GQ: Half Mature, Half Youth – Part 1

Haoran’s twelfth cover came in the form of the November 2018 issue of GQ China and effectively completed his unlocking of all five of the covers of the big men’s fashion magazines.

Based on what’s been said thus far, the photoshoot for GQ took place in Paris back in June 2018 (presumably on the same day as the Men’s Uno shoot), though the interview wouldn’t take place until months later. That picture of Haoran that went viral in late September, where he was photographed leaving an interview on his bike? That was for GQ.

So the structure of this interview is a bit interesting – there were two articles released, which we didn’t realize until after we already translated one, but essentially GQ released a version that was just a transcript of Liu Hao Ran talking, and then an article-based one that includes some of the content from the transcript. We’ve split this into 2 parts (Part 2 can be found here).

(Full interview released on November 2, 2018)

In the past two years, Liu Haoran has picked up a bunch of new skills. For someone with zero prior experience, he can now ride high spirited horses. He went from 150kg to 120kg, practices calligraphy, can let his tears fall freely in front of a large production team, and has surpassed his father’s position in the family and is the one to order food when they go out.

It’s been five years since Liu Haoran debuted, but he’s only just turned 21. He is now already used to the status of “celebrity”, and his task now is to focus on learning how to become a real “actor”, and to let himself mature into a man.

Enduring Military Training for the Fifth Time

After getting up at 5am, Liu Haoran makes his way to the outdoor gymnasium, still incredibly sleepy. Dressed in new military clothing, and carrying a blue plastic water bottle, he finds a random place to sit, to let himself zone out for a bit.

“Good morning, upperclassman!” An underclassman that he doesn’t know greets him.

“Hello,” Liu Haoran returns, and then asks where he can find his group. After being pointed in the right direction, he wakes himself up and makes his way over to the group.

A few minutes later, as he stands in the ranks with the rest of his group, the news that “Liu Haoran is here for military training” has spread like wildfire among the rest of the students at the Central Academy of Drama.

Within a day, that short thirty seconds of him spacing out in the early morning is already a hot topic online. The underclassmen – both guys and girls – give live updates of his military training experience via written accounts and pictures:

“Upperclassman asked me for directions”

“Upperclassman couldn’t take a picture with me but we chatted”

“Upperclassman played with his hat when we were resting”

“Our instructor said Liu Haoran is right in front of you, can’t you all sing louder?”

“I walked right past Liu Haoran”

“I just saw Liu Hao Ran on my way back to the dorms!!”

“I”m trying to control my breathing but my heart is still beating so fast.”

“If only my eyes were cameras – I’d take a thousand pictures.”

These pictures and accounts made their way quickly through various social media platforms. Just by looking at the daily trending topics, you could tell what type of training Liu Haoran had that day (walking drills, standing drills, routines with guns) and what food he ate that day. Even after military training ended, there was a video uploaded by a (male) underclassmen, where Liu Haoran can be seen asking, “Has anyone bought sauces?”

Liu Haoran and sauce immediately became a hot topic online.

In a media interview afterwards, he was asked, “Fans said you should do a country wide military training tour.” The Liu Haoran who was three shades darker than his usual skin tone looked at the camera and joked, “They want me to die.”

This is Liu Haoran’s fourth time donning a military uniform in the public’s eyes: reality show It Takes A Real Man, military training scenes in With You, and his performance as the young Su Yu in The Founding of An Army. If you were to count Nirvana in Fire 2, where he played a young general leading his troops to war, it’s been five times in total.

“The videos (during military training) were pretty much all taken by people who I don’t know, as they probably took it from afar and were in other groups. The students who trained directly with me lost that fresh feeling by day two, day three, so none of them would keep thinking of me as a celebrity,” Liu Hao Ran says.

For this youth, who just turned 21, the two weeks of military training was a rare chance where he was able fully relax. He had just spent nine months filming Novoland: Eagle Flag, where he plays male lead Lv Guichen. In the past, he has counted his scripts by page numbers, but this time it’s by the books, as there were six volumes in total. The drama was filmed from winter in Xinjiang to the peak of summer in Hubei.

Conditions were quite poor in Xinjiang – if you were to completely soak the largest towel available in water, it would dry completely overnight. There was one morning with his assistant went to wake him up, and found that Liu Haoran had blood around his mouth, and that his sheets and pillows were all covered with blood as well. The assistant was so terrified he didn’t know what to do, and immediately called his colleague for help.

It was because the air was too dry, which caused Liu Haoran’s gums to bleed, and as he slept, the blood got everywhere. When another assistant arrived, he discovered a laughing Liu Haoran taking pictures of the bed and of himself. The pictures never made their way online, as people might think he was trying to earn sympathy.

