WSJ China: Sense and Sensibility

Haoran unlocks a new magazine cover as he takes the cover of WSJ China’s September 2020 issue in Louis Vuitton. WSJ China is relatively new to China’s magazine circle, and is under Feng Chuxuan’s growing Huasheng Media, which also owns the licensing rights to T Magazine China, The New York Times Travel Magazine China, Wallpaper China, and Kinfolk China.

The accompanying interview is a much more recent one, and covers Haoran’s thoughts on graduating from the Central Academy of Drama, his way of thinking, the disappointment when he realized Detective Chinatown 3 wouldn’t be able to premiere as scheduled, continuing to work in the film industry despite the uncertainty of COVID-19 (of all the entertainment sectors, the film industry was hit the hardest), his upcoming National Day films with My People My Homeland and Coffee and Tea?, some quotes from director Derek Hui, and much more.

He also very candidly reflects on his 18/19 year old self, on the pride he had back then due to his early success, and how filming Nirvana In Fire 2 was a cold wake up call due to how challenging the role and project was.

(Original article was posted 9.10.20)


Liu Haoran has finally graduated from the Central Academy of Drama. Because of the epidemic, the university moved the thesis presentation and graduation ceremony online, so there’s a small regret there. The Central Academy of Drama has always been his dream. Even in middle school, he’d go with classmates to go see performances (at CAD), calling it a “pilgrimage”. For his year, he moved to the new campus, and was a little bit down as it lacked the atmosphere (of the main campus).

When he first started college, he would take the earliest subway to the filming site (for With You – he worked early mornings, after classes, and on weekends to avoid missing classes). Even for classes that were “must-skips” for fellow students, he was punctual. Now, he can finally not worry about school matters anymore, and focus solely on filming.

Everyone loves his “youthful aura”. Everything is unformed – he’s vigorous, natural, and sincere. Graduating or growing up won’t erase those precious qualities, but it does mean that he must examine himself with stricter professional standards, and that there are more elements of a mature man mixed in with his boyishness.

He knows that he’s different from many actors who use their emotions and perception to understand and feel out a character. His way of thinking is more like that of a scientist or engineer. For example, he doesn’t play a lot of mobile games, and is more likely to use the spare time he has on Sudoku, “In the past two months, I’ve completed about 300 Sudoku games.”

His way of thinking emphasizes analysis and organization, and will place things in different categories and priorities, organizing his thoughts when answering questions with, “firstly, secondly”, etc. The way he expresses himself is also very clear, and rarely will he use metaphors to expand on details. So he doesn’t do things super impulsively, and will first sort out the advantages, disadvantages, and possible consequences of different tactics, “I’m (not the type to) not say anything and just going for it”.

For example, if he’s buying something, he’ll carefully think over it for at least six or seven days, to contemplate whether the price is suitable, whether he really needs it or not, and will seek out the opinions of family members. All of this means that his enthusiasm is eventually pulled down.

He has made impulsive decisons before. “When I went car shopping, I made up my mind as soon as I saw it in the dealership, and drove it away that same day.” But before that, he had already spent a lot of time looking at other options, and weighing price, brands, appearance, and other details – his purpose was clear, “Something that will make me very happy, but also not too eye-catching”. It’s also not for the intention of showing off, “I’ve only shown it to one friend”.

As an actor, being more logical minded is both good and bad, “I’m not at the level yet where I can rely completely on technique, so I must believe in it myself in order to keep going.” In some scenes when emotions are overwhelming, and he’s not sure he understands the logic behind the direction of the scene, he’ll suddenly find himself taken out of it mentally, and yells “Cut!”. He feels a little ashamed about this, “It’s very disrespectful for actors to yell ‘cut’ themselves during a scene. It’s not good at all, but I really can’t keep going.”

He wants to be in control, but things always come up unexpectedly. Before filming Nirvana In Fire 2, he already had three projects: Beijing Love Story, With You, and Detective Chinatown 1, which were all well received. He had just started college then, and hadn’t filmed for about seven or eight months, and very much had the spirit of “newborn calves aren’t afraid of tigers” (a Chinese proverb meaning young people are too naive and inexperienced to know fear).

