Haoran’s second magazine of the year comes in the form of Esquire China’s February 2020 issue, which means at just 22, he is now one GQ cover away from completing his second round on the five major men’s magazines. This is also Haoran’s 11th cover overall for the Men’s 2+3, which is the highest number of major men’s covers for all Chinese male celebs under 35.
The February 2020 issue of Esquire China featured four covers in total, with the special theme of “Winds of Change – the Turning Point in the Film and Television Industry” for the three actors. Aside from Haoran, the other cover stars were entrepreneur Wang Shi (founder & chairman of real estate giant China Vanke), the award winning and beloved Huang Bo, and Haoran’s “Xuan ge” (Huang Xuan), who has worked with almost every major film director in the mainland industry.
The interview was from before DC3 road shows even began, and it’s a little jarring to realize how much the world has changed since then. Stay safe, everyone!
SPECIAL THANKS TO: @LucHuong on Twitter, who sent me the scans of the interview from her own purchase of the magazine after my long struggle in not being able to find it anywhere. Thank you so much for your help!
(Original magazine released 2.18.20)
Chen Sicheng says, “Don’t be misled by Liu Haoran’s wonderful image (T/N: not really sure how to translate this otherwise, but he doesn’t mean Haoran isn’t good. What he means is that there’s a lot more to Haoran than his pleasant, easygoing appearance). He has a lot of strength hidden in him. As a young actor, he has the genes of someone who is itching to get started to create.”
But Liu Haoran believes, he is someone who is still working his way through the chaos, and hasn’t reached the point where he can make that decision yet, “Whether it’s enjoyable or not, whether it’s hard or not, I will be here.“*
After 1pm in the afternoon, Liu Haoran walks into the shooting tent. He is wearing only a light striped shirt, and looks very energetic. It’s cloudy outside, and the temperature, at its highest, is -5 degrees Celsius.
In the dressing room, he removes the black framed glasses he always wear. Because he’s near-sighted, he has the habit of squinting sometimes. The hairdresser styles his hair so he has short bangs, which brings back memories of Beijing Love Story’s Song Ge. The same thick eyebrows, monolids, open and bright smile – suddenly, the young man in front of us seems to be the him from six years ago.
From 17 to 22, they’re all the ages of youth, but Liu Haoran has maintained a clear self-awareness. In a few days, he will be going with the Detective Chinatown 3 team across the nation to promote the movie. His Qin Feng with the high IQ will be meeting the audience again this Chinese New Year’s.
“Qin Feng’s growth is like leaving a blank space*, as he only sees everyone every few years, but the changes in me are growing bigger and bigger.”
*T/N: Term used in artistic creations, where a “blank space” is left to leave more room for the imagination, to add beauty to the bigger picture
The most obvious change is in his face. He’s lost his baby fat, the angles of his face are much clearer now. These last few years, because he is often playing characters that are older than his actual age, he’s gone on a diet before each project. When he filmed Legend of the Demon Cat, he lost 20 jin (12 kg) in one go. But when filming Detective Chinatown 3, he was asked to revert back to his original look, to gain weight and allow his face to become rounder.
The other change is his state of mind. “Half empty“, “half transparent” – the 20 year old him had written this in his book The Eye of the Storm as his outlook on life at the time. Now as his workload steadily increase and he looks back, he hasn’t felt that time has sped by, but does feel that he has “learned how to think, to pick up things from acting”. And slowly filling in that empty space.
The photographer asks Liu Haoran to raise up his blazer, to hold it over his head, and make a pose like he’s pondering. He does what he’s told, and the flash of the camera goes off several times. Maybe it’s because he feels shy, but he can’t hold back his laugh, and his tiger tooth comes out. He no longer looks deep in thought, but obedient and good.
“Make some silly expressions,” The photographer says. Liu Haoran is a little taken back, and shakes his head. The photographer says, “Clench your teeth”. His eyebrows come together briefly as he clenches his teeth, but he’s unable to hold it for a few seconds before he bursts into laughter and touches his nose, embarrassed.
He’s a little similar to Qin Feng. Since he was little, he’s loved math, and has very clear logic and deduction reasoning. The impression he leaves on the media has always been that he answers questions with clarity and structure, with a maturity that surpasses his peers. But when he’s nervous, he gets a little overwhelmed.
The year he turned 11, Liu Haoran came to Beijing by himself for school. At the time, he was full of energy, and despite starting school at 8am, he’d play basketball for two hours after school. He played a lot, but maintained good grades.
“One of his unique characteristics is that he’s very smart, and learns things very quickly,” His good friend Ye Xiaowei once said in an interview, “He can easily complete things to great results.”
Liu Haoran has found that in his acting career thus far, the role that has affected him the most is Qin Feng. Qin Feng and his personality are opposite – one is a loner, the other is like sunshine, but he’s also found their similar points.
