Esquire: Racing Against Myself

Haoran gets his 8th cover of the year on the June 2019 issue of Esquire China, and a couple of cool things about this – he officially has had solo covers on all five of the major men’s magazines now! He is just the 12th male celeb across all ages to have accomplished this (he technically unlocked all 5 in Nov 2018 with GQ but needed a solo for Esquire).

For June 2019, he also accomplished the rare feat of appearing on the covers of two first tier magazines (Esquire and Marie Claire) in the same month. (If you’re new here – yes, Chinese fandoms, and Chinese fashion bloggers, keep track of magazine covers as a sign of success/relevancy.)

Also noteworthy – he had 11 covers in 2018, and is already at 8 halfway through 2019! This is also partly because he knew he’d be busy filming the second half of the year so probably arranged to have most of his magazine shoots be done in the first half of the year.

A little background on the journalist who wrote this article as she’s somewhat well known on Weibo among the younger crowd (1.5 million followers): her name is Bai Bangni and has a master’s in literature from the Beijing Film Academy. She is a young writer, scriptwriter, and blogger who rose to fame after standing out in the second season of the hugely popular debate/discussion show “Can U Bibi” (if you can understand Chinese, I highly, highly recommend this show). In the last couple of years, she’s also served as a freelance media journalist, and part of that includes writing celebrity pieces for big magazines.

This interview was actually held the second week of May, about two weeks after Haoran started filming his current movie (the photoshoot itself was completed much earlier, as you can tell from his hair).

We are back to introspective Haoran in this interview, and once again, it feels a little bittersweet, especially towards the end, as he indirectly talks about the pressure he’s been feeling. As smooth sailing as his career has been thus far, it’s also a double edged sword because at a certain point, you feel like you can only disappoint.

(Original interview released 5.28.19)

21 year old Liu Haoran is near-sighted, so the day of the photoshoot, when the photographer called for breaks, he’d reach out his hand to his assistant for his glasses so that that he could closely look at the pictures of himself on the screen. He’s a bit different from most guys his age – he’s calm, collected, a bit quiet and shy.

It’s only when we start talking about acting that he becomes incredibly animated. While everybody’s focus is on him, he is simultaneously absorbing in the things that spark his curiosity, like a plant taking in oxygen, to store away for use in the future ahead.

Youthful, Not An Idol

I’ve always really liked Liu Haoran. He’s currently in the middle of his youth, but he’s not an idol, and hence doesn’t have the intentional aloofness required of idols. He has never tried to maintain the perfect image for millions of fangirls.

It’s actually the exact opposite, he is real, straight-forward, sincere, detailed. This mono-lidded, tiger-toothed boy who was born in Pingdingshan (considered a small city) and deals with fluctuating weight, has stayed true to himself since the very beginning.

Some people say they like him because he’s an “attainable” good looking guy. There are good looking guys who are meant to be appreciated from afar, that you don’t even dare to dream about. But Haoran is like the boy in neighboring class, who is good at basketball, whose natural talent is also boosted by quiet hard work, and has a big picture view of the world. He possesses qualities that we’d deem worthy with a materialistic eye, but at the same time, he also has a non-materialistic heart.*

*T/N: Roundabout way of saying he is ideal in every way

His sense of humor and his coolness are well balanced. Whether it’s “inside” (what’s in our hearts and minds), or “outside” (appearance, success as defined by society), he has it all.

There are also those who say that he’s the type of guy that you can take home to your parents. “Reliability” is a special quality that he has. Though he’s only 21, he’s been in the industry for five years now, and has seniors by his side who are familiar with the industry and will help him navigate every step of the way. He is also ke ban (majoring in acting in college), and doesn’t have the recklessness or arrogance of many youths.

He possesses a rare self-awareness, a quality that clearly tells us that this youth will not misstep. At an age when others are still experimenting, he has already proceeded steadily on the path he’s chosen. Like an upright and handsome pine tree, he’s determinedly growing towards the light.

