Monday, May 24, 2010

Interview - Mao's Last Dancer star Chi Cao

Recently, dancer/actor Chi Cao came to Toronto to promote the current release of the excellent film Mao's Last Dancer. He plays the real-life character Li Cunxin who was trained in communist China and then defected to the United States. I had an opportunity to speak to Chi about his thoughts on dancing and acting.

Congratulations on your success with this role. Is this your acting debut? How did it come about? 

My “day job” is ballet dancer. I think I got this part because I could dance. I was dancing at the time and I could speak both languages, Chinese/Mandarin and English. That’s pretty much it, that’s why I got the part. I think to start with Bruce Beresford didn’t want to have an actor playing the role and then a body double, because it would look very odd. These days, the audiences are very sophisticated. If you do that, they’d know it’s not the same person. So he was very determined to get a dancer playing the part. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

So how did you hear about it? 

It was Li, the character I’m playing. He’s a very successful stockbroker right now in Australia. He actually contacted me, saying there’s a project like that and I’d like you to take part and play me. So go do some acting lessons. And we went from there. Li and I had a very unique relationship. We both trained at the Beijing Dancing Academy. And when he was in school, my father was one of his teachers. So he knew me when I was very little, and he took a very close interest in my development as a dancer. He was sort of following my tracks. Without Li, I wouldn’t have gotten the part.

But did you still have to audition? 

Yes and no. Bruce came to watch one of my performances in the north of England. We went out and had dinner. And I did a little sort of reading the next day, and I got the part in the afternoon. So that was pretty quick.

So you’re a principal dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and you had to study acting for this role. Of course, you have to act as a dancer, but this was pure acting. How would you compare the two art forms? 

Well I think, in a way it’s all connected. I think if you believe the role you are playing, if you become that character, then it’s a lot easier. With dancing, if you become that character, you let the emotion take you through dancing, it will be much more convincing. Same with acting – if you do your homework and if you start to become like the character, when you’re shooting you’ll be a lot more convincing. That’s my way of putting it really, because I don’t know any acting skills. I still don’t. But that’s the way I tried to prepare for that role. I tried to be like Li, and think what he would do, how he would react in that situation, and then do it.

You mentioned that you and Li knew each other beforehand and shared some similarities. Were there other similarities you discovered in preparing for this role? 

Yeah. We both went out to the west when we were very young. We had to face a lot of things, a lot of harsh realities when we were very young in a different society. So you learn pretty quick. You grow up pretty quick. All the loneliness and the helpless feeling, I think that’s what I really connected with in the story. There were so many key things in the film that I could truly relate to – saying goodbye to the parents, the first heartbreak, all the vulnerabilities – I could feel it. I’ve experienced it. I think that’s also the reason that Li wanted me to play it, because he knew that I’ve experienced those things.

Are there also differences between you that made it harder or easier? 

We’re actually quite different. I think Li’s much more patient, and maybe more generous than I am. I’m very straightforward. I like black and white, yes or no. My personalities like that. But he’s very different. He’s very gentle. He would try to do anything that he can and will always make people feel comfortable. And that’s very different than me. I go there, show up, and if you like – great. If you don’t like me – cool. I don’t really make much effort, whereas he really tries to make people feel comfortable. And I think that’s something I have to learn. I have been learning that, changing my personality to be nicer to people and to just be like Li more. I’m almost too straightforward, sometimes.

Was Li present for the entire shoot? 

Not the entire shoot, but he did come to different scenes when he had time. He is pretty busy being a stockbroker, but when he had time he’d come on the scene. Maybe most of the dancing scenes, he was there. When things didn’t work for me, it was good to have a professional eye. I could go, “Li, my turns aren’t working today. What’s going on?” He would say, “okay, maybe get your first shoulder going quicker” or something like that which was a great help. Also for key scenes when I didn’t understand the emotions or wasn’t quite sure, I could always call him up and say, “what exactly did you feel in this scene? How did you feel? Where you scared? Happy?” And he would tell me, and I could work around that.

What was it like, working with the two Bruces (Beresford and Greenwood)? 

Best time of my life! They’re fun. Bruce Beresford, I knew before I came to set, so I knew he’s a very easygoing guy. It was very easy.

