Mao’s Last Dancer is a personal journey of self discovery inspired by the real life story of Li Cunxin who came from an impoverished childhood in China and went on to become an internationally acclaimed ballet dancer. Directed by Bruce Beresford and shot on location in China, Australia and the U.S., the film stars Bruce Greenwood, Kyle Maclachlan, Joan Chen, Amanda Schull and newcomer Chi Cao in his feature debut.
We sat down with Joan and Amanda at a roundtable interview to talk about their new film. Joan explained what inspired her character and how Li Cunxin’s experiences mirrored in many ways her own when she immigrated to the United States. Amanda told us about the sacrifice that comes with being a dancer and how she transitioned from ballet to pursue a career in acting. Both shared their thoughts on the fiercely competitive worlds of acting and professional dance and the price you pay to pursue your passion. Joan also talked about the upcoming 20-year anniversary of Twin Peaks.
Here’s a bit more on both Chen and Schull, followed by the interview:
Joan Chen, whose starring roles include The Last Emperor and Twin Peaks, grew up in Shanghai but now lives in the U.S. She was discovered by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, and studied acting at the Shanghai Film Academy. She became famous in China for her performance in the 1979 film Little Flower. In addition to being one of the few actors to have a successful career both in Hollywood and Hong Kong, Joan is also a noted director who made her directorial debut in 1998 with Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl.
Amanda Schull was raised in Hawaii, where she studied ballet and performed with the Hawaiian State Ballet. While an apprentice with the San Francisco Ballet, she was cast in the leading role in the hugely successful dance film Center Stage. She retired as a fully fledged company member of the San Francisco Ballet in 2006 to pursue a career in acting and currently stars in the popular television series One Tree Hill.
Q: Joan, can you talk about what you drew on to create such an incredible character?
Joan: I’m a mother. It’s very easy really. I think of my mother. I left home young, too. I left home at 14 and I have friends who joined the navy and the army performing troops at 9. I know people [like that]. It’s a very straightforward character. When I arrived on the set though, I did observe a few women near us – certain postures, a certain way of movement – but it was very straightforward and easy for me. It’s not that hard. If you wanted me to play the part that had to dance ballet, then that would be a different story.
Q: Throughout your career, have you ever had to face the kind of issues Li Cunxin did with commuting back and forth between the States and China?
Joan: I did. I came to the United States in 1981 as a student just like Li did. When I left, I was totally the most beloved little flower in China and so it was an outrage basically. Why would she want to go to America? China is not enough for her anymore? For the first four years of my studying in the U.S., I couldn’t go home for two reasons. One is I was afraid that if I left my student visa may not hold and I wouldn’t be able to come back to continue. Second, there was this big outrage in China that I didn’t know how to face the public. Then finally, I went back to do Tai-Pan which brought me more disaster. So, all during that time was actually very painful. When I first came here, I didn’t feel this was my home. This was where I was studying, and then my home was now rejecting me. So I understand Li’s feelings. I was drawn to the story because I was [all] too familiar with what he was going through. The second time I was banned was when I directed a film called Xiu Xiu. I was banned for three years from China. So I was very familiar with his past.
5Q: Amanda, you actually danced with the ballet and retired in 2006.
Amanda: I did. I retired. It sounds so ridiculous to say it but I did.
Q: How was it for you to come into a film like this and how did you get involved?
Amanda: I got involved from the acting standpoint. I was already living down here in L.A. and I got the script, and as I’ve said before, it’s the first time I’ve ever gotten a script where the degrees of separation were so slight. Usually you read a script and you know somebody who knows somebody who maybe knew that person or met them once. With this, I knew people who knew Li and who had danced with Li, so that was particularly exciting for me and I had just started the transition. It’s crazy, but we shot this film two and a half years ago. So, from that perspective, having just started the transition from dance, the idea of being Liz was really exciting because it was more of a drama focused character with the dance underlying. That was particularly exciting. But what was interesting about my audition process is I never met Bruce (Beresford) or Jane (Scott, the producer) or anyone having anything to do with the film. I literally only met with the casting director. She put me on tape and had me have a 20-25 minute conversation with her while the camera rolled so that she could send it back to Bruce so that he would know what he was getting himself into. I didn’t meet anybody until I was in another hemisphere working on this film. Fortunately, it was just a perfect fit.
Q: Center Stage was a great underrated dance movie, but have movies gotten ballet wrong and how does Mao’s Last Dancer get it right?
Amanda: I think Center Stage got it right. We were professional dancers doing all the acting so they had to get it right. Nicholas Hytner, who directed Center Stage, is a huge ballet fan. He was completely open, as was Bruce Beresford, to get our perspective. “No, we wouldn’t do this. Yes, we would do that. That’s not realistic.” So, I feel like Center Stage did well in that respect. As far as this is concerned, it takes on a much meatier aspect of the ballet world which I think is the sacrifice that comes with being a dancer. Center Stage focused on the drive and what it’s like to be a student, and this is what it’s like to be an adult and what you need to give up in the pursuit of that passion and that focus. Liz had to sacrifice, but it’s Li’s sacrifice that is the most dramatic and obvious and painstaking to watch, even from a child.
Q: This isn’t a hypothetical. This one is really someone’s decision.
Q: Joan, I heard that you were also discovered by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing. How did that impact your acting in this movie? And also, how did you get involved with this project in the first place?
Joan: The fact that she was the producer on my first film had nothing to do with this project but it was just a nice coincidence. It cracked me up when I saw they actually had her on screen. I don’t think in China people are allowed to do that. She was a big influence though for us when we grew up. Of the 6 operas and 2 ballets that we ever watched when we were growing up, the only 8 were created by her and that was it. Those were the 8 things that we watched and we could all sing it. I couldn’t dance it completely but I could fake some. She was a big influence on our lives and when she was producing the three films, the Anthology of the Long March, the one I always picked on, was one of them and everybody had to be directly approved by her. It was such an honor back then for me. “Oh my God, I was chosen because of her!” We started filming and then came the news that she went to jail, and so we had to stop and that production was cancelled halfway through.
Q: How was it filming in rural China? Did that bring back any kind of memories from your own childhood?
Joan: No, I grew up in the city so I didn’t have that kind of [experience]. I came from a much more privileged background compared to Li. But I did think that the location they picked was very cinematic. It was just very gray. It was. The mountains were very gray. I was looking at the farmers and I was like gosh, you know, very little would grow it seemed to me because it was so dry and very arid and very dusty and so gray. It’s very cinematic. It was so well chosen and once you’re in it, you’re already completely dusty. So, you’re more of that character.
Q: Do you look at things with a different, more cinematic eye since you’ve transitioned into directing over the years?
Joan: I do look at it that way. I miss directing. I see stories in images and music more so than in dialogue.
Q: Is it possible for you to do movies in China now?
Joan: I can now. I was banned for 3 years, then I decided to go back and to reconcile the whole thing and I paid $50,000 (U.S. dollars). It’s a fine for having shot there illegally. I got it squared away.
Q: Have you done anything recently?
Joan: I actually did two movies in China this year. I enjoy going back to work now because cinema is going through an exciting period because young people are now going back to the movie theaters. But things are different though. I’m more interested in…I’m more of a descendent. I’m more critical. It comes from a different place and nowadays the young people know how to make just light entertainment. I’m not able to direct that kind [of film] but I enjoy playing in them. So I did two comedies this year in China.
Q: Amanda, it seems like the whole world of ballet can be very cutthroat and unforgiving and there’s a small window of opportunity to find success in it. Is that a fair assessment?
Amanda: I think that’s fair. In order to dance professionally, you have to start at a young age. No matter what, your muscle structure and your bones have to be groomed from a very young age. Nobody wakes up at 17 and decides to become a ballet dancer. I’m saying that and someone’s going to be born tomorrow who decides to do that and I’m going to have my foot in my mouth. Physiologically, it’s very difficult and you train up until that point. A lot of professional dancers become professional when they turn 15 or 16 years old, when they’re still children. So you’ve trained every single waking moment up until that point for a career that could maybe only last 10 years, maybe longer if your body holds up, if your injuries are kept at bay. Yes, it’s a finite career. It’s something that you devote your whole life’s work to hoping that it happens at that moment and all the stars align. I had injuries a lot. Every dancer has injuries and your injury could happen that season that you were getting that one part that you’ve wanted to do your whole career. So you have to appreciate every single moment until it happens. Then I retired 4 years ago. It’s gone. It’s over. My body won’t be able to do it anymore at that level. It’s a very specific athletic, artistic career.
Q: How are you finding the acting world?
Amanda: Oh, it’s its own beast. (Laughs) I’ve been lucky recently. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been doing a lot of TV lately and that’s its own thing from film, and I love it for different reasons than I love ballet and I miss a lot of aspects of ballet. Acting is fascinating to me. I love unlocking the mysteries with characters and finding out what would be the most intriguing aspect of that character to exist in. Figuring out a person and getting to be a different person every day, hey that’s pretty lucky. I don’t have to wake up and be Amanda if I don’t feel like it. You know, that’s fun.
Q: Would you say both worlds are equally competitive?
Amanda: Yeah, I would, in different ways. With ballet, it’s smaller. There are a lot of companies out there but there are very few large, high caliber ballet companies and for every one spot, there are a hundred girls who would be happy to take your place and more than capable of taking your place. I think that’s probably a very fair assessment of Hollywood as well — that for every one role, there are thousands of girls who are willing and eager to take that part.
Joan: The harder part is that for ballet at least you have had enough training. You have to. Whoever is competing with you had that many years of training.
Joan: Most times because they need to be able to dance like that. But, for acting, somebody could just come out of nowhere, have never learned anything, and could just do it.
Amanda: Be the right person at the right place.
Joan: Just could do it.
Q: You have to be able to act sometimes.
Joan: No, you don’t have to. You don’t have to.
Amanda: You just have to have a great uncle.
Joan: So you don’t know who you’re competing with at all as a young person. Anybody could.
Amanda: But as a dancer, there are a few times that I’ve had the thought “Where did she come from?”
Joan: Then you know she’s never going to be able to get your job.
Amanda: There are times when these girls got jobs that I could’ve done.
Joan: Really? Okay. Well that’s too bad. But a 5-year-old kid could win the Best Actress Award. (Laughs)
Amanda: That’s true.
Q: Joan, what kind of role are you looking for right now?
Joan: I don’t have a definite “next” right now.
Q: What kind of movie role would you like to play?
Joan: I enjoyed playing comedy in the past two films where I found that I had the timing. I seldom do that which is great. It’s not being shown here yet.
Q: How do you manage to look so beautiful?
Joan: I have a relatively stress free life.
Amanda: Very un-yang right now. Woo hoo!
Joan: My motorbike.
Joan: I’m bad. (Laughs) I think it’s because I don’t have too much stress, I suppose.
Q: Amanda, what was your dream role to dance in ballet and did you ever get to do that?
Amanda: If I could say what my dream role to dance was that I didn’t get to do, if I had to choose one, it would be Giselle in Giselle. You know what’s funny about all of my dream roles? They were always the acting roles. And that’s one of the reasons why I would have loved Giselle. She’s a young, hopeful peasant in love and then she goes crazy and she becomes a sylph in the second act, a spirit. But that’s one ballet that still – even thinking about it now I’m starting to get choked up – I have never watched that ballet without crying at the end of it and it’s because of the theatrics of it in large part. What’s funny was we did that ballet and I wasn’t Giselle, I was always Giselle’s friend or something. But when I was in the school dancing it and we did it, I wouldn’t rehearse any of Giselle’s other parts in the back because you’re encouraged to learn other people’s roles. I would never rehearse any of the technical stuff. I would always do the crazy scene in the back. (Laughs) That was the only part that I really wanted to focus on. So, if we did a whole Giselle full of crazy, I probably would have gotten cast.
Q: Joan, can you talk about working with Chi Cao in his acting debut?
Joan: She has more scenes with him.
Amanda: You’re his mom!
Joan: I raised him. I raised him right. No, I only had one scene with him, but that scene is very crucial.
Amanda: That’s crazy. I didn’t even think about that.
Joan: I had scenes with the little one. But I thought he did a fantastic job. You feed on each other when you perform and I just felt very enriched working with him.
Amanda: He was so excited by that. I worked with him after he worked with you and he was telling me about that scene and just saying he was nervous about that. He said all he did was looked into your eyes and that’s all he needed.
Joan: So we feed upon each other. Sometimes it’s crazy. I mean, you don’t even know the person. You have to go up and convey that twenty years of longing. It’s sometimes crazy but we were all fortunate. Everybody fed on everybody and it just worked.
