American face stands out on local screens
In 2008, Matthew Knowles was sad when his sports career at Clemson Tigers Football, his university team, ended due to a knee injury. But a call from Southwest China’s Guizhou province became a turning point for the Carolina native.
A friend who was then working as a volunteer English teacher in the mountainous Chinese province invited Knowles to experience an unlikely life: To teach local children in the remote city of Duyun, in southwestern Guizhou.
“I did not have a job. When I was a teenager I always wanted to help others. So, I thought it would be a good idea to go to China despite knowing nothing about the country back then,” he says at a Beijing hotel.
The interview took place just before Christmas, after Knowles had completed an exhausting day of filming for the forthcoming fantasy epic Asura in North China’s Hebei province.
Asura, which has a budget of around $100 million, stars Wu Lei, one of China’s most popular teen stars, awardwinning actor Tony Leung Ka-fai and Hong Kong veteran actress Carina Lau.
The Chinese-language film, set to be released across China in 2018, has a crew from 13 countries, among whomare veterans from The Lord of The Rings franchise and Pacific Rim.
Knowles, 31, says he bagged the role thanks to his Mandarin skills.
Explaining how he learned Mandarin, he says he was forced to learn the language after his American friend left the country.
“All my Chinese friends spoke very little English. So, it made the language-learning environment perfect,” he says.
“If I were in Beijing or Shanghai, then I would probably not have improved myMandarin so quickly.”
Knowles soon began to speak Chinese fluently thanks to watching Chinese television programs and singingMandarin pop songs in local karaoke halls, and this gave him the opportunity to enter China’s showbiz industry.
In 2012, Knowles got his first role in the Chinese TV series Big Sister’s Store.
It was also the same year thatChina overtook Japan to become the world’s secondlargest movie market, which grew at an average rate of over 30 percent year on year until 2016.
“Those were the best years. Iwaslucky to enter the industry at that time,” he says.
Meanwhile, Knowles was admitted by the Beijing Film Academy, a cradle for most Chinese stars, as the first non-Asian student to be
All my Chinese friends spoke very little English. So, it made the language-learning environment perfect.”
granted a 2013.
After graduating from the one-year program, Knowles found his path to stardom becoming smoother.
“Most actors or actresses I met on the sets were graduates from the academy. I call them ‘ shi ge’ (senior alumnus) or ‘ shi jie’ (older alumna),” says Knowles.
Knowles, whohasbeenfeatured in more than 10 Chinese TV series and movies, is now one of the best-known Caucasian faces based in China.
His works include the Nobel-winning Mo Yan’s television adaptation of Red Sorghum, the biographical series Deng Xiaoping at History’s Crossroads, and the hit romance thriller series Love Me If You Dare.
For most China-based foreign actors, a common problem is that they get stereotyped.
Asked if he faced the problem, he says: “I thinkChina is moving away from this model. As storytelling skills develop, the (foreign) characters are becoming more interesting and complex.”
Speaking of Asura, he says he does not look very different from the Chinese actors in the film. He says the main reason that the director picked him is his strong physique.
Knowles, who trained for three months, including practicing stunts for the movie, says: “People were ‘flying’ between mountains using wires. I’ve never been in such a big action movie.”
Knowles, who now divides his time between Los Angeles and Beijing, sees a bright future for himself on the mainland.
On Dec 28, the day he concluded filming for Asura, he wrote on his WeChat account: “Goodbye China, I will definitely come back.” full Chinese government scholarship in