“I would constantly think that I could act any role, that any script I received was doable. Hadn’t done a historical before? No problem.” And after meeting the director and auditioning, his confidence went up another level, “Everyone thought it was good, so I would think, I must be very skilled, and was very proud.” (This does confirm, for the first time, rumors from way back when that Daylight was very happy with Haoran’s audition and made the decision quickly to cast him for NIF2).

Now as he looks back on that project, he feels there were many areas that were “leaking”. “You know the feeling that Sun Wukong had when he was imprisoned under the Buddha’s mountain?” He had a lot of scenes as Xiao Pingjing, which made him even more secretly afraid, “It’s like I returned to my original form as soon as I entered the set.”

He was tightly wound through the course of filming, “The filming period was also very tight. The team isn’t going to wait for you just because you’re having personal issues, so you’ll feel that no matter what you did, it wouldn’t be good enough. It was a very strong feeling too.”

Every day when he wrapped up filming and returned to his trailer, he would finally let out a sigh of relief, as he had walked over the tightrope for the day. For the him who is usually very talkative, he was very quiet during that time, and didn’t have much of an appetite, “I was in a state of self-doubt every day. When I was on set, I’d feel like everyone was looking at me and thinking,, ‘Do you actually know how to act?’. Even when the director said I passed a take, I would think it’s just to comfort me, that the ‘pass’ was pretty forced.”

And the crying scenes, “I couldn’t cry. I put a lot of force into my acting, and it was also quite timid. Guys in general lack a bit of conscience, and growing up, my family was very harmonious, so I couldn’t really grasp the key (of the emotional dilemmas).” Xiao Pingjing experienced the loss of family members, one after another, so he had to cry for successive scenes, every day, “For 16 out of 18 scenes, I was crying, crying until my head hurt.”

The success of his earlier roles was largely because it was quite similar to his real personality and life experiences. So this time, he could only forcefully try to find the feel of Xiao Pingjing, a carefree and bright youth who was pulled into court conflicts, who had to quickly grow up into a capable general. Similarly, Liu Haoran himself was an actor with natural talent and early success, who had to directly face his ignorance and flaws, and force himself to take take a hard step forward.

After filming this project, he fell ill for a while, and quietly thought, I didn’t really hold everyone back (T/N: meaning overall, he felt he did his part). Even though he describes himself as “pretty lazy, a lot of times, I’ll end up not doing something after thinking about it for a while”, when he’s really made up his mind and set his goal, he’ll push himself to complete it at a very high standard. “I really like to be difficult with myself”.

An actor’s career consists of one step forward, one foot in the pit, and he’s gradually getting used to coexisting with these entanglements, “You’ll start quite smoothly, and then it gets to the point where there seems to be problem everywhere, and you’ll start to doubt yourself. And then slowly, you’ll find the right state. You’ll always experience these ups and downs in acting, that’s the norm.”

(The journalist who wrote this article added on her Weibo after the article was published, “I was actually very surprised to hear Liu Haoran say how anxious he was when acting as Xiao Pingjing. I brought it up because it was when watching the drama that I thought he had really grown up, and I cried so much my head hurt. I read an analysis before, on how strict he is with himself, but when I asked about it, it was more like, I want to do it, and I think I should do it. Sadly, I didn’t have time to talk to director Chen Sicheng, or else this would be a little more complete.”)


In 2020, he realized “ups and downs” isn’t limited to just acting. Before Chinese New Year’s, he completed many road shows with the Detective Chinatown 3 team, and the box office pre-sales were skyrocketing. Everyone was full of anticipation for the film’s release. But unexpectedly, COVID-19 hit, and everything became unknown.

“When I got the sudden phone call saying that the film wouldn’t be premiering for now, I was in shock. Is this real? I was confused and disturbed. As a Libra, I like to plan ahead, but everything was flipped over.”

