We are traveling back in time, via a May 2016 interview that Liu Haoran did with The Paper. The interview took place right before With You finished its run (May 2016), and is probably one of the most in-depth interviews Liu Haoran has ever done. He spoke a lot more freely then, and gives very candid responses in regards to his thoughts on Yu Huai and With You, his rising popularity, dealing with the paparazzi, balancing his life as a college student and as an actor, and his friendships with fellow actors Dong Zijian and Wu Lei.
(Original interview was released on May 7, 2016)
Wearing a hat, face mask (surgical mask), and glasses, Liu Haoran arrives at the coffee shop that’s right next door to the Central Academy of Drama. The only feature you can see are his mono lidded eyes. When he grins, they turn into smiling lines. When he takes off his costume and shakes his hair loose, the thinness of his face will catch you off guard – where is the babyfaced Yu Huai from With You?
“I’m currently getting ready for an audition. My next project won’t be a youth school drama, so I hope that I will look slightly more mature. In comparison to the time when I was Yu Huai, I’ve already lost more than ten kilograms, but on camera, my face is still a bit round,” Liu Haoran explains. He’s been trying to lose weight like crazy recently, and no longer eats dinner. He runs to the gym every day, and his dieting has caused him to “lose heat”. When we shake hands, his palm is cold as ice.
“The state of an actor’s body depends on the role that he is playing. Stanislavski once said that we should truly listen, observe, and feel,” Liu Hao Ran says seriously, but in the next second, he opens up a streaming app and pulls up a livestreamer who lives in Weihai (a city by the sea). The daily livestream essentially shows him cooking octopus, lobster, and other types of seafood. Liu Haoran watches the live broadcast, transfixed, and swallows. “It looks so good. I have to watch this every night before I go to bed, and I don’t want to blink in the fear that I might miss something.”
Liu Haoran always give you the feeling that he’s like a boy in one moment, and then like a man in the next, which combines for a unique qi zhi (aura).
Born in 1997, he was selected by Chen Sicheng to participate in the film Beijing Love Story. At the end of his senior year of high school, he participated in reality show Takes A Real Man. When he was filming Detective Chinatown, it just so “happened” that it overlapped with the gao kao dates, and he was admitted into the Central Academy of Drama, ranked first in his major. His first web drama With You has further cemented his “Nation’s First Love” image.
“Fame comes with a price” is a phrase befitting of Liu Haoran’s experience in the last few months. Before With You aired, there was a wave of rumors surrounding Liu Haoran and his older co-star, Tan Songyun. The ensuing fanwars between CP shippers caused Liu Hao Ran to realize, for the first time, the loss of privacy that comes with being a celebrity.
Amidst the chaos caused by fans and the media, Liu Haoran’s team continued to play defense. Finally, the official statement by the involved parties that “We are all single right now” seemed to have closed this chapter.
When you ask the 18 year old Liu Haoran about that now, his response is, “I want to do my best to become a good actor, so that I can attain more freedom for myself. I’m an adult now. I want to continue to grow in the hearts of fans and the audience.”
“Because it was your first time being photographed by the paparazzi, you can treat it as a lesson learned. Will you be more cautious in the future?” the journalist asks.
“I think it’s okay. You should still live normally. I’ve encountered paparazzi before. When they see me call for a taxi on the side of the road, they follow me. But what are they going to catch me doing? Getting food? Going to school?”
A couple of days ago, Liu Haoran had dinner with upperclassman Dong Zijian. The waiter knocked on the door and warned them that there were paparazzi waiting downstairs. They talked about the possibility of strolling out together while holding hands so that they would both make the headlines in the morning. “When you face things like this, you might as well make it a bit more fun.”
The boyish side comes out now, “After this interview, I’m going to buy some walnuts. I saw a video on Weibo that said the tempered glass screen protector on your phone can crush walnuts into pieces.” His tiger tooth peeks out and he looks extremely mischievous – all of a sudden, he is Yu Huai, “But not the hardened ones. Because if I bought those, my screen protector will probably die with the walnuts.”
After meeting Liu Haoran for the first time, many journalists will laugh and shake their head, “I’ve never seen a celebrity like this before.”