Those long nine months took up much of Liu Haoran’s 20th year. This drama set new records for the boy in his career thus far, including the longest work day (20 hours), constant costume changes, and a consecutive week of overnight filming.

“It was exhausting. My physical and mental state were both not good.” He explains further. For every scene, he spent a lot of time thinking about how to enact it, and tried to make subtle changes from scene to scene. His brain was constantly working. Actors use up a lot of brain power and physical strength during filming.

In comparison, military training is a lot easier. “The other students were exhausted, but I felt refreshed after military training.”

Liu Haoran is a senior in college this year, a mature upperclassman, so many of the freshmen sought him out for advice. Should I sign with this company? Do you think I should take this project? Upperclassman, I want to film this project, but the school won’t let me – what should I do?

“I’ll tell them that they should schedule an in-person meeting (with the company), and remind them of points that they should focus on during the discussion. If you’re going to sign the contract, read it carefully and make sure there aren’t any word games.” Liu Haoran is like a career counselor, and will analyze each step.

We interrupt him: when it comes to choosing a company, you aren’t really familiar with that!*

T/N: Unlike normal performing arts students, who go to school first and then get auditions/offers to join a company, Haoran was casted first for a project (Beijng Love Story), and then signed to his current company for the next project (Detective Chinatown).

Under the eyes of us journalist jiejies, the upperclassman turns back to the 20 year old Haoran didi. He nods, and admits that he’s different from regular students. He walked the traditional ‘open casting’ path – his road to stardom accidentally started when he was 16, right after he started high school. The casting call in 2013 changed his entire direction in life – like he had been pre-chosen by fate.

The Challenges of Being Chosen

Like the stories we’ve read of stars from ten years ago, Liu Haoran’s acceptance into the Beijing Dance Academy was an accident of sorts, like he just casually stumbled upon the opportunity.

Because he was too mischievous as a child, his parents had him take ballroom dancing classes. He had only taken it for two years when the Beijing Dance Academy came to Pingdingshan to recruit. Then just a sixth grader, Liu Haoran was not a good dancer. “When I finished dancing (for my audition), the teachers all laughed.”

But somehow, he got a callback and arrived at the Beijing Dance Academy during winter break for the next round of auditions. The other students there all had six or seven years of training. Liu Haoran was immediately eliminated for the ballroom dancing major.

For the performance major audition, he had originally wanted to sing a different song, but couldn’t memorize the lyrics, so hastily changed to another song that was extremely easy to sing. He knew it was a shot, and just wanted to go to Beijing for holiday. But his trip was not for nothing.

“I ended up ranking fourth among the males.” Even now, he doesn’t really know how to explain it, and isn’t sure what the judges’ panel saw in him.

Three years later, in 2013, Liu Haoran was in a building for another open casting call. Then a freshman in high school, Liu Hao Ran didn’t really stand out – he’s not the traditionally pretty boy with big eyes. He has monolids and a tiger tooth, and while he had some performance training at the Beijing Dance Academy, he never had appeared before a camera before.

There were more than 20 boys and girls. They took turns standing on a chair in the middle of the room, and had to yell out, “Farewell, Beijing!” in front of the casting directors.

“It looks really foolish, but I wasn’t very optimistic, so I had no pressure.” Liu Haoran didn’t know then how important the role of “Song Ge” would be. In the film, the older characters all had the pain of adulthood – only Song Ge would experience an innocent, youthful love.

At the auditions, director Chen Sicheng had his eye on several of the candidates, and wanted to choose someone who gave off a ‘clean, simple, and pure’ feeling. He thought of an idea, and had the kids all sit together and play games. After an afternoon of getting to know each other, Chen Si Cheng gave them an assignment: “On a piece of paper, please write down the name of the person that you like the most (of the opposite gender).”

There were almost twenty girls, and most of them chose him. Chen Sicheng immediately decided on Liu Haoran, and for the first time, this child got an explanation for his luck, “He has the most important quality for an actor, which is likability.”

Beijing Love Story‘s Song Ge, With You‘s Yu Huai, even The Legend of the Demon Cat‘s obsessive Bai Long – Liu Hao Ran has played many different versions of a pure youth, and has shown his growth with every role. But he’s also turned down many projects in the genre.

After Beijing Love Story, Chen Sicheng signed Liu Hao Ran. These past years, Chen Sicheng has helped him to reject many projects that “paid very, very well.” He didn’t want Liu Haoran to become typecast. “Once you act in a youth campus drama, there isn’t a lot of meaning in taking another one.”

The youth matured much faster than everyone had thought, because he was tested very early on.