During the time spent in lockdown, he didn’t have any particular plans. He would usually sleep until noon, work on his lego models, watch some TV, and write more paragraphs for his graduation thesis. By then, more than half the day would be over. In the evening, he’d sometimes go out and bike by himself for a couple of laps, or drink some beer while chatting with friends on video chat, “Basically just going through life drowsily, time stopped having any meaning.”

In March, he received the notice to go on set (for Moses on the Plains) in Jilin City, but he would first have to complete 14 days of self-isolation upon arrival.

“We didn’t know whether we’d actually be able to start filming, so maybe the quarantine period would end up being pointless. But I still wanted to go, to at least see a little bit of hope.”

Though Jilin was one of the first areas to clear cases down to zero, there were all sorts of news that would come up and subside. No one knew if there would be a second wave of the epidemic, or if everything would turn to empty joy again.

“I wasn’t anxious while in self-isolation. Since I was already here, might as well make the best of it. Since I decided to come, I’ll patiently wait.”

When filming officially started, he discovered that not only himself, but everyone around him was full of vigor. This (Moses on the Plains) was the first film to start filming after COVID-19 broke out, so everyone was very excited and serious.

“At the time, we were essentially trying to move forward in the darkness. We didn’t know how long we’d be able to keep filming, if we’d suddenly be told to stop. We also had no idea when theaters would re-open. Everyone had the attitude of ‘cherish what you have in the moment’.”

When My People My Homeland started filming, Chen Sicheng said something that really touched Liu Haoran. “Director said the movie was set for an October 1 premiere. We all knew theaters would definitely re-open at some point, but had no idea what the exact date would be. Other projects could wait for an appropriate time to premiere, but this movie has a time limit.” They encouraged one another, saying this was a film that could help to “save the market”, a movie that would inspire enthusiasm for people to enter theaters again.

After COVID-19, he’s continued to film nonstop, and has felt that he’s very lucky. “Before, I used to always think about what roles I want to play. But after COVID-19, you’ll suddenly feel that everyone has a very small existence. You simply can’t decide that many things.”

The him now is no longer thinking about what kind of roles he wants to play, “It’s pretty simple. If the time works out, and there’s the right script, a role I like, a director I like, I’ll go and act in it.”

Or to put it another way, the grand and ethereal ideals that he once had have now become more concrete and clear goals. Or you can say, he found a deeper, more far-reaching meaning in his simple reality. The preparation work that he can do right now is to be in his best state. He’s always been good at being hard on himself. When he auditioned for Legend of Demon Cat, director Chen Kaige said that he hoped Liu Haoran could lose some weight, and Haoran ended up losing 20 jin (12 kg).

“If I was a little looser (on myself), that role may not have been mine.”

Because of that time of intensive dieting, his body seems to be constantly yo-yoing: when he eats, he gains weight, and when he diets, he’s thin, all with immediate results.

“There was once when I had five days straight of shooting (photoshoots/ads). The photographer for the first and fifth day was the same person, and when he saw me on the fifth day, he was in shock, and asked me what happened, as it was apparent I had lost a lot of weight.” Food is a great love of his, but if he wants to be thin, then he has to eat less and move more. “The first two days, I might not be very comfortable with it, but by the third day, it’s no problem.”

When he prepares for filming, he doesn’t just focus on his own lines, he even memorizes the lines of the actors he shares scenes with. Zhou Dongyu said that when she became stuck and couldn’t remember her lines, Liu Haoran would remind her. He says it’s just part of the preparation, “I remember lines very quickly, so when we go over lines, I’ll remember the general gist of other actors’ lines for the scene.”

Although he’s already considered one of the outstanding actors among the younger generation, he still auditions for roles at times, and will face moments when he misses out on a beloved role. “There are many roles that didn’t work out later where I had put on the costume and makeup, and met with the director. And I’ll think, if I worked just a bit harder, if my condition was just a little better, maybe that role would’ve been mine. So it becomes a cycle. If your previous performance was good enough, then you have a better advantage of getting chosen for your next role. You can’t break this cycle because of your own reasons.”