White Crane Youth

The Liu Haoran that I see isn’t just grounded, down-to-earth, kind – he also has an unusual spirit that comes from the determination and purity he possesses within. That’s exactly what The Legend of the Demon Cat needed, the heart of the movie. A vengeful youth who clung on to the hatred he felt, who never faltered in his quest, who refused to ignore the cruelty of the monarchy. He was full of contempt, and wanted those who destroyed beauty to pay a blood debt with their own lives.

If it was a different actor, this obsessiveness might have felt sinister, but the deep pain in Liu Haoran’s gaze, his sincere disgust for the injustice that was done, and his uprightness that stood out among the crowd effectively conveyed the youthful outrage that could not be quieted. This became icy resentment, a refined love and hatred.

His gaze pierced through the complicated truth, and everything was simple, pure.

The youth Bai Long (same characters as Haku’s name in Spirited Away) is from Hayao Miyazaki’s movie, the soul of the Japanese people. The white crane youth (Bai Long in The Legend of the Demon Cat) is the image of our people.

And I’m willing to boast without shame that he is worthy: the “white” (in white crane youth) isn’t a spiritless life – it’s the white that comes from a passionate fire that becomes ash. The “crane” is one that has flown from this Earth, a bird that laments over the state of humankind with its cries.

He is our era’s white crane youth.

Staying “Half Transparent”

The Liu Haoran in front of me has lost weight. There was a period of time when he wasn’t working, so he let loose and gained 9kg (~20 lbs). He’s recently shed the extra pounds, so the him in front of me has a defined jaw and smiling eyes. Sitting on the couch, he’s sincere but relaxed. The handsomeness, the warmth, the uprightness he exudes – you just know that in time, he’ll become an even more responsible, open minded, tolerant man.

What he talks about the most is acting, and he becomes incredibly animated doing so. It’s like he’s a little monk who’s entered the temple for the first time; he’s incredibly humble and respectful, and is seriously, studiously studying acting. He understands so much at his young age, it leaves me in shock.

He talks about the idea of staying “half transparent”. He says that before, he thought that what he needed to do was the proper prep work, such as annotating his script, and marking what movements to make at certain places, where to pause, which cameras to look at. Essentially, to think about what he needs to do in each scene before acting. But then he realized that his approach was wrong.

The director’s interpretation of a scene, how the people you are sharing a scene with perform, the true emotions you feel in that moment, as you are acting out that scene – these are what’s most important! Planning out how you are acting means you become lifeless. Every minute, every second is following a script (it’s insincere). And subsequently, the people watching you will become distracted and taken out of the scene.

So he’s understood now – you have to give space to everyone who you’re working with. Your heart should entirely be in it, but stay half transparent, loose.

He talked about a scene that he did with an amazing actor – he (Haoran) felt completely suppressed by the other actor’s powerful presence, and was unable to perform. It was a terrifying feeling. But with hard work, step by step, he was able to act better, which in turn, also helped the opposing actor. In that moment. Haoran felt a little giddy, “I thought, maybe I’m okay.”

A Thankful Heart

He talks about working with a big director*. Chen Kaige is known for being incredibly well read and cultured, an intellectual artist with an incredible knowledge. When The Legend of the Demon Cat wrapped up, Director Kaige wrote (calligraphy) a line for cinematographer Cao Yu, a couplet he came up with on the spot (not translating this because there’s no way I could do it justice, but just know it’s poetically beautiful and deep – it left such a deep impression on Haoran that he memorized it).

*T/N: The word used here “da dao 大导” can be directly translated as big directors, and is usually in reference to a very select few names in the Chinese film industry – Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang, Jiang Wen. Ang Lee and Wong Karwai would also fall here, of course (but aren’t mainland directors). Jia Zhangke and Cao Baoping are sometimes included, but don’t have quite the same level of public name recognition the others have. These guys are the top tier in the c-ent industry.

Haoran says, filming with Director Kaige is like leaning against a giant tree*. He loves listening to Director Kaige explain scenes, and will sit down with him and listen to his detailed explanations as the director analyzes the character, the context,

“Think about it. An intellectual like him explaining his own understanding of a scene, his analysis, his probing, and breaking it down into such detailed layers – to have that, even if you are only able to absorb a little bit of it, is infinitely more helpful than just relying on your own thoughts, because you gain so much more (insight).”