“If you are always playing one role, then that character will be more and more like yourself, and you will become more and more like him.” As he explains, he uses his fingers to demonstrate, to show that the they’re slowly starting to come together.
“In the first film, Qin Feng is a child who lives in his own world. He has a lot of natural talent, and a lot of strength within, but doesn’t know how to utilize them. In the second film, he’s slowly learning how to use his skills. And in the third film, he makes the decision on which direction he’ll use them in,” Liu Haoran says without hesitation, as he understands this character better than anyone else.
His journey in growing up is similar to Qin Feng’s in many ways.
When filming With You and Beijing Love Story, he was playing himself. He was completely shining, and even without any acting techniques, Carina Lau expressed, “When I saw Haoran’s part, I felt very touched. It was just wonderful, very warm!”
As he looks back on the filming process fo Detective Chinatown 1, Liu Haoran feels that he “was just a silly kid“. He was busy preparing for the gaokao (college entrance exams) at the time, “The colorful and enthusiastic Thailand, to me, was full of language, Math, English practice exams.” From another direction, he also faced the pressures of being a new actor. He remembers there was one scene of deduction where he a very long monologue. Because he was scared he wouldn’t be able to remember, he memorized it very well, but when the camera turned on, it became a recitation.
Later, he was admitted into the Central Academy of Drama at the top of his class, and had more acting opportunities. He rode on the winds of good fortune and was nicknamed “nation’s first love” by fans, but never again took on any campus youth projects. Instead, he continued to search for the wind’s direction, and wanted to “lessen people’s impression of the youth roles I’ve had before”.
Chen Sicheng has watched Liu Haoran grow up. He says, says, “Don’t be misled by Liu Haoran’s wonderful image. He has a lot of strength hidden in him. As a young actor, he has the genes of someone who is itching to get started.”
And we’ve seen since then, he’s continued to take on different roles, the ambition he has showing through.
Nirvana In Fire 2 was his first TV drama as male lead, and also his first historical drama. On set, he felt a lot of pressure from the presence of the veteran actors, on top of suffering from dry eyes, and was terrified he wouldn’t be able to complete the crying scenes well. As he looks back on that time, he feels, “There wasn’t a day where I could relax, because I was still a student. I was scared that my state of mind would affect the team.”
Before The Founding of An Army started filming, some people raised the question, “Can a post-95er play the role of Su Yu?” Even Liu Haoran himself was a little afraid. But the results speak for themselves – he brought to life the upright, passionate young general.
He played Legend of the Demon Cat‘s Bai Long, and often had deep discussions with director Chen Kaige as he learned on the go. It wasn’t until Detective Chinatown 2 that he felt that he had a better grasp (of acting), and felt clearly “that I was like a changed person. I started sharing my own thoughts with the director, and would discuss with Baoqiang ge on how a certain scene should be executed. I could join their discussions, and keep up with their tempo.”
As Detective Chinatown 3 wrapped filming, Liu Haoran is now able to completely switch between his studies and his work. He says that playing Qin Feng made him fall in love with Sudoku, and filming Who’s the Murderer. Qin Feng often says that he “wants to complete the perfect crime,” and Liu Haoran feels that if he didn’t have this role, he probably wouldn’t be as interested in these activities.
And more importantly, he’s become more “rational and objective“, and “whenever I’m faced with something, I’ll spend a lot of time thinking it through.”.
“Do you think this is a good thing?”
“I can’t really say. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not.”
As he’s doing this photoshoot, Liu Haoran starts chatting with the photographer about the movie The Irishman. “This film may win Best Picture,” he says excitedly. (T/N: this interview took place before Oscar nominations were announced)
When filming Detective Chinatown 2, he spent some time in Hollywood with the rest of the team, and the interactions with truck drivers left a deep impression on him. So he relates quite well to the background setting of the story.
Returning to his dressing room, he starts talking about the Oscars again, “I recently was chatting with friends and trying to guess who would be nominated for Best Actor, and I said that Joker was probably a sure bet. Phoenix (Joaquin Phoenix) will probably be nominated. Clint Eastwood in The Mule is a possibility too.” The way he shares his thoughts shows shows how much he loves movies.
He’s loved watching movies since he was a kid. After entering college, he would often review films with friends in the directing department. Whether it’s new films or the classics, he enjoys them very much. In April 2019, he was gleeful when he got tickets for the Beijing International Film Festival, and went to the theaters to watch the IMAX version of Mad Max: Fury Road.
He tends to be more drawn towards story-driven films, such as Inception, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and Chinese animations such as Lee’s Adventure.
Then we talk about actors. “There isn’t anyone who doesn’t like Daniel Day-Lewis.”
“Apart from him, who else (do you like)?”
He rattles off several names, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Tom Hardy. “If I see their names on the cast list for a film, then I’ll definitely watch it.”
To him, there are two types of actors. One type is those who are able to make their own style so deeply felt that they’re irreplaceable. The other is those who always give viewers a new and fresh feeling, and surprises audiences with their performance in every project.