But with Bruce Greenwood, I mean I know this guy, I’ve seen his films, and I just thought, “okay, what’s he going to be like? I hope I don’t mess up my lines?” and stuff. But he was so cool. We’re both Stevie Ray Vaughn fans – he plays great guitar. That’s how we shortened the time that we get to know each other, because we like the same guys, without talking a lot. He taught me so much because we had a week, just Bruce Greenwood and I, doing intimate scenes with Li and Ben (Stevenson). And he was really teaching me how to act, helping me with my scenes. It was great. I really thought with all these professional Hollywood actors, I don’t know how they’re going to be because I’m an amateur. I was really expecting to be, I don’t know, to be told off and basically to be so nervous around them. But they made me feel really relaxed. And it was fun. They’re normal people. They like the things I like. We’d talk about things, and it was great.

Also with Bruce, he took three-and-a-half months of ballet lessons because he had to play this ballet director. So sometimes I would tell him, “you know, in ballet we don’t do that. You’ve got to do this.” He was eager to learn. He was fun to be around, constantly making jokes, doing different accents, talking to Bruce (Beresford) and having little – I don’t want to say arguments – but have little discussions about the scenes, where I’m sitting next to them and I don’t even know what they’re talking about because it was so technical in a way. But it was great. I learned so much.

You still dance, yes? 

I still dance. This was actually a part-time job. I took six months off to make the film. I still dance with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. And I’m starting to do a little bit of guesting around the world. I went to Houston, where the story began. I went to Houston last Christmas and I did their production of The Nutcracker with the Houston Ballet. And hopefully I’ll get a chance to dance in a lot more places before I retire.

I guess that’s something that dancers have to think about much sooner than actors do, about retiring. 

Yes, definitely. We have to think about retiring because your body doesn’t hold up as much when you’re in your upper 30s. It takes so much longer for you to recover. Before, I would do a very hard show, I sleep, wake up next morning, and I feel fine. Now, it would probably take me two days to feel back to normal. And it’s going to get harder and harder. And you’ve got to train harder and harder to maintain the level that you’re at, whereas when you’re young, you can train less and you can still keep the same standard. But right now I have to train twice as hard.

When was the first time you got to see the final film? 

At the Toronto International Film Festival last September. That was an amazing experience. “Look, that’s myself onscreen. Wow.” It was terrifying. It was terrifying because I didn’t know what it was like. I didn’t know if I was convincing. I didn’t know which shots Bruce would use. Did he use a shot that I liked in my dancing sequence, or did he do something else? You just don’t know.

Having seen it, getting the audience response, doing the Q and As – how did that feel? 

It was great. It was amazing. Someone actually filmed the Q and A and put it on the Chinese internet. I was actually able to see it. It was really cool. I’m so glad that people actually find me convincing in the film because that’s one thing I really didn’t know. I didn’t know if I could pull this off or not. Dancing, I’m okay. I know that this is my daily job and that I’m okay with it. But acting was really quite hard. So it was a sort of relief to see people react the way that they did, that I didn’t ruin the film basically. I’m the lead actor – if I’m not convincing, the film will be … you know. So that was really quite a relief.

I guess also with dance, you don’t usually see yourself. But with this, it’s a permanent record. 

Yes, yes. If I don’t like my dancing, if I didn’t like my last performance, then I can forget it, or destroy the DVDs and no one would ever see it. This one, you can buy in the shops and find on the internet for years to come. That’s pretty good though.

Was Li at the screening as well? 

He was. He was very happy. He was very emotional. And I think he’d seen it before, but to see it with the audience, to feel what the audience felt, I think he was really touched by it as well because it’s his story. So for him, to see his story played in front of him must have been amazing. I couldn’t imagine that, to see my life played by somebody else in front of my eyes, and to have such a wonderful support from the audience, that must have been an amazing feeling.

Do you have any plans to continue acting? 

If somebody calls me up, or the right options come along, I’d love to. There’s a little project that’s back home in China, I might be able to be involved. I might be able to play a role in one of the films of one of my friends who’s a director now in China. He’s doing the film. So we’re talking about it and that maybe we can work together. That would be quite fun. I like performing, I like acting. Acting’s a performance challenge. Now that I’ve made this film, I learned so much from the director and actors, that I feel like I want to see if I can get better at this. With this film really, I’d go up and just did my job. I didn’t really know what I was doing. But hopefully the next one, I can do the proper preparation and see if I can get better at it.


  1. I think Chi Cao is an incredible person and I would very much like to meet him.

  2. Chi Cao is one of the best dancers I've seen in a long time. He is mesmerizing...