When he was filming With You, for the first 22 episodes, Liu Haoran was the perfect Yu Huai. At the time, he had just been accepted into the Central Academy of Drama, ranked first in his major, so his real life self was very similar to the accomplished and mischievous student in the drama.

But in the final episode, there was a time skip to 10 years later, when he (Yu Huai) had to simultaneously face his mother’s sickness and his love life problems, and you could clearly see that Liu Haoran was still too young. He had never experienced that kind of pain. The lines where he was going through inner conflict – you could tell he was acting.

A year later, when he accepted Nirvana In Fire 2, he knew that the audience wouldn’t always be accepting of his inexperience and think it’s cute.

When he first started filming Nirvana In Fire 2 in 2016, for a very long time, Liu Hao Ran was so stressed he couldn’t sleep. The other actors on set – Huang Xiaoming, Tong Liya, Sun Chun, Mei Ting…they were all very experienced, accomplished actors. He was still so young, and would be expected to be the sole star in the second half of the drama. The large amounts of father and son scenes, military patriotism, and love of country – he didn’t have any experience in these areas (at that scale).

Nirvana In Fire 1’s reputation was flawless. It’s said that Hu Ge (for NiF 1) had scribbled notes all over his copy of the script, to write context and background for all the different scenes. Liu Haoran wanted to as well, and wrote all over his script, in regards to the action scenes, the lines, the other actors he was sharing a scene with. He color-coded it, and went into detail on what was taking place in a specific scene, and what the emotions should be there.

“But most of the time, I wasn’t sure what to write. I didn’t know how (Hu Ge) wrote so much.” The 20 year old ran into a real problem. He doesn’t quite know how to describe the struggle he felt then, so he uses the example of filming a watch advertisement, “The first shot, I’ll make sure the watch is on display. The second time, I must think of a new pose, but still show the watch. By the time I’ve filmed five scenes, I’ve pretty much used up all the possible poses. You run out of ideas on how to create a new pose.”

Will the director not teach you a new way?

“The director will teach you, but if the director has to teach you every step of the way, he’s not going to use you again in the future. Because as an actor, if you can’t impress the director, and if you can’t complete what he is asking of you, your road will become narrower and narrower.”

The 20 year old Liu Haoran had a smooth road up til then, but that’s not necessarily a good thing for an actor. He didn’t have enough life experience to call upon.

Nirvana In Fire 2 had several crying scenes. Liu Haoran suffers from dry eyes, but didn’t want to force his tears. Every time he filmed a crying scene, the entire production team could feel the pressure on him. The assistant director witnessed the entire process, “He suffered a lot, because he felt as if he was wasting everyone’s time. But it’s a very natural problem, nobody on the set would blame him.”

In the scene where his brother dies, Liu Haoran tried two or three times, but just couldn’t get the tears to come out. Huang Xiaoming, who plays his brother, advised him to relax, to not force himself to be sad. Don’t worry about not being able to cry. When you are filming, exhale, and really feel the environment around you, and the story taking place. The emotions will come naturally.

After that scene, he was never again scared when filming. Before every scene, he’ll take a deep breath and exhale. Wang Hong, an assistant director on Nirvana In Fire 2, was most touched by a very important scene in the second half:

Liu Haoran’s young general character refused to obey the imperial decree, and went to war with the enemy. Before he went to court to face the consequences, he first returned home to pay his respects to his elderly father, who he hadn’t seen in a year.

After kneeling in front of his father, Liu Haoran didn’t say a word. Sun Chun, who played his father, did not reprimand his son. Instead, he praised his son for serving his country, and that “your father and brother are proud of you.”

Before the scene, Liu Haoran had several discussions with the veteran actor Sun Chun, and concluded that Xiao Pingjing felt wronged and helpless. When filming actually started, Liu Hao Ran walked in through the door, and suddenly felt the heavy burden and wronged state (of the character). When he heard this line, the tears immediately began to fall.

Behind the cameras, director Kong Sheng and assistant director Wang Hong were so moved that they also had tears running down their faces. They watched as Sun Chun rose up from his seat to pull up Liu Haoran into a hug, finishing his lines with red-rimmed eyes.

Sun Chun later explained why he wiped away Liu Hao Ran’s tears: “Director, I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself. I felt so sorry for the child.”

Half Mature, Half Innocent

The day of our interview, Liu Haoran was the first to arrive. He just had lunch with his mom and uncle, and then rode 5 km on his bike in the sun. He arrived at the cafe 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

At the time, the hype from military training still had not passed, and there was a new photo that popped up on Weibo: a few days ago, a group of underclassmen took a group photo in front of the school, and someone called out to Liu Haoran, who was passing by. They handed him a phone and asked him to take their photo.

And “road side photographer Liu Hao Ran” became yet another hot topic.