On April 7, before the press conference of the iQiyi-produced webdrama With You, Liu Haoran took a taxi by himself from the Central Academy of Drama to the hotel in the city center. He arrived earlier than any of the staff. Because he hadn’t eaten dinner yet, he ordered some fast food takeout and proceeded to chow down in his dressing room. (The film) Twins was the first time Liu Hao Ran brought an assistant with him on set, because “there was so much to film that I didn’t have time to get my own food”.
At the end of April, The Paper’s journalist had an interview with Liu Haoran, and asked him a question in regards to “child stars”, “Will you and good friend Wu Lei share with each other the struggles of being famous at a young age?” Upon hearing this question, Liu Haoran dissolved into laughter, “We never talk about that. We are only abnormal in other peoples’ eyes. In our own eyes, we are still quite ordinary. So the main topic of our conversations is what we ate that day.”
Staff have also vouched for that. When Liu Haoran and Wu Lei meet up, they’re just like regular teenage boys. They’ll hang out, laughing from beginning to end, totally lacking the self-awareness of celebrities.
Because he was born in 1997, he doesn’t remember the SARS epidemic, or the year that Liu Xiang won the gold medal. Even so, Liu Haoran has an old soul, like a bright young man who walked out from another era. For fans of the original novel, Liu Hao Ran’s lopsided smile, love for Sudoku, basketball talent, sharp tongue, and small eyes matches perfectly with the kind hearted Yu Huai.
“There’s not a lot of difference between the middle school lives of post-80ers and post-90ers. At that time, my parents were very strict, so I never came in contact with cellphones or computers. After school, my friends and I would play marbles and cards. But there’s been a lot of changes in the last few years. All the students now have cellphones and iPads. So there’s a profound difference between the school lives of post-90ers and post-00ers,” Liu Haoran reminisces. When he was in school, girls tended to act shy while the guys would act cool. “It was like this then. When the teacher named a guy and a girl to stand up and answer questions, the whole class would be snickering. Because there was clearly going on between the two, but they thought that nobody knew about it.”
With You is Liu Haoran’s first webdrama, and is also the first time where he is playing the sole male lead. Before the drama aired, he was very nervous. He normally doesn’t like fan service, but found the courage to ask for help. On WeChat, he asked his friends within the industry to help promote the drama. That same day, he had a magazine shoot, and between filming, he would ask, “Have you posted yet? Have you posted yet?”
After the drama aired, the Douban rating of 8.4 allowed Liu Haoran to let out a big sigh of relief. He likes to hang out on Weibo and read reviews. His favorite comment thus far has been, “Did Ba Yue Chang An write the book after meeting Liu Hao Ran?”
*T/N: Interesting note, the drama is at a 8.9 on Douban now. People have noted that every time a similar youth drama airs, the rating for With You increases.
“I was having a serious conversation with my manager the other day. Yu Huai is so similar to the real me. It’s not like in Detective Chinatown, when I was playing someone else in every shot, every line, every moment. When an actor can find a role that suits him very well, it makes the acting part easy, and the results will be good as well. So for the drama’s first sixteen episodes, I was very confident. But when Yu Huai becomes more and more despondent after losing a competition, and his reappearance ten years later…the latter parts were very challenging for me, acting-wise,” Liu Haoran says.
Liu Haoran doesn’t deny the fact that the book’s ending, in which the lead male and female characters lose touch after graduation, is quite sad, “Most people’s youths aren’t perfect. A lot of the dreams that you had in middle school will shatter once you reach adulthood.” However, in the eyes of many, Liu Hao Ran’s youth thus far has been smooth sailing. At sixteen years old, he was quiet, according to classmates, and did not pay much attention to appearances. but was extremely blessed and made his debut into the entertainment world via the film Beijing Love Story.
“Of course there were stumbles along the way. Maybe I can be considered lucky in comparison to others, but I’m also aware of how many hardships I encountered along the way,” Liu Haoran says, “I came alone to Beijing for middle school. Our performing arts school had so many talented students that I couldn’t find my place at first, and so I became very introverted. Because I wasn’t confident, my grades in my performing arts classes also suffered.”
Liu Haoran arrived in Beijing in 2009, right when housing prices were at an all time high. As someone from an average (income) household, having to pay five or six thousand a month for rent was a lot of pressure, “The first place that I rented was tiny, only about ten square meters, which is smaller than a hotel room at the 7 Days Inn. I normally lived alone, but when my mom came to visit, we would have to squeeze together on one bed. The places I lived in later on were in better locations, but the conditions were even worse because the rent was higher there.”