T/N: Chen Kaige made an appearance on Season 2 of acting variety show “I Am Actor” in 2018 as a mentor and netizens (including me) were super impressed with how quickly he could get to the heart of a scene and know exactly the points an actor should grasp too. Though he’s always had the reputation as being one of the directors best as this, being able to see him do it live was something else.

Haoran deeply treasures everything he’s taught, which includes what the director says directly, but also the things he doesn’t say. He understands camera language, “Director Kaige is very protective of his actors, and I love the way he uses camera shots. He rarely focuses in on an actor’s face, which always terrifies me because I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do? Am I supposed to look very emotional?”

“But Director Kaige likes to use Steadicam and long shots to capture an actor’s performance. The way you use camera shots is a language of its own. Same goes for use of color, tones. So when these are all present, it all flows together, and makes everything comfortable.”

“This is why the Oscars also gives out awards for Art Director, for lighting, special effects. They all play important roles in a film. A lot of the time as an actor, when you have your makeup, costume, hair, everything put together, you naturally know what to do. Not having to intentionally act is really awesome.”

This young man not only respects and understands the art of performance, he also understands the restrictions of actors and how they benefit (from the other people on set).

A Secret

Not sure how we got to this topic, but he brings up an interesting point regarding his near sighted-ness as we continue to discuss acting.

“I think I’m quite sensitive to details? Perhaps it’s because I’m near-sighted,” He jokes with a grin. His eyes are shining with excitement. Liu Haoran’s so near sighted that if he takes his glasses off, he won’t be able to differentiate between men and women even for those standing just a few meters away. However, he remains determined not to wear contacts on set when filming.

“From the day that I entered the industry, I have never worn contacts when acting in any of my projects!” You might not be able to understand why he’s so proud over this, only he does, but he looks so proud of himself that it’s adorable, “When you can see clearly, you become very reliant on your vision. But when we can’t see well, our other senses – smell, taste, hearing – all become a lot stronger.”

He talks about a training exercise they had at school. The teacher asked them, “What do you hear?” Some said they could hear breathing, others say they heard sneezing, people talking quietly. Then, they were asked to lie down on the floor, to close their eyes, and listen carefully. After five minutes, they could hear the sounds from upstairs, from downstairs, what people were doing in other classrooms.

Another five minutes later, the teacher asked them again what they had heard. “I’m not joking. I really could hear the sound of doors. It was like…even though our classroom door was shut, my ears had extended to outside the classroom, so I could hear everything going on in the halls, by the stairs.”

His senses have become sharpened, like those of a little wild animal.

Practicing His Gaze

Every great actor has something they focus on improving: For The Godfather, Marlon Brando worked on developing a deep, raspy voice. Jiang Wen developed his own personal pose.

So if he doesn’t wear contacts and can’t see, how can Liu Haoran act? He says that specifically practices his gaze by staring into a mirror. “Firstly, don’t purposefully look. Secondly, what you’re practicing is the reaction time of your gaze. People who are near sighted have two habits – squinting, and reacting slowly when seeing something because you’re still trying to figure out what it is.”

That’s just the foundation. For Detective Chinatown’s Qin Feng, who is a young genius detective, he needs to have an intelligent, determined, and sharp gaze,

“I watched Sherlock and studied Benedict Cumberbatch’s gaze. A genius’ sensitivity is so strong – they receive messages from almost everything. From a cellphone, they can tell habits, characteristics, etc. So your gaze has to show you’re processing a lot of information in a very short amount of time, while staying calm and collected.


He says, when he feels restless, he reads. What does it mean to become restless? “When I find myself fast forwarding through a movie. I never skim through films. Maybe dramas, but not films, so when I find myself starting to, I realize that I’m not in a good state of mind.”

What does he read? He says he wants to understand the people and eras of the past. When he was in Xiangyang (for Eagle Flag), and was feeling incredibly restless during those eight months of filming, he read Wang Shuo’s Wild Beast (Jiang Wen’s famous award-winning film In the Heat of the Sun is based on this novel), works by Xiao Hong, and Liu Cixin (sci-fi author of the famous The Three-Body Problem and yes, The Wandering Earth). Haoran also laughs a little at himself and says he might not understand what he’s reading then.