But Liu Haoran didn’t wear a mask today. When he rode his bike, no one recognized him. A few days ago, he got a flat tire on his bike in Beijing’s most popular district and he pushed his bike through crowds of people to find a repair shop.

No one recognized you?


He understands very well the difference between real life and the Internet. “When people are resting, they will go online and read up on many different topics, and have many discussions. But in real life, people are much too busy. When you finally have time to go shopping in Sanlitun (where he was with his bike), your eyes won’t be like a radar. You won’t be focused on thinking, ‘Who is this? Who is that?’ Nobody cares about that.”

The first time he felt his emerging popularity was in 2016, when he went to Chongqing to film Happiness Is Coming. With You was airing then, and when he got off the plane, about twenty girls were waiting for him, with cameras in hand. “I was terrified.” Liu Haoran immediately went to the men’s bathroom, and sent a message to his team: What’s going on?!

That was two years ago. Now, Liu Haoran is used to airport pickups. “Everyone just wants to quietly walk with you, take some pictures, put it on Weibo. This is one of the ways they show their love for you, and there’s a mutual respect and understanding.” He’s told fans before that he won’t accept gifts, so now they just give him books, letters, and some inexpensive stuffed animals. And he accepts them.

We bring up the fact that some fans have said online that Liu Haoran isn’t appreciative of the fans who greet him at the airport, that he isn’t friendly to them as he always has headphones on and ignores them.

“The first thing I’ll do at the airport is politely put on my earphones,” Liu Hao Ran’s a bit surprised as he explains that he wears earphones to avoid any awkwardness, “There are some questions, that if you hear them, you will have to answer. But once you answer, you worry that there are cameras nearby, and that everyone will crowd around asking more questions. The airport is a public setting, so I’m worried about bothering other people.”

He doesn’t sign autographs at the airport, and doesn’t interact very much with fans. He’ll say goodbye to everyone once he gets to the car. It’s always like this for him. “There might be those who just recently started liking me and then discover when they come to greet me at the airport that I’m different from what they had imagined to be like, and will be disappointed. But I think disappointment is normal, because we don’t know each other very well yet. Once we’re more familiar, we’ll both get used to it.”

You can provide fan service, we say.

“Fans and entertainers both have the right to choose each other. We should both be comfortable.” Liu Haoran feels if he forces himself to do things that he’s not comfortable with, over time, things may change. “For example, if you attract a ton of fans because of interaction at the airport, and one day you’re just not in the mood, and you don’t interact or engage in fan service, the fans will feel extremely disappointed, and will be even more hurt.”

This is someone who is a mix of an innocent boy and a mature man. He is curious about the license plate lottery in Beijing, as well as the housing prices in his hometown of Pingdingshan. His parents are still living in their old 100 square meter home, and Liu Haoran’s recent goal is to buy them a bigger house.

This plan has given him the pride of an adult, “My father has always been the leader in our home, and won’t even let us look at the menu when we eat out.” Now when he goes home and they eat out, his family passes him the menu first.

He also has the inexperience of a 21 year old. He’s learning to become an adult, but still shows signs of his youth. When he’s frustrated during filming, he’ll spend a couple of hours just practicing calligraphy. At first, his hand shook, but now he’s used to it. “I’ll mute my phone, and not do anything else. The most important thing is to clear your mind.”

We are astonished as we’re handed his phone, where we see photos of his calligraphy. It’s obvious he’s practiced a lot and looks good. But if you look closer, you’ll see that some of the strokes are a little crooked.

You traced over existing red characters, we ask. “Of course,” The boy nods immediately, “Otherwise how could I write like this when I have no experience?”

When he first arrived, there were sweat marks on his white shirt, and his hair was messy. He wore black rimmed glasses, and had tossed his hat on the table. It was obvious he had been in the noon sun.

Three hours later, his sweat had dried, and when the interview was over, he put his hat on, grabbed his backpack, and bid everyone farewell.

This has been a great conversation. He was like the school hunk that we all had in our school days: intelligent and witty. For every question that we asked, he would look at us in the eyes and do his best to give us a complete answer.

But our 19 year old intern meimei (affectionate term for a younger girl) saw a different scene. As we all left, she saw Liu Hao Ran bike past. He recognized her from afar, and nodded at her and grinned, showing his tiger’s tooth.

“He was standing up while biking, and rode very fast.” The sidewalk was dyed a golden brown by the setting sun, and the young girl saw him ride off, like a classmate who just got out of class, “The Liu Haoran that everyone knows is mature and studious, but the Liu Haoran who rode past on his bike is the real Hao Ran gege (term for older brother)!”

The 21 year old Liu Haoran pedaled hard on his bike, and quickly disappeared from our sights.

(Part 2 can be found here)

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