Liu Haoran reflects on the fact that before, he was always the youngest person on set. Now, there are gradually more and more younger actors continuing to emerge, but as he looks back at himself, he still feels like he’s a newcomer.

Maybe from some perspective, life on set is like campus life. He is used to, and reliant on, living in a lively environment. Always having a group of people to play basketball with, people to eat bbq and drink beer with. When filming My People My Homeland, he would go on a run around the river or play on the parallel bars with Wang Baoqiang, Huang Bo, and Chen Sicheng when they wrapped filming. Or they would gather around and watch Huang Bo practice his dancing for a variety show recording (Street Dance of China).

“There were some paparazzi following us, and we kept thinking at the time, what are they going to get from following a bunch of uncles around?”

In acting, experience and age has given him the possibility of taking on greater challenges. In the movie Coffee or Tea?, he plays Wei Jinbei, who travels from the city to the countryside to start his own business. Director Derek Hui had seen his previous comedy works, and had a lot of confidence in Haoran’s ability to “open up”, but was a little worried on whether he’d be able to express deeper emotions.

“In the beginning, Wei Jinbei is chasing others blindly to move forward, striving for perfection, and hoping to grab onto something. He is a ‘loser’ who is at a loss on where to go. Haoran is only in his early 20s, but he really was able to portray the depression and pressure of a 30 year old.”

To Derek Hui, Liu Haoran’s advantage in appearance and the rock bottom experiences his character goes through naturally create a contrast in the film. The styling itself also mirrors the psychological changes the character goes through. There was a pretty short prep time before filming started, and the script still wasn’t quite complete when filming began.

“There may have be some cohesion issues or issues in consistency with the characters (due to the script not being complete yet). A lot of the time, when it came to how the character would handle a situation, it was Liu Haoran’s own suggestions. He has a very clear mind, and thinks very logically and in a detailed manner, so he’svery thoughtful.”

The movie was filmed in Yunnan, and the first day Liu Haoran was on set, he couldn’t sleep. The second day, when he saw Derek Hui, he lamented that the previous evening, the bugs outside were noisy all night. He could no longer stand it, and ended up going outside to scold them.

Derek Hui think it’s really interesting, “He has a very cute side. And it was similar to how Wei Jinbei had a difficult time adjusting after moving from the city to an environment surrounded by nature. His feelings were very sincere, and he understood how to leverage it for the role.”

Derek Hui believes this is the type of actor that directors want to film, “His ability to absorb is immense, and it’ll make you curious. You’ll believe he can do even better.”

My People My Homeland and Coffee or Tea? are both comedies. Liu Haoran doesn’t want his acting to follow a specific model, “When I was acting, I would often be taken out of it. After completing a scene, I’d feel that this wasn’t right, because that’s how I handled it in a previous project. I want to do my best to make the distinction in my roles.”

He doesn’t like repetition, and is a little resistant to still photography, “It’s very hard to find a new feeling when you do a photoshoot. It’s like no matter what pose you put on, you have probably tried it before.”

He likes challenges and trying new things, but also won’t allow himself to really go out of line in real life. “The most extreme that happens is I get drunk, or I’ll go for a walk in the middle of the night for a couple of hours. Life is boring.” When observing others, he frees his imagination as he attempts to find the source of their actions and ideas.

“I’ll have a lot of ‘imaginary scenes’ in my head, analyzing their different personalities.” There is seemingly always a gap between reality and expectations. Like how he enjoys traveling, and was able to visit Iceland, which he’s always dreamed about. But the trip was rushed, and he wasn’t able to really have fun.

But he thinks, there is always a next time.

“You will never be able to achieve the level that you imagine. No matter what age you’re at, there will be a gap. I’m not happy about it, but I’ll accept it. The seniors around me all have hobbies that they are really into. I still don’t have a clear idea of what I really like, there are new ideas that pop out every day. But a really good thing is that I have my work and income, so when I do encounter something I’m interested in, I can bravely go try it out with no restrictions.”

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