Q: Bruce was talking about how you guys collaborated, particularly on that scene. How else could it have played out? What were some ideas that you had?
Joan: I thought it was perfect because Bruce is very smart. He asked Chi what he would have done in the situation, because Bruce wouldn’t know, and he suggested that he would kneel. There were a lot of doubtful looks from everywhere that that would be too melodramatic and be overdoing it. But when he did it, it was perfect. That, to me, would have been what [I would have done].
Amanda: How smart of Bruce to ask. You’d think that people would just assume. How smart of him to ask to know.
Joan: I think a good director is the one that taps into all your talents. You need to exploit everybody to the fullest, every department to the fullest.
Q: Talking about that scene is one thing, but how long was it until you guys knew that it had played out the right way?
Joan: It was instant actually. I think we just imagined it. I think it was instant. I think we both imagined — he as a son, I as a mother — what this would be for us, and it was not a long time in the thinking. Sometimes that’s the magic of making films. You imagined it and then it came out right.
Q: There’s a wonderful scene when the Chinese government officials come to see you in the village after Li defects and your character confronts them. Is that realistic? Would that have actually happened given the politics of the era?
Joan: If I was a city mother that knew more of the political ramification of everything, I’d be very scared. But she was a peasant who has a very straightforward logic. “You took him when he was 11. You’re responsible for where my son is. Bring him back to me. I want my son.” So it’s very direct and very straightforward. From a peasant, this is completely believable.
Q: Did you find a rural woman that inspired your performance or did you just imagine what you did?
Joan: If I go on location to a rural area like we went, I would try to go pick out a few people and walk around. Then you would find somebody whose body language was interesting and you follow [them] for a little while. A lot of the peasants were walking around. Then I realized that some of them are working because it’s winter. They didn’t have much to do. It looked like a field that would never grow anything. Some of them were tilling but a lot of them were walking around and I just observed them. And then, I realized it’s because the city people went there and bought their land and they have enough money and they just walk around now. They don’t farm anymore.
Q: Joan, I know you didn’t have any scenes together, but did you have a chance to reconnect with Kyle Maclachlan at all since your Twin Peaks days?
Joan: I didn’t get a chance to see Kyle. I didn’t even get to say hi. The character he plays is the husband of a friend of mine. Charles Foster married a Chinese movie star that I worked with in the same film studio. They came to my house to visit me four or five years ago but I didn’t put the two things together until after the movie. I saw the movie. I said maybe she said she was married to a very famous immigrant lawyer. I called her and I said “Is that…?” “Yeah, that’s my husband.”
Amanda: Wow. What a small world, Joan.
Joan: And Kyle played him. Kyle looks much better though.
Amanda: I met Charles Foster. He’s cute.
Joan: He is with his Southern accent. He’s much older.
Amanda: He’s adorable. He came to the Toronto Film Festival to watch. But Kyle does a good job. There is something very regal about him with that Southern accent. I liked Charles Foster.
Joan: No, I didn’t get to say hi. I wish I did. It’s the 20-year anniversary now of Twin Peaks. Can you believe it? I got an invitation to visit London in November from some kind of cult following. The Cultural Club doing a 24-hour Twin Peaks thing wanted to fly all of us over. (Laughs) Crazy! I never knew [how important it was] when I was doing it. After I did one season, I wanted out so bad. I was like “I want to do movies. I want to be on the big screen.” And what a mistake that was. That’s the only thing that people remember me for. I asked out and David Lynch got so upset. I did a movie called Turtle Beach and it was a horrible movie, and that was it. I got out. The things that happen…oh gosh!
Amanda: You never realize what’s gonna be important at the time, do you?
Q: Amanda, what do you have coming up next? What are you working on?
Amanda: I’ve been doing a lot of TV lately and I’m going back to do some more One Tree Hill in a couple of weeks.
Joan: It would be great if you could still use ballet.
Amanda: I still do dance.
Joan: Like on the screen.
Amanda: Yeah, I know. I take class. I’m always ballet ready. I’m ready to go — got my tights and my shoes. I danced in a Lifetime film about a year ago. We shot in Canada and I got to work with a lot of the dancers who do So You Think You Can Dance, Canada. Oh my God, these girls were amazing! So amazing! It was so exciting to dance next to them. So I still dance. Since my mom is the President of Ballet Hawaii, I’m always in touch with stuff going on.