I’m Afraid of Making Mistakes

The more we talk, the more I feel that this is a young man who is very strict with himself. He’s very self-disciplined and self-aware. At 21 years old, he might be a little too hard on himself.

Maybe this is because he has a father who was in the military. From childhood through now, his father has been like a mountain. He doesn’t laugh easily, and is always serious. The sternness of a solider, of a father – he possesses both.

Maybe it’s because Haoran understands too well just how lucky he’s been. He describes it himself: the year that he was seventeen, it was like a huge gust of wind scooped him up and gave him a path of smooth sailing. He understands that wasn’t because of his natural talents or because of his hard work, but because he was fortunate.

And he doesn’t want this gust of wind to just blow by, he wants to see it, to become it. From my perspective, this youth who stands amidst the wind is doing everything he can to stay grounded, to become a little “heavier” and sturdier.

Maybe, he already feels the pressure, others closing in, “Before when filming, I was always the youngest. Recently, all the sets I’ve been on, there have been those younger than me. I am no longer in the front row, I’m already inching towards the middle*.”

*T/N: I don’t think he’s talking about status here, just that he’s realizing things are constantly changing.

I ask him, “What are you afraid of?” After asking a while, he finally admits, “I’m afraid of doing something wrong, but I’m not sure what.”

I really treasure this answer. A youth’s sincere fear, the worry of someone who seems like a prodigy on the surface, the hard work and struggles of someone who everyone thinks has it all…it’s touching. Compared to someone being pushed by the wind, this young man who wants to ride it, who wants to use his hard work to hold his weight and stand in the wind, it seems a lot more sincere and precious.

Spirited Youth

A friend tells me, she likes Liu Haoran because of his alpha-ness. Though it’s not always apparent, but he very much has his own thoughts and ideas, and is very clear on the decisions he makes for himself.

I didn’t fully understand what she meant, but I can see hints: the male celebrities he likes are all very, very “alpha”: Tom Hardy, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt.

The female celebrities he likes are quite sweet and cute. His first answer is Anne Hathaway. and then The Great Gatsby‘s Carey Mulligan, The Boat That Rocked‘s Talulah Riley. And of course, always ScarJo.

He doesn’t mention it specifically, but he hangs out a lot with guy friends: they’ll watch movies, discuss acting, play games, watch dramas…he really enjoys hanging out with the guys. There are no secrets between them, just a bunch of close, cheerful friends.

He also reveals, “I am a huge anime fan.” I totally didn’t expect this, and he instantly recommended more than twenty new titles to me. He talked about the characters, the dying industry, and the pain over the changing styles of manga writers.

Here’s what he recommended, what he’s been watching: Mob Psycho 100 (recommended 3x!), Blood Blockade Battlefront, Fullmetal Alchemist, Run With the Wind (what inspired him to start running!), Bungo Stray Dogs, Durarara!!, One Punch Man, My Hero Academia, Killer Seven (this one’s Chinese), The Disastrous Life of Saiki K, and Carole & Tuesday.

Honestly speaking, after being recommended so many anime titles and seeing the pure excitement on his face, I felt assured, as I was finally seeing a 21 year old. He’s not just a trustworthy child, someone who loves learning, who is reliable – he also loves playing, anime, and many other interests. It’s great.

Keep Running, Young Man!

The last question is in regards to a recurring nightmare he’s had lately.

Without hesitating, he says, “I dream of a large, empty warehouse, and someone’s chasing me. It’s one of those buildings that was never completed, so there aren’t solid walls, just the ceiling, and posts, like the ones you see in movies. That’s where I’m running for my life, where I’m being chased.”

I think he probably understands, this is a dream about pressure, his fears, his worries. He also probably knows, what chases him, what spurns him forward, is his motivation.

So keep running, this 21 year old! May you continue to move forward, to rise to greater heights, to find your “heaven” of acting. May your apprehension, your self discipline, slowly loosen up over time. May you always love your anime, your idols, that your sunshinyness and passion never changes. May you finally be able to stand in the eye of the storm with a smile on your face.

May you continue to keep running, and realize, that the person who’s chasing you, is yourself.

Leave a Reply