“Which type of actor do you want to become?
“I’m still someone moving forward amidst the chaos, and haven’t walked yet to the point where I need to make a choice. I can’t tell you if I’m a method actor or otherwise. What I need to do now is just walk steadily and perform my roles well. I can’t be too subjective.”
“Do you enjoy being in the chaos?”
“”Whether it’s enjoyable or not, whether it’s hard or not, I will be here,” He answers very honestly.
Novoland: Eagle Flag was the project that was hardest to film for Liu Haoran. He spent eight, nine months on set, and the filming environment in Xinjiang was very difficult. The scale of filming was very expansive, and it made him feel like he had run to his limits. This is one of the rare times he’s shared his negative emotions with the public.
He’s even busier now, and if he suddenly has a period to rest, he’ll for sure fall ill. It’s like he has to get sick in order to eject the pressure that’s built up in his body. It’s also frustrating. One time, he had made plans to go skiing with a friend, but from the first day of his break to the very last day, he had a fever. And afterwards? He threw himself into new work.
He”s not a very optimistic person, but hasn’t really met anything that he’s felt like he couldn’t overcome. Like other actors, Liu Haoran is extremely sensitive. Sometimes, he’ll suddenly feel like he doesn’t know how to act, and “will be a little down”. There are also times where he feels extremely insecure, but understands that it’s ultimately up to fate, so will do his best to temporarily forget (his worries).
However, more so than fatigue, most of the time, filming is fun for him. From the bottom of his heart, he loves acting as a profession. Not only because it’s enjoyable, but because it satisfies his wish, as he is someone who doesn’t do well with repetitiveness. He greatly treasures his opportunities, and likes to walk around, to increase his knowledge.
Every place that he’s filmed in, he will observe the way the locals live, their lifestyles. Even if he isn’t used to the environment, he’ll find it quite interesting.
In New York, he noticed that the local team called the last shot of each day the “martini”, as it meant that after filming, they could go rest. In Japan, when they were unable to film due to the typhoon, he met up Wang Baoqiang, Japanese actor Satoshi Tsumabuki, and Thai actor Tony Jaa for meals, and everyone ended up getting weight. So afterwards, they made plans to work out, run, and hit the sauna.
When he’s been away for a long time, everything will seem unpalatable, and that’s when he realizes Beijing is his home. That’s where his friends are, close and familiar. He loves to ride his bike in Sanlitun, and doesn’t have to worry about being recognized by the owner of the bike repair shop (T/N: referring to a story he shared last year for GQ).
There was one time when he had a magazine shoot. It was 34 degrees Celsius outside, and he felt that it was quite stuffy indoors, and that it was the perfect time to ride his bike. He ended up biking for more than ten kilometers and arrived at his destination covered in sweat (T/N: this was in The Eye of the Storm). But as he was biking, he found “the city transforms in front of you – the cars on the road, the other bikes and cyclists by your side, the skyscrapers and buildings, as well as the worries and frustrations on your mind, all become colorful blurs that flash by.”
When he doesn’t want to go out, he’ll stay indoors and watch his animations, as he’s a huge fan. It’s also a way for him to totally relax.
“I am someone who likes to hide myself in my everyday life,” Liu Haoran shares. He doesn’t like to post in his WeChat moments, and even though he has 30 million fans on Weibo, he doesn’t often update. This year, he also turned down a livestream that his company had arranged for him (T/N: not quite sure how up to date this is, he said in late 2017/early 2018 that his company promised that they wouldn’t make him do livestreams anymore as he didn’t like them). He often emphasizes, “There isn’t anything wrong with going a little slower”.
“What activity will make you feel at peace?”
“Sleeping, because you don’t think about anything. Just have to sleep,” he smiles after he answers.
Three hours have passed, and for the final set of pictures, Liu Haoran changes into a military green outfit and sits on a wooden box, holding onto his right knee. It’s an image that is very serene.
When the photographer yells, “Done”, he bounces up, and rushes to bow to everyone. He then says, “Give me my glasses! I can finally see everyone clearly.” He walks around a little bit, and points at a sculpture asking, “Is this Zhao Si’er?” (T/N: He’s making a joke, a reference to a character in a popular Chinese sitcom set in the countryside).
He hasn’t changed, he’s still that straight forward, sincere youth.
The year he turned 20, he gave himself a gift, a self-written book called The Eye of the Storm. In it, he wrote, “The outside tempo is like the wind blowing you along. Don’t run with it. Even though you may be able to run faster, it’s also easy to fall. If you try to walk against it, it can be very tiring. The best thing to do is to stand your ground in the wind, to make sure that every step you take is by your own will.”
At this point in time, he still has a lot of things he wants to try, “It’s like playing a game. I want to first explore the map, to know what it contains, what my choices are, what I can do and what I can’t.”
“What’s your reason for having to be an actor no matter what?” I ask.
“I might not be able to do other things well,” he answers steadfastly.