“My uncle lives in Beijing, so I would go to his home one or twice a month for a meal. But the rest of the time I managed my own living expenses, including meal cards,” When we touch on the money saving habits that he’s developed over the years, he laughs, slightly embarrassed, “A couple of days ago I was out shopping and saw a pair of shoes that I really liked, but it was over 3,000 yuan. I was conflicted for two weeks before I finally bought it.”
Because of the popularity of the still airing With You, Liu Haoran has had more fans than ever receiving him at the airport, “When there are more fans, I get more worried, because that’ll mean there’s a lot of people with me when I exit the airport, go to the taxi area, and go to the hotel. I really don’t want to be a bother on anyone.”
Having to take care of his appearance is also something he’s struggled with. Liu Haoran reveals that in his personal time, he can not shave for up to a week. When his classmates see his promotional pictures, where he’s all dressed up, they laugh, “So you can look like a human being!” He believes that students should look like students, “Because I’m already so busy, I really don’t want to have to spend more time on how I look.”
A while ago, a picture of Liu Haoran eating near the entrance of the Central Academy of Drama made its rounds online. A couple of days later, a picture of him eating in the school’s cafeteria was also passed around. His school life is under constant scrutiny, which makes Liu Hao Ran feel aggrieved, “I have to go out to eat. The cafeteria food at the Central Academy of Drama is terrible. Come visit me next time and I’ll invite you to eat with me there. It really is that bad.”
In the face of growing popularity, most will just accept it, but Liu Haoran chooses to refuse it.
If he sees fans on a weekday at the airport, he’ll ask them, “Do you not need to attend school?” If the fan says that he/she took a day off, he will say, “I appreciate your sincerity and thoughtfulness, but I can’t accept (you) ditching school.”
“I will be honest, I have turned down many schedules, including some filming projects, because of school. Out of all the acting schools, the Central Academy of Drama is the strictest. Brother Si Cheng has thrown me in there because he doesn’t want me to be impetuous. He wants me to focus and spend some time seriously building up some skills,” Liu Haoran says, “My most important identity right now is that of a student. For the next few decades, maybe even for the rest of my life, I will be an actor, but after these next few years, I will no longer have the opportunity to enjoy my college life.”
Liu Haoran’s freshman year was spent half working, half studying. From Monday through Friday, he has a full load of classes, and gets up at 6am every morning. After washing up and eating breakfast, he spends about an hour warming up via vocal and body exercises before heading to class. When his classes end at 5:30, he rushes to practice. When he has work, he always takes an early flight, and then a late flight back, and will ask for one day off at most. His goal is to be efficient as possible. The morning of this interview, he has just flown back to Beijing from Hangzhou, “I’m honestly a bit tired, so I closed my eyes briefly during Marxism class.”
“Vocal and body exercises* at the Central Academy of Drama now require you to check in via fingerprints. And you have to take a photo in front of the camera. Really, it’s exhausting.” Liu Haoran fake cries, but in the next moment he is immensely proud, “But I have never gone to the nurse’s office and asked for a day off.”
*T/N: Students majoring in performance are required to spend time every day working on breathing and lung exercises, vocal delivery, tongue twisters, high kicks, and other stretches.
The annual yi kao at the Central Academy of Drama was held a while ago, and Liu Haoran volunteered as an exam proctor. He had six water bottles hanging on his body, and was running all over the place. Classmates were dumbfounded, “Liu Hao Ran, what are you doing? Are you crazy? Do you not care about your image?” He shot them a goofy smile, “I need to leave a good impression on the professor. Because I want to be able to take more days off, I need to give it my all.”
“Every time I finish filming a project, I force myself to adjust my state of mind and return to my identity as a student. When I’m filming, it’s like I’m the main role, and everyone will take care of me. There is no night and day when it comes to work, and the only rest I get is at the hotel. But when I return to school, I’m a student, so I’ll go to class, do my homework, and adjust to the routine life of school.”
Even so, there are things that he’ll miss out on forever because he’s achieved fame at a young age: “If my classmate gets a role as the owner of a small noodle stand, he can seek out an owner (of a noodle stand) and say, ‘let me work at your stand, I’ll pay for the experience.’ I no longer have the chance to have this kind of experience. In addition, one of the best parts of college life are the times that you spend out of class. Everyone can go travel together, participate in clubs. But that kind of life is getting further away from me.”
“At school, I’m just a normal college guy. Outside of classes, I like playing video games, working out, and reading manga. The only difference between a regular college student and me is that I’ve chosen to major in performance.”
When he’s not working, he likes to play The Werewolves of Millers Hollow* with classmates in the dorms. His nickname is “Steel Wolf” because eight times out of ten, he’ll be the one to pick the “Wolf” card, and has a high success rate. “The game is a great way to practice your leadership, speech, and acting skills, so it suits our major quite well,” He explains seriously. Because he’s currently in the middle of a promotional period, he’s had to put aside his love for playing League of Legends with dormmates for two months now. From the time that school started through now, his laptop has remained in his dorm room, untouched.
“Because your grades in performance are so good, will you be used as a class leader by the teacher?” The journalist asks.
“There’s no way that I have time to be a class leader, but sometimes I’m used as a mascot,” Liu Haoran says. Even though at school, he is sometimes forced to participate in performance exhibitions, he’s not fond of it, “You want me to stand there, in front of so many students that are the same age as me, and perform? It honestly feels really weird. I’m not good at self-promotion.”
That is how the ’93er Dong Zijian and ’97er Liu Haoran met – because they’re both the school’s mascots. “We’re both busy, so if we run into each other at school we’ll just hurriedly greet one another before heading to class. The first time we had a real conversation was at a theater awards show that was hosted by our school. We were both recruited to perform a segment – his was a reading, and mine was singing. When I was sitting there (backstage), I noticed that he was next to me, and we started chatting.” That’s how the school’s two model students started their friendship.
Liu Hao Ran has been widely praised for being a “real” actor, like Jiang Wen, Wen Zhang, Huang Xuan. When his female idol Tang Wei is mentioned, this is what he says, “If you randomly select ten male students from the Central Academy of Drama and ask them who their favorite actress is, six of them will say it’s Tang Wei. When we had that awards show last time, Tang Wei came as well, and all the guys went nuts. I’ve never seen our school’s male students so excited.”
Everyone says that it’s important to get your name out there at a young age. Especially in performing arts schools, the students are desperate to get their name out there, even through platforms like live streaming and social media. But Liu Haoran wants to be known in a more conservative manner, “In the future, I hope to successfully pull off the role of an antagonist or as someone in the military. But I’m well aware of the fact that I don’t have the skills to do that right now, so I’ll work hard with those goals in mind.”
From the very first day that Liu Haoran stumbled into the entertainment industry, he hasn’t really been on guard.
Last August, after recording an episode of Happy Camp, Liu Haoran experienced his first “fan welcome”. It was raining heavily that day, and his manager was running late. He felt awkward as he stood at the train station, as about ten fans were taking pictures of him, so he asked them, “There’s a McDonalds nearby. How about we get something to eat while we wait?” He ended up paying for the fans’ meals.
During promotions for the film Detective Chinatown, Liu Haoran was in the middle of getting his hair and makeup done when he saw a piece of gossip. He turned to the journalist and said, “So this is what so-and-so’s ex-girlfriend looks like!” The staff couldn’t help but say, “Have a celebrity’s self-awareness!”
Even now, during interviews, Liu Haoran will sometimes take out his phone, pull up Douban’s Ba Zu and open up a topic. He’ll laughingly show the journalist a picture of a sad frog attached to a topic that reads, ‘How I feel upon hearing that Liu Hao Ran also hangs out on Ba Zu…’ When he’s asked why he doesn’t visit Tu (Rabbit) Qu*, he looks affronted, and says, “In terms of gossip, I can just ask my friends.”
*If you’re a follower of kpop, Ba Zu and Tu Qu (both are nicknames) are like Pann/Nate/etc. Ba Zu is a subforum on Douban, and is pretty much known as the entertainment gossip forum. Tu Qu is an entertainment forum where you can post anonymously. Back in 2016, Ba Zu was slightly better than Tu Qu in terms of not being a complete rumor mill/gossip starter. These days, I’d say that Tu Qu is a lot better in that regard. Both are well known to celebs and the C-ent industry.
