SHADOW Interview: Actor Zheng Kai Embraces the Darkness

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
SHADOW Interview: Actor Zheng Kai Embraces the Darkness
After appearing in his monster fantasy, The Great Wall, Director Zhang Yimou was so impressed with actor Zheng Kai that he brought him back for a starring role in his latest wuxia symphony, Shadow.
Zheng spoke exclusively with LMD about his second collaboration with Director Zhang, finding a new take on a mad king, and his own aspirations as a filmmaker.
The Lady Miz Diva:  How did the role of the King of Pei come to you?
Zheng Kai:  I worked with Director Zhang Yimou two years ago in The Great Wall. At that time, I just had a few lines in that movie.  Everybody had just a few lines in that movie.  That was the first time that I knew the director, and he asked me after that time, “Maybe we can collaborate again?”  He called me to his office, and he told me that he was preparing for this one, which is called Shadow, and that’s it!  He didn’t tell me any more information about it.  
After that, after more than half a year or maybe one year, he called me again and said, “Okay, we’re ready to shoot.”  That’s the story.  I didn’t expect it.  It was very, very shocking for me.
LMD: What was your initial impression of the character after reading the script?  
ZK:  Actually, when I read the script, I really liked the character, because he was little bit like a Shakespearean character.  He was very ambitious, and very self-indulgent, and sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy.  In Chinese, we call it “cloudy face;” he changed every time, every minute.  So, that was very interesting to play that kind of role, which I prefer to do, a very interesting character.
LMD:  You have a very delicate balance here, playing this type of role because we have seen evil rulers, tyrant, dictators, on the screen before.  Your king is something different.  
What you said about him changing every minute made sense to me because there are points where he seems very lost and empty and pathetic, then, in the next moment, he is very ambitious, or reckless, or mean.  In your creation of him, what aspect of his character did you focus on?
ZK:  This movie is like a traditional Chinese movie.  Director Zhang Yimou, he put in a lot of Chinese ways to think.  For example, yin yang; yin yang is a very Chinese way to think, so you cannot judge a person as a good man, