iFeng Entertainment: Heart Is Forever Full of Light

We are one day away from Liu Haoran’s 6th anniversary since debut (February 14 is probably one of the easiest anniversary dates to remember, heh), and in honor of that, wanted to revisit a special feature iFeng did in January 2018. It’s hard to believe it’s already been two years since then, but here we are.

2018 was a transformative year for Haoran in a number of ways: first and foremost, it skyrocketed both his popularity and public recognition, primarily due to Detective Chinatown 2, but also the successful back to back to back performances he had in Legend of the Demon Cat, Nirvana In Fire 2, and DC2.

Secondly, it pushed him up as one of the leading young film actors of the new generation, both within the industry and to the public. The combination of the two factors also meant a significant elevation in his industry “status”, and the endorsements and magazines covers have been steady since.

In January 2018, as NIF2 was airing and a month before DC2 hit theaters, iFeng Entertainment did a special New Year feature that they called the “Post-Wave Era”, naming and featuring five young artists in the industry who showed boundless potential: Zhou Dongyu, Wang Junkai, Liu Haoran, Dong Zijian, and Wen Qi.

Looking back, iFeng indeed had a good eye – all five are still holding strong in their respective career trajectories.

Their resumes speak for themselves, even in early 2018: Zhou Dongyu was already a Golden Horse Best Actress winner then (she’s only piled on more nominations and wins since, as well proving that she’s a box office queen); Wang Junkai’s public recognition, popularity, and impact as a role model as both an individual and as part of TFBOYS is almost unrivaled.

Dong Zijian was coming off a strong couple of years on the awards circuit for his film performances; and Wen Qi was the 14 year old prodigy who won Best Supporting Actress and was nominated for Best Actress (for two different films) at the 2017 Golden Horse Awards.

As for Haoran…from 2016 through 2017, even when he had just three projects under his belt, he was still someone who everyone placed bets on for potential, because of the aforementioned trio of projects he was filming: a supporting role in a Chen Kaige film. Lead in a Kong Sheng-directed Daylight Entertainment drama. And the male lead of a commercial film sequel (these, plus The Founding of An Army, were filmed back to back to back to back)

Due to the longevity of an acting career, particularly for male actors, what you have in your upcoming works is almost just as important as the works that have aired. And he’s boosted his resume considerably since then, with both a major Best Actor nomination as well as now having a box office gross of 8+ billion RMB.

The interview he did for this feature takes place right before that turning point to the next stage of his career, and it’s particularly interesting looking back now. To add some perspective, this was also when he was just beginning filming for Novoland: Eagle Flag.

I’ve been meaning to sub this for two years now, but never had the time, so transcribing it instead (will still try to time it one day).

Theme for Haoran’s feature: “Heart is forever full of light”.

(Original interview released 1.16.18)

Q: How do you balance (what you learn at) school (Central Academy of Drama) with what you’ve experienced in the field (on actual filming sets)?

A: They’re quite different. At school, we learn things like animal imitations, or (given assignments to) observe life, and those who are only studying at school may not quite understand how that’s related to acting.

For example, when I’m acting, I’m portraying people. But at school, I have to imitate dogs, cats, or leopards. So students will probably say, there really isn’t any correlation between these things.

Through the filming I’ve done, and from the conversations I’ve had with other actors, I can now clearly see the purpose in every class, every training activity.

One of the introductory classes for acting is animal imitations, and when you’re told to portray a dog or a leopard, what you really need to observe is which body part is moving first when they’re on the move.

For animals in the cat family, it’s their shoulders, and you must understand where their core is. So it’s a detailed trailed on observation skills and body control. And these are traits you’ll need when you’re portraying a character.

Q: In the beginning, it’s about unlocking your nature (learning how to let go in acting). But I don’t think that’s really an issue for you.

A: I learned to unlock it on the film set. When we were filming Beijing Love Story…we had a period of time before filming started where we had teachers on set who would take me on the streets of Beijing. And suddenly at a bus stop, he’ll hold up a camera and say, “Go act”.

