's where Yu’s extraversion began to shine, where he started to build his confidence and his love for entertaining. After high school, he attended USC, where he met like-minded creatives (such as Aubrey Joseph, who plays Cloak in Cloak & Dagger).
"When I got the call that I got the role, I definitely saw it for five days of pure joy, and then I stopped going to school," he joked on the Mulan red carpet in March. "I'm just so so blessed."
What followed was months of training: archery, cardio and even horseback riding.
"That was a really hard experience for me because I have a huge fear of horses, so riding one was very scary," he says, laughing. "I don't really go behind horses, but I can look at them and maybe feed them an apple. That's as far as it goes really, man."
Yu embodied the role of Cricket, the comedic relief in a serious, inspiring movie like Mulan. He was made for the role of the "wide-eyed, extremely innocent" kid.
"I want my character to show that it's really brave to have heart, to be sensitive and to care about others," he says.
The live-action adaptation alone defies odds as only 1% of all leading roles in Hollywood feature Asian-American actors, according to a study from USC Annenberg. But releasing this film during the coronavirus pandemic is particularly important as Asians have been targets of racism in recent months.
Yu has a simple message: "We're not this virus. We're just other Americans. Human beings."
He hopes that Asian children watching this film will feel seen and heard — and that they realize that if they want to pursue acting, they absolutely can.
"It's an honor for me that any kid that even looks at me and decides they want to really pursue their dreams," Yu says. "It'd just mean everything to me. I'm just a kid out here pursuing his dreams, trying to inspire others to do the same."
Mulan premieres Friday on Disney+.
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