Whenever little fresh meats are asked about their love lives, they will all say that their career comes first, but Liu Haoran openly says in interviews that he would like to be in relationship.
“I’ve never seen myself as a celebrity. It’s like chatting with friends, of course you’ll speak honestly,” He explains, “Since I was a child through now, I won’t do anything that I don’t want to do, or say anything that I don’t want to say. Maybe because of my personality, I’ll get hurt, but people will also like me because of my personality.”
When we talk about the top news within the industry, Liu Haoran expresses the desire to be treated like an adult. From the experience of others, he has learned the lesson that you may be beloved in one instant, and then become public enemy #1 in the next, and that CPs must be regarded in a logical manner. But when he himself makes the headlines, it’s a bit different.
The recent storm has caused Liu Haoran to learn how to protect himself a bit more.
Liu Haoran recently read a comment online that described the difference between a celebrity and an actor, “If you have good projects and performances, you will be regarded more highly, and there will be less attention paid to your personal life. Because you’ve already attained fame earlier than others, you must protect your personal life and space, or else the the scrutiny will just grow over time. This may also negatively affect your life, sensitivity, and state of mind.”
“So I want to become a good actor, so that I can gain more freedom,” Liu Haoran says.
“A lot of concerned fans will directly @ me,” Liu Haoran says as he flips through his Weibo comments, “CP is when people think that you would be good together, and will constantly make posts linking you two together. But there are others who will get annoyed, and ask why you’re always mentioned with the other.”
“I really want to grow up within the hearts of fans and the audience. I’m an adult now, but to many, I still haven’t grown up, and this makes me feel a bit odd at times.” What really confuses Liu Haoran is that some celebrities may already be 30, but their fans still call them “baby”, “Just like how I feel like I can be financially independent now, I think I’m also capable of looking after myself. But when your family members think you still haven’t grown up, it can cause you to want to rebel.”
If he had to choose between his life and his career, Liu Haoran has made his decision. In order to attend a good friend’s wedding, he willingly turned down an opportunity that could’ve helped his career a lot.
When discussing a famously low-key senior (celebrity), Liu Haoran remarks to a staff member, “I thought that I didn’t like promotional events…” The staff member interrupts him and says, “How can you become popular if you don’t promote?” Liu Haoran raises his chin and asks, “Why do I need to be popular?”
Because Liu Hao Ran started living independently in middle school, he is a lot more mature than others his age, and is also a lot more unwilling to blindly obey, “I hope that people’s perception of me changes. I have my own views, thoughts, and decisions.”
Recently, Liu Haoran’s company accepted a gig with (the variety show) College Students Are Coming on his behalf. In a month’s span, he had four events at different universities, where he would appear in front of hundreds of college students and speak for five minutes. When he first heard about this work, Liu Haoran was very hesitant, “I’m not very good at expressing myself, and I have a fear of speaking in front of so many people. That’s why I’ve avoided attending my school’s performing arts galas.”
Because he was unwilling to do it in his heart, it directly affected his performance. Liu Haoran remembers that for the first stop, the staff had spent two weeks writing a draft for him. They helped him figure out what to say, and had him memorize it, and were very cautious when he stepped on the stage for the first time in rehearsal. When the director saw it (the rehearsal), he directly contacted MC Zhang Da Da and asked him to point out the issues that couldn’t work.
During this tour, Liu Haoran was able to grow considerably. “I would edit the drafts myself and weigh every word to see if it was suitable. At the fourth (and final) stop, I asked what the main topic would be, and just ran through it once before I was ready to go on stage. At the final stop, I was able to finally freely and clearly express myself.”
Successfully completing this work has been Liu Haoran’s proudest accomplishment recently. At the end of the tour, he kept telling the staff members about it. “I wanted them to see my performance at the first stop and at the final stop. Even if you watch just a little bit of it, you can see a profound difference.” It’s a great feeling of satisfaction.
During this entire interview, Liu Haoran remained completely respectful. When the mic was shut off and the subject turned to Lou Ye, a director that he really likes, he couldn’t stop talking. Even as he escorted the journalist to the taxi, he still wanted to share his thoughts on whether Blind Massage or Spring Fever was the better film. This is an energetic youth who is growing up in the spotlight, but more importantly, hopes that his development can be seen and acknowledged.