All around us were people who were going to or getting off work. And there I was, having to act on the spot. So that’s how I learned to let go. For a normal person who hasn’t been through acting training before, who hasn’t learned the liberation of nature yet, they’ll feel very awkward.

Q: When do you think you were able to fully let go?

A: I think it isn’t a big issue now.

Q: You’ve been an actor for a while now, but you actually still haven’t yet graduated from college. So do you feel aware of the issues that surround acting as a profession?

A: I think so. The first thing is that you must realize what kind of career this is. It isn’t a glamorous profession. As an actor, portraying good roles in good projects…it isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s not what people may think it’s like. You have to make sacrifices, undergo continuous practice, and there are many things that you may not have come in contact with in your daily life.

You have to do what the director asks you to do. If they want you to jump into the water, you do it. If they want you to get on the horse, you get on the horse. You have to put in a lot of effort and energy. It’s not an easy thing to do.

Q: How was it working with director Chen Kaige for Legend of the Demon Cat?

A: If you haven’t read a lot of books, there are times where you may not even understand what the director is saying (T/N: Chen Kaige is known for being extremely cultured and well read). But it was okay, I actually do love reading books.

Q: So what was it like communicating with him?

A: When working with newer actors like us, Director Kaige will use language that’s easier to understand. He is a director that’s very good at storytelling, and very good at communicating with his actors. He will very clearly tell you what he wants to see, what he hopes to see.

And that makes it easier for us newer actors, because we just need to complete his wishes. As a newer actor, what scares us the most is hearing a director say, “It’s okay, just go with your emotions“.

Because many times, our interpretation or understanding of our characters’ emotions may not be that accurate. Or because we are lacking in acting experience and life experience, we aren’t that confident in our thoughts about a character.

So if a director tells us, “Just go with how you think it should be”, we’ll get nervous. For a mature, experienced actor, when they hear that, they’ll be very happy, because they have a lot of ideas (about the character). But younger actors may not have that many yet.

Q: On your path thus far, which part has helped you the most?

A: They’ve all been immensely helpful. But honestly, if we were to talk about the starting point, it’d be director Sicheng. Because he brought me into the industry, and helped me realize what acting really is about.

But Nirvana In Fire 2 also gave me so much help. I said at the time, it’s likely that for many years going forward, I will still have the feeling that that NIF2 had given me. There is so much work that goes into a historical drama. In comparison, filming a movie may feel relatively easier.

So the workload that came with NIF2…that’s probably what I need to get used to going forward. I need to be used to doing a lot of prep work in advance, learning how to work with and adjust to the fast tempo of a very mature and professional production team. The filming process for NIF2 allowed me to learn a lot of things.

Q: For a drama like Nirvana In Fire 2, will you make adjustments to the script?

A: Yes. As we are filming, or after a scene, we’ll come together and talk about what may need adjustments or changes. Especially the longer you’ve been filming, the more familiar you are with the script..you’ll slowly have your own thoughts and ideas. I think that’s where you need to communicate with the director.

Q: Do you think you have natural talent in this area? For example, potentially doing something behind the scenes?

A: Maybe in a few years, I’ll put down acting as a career for a while and do something different. Because that’s what movies are like. When you are acting, it’s not just knowing your job as the actor.

I’ve read online before. Many very experienced actors…they have a very clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of everyone on set. Lighting, sound, camera shots. Especially the art of filming. They understand it very well.

You might hear one of the cameramen say, change to the 35 or 70 lens. The actor instantly knows, based on the distance of the camera, how to adjust his performance.

For me, I know if you’re filming a close shot, I can adjust my facial expression. When it’s a half body shot, I can include some hand movements. And when it’s a full body shot, I’ll add in footwork. A very common problem for new actors is they often “use their back to act” (T/N: their back is facing the camera).

Q: Do you add in any of your own designs (for the shots)?

A: Yes, it’s a more frequent occurrence now. Before, I didn’t have as many ideas, and also, I was a little scared (to speak up), wasn’t very confident.

Q: Is it also that there’s more room in dramas (to make changes/improvisations)?

A: Theoretically, yes.

