Bruce Greenwood Interview MAO’S LAST DANCER; Plus an Update on the STAR TREK Sequel and He Discusses BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD and YOUNG JUSTICE LEAGUE

by     Posted 4 years, 66 days ago

Mao’s Last Dancer, based on Li Cunxin’s best selling autobiography about his inspiring journey to international stardom as a world-class dancer, weaves a moving tale about the quest for freedom and the courage it takes to live your own life. The film showcases ballet sequences from acclaimed choreographer Graeme Murphy and stars Bruce Greenwood, Kyle Maclachlan, Joan Chen, Amanda Schull and Chi Cao, a gifted principal dancer at the Birmingham Royal Ballet making his impressive screen debut.

We sat down for a roundtable interview with Bruce Greenwood to talk about his new film. He told us what drew him to the project, what it was like reuniting with director Bruce Beresford, and how an exhausting series of daily ballet lessons got him in shape for the role. He also discussed the upcoming Star Trek sequel and how he hopes Admiral Pike will get out of his wheelchair, get his own ship and go off on some adventures of his own. He also updated us on his recent voice work on Batman: Under the Red Hood.  Hit the jump for more:

Here’s a synopsis on Mao’s Last Dancer:

Born into poverty in the Shandong province of People’s Republic of China, Li (Chi Cao) was taken from his family at the age of eleven to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. When Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), the Artistic Director of the Houston Ballet company, visited the Academy in the 1970s in search of promising young dancers to join his company as part of a cultural exchange program, he invited Li to come to America for the summer. Li was the Beijing Dance Academy’s first student ever to go to the United States and the first ever to defect.

And for all you Star Trek fans, here’s what Greenwood had to say about the sequel:

Q: Do you know if you’re going to be in the next Star Trek?

BRUCE: I know that I don’t know.

Q: We know they’re still writing it.

BRUCE: (raises his voice, teasing) How do you know that?!

Q: Maybe not “still” writing. Maybe they’ve yet to “start” writing it.

BRUCE: You’re not going to trap me into saying anything about their writing it. (Laughs) I’m joking. I don’t know. I hope so.

Q: I want to know if Captain Pike is still there.

BRUCE: I think Captain Pike is an essential component to the whole franchise. I think there should be a whole offshoot of Pike’s adventures.

Q: You had plenty of them leading up to his initial appearance once in the series so…?

BRUCE: There’s nothing that says Pike can’t get up and out of that wheelchair, get his own ship and go off on some adventures of his own. I’m now an admiral but I just want to get out of the wheelchair.

Q: It’s the future. They can do that.

BRUCE: I know. I had a long conversation about that with J.J. (Abrams) early on because he wanted the hair to go [white]…because in the script it says the hair goes all white. I said (crying) “Do we have to get so Malcolm McDowell about it?”

Here’s the trailer and the full interview:

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Q: How did you get attached to this project? Was it attractive because it was an interesting role or the fact that it’s an historical role?

BRUCE: Both, but primarily because Bruce Beresford and I have been friends for a long time since Double Jeopardy. I heard he was doing this and read the book and then read the script. The book was really interesting and the script is a great distillation of the major events in the book, so I called Bruce and said “I’d love to be involved in this” and eventually we managed to put it together.

Q: Besides the accent, you had a totally different voice in this. Was that just the affect you take when you’re doing an accent or…?

BRUCE: Ben’s voice is actually pitched quite high. I had a little bit of tape of him and some footage. I didn’t do it as high as his voice actually is, but I felt to honor the way he [spoke] and to get into it, it felt right. I talked to Bruce about that and we decided on a pitch. And then, his accent was interesting because he was from Portsmouth where the r’s are somewhat hard but it’s still an English accent. He had been in Texas for 15 years so it was this mélange of southern England and Texas. Sometimes it sounds American and sometimes it sounds a bit English, but that was all by design.

Q: You also changed the way you carried yourself and your demeanor.

BRUCE: Ballet lessons. A lot of ballet lessons.

Q: What was involved with those in particular?

