Acting the part

Updated: 2012-05-11 07:51

By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)

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 Acting the part
Jonathan Kos-Read, also know by his Chinese name Cao Cao, has acted in about 100 Chinese movies and TV series. Zou Hong / China Daily

US actor plays up his foreign expertise in Chinese films

Speaking with a strong Beijing accent, many people might think he is Chinese if they didn't look at him.

In fact, apart from his Caucasian looks, there can be nothing that is not Chinese about Jonathan Kos-Read.

But it is exactly because of his Western looks that Kos-Read is famous in China. The 39-year-old American is one of the most well-known foreign actors in the country. Kos-Read, also known by his Chinese name Cao Cao, has played the role of foreigner in about 100 Chinese movies and TV series in the past decade.

He has just completed his latest role as Joseph Stilwell, a United States Army four-star general known for his service in the China Burma India Theater, in a 40-episode TV series filmed in Yunnan province for five months.

"It is nice to play the famous laowai in Chinese history, especially smart laowai whom I respect for what they did here," says Kos-Read, referring to the nickname commonly used for Westerners in China.

Kos-Read recalls that the shooting process was difficult in terms of the dressing up and Chinese lines required for his role. He slept only five to six hours every day.

"I spent three hours for make-up and one hour to wash up," he smiles. "So I could look like a 50-year-old man. Then I also had to remember long lines about making strategy."

But Kos-Read says he wanted to be an actor since childhood. With a strong sense of adventure, he loved reading novels and discovering the "strange new world".

"When you live a regular life, it is just life around you, but when you read novels, it is like all of those different worlds opening up around you."

Still, his discovery of China happened "by accident".

As an acting major of New York University, he was required to take a foreign language to graduate. The young man who always tried to be different finally picked up Chinese, thinking he might visit the Asian country sometime.

"It seemed so cool to be the white guy who spoke the weird Asian language, who would go off to a strange foreign land and know how stuff there worked," he says.

Kos-Read arrived in China in 1997 after graduation. For the first two years, his life was similar to many other beipiao, a term used to describe Chinese seeking their fortune in the capital. Kos-Read worked in training schools for business people but he thought it was so boring he sometimes fell asleep in class. He started a small business, worked for trade companies and even tutored foreign children in math.

"A lot of times I saw foreigners appear in Chinese movies and TV shows. I thought I was better than them both in acting and speaking Chinese, but I didn't know how to get to be like those people," he says.

The opportunity finally came. One day, he saw an advertisement in an expats' magazine for looking for a foreign actor for a movie. He went for a screen test and got his first role. Invitations for other parts soon followed.

But at the beginning, the roles Kos-Read played were mostly "unrealistic clichs" that he divides into four types: rich foreigner who falls in love with Chinese girl, pursues her and fails; the person who makes the script seem more international but really has nothing to do with the actual American experience; bad guys in history; and foreign friends of Chinese characters.

"One of the reasons the foreign characters were not written well in the past is because there were not many foreigners in China. So foreigners were just like some strange things from another planet that writers had to guess at," he says.

Luckily, for the past five to six years, things have changed with more interaction between China and the rest of world, Kos-Read says.

"So now there are real people, with real stories and real goals, instead of just tools for the script to use."

Regardless of the roles given to him, Kos-Read spares no effort to play them well. Although his Chinese is quite good, he still asks assistants to help him go over the script scene by scene.

"I need to understand what the character wants in life, then will I be able to know what he wants in the movie, in every scene and then in every sentence," he says.

"I need to know when he says 'hello', why he says 'hello' and the response he wants from you, because there are a billion different ways to say it."

Xue Haowen, an actor who once worked with Kos-Read, says the American is very dedicated.

"He usually recited the lines one month before the shooting and passed at the first attempt," he says. "If he made any mistakes, he would be more worried than the director."

Now in China for 15 years, Kos-Read says he hardly feels any cultural conflict. Instead, he adapts well to Chinese ways of doing business and freely uses them himself.

"In China there's a lot more consultation," he says. "It is quite common to put off deadlines for two or three days. Sometimes I'll also ask others to change the schedule."

Kos-Read says he is happy about where he is now. "It is cool to be in China right now and it is cool to be in the movie industry, which is growing fast. The work with Chinese people, showing China to the world, is fun and interesting and valuable."

His wife, Li Zhiyin, says that when Kos-Read is not working, he spends most of his time at home in Beijing to read, write and hang out with friends and family.

Kos-Read's favorite hobby is taking photos of people's faces and he is happy some of these are very much appreciated by his subjects. "I think I know how to bring out that moment of truth in a person's face ... finding a little moment of truth in a person's face," he says.

Feng Wei, a Chinese friend who has known Kos-Read for more than a decade, says the actor has a keen observation of life and describes him as "straightforward and hearty".

"He is a simple man and you can tell his emotions by his expressions," he says. "When he is with friends, he never sees himself as an outsider. He is always ready to offer help and tell the truth, whether you like it or not."

Kos-Read is also writing a novel about a murder mystery that takes place in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) and the male lead is the detective, a eunuch in the palace.

Meanwhile, he is involved in a new movie about a love story between a Chinese girl and a foreigner. For the first time, he will be the male lead. "I'm looking forward to it," he says.

Still, Kos-Read knows it can be rare for him to lead in a Chinese TV series so he is thinking of becoming a filmmaker himself one day.

"Then I can create TV shows or movies that I think are good, put in them actors I think are good; to be directed by directors I think are good ... and always have a supporting actor who is a foreigner."

(China Daily 05/11/2012 page21)