Li Cunxin & Chi Cao

Based on the memoirs of Li Cunxin, director Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer tells the true story of a young man who, at the age of 11, was plucked from a poor Chinese village and taken to Beijing to study ballet. In 1979, during a cultural exchange to Texas, he fell in love with an American woman. CLINT MORRIS caught up with author (and inspiration) Cunxin, as well as lead actor Chi Cao, of the Beijing Dance Academy, to discuss the moving new motion picture.

Li, are you pleased with the movie?

LI: I am. I couldn’t be happier. I will admit that I was a bit afraid at the beginning, only because I hadn’t seen anything…. Actually, I was still a little unsure even when I saw the rushes. But once I saw it all put together, I was sold. It is so very true to my book.

When were you approached to do the movie?

LI: About six months after the publication of my book. I was at work – I work as a stockbroker – and I got a call from [screenwriter] Jan Sardi. My secretary said, “Jan Sardi is on the phone for you”. I didn’t know any Jan Sardi so I said, “Is he a client of mine?”. Upon being informed that he was the writer of Shine, I enthusiastically got on the phone with him. I loved Shine. So it was just wonderful when I was informed that he’d be writing the screenplay for Mao’s Last Dancer.

So everything in the movie is true?

LI: Not a hundred percent obviously, it is a movie, but for the most part, yeah.

Were you involved in the screenwriting process at all?

LI: Yeah, Jan Sardi wanted me involved. He wanted me to put my stuff in there, make sure the dancing stuff was correct, and so on. And we used my original 680,000 word manuscript in developing the script..

And what about when Bruce Beresford got involved?

LI: I remember I was in a basement when [Producer] Jan Scott told me ‘Bruce Beresford has agreed to direct your film’. It was very noisy in there, and I couldn’t really hear her properly, but I did hear ‘Bruce’. So I was like, ‘Bruce Who?’. She didn’t think I knew who Bruce Beresford was [Laughs]. Then once she mentioned Breaker Morant and Driving Miss Daisy, I didn’t need to hear the last name – I knew she was referring to Bruce Beresford.

And how did you get involved Chi?

CHI: Through Li actually. My parents were two of his former teachers at the Beijing Dance Academy. So we had known each other for a very long time, and he would regularly check in one me to see how I am doing. Then he told me about the film, and how he would like me to play the lead role. But then I didn’t hear anything for a year. Twelve months later I was asked to audition.

LI: I wanted him – I wanted someone that could act, dance, was good-looking and was charming. I guess the only thing I wasn’t sure about was whether or not he could act.

CHI: I had acted in a lot of ballet stories, but I did need some teaching. In China I spent time with an acting coach who I spent some one-on-one time being coached and taught how to act.

When did you know you’d gotten the part?

CHI: When Bruce Beresford and I were discussing my life. I told him how similar a life I had had to Li’s. I remember saying, “I know you’re going to see a lot of people for this movie but I personally feel emotionally attached to this story because of my experiences in life”. I was confident I could deliver the performance he wanted.  He then said, ‘If I do give you the role, will you be able to take some time off?’. And the moment he said that I knew that was a good sign – why else would he want me to take time off? ‘Yeah, I can!’ [Laughs]

The movie was filmed in Australia for the most part, right?

LI: All the China parts were filmed in China; all the Houston scenes were filmed in Australia.

Were you on set for a lot of the time?

LI: For the Australian part of the shoot, I was on set.

Where are you based now?

LI: In Melbourne.

So after the film, you ended up being a stockbroker. What was it about stockbroking that interested you?

LI: I mainly took the job so that I could financially provide for my family – not only my family here, but my very large family back in China. I knew I had to find something else besides dancing to support them all with. But I really enjoy it.

The performances are grand in the movie. Are you happy with the casting?

LI: Yes, everyone is wonderful. And we have the Australian ballet dancing community in it too. We were very lucky to have them. You can’t find people on the street who are professional dancers.

Do you still dance?

LI: Yeah, just to keep myself fit. But I don’t put in the hours like Chi does.

How many hours a day do you dance for?

CHI: My average day starts at like 9am, and if I have a performance, I could be going to 11pm. It’s training, rehearsing, performing.

My wife does it one night a week and complains!

CHI: [Laughs].

Her inspiration was actually Amanda Schull (who plays Elizabeth Mackey in Mao’s Last Dancer)

CHI: And Centre Stage, I bet! Amanda is so good!

Amanda has managed to carve out a career for herself as both a dancer and actress. Is that something you’d like to do Chi?

CHI: It depends if the right role comes along. I am intrigued by acting though – it’s a real challenge.

How was it working with some of the big-time vets of the industry, like Bruce Greenwood and Kyle MacLachlan on Mao’s Last Dancer?

CHI: I was in heaven. Those guys have done big blockbusters. Bruce Greenwood was wonderful. He was very supportive and made me feel very comfortable. What he also did was be his own stand-in – he didn’t need to be in some of those scenes, because you’re only seeing his back or something, but he wanted to be there. That is rare. Joan Chen, who played my [on-screen] mother in the film, did the same – she had a double, and she didn’t use her. She wanted to be in the scene with me, even if you weren’t going to see her. I was truly taken back by that – how supportive they were of me. I never expected that at all. But everyone involved in the film – cast and crew – treated me so well. There wasn’t one person on set who wasn’t great to me.

LI: When they told me Joan Chen was playing my mother I was so happy. You wouldn’t believe how perfect she is as my mother!

What about this side of things – publicity, this would be all new for you yes?

CHI: It’s not new for me, because we do some publicity for ballet, but never on as big a scale as this.

Li, how young do you think is too young for a child to start ballet? My daughter has just started, and she is 2.

LI: Some kids start about four or five – my kids started a lot earlier. It really depends. When they’re that young they’re generally just playing – running around with the silk and so on – and do so for the first couple of years. I say if they’re enjoying it, great! I guess the only problem if they start too early is that they may lose interest.

MAO’S LAST DANCER commences October 1st

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