BRUCE: Well I realized instantly, as soon as I got the job, I thought okay in the month you’ve waited to find out if you’re getting the job, you’ve squandered an incredibly valuable 4 weeks and you’ve only got 12 weeks left until it shoots. So I found a woman named Celeste Amos at Westside Ballet and she did 1 on 1 classes with me every day and just kicked my behind. That was the beginning of my appreciation for the work ethic of dancers which I had no concept of before.

Q: How advanced did you get with your ballet skills and what was the most difficult move that she had you make?

BRUCE: I’m a right turner it turns out. I had a lot of trouble with letting my wrist drop and eventually managed to keep it up. I had some trouble with letting my core extend and my shoulders drape, but mostly it was conditioning too. It was like brutal conditioning. I was hoping to gain a little bit of weight for the role but I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep it on.

Q: Did you get hurt?

BRUCE: Well I had one really bad knee. So the silver lining of this whole experience was the discovery of cortisone, which is like “Oh my God, why did I not know about this before? This is heaven. I don’t care what’s happening to my liver and my kidney and my jaw.”


Q: That was just to play the teacher, imagine if you were one of the principal dancers?

BRUCE: I’m too old to do that. There’s no way. These kids work so insanely hard. We’d come in. I’d get there at 6 in the morning for a 7 o’clock call, take the hour to jam down some breakfast, do the makeup and wardrobe. But Chi Cao who was playing Li Cunxin would get there at 4 in the morning and we’d worked 15 hours the day before. He’d get there at 4 in the morning and do 40 minutes of stretching, half an hour of bar, and 40 minutes of class — and it was before we even got there — and then he’d dance. This was like all of them, and then they’d dance all day long. You try doing a Rite of Spring once, nevermind try doing it 4 or 5 times during the day and bits of it. I can’t even articulate how much respect I have for them.

Q: What was the directing process like and how was it working with Bruce again?

BRUCE: I’ve worked with him before and he’s very light on the reins. We had lots of discussions beforehand and then once you kind of see eye to eye, then he’ll just give you tiny little suggestions. Also, you learn by watching him direct other people. He doesn’t have to tell everybody what the scene’s about. If you hear him telling one person what the tone of a scene is, then he doesn’t have to set you down and tell everybody. You learn a lot just by listening.

Q: Did you speak with Li at all during this process?

BRUCE: Oh yes, Li was there quite often.

Q: How beneficial was he in being able to give you insight into the whole genre?

BRUCE: Oh fantastic. He’s very articulate and willing to tell stories, and stories for actors are always really, really illustrative.

Q: Did Li have any commentary on Chi Cao’s performance of him?

BRUCE: Well he was actually instrumental in finding Chi Cao. As Li tells it, they needed a guy who could really dance and wasn’t too bad looking. (Laughs) He knows how funny that sounds. He thought there might be this guy in Birmingham, Chi Cao, who was the lead male dancer for the Birmingham [Royal] Ballet, a dancer noble. They went to Birmingham and talked to Chi, and of course Li knew this, but it turned out that Chi Cao’s parents had been teachers in the Beijing Dance Academy when Li Cunxin was there. So there was a real magic confluence of contributors there.


Q: What was it like working with Joan, especially since she immigrated to the United States around the same time as Li came over here and defected? Do you think that impacted her performance or her mindset?

BRUCE: I don’t know what contributed to her performance. It was so complete. I hardly worked with her. We spent an afternoon together in the sequence in the theater so I didn’t really work very much with her. But the transformation is so crazy. You see her today and you think “Are you an ingénue? How did you …? Where did that rural Chinese mother peasant come from?” So, in terms of whatever she drew on to make those connections to find the truth of her character, I don’t know, but it was pretty impressive.

Q: Did you spend some time getting to know the background and history of that period in China and what was going on during the Cultural Revolution?