Joan: Because a lot of actors your age don’t have that skill.
Amanda: Oh I love any opportunity to be able to do it. It’s in my blood. I mean, I need to do it as an artist. I need to always do it.
Q: Joan, this movie cannot be released in China. But if there is a chance that a Chinese audience can see it, what do you think they will get from it? Will it be a different perception of that period?
Joan: It’s a film that’s made for the Western audience more so than for the Chinese audience. But the people who saw the DVD seem to have liked it. Also, it’s a beautiful film – really a personal journey of self discovery, of hard work and trials and tribulations in order to achieve a dream. It’s very universal and timeless. It’s very classical really. It’s a fairytale so what’s not to like. But I think in the Western point of view, it is usually the West [that] is the savior of this artist, and so today’s Chinese audience may not appreciate that perspective.
Q: Amanda, you grew up in Hawaii. Is there a lot of opportunity for dance there?
Amanda: I grew up in Honolulu. It’s not the ballet cultural mecca by any stretch of the imagination. People are much more familiar with hula than they are with ballet. Not very many companies go through Hawaii on their way to anywhere. San Francisco Ballet was the only company I remember, and Bolshoi, coming through Hawaii when I was younger. I remember watching Swan Lake and everybody looking exactly the same, but being able to relate because they were the only company I had ever seen even on video that had Asian dancers. The Asian community in Hawaii is actually almost as dominant as the Caucasian community. I thought “I can relate to that company because they look like people that I see every day.” They weren’t all little stick-thin Russian ballerinas. I trained there obviously, but I went away every summer and went different places to get different glimpses of what ballet was. I went to the International Ballet competition when I was 15 or 16 and that was the first time I competed. I didn’t get very far but it was the first time that I realized what I needed to do to become a dancer. I realized how hard it was. I was competing way out of my caliber and I didn’t know that I was a big fish in a little pond when I was in Hawaii. I finally got a good hard slap of reality.
Amanda: I went to Indiana University for college for a couple of years where I double majored in dance and journalism, and after my sophomore year there, I went to the San Francisco Ballet school for the summer, but then they offered me a scholarship to stay for the year. That’s where I danced after the year they offered me a contract with the company.
Q: Joan, you made a comment about the price that you pay to follow your passion in life. Could you expand on that a little bit in terms of the movie and your experience?
Joan: Oh God, the price is very obvious. To have a future at all for her son, she lets him leave home. For Li, he didn’t have a home anymore from age 11. I think we all make that kind of sacrifice. For instance, it’s the sacrifice I’m not willing to make right now to leave my children because I felt it wasn’t only my choice. It is also making them sacrifice. It’s a very obsessive profession that you need to stay obsessed to get anywhere, and it’s very easy for us to get obsessed and then nothing else matters. I was reading Somerset Maugham’s novella, Moon and Sixpense, about this artist based on Gauguin’s life. It was so beautifully written. You must read it. It’s simple. He threw everything away to chance it. You must be first rate because second rate you might not survive. If you’re an accountant, you’ll survive second rate. If you chance it big, you may not get anywhere. You may starve to death. But, at the same time, this character in Maugham’s novella said “I’ve got to paint. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. I’ve got to paint.” So he threw away everything and anything – social opinions, family – because you gotta do what you gotta do. I think dancing is the same. It’s so hard, but you gotta do what you gotta do and you do it. It’s a lot of sacrifice. I think you chance it so much because you have to be first rate. Otherwise, you don’t get a seat. And, you cannot stay there either. The young people, they don’t knock on the door politely and say “May I come in?” They barge in, they take your seat, and you’re obsolete unless you recreate and somehow find grace somewhere else. Another profession may not be like that.
Amanda: When I was in high school, my mom gave me a paperweight. It was when I was going through my ‘not that interested in doing homework or really working on anything’ phase and the paperweight said “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” And that’s sort of the same thing, if you’re not always working to be in the front. My mom said to me “Do you know what that means?” And I said “Yeah, if I don’t work really hard, I’m just going to be looking at dog butt for the rest of my life.” She was like “Well metaphorically, yeah. If you’re not always constantly striving to be the best that you can be, you’re going to be looking at someone’s back the rest of your life.”
Joan: So, I think it’s a hard profession.
Mao’s Last Dancer opens in theaters on August 20th.