Q: Have you found your own bottleneck?

A: Yes. Especially in the process of filming a drama. Drama filming can be quite long. For an actor…for me at this age, I feel like firstly, I’m prone to be sensitive, and secondly, I’ll have mood swings.

It’s really easy to feel down after a scene where I don’t think I did very well, or read too much into the director’s response and wonder if he wasn’t pleased by my performance. And once you have these thoughts, you get stuck and it’s hard to come out of that hole.

For mature actors, it’s probably very easy for them to adjust their moods, but it’s a slow process for me.

Q: Do you think you need (more) experience?

A: Yes.

Q: Will you choose your next roles to get that experience?

A: I think I absolutely need that, but it’s also difficult, because of the current environment. I still hope to be able to do so though. But I also think it’s also tied to your life experience. As you get older, your life experience will naturally grow as well, such as getting married and having kids, or learning to deal with the passing of family members. It will change you.

So I hope to be able to still somehow experience (life). Of course, I hope I can be an actor who can successfully portray any character he takes on. And I’m working towards that direction, including the projects I take on. Even though I am a this age, I have taken on relatively fewer (pure) youth roles*.

*T/N: Should mention here, at this time, he was still worried about being typecasted in Yu Huai, Song Ge-like roles. In the interviews he took on after NIF2 finished its run and DC2‘s box office success, he said that he was no longer concerned about this.

And I hope that I can walk on the path and direction of a mature actor sooner rather than later. I also feel that the road I have taken thus far has been correct.

Q: When choosing projects, has your team been the one to have the bigger impact on decision-making? Or you yourself?

A: It’s like this. I probably get a lot of scripts and projects, but I don’t necessarily have the time to look at all of them closely, due to work, including filming, promotions, and school.

So my team gets all of the offers first. The first round goes through them, and they will choose the ones that they think are pretty good to pass onto me (to review). And the final decision will be made once we have a joint discussion.

Q: Your current life…is there the opportunity for you to gain more life experience (to live more of a normal life)?

A: There aren’t that many opportunities to do so. But after I finish filming projects, I try to find time to travel to somewhere where no one knows me, to stay in a city that has a different environment than what I’m used to.

Q: Do you worry about being recognized when you go out?

A: Within China, it’s a concern in bigger cities. But…it’s actually quite okay. Occasionally I’ll be recognized.

Q: There are many fans who consider you a role model, and with that naturally comes some pressure. How do you balance being an idol and being yourself?

A: I think for artists our age, most of our fans are at a similar age. People who are around the same age are more likely to listen to each other’s suggestions and thoughts. Like most people, I wasn’t fond of listening to parents and teachers’ lectures growing up.

So I think a lot of the time, what we do does influence young people our age, and because of that, we do need to lead by example.

Q: Do you think the current environment and opportunities are good for young actors?

A: I think it’s both good and bad. The good part is that there are a lot more opportunities than before. So if you want to be an actor, if you want to start filming, there are many projects and many roles that are out there.

But along with that comes impatience and being impetuous. Because there are too many opportunities that it’s easy to take everything for granted. Before, when there weren’t as many opportunities, many actors were after the same roles, and would give it their all to ensure they portray the role well.

But now, it’s like…if I don’t film this, I have other projects I can take. If I’m not filming movies, I have dramas. If I’m not filming (TV) dramas, there are projects for online platforms as well. They are all options. So people will think, whether I work hard or not, I’ll still be able to eat.

And naturally, everyone stops putting in as much blood, sweat, and tears as our seniors may have in the past. So I think that calls for an adjustment of mindset.

Q: Will you turn that pressure into motivation? Because the general judgment on young actors these days are quite strict.

A: Of course. Because I think even though there are many projects and roles available, the ones you truly love are still relatively few. So when I encounter a project or a role that I really am interested in, I’m willing to work very hard for it.

Q: You’re going to be filming Novoland: Eagle Flag next. It’s a fantasy drama, right?

A: It counts as one. I was a bit mischievous as a child, and in middle school and high school. That was also when the Internet became more accessible, so the popular IPs…I read them all during my school years.

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