BRUCE: Oh yeah, I read all kinds of stuff before going. It wasn’t just about ballet, it was about the political environment at the time and the history of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution. It was something I wasn’t very familiar with. It made the whole thing all that much more remarkable. And then, there’s this dilemma where Ben Stevenson has spent all this time cultivating these exchanges with the Chinese and keeping that flow of art and information open and for the greater good of both cultures, and then suddenly into their midst comes this kid who he’s championed and loves as an artist and the kid has this impossibly strong urge to stay because he’s fallen in love with this woman. All of a sudden all of the things that Stevenson had been cultivating for all this time were put at risk. He has this dilemma of this kid that he loves in many ways, but a process in another culture that Stevenson had grown to love profoundly as well that was going to be lost in the bargain. That was one of the internal conflicts and conflicting agendas for Ben that I found was really interesting.


Q: What was it like shooting in China and dealing with the government bureaucracy?

BRUCE: The bureaucracy was impenetrable in a way. There are so many layers of bureaucracy for when you’re getting permits. Sometimes you go “We have the permit, but is this the permit? So okay, yes, we have the permit, but we have to get permission to have this permit, okay, and the permission to have the permission to get the permission to get that permit.” It was tricky knowing sometimes whether “I think we have the right to be here. So you’re saying we do, but only if we what?” It was tricky. I know it was very difficult for them.

Q: Did they monitor you while you were shooting?

BRUCE: They were around. Oh yeah, there were people around who were keeping track of what we were up to.

Q: In learning about Ben, what did you discover about the world of ballet? It seems like a cutthroat, very unforgiving kind of profession.

BRUCE: It’s a weird [profession]. They’re strange bedfellows in that regard. You’re right, you’ve got to be able to cut it. At the same time, it’s these artists who are incredibly dedicated and work incredibly hard. But if something happens and you get injured, boom! “We can’t [use you.] The show must go on. We will bring you back when you’re healthy, if you get healthy. And if you don’t get healthy, we can’t cry too long about it.” It was interesting to see that the mechanics of the industry are inexorable and big and they don’t stop for anybody.

Q: How tedious was it, if at all, with all the dance sequences because they weren’t shot straight through. I understand it was segment, segment, segment and it was repetitive.

BRUCE: Yes and no. Sure, it was a little bit repetitive, but at the same time, for me, I had just begun to learn about ballet, so I was just riveted watching the process because it’s different every time. Even though the choreography is X to Y to Z, there are little tiny vagaries that emerge in every iteration of the performance and watching Graeme Murphy tweak the dancers and watching the dancers absorb the information. For me, it’s all school because I’m playing a choreographer who’s talking to these artists, so it would have been foolish of me not to sit and watch Graeme work with the other artists. It was fascinating. I was just in school the whole time.


Q: Does this film change perceptions of both ballet and China politically?

BRUCE: I’ve got to know what your perceptions are, but if there’s a common perception of China or if there’s a prevailing common perception of China at the time in an artistic sense, I think probably this event served to open people’s minds. Yes.

Q: Since this was a new experience for you, was there anything that really surprised you about working with the dancers or watching the choreographic process?

BRUCE: Well I was just shocked at how specific every tiny little movement is. I don’t know if it’s a Kliban cartoon or a Larson cartoon, the first frame is from the stage and you see past a couple violins and oboes, you see the conductor going like this and like this (imitating the motions of a conductor in front of an orchestra) and like that and there’s maybe four or five positions he gets into. And then, the next frame is looking over the conductor’s shoulder and what he’s reading are little pictures of a guy doing that [exact same motions]. In my Cro-Magnon understanding of dance, I thought there’s a bunch of stock positions or something, but it’s the journey from first position to second position to arabesque to whatever. It’s the fluidity of that journey that reveals the artist. I didn’t know any of that and when I started to try and do it myself in my own hideous way with the help of a professional, I began to appreciate how hard it was. And then, we’d go to ballets together. She’d take me to the ballet and be nudging me the whole time, (whispering) “See? That’s what I’m talking about. It’s terrible!”

Q: Did you get anything from ballet that you might take with you as part of your craft in the future?

BRUCE: Dedication — absolute, mind-bending time commitment. Have you read Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book? Have you read Blink or The Tipping Point or any of those? Outliers holds that any genius level artist, mathematician, scientist or sports figure will have spent a minimum of 10,000 hours in dedicated study and practice, and that even the ones with an abundance of talent at a young age, if they spend a mere 8,000 [hours], they don’t emerge into that rarified atmosphere of the brilliant. Watching these dancers, you realize they’re spending 12 hours a day minimum working on the tiniest little things. It was fantastic to watch how hard they worked and kind of tiring. (Laughs)


Q: Have you found a favorite ballet to come out of all of this that you’ve seen or studied?

BRUCE: My current favorite is Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. It’s very, very different. I was so moved by it. I saw it for the first time in Sydney and I called my wife who hadn’t made it to Sydney yet and said “Look, if you don’t get down here in time to see this, I promise I’ll take you to Paris to see it,” thinking there’s no way she’s not going to get down here in time. But I made this grand promise that I would take her to Paris because they were going to take it to Paris the next fall and I think she thought “If I hold off coming down to Australia, I’ll get to go to Paris.” So, she came a couple weeks too late to Australia and then we had to go to Paris a year later. (Laughs) We got there on points. I made it work.

Q: The excerpt we see from Swan Lake in the film, is that Graeme’s interpretation?

BRUCE: I want to say yes but I wouldn’t commit to that. I’m not entirely sure. I don’t know if Stevenson did a Swan Lake that was repeated, so I don’t know. That’s a question for Bruce (Beresford) or Graeme.

Q: Do you know if you’re going to be in the next Star Trek?

BRUCE: I know that I don’t know.

Q: We know they’re still writing it.

BRUCE: (raises his voice, teasing) How do you know that?!

Q: Maybe not “still” writing. Maybe they’ve yet to “start” writing it.

BRUCE: You’re not going to trap me into saying anything about their writing it. (Laughs) I’m joking. I don’t know. I hope so.


Q: I want to know if Captain Pike is still there.

BRUCE: I think Captain Pike is an essential component to the whole franchise. I think there should be a whole offshoot of Pike’s adventures.

Q: You had plenty of them leading up to his initial appearance once in the series so…?

BRUCE: There’s nothing that says Pike can’t get up and out of that wheelchair, get his own ship and go off on some adventures of his own. I’m now an admiral but I just want to get out of the wheelchair.

Q: It’s the future. They can do that.

BRUCE: I know. I had a long conversation about that with J.J. (Abrams) early on because he wanted the hair to go [white]…because in the script it says the hair goes all white. I said (crying) “Do we have to get so Malcolm McDowell about it?”

Q: I had the pleasure of enjoying your performance as a voice actor recently in Batman: Under the Red Hood and I understand you’re reprising the role for the upcoming series.

BRUCE: Yes, for Young Justice League.

Q: How do you like being a voice actor and how has that experience been?

BRUCE: I love being around those guys. You can’t believe how talented they are. I do lots of voices and always have, but I’ve never gotten into that game of doing voices for money and it’s a pretty tight shop. You walk in and these guys are doing these incredible impersonations. I was in there a couple of weeks ago. There’s two guys in town apparently that do great animal sounds and this one cat was doing a lion and then a tiger that were having an altercation. You would close your eyes and swear to God that it was coming from a creature that was three to four times the size of a man. I love it.

Q: What kind of time commitment is that going to be for you?

BRUCE: It’s very little. It takes a couple hours to do an episode so you can go in and do two episodes in a day.

Q: Are they at the same level as the video movie because those DC animations have been quite good?

BRUCE: No, they’re good but they’re not… This particular movie, Batman: Under the Red Hood, the graphics there are really incredibly good and the art direction is great. It’s a good story. But I don’t know if I’ll do the next Batman in the movie version. I think Kevin Conroy is still considered the definitive guy.

Q: Was there a reason why you came in?

BRUCE: No, they just called me and asked me and I said “Sure.” I didn’t know anything about Kevin Conroy until after. At Comic Con particularly, they were going “How do you feel about replacing Kevin Conroy who everybody loves.” They were sort of pre-programmed to hate you. “How do you feel about that?” I’m going “Not so good all of a sudden.”

Q: How do you like the whole Comic Con experience?

BRUCE: It was great. It was full of energy and good humor. I really loved it.

Mao’s Last Dancer opens in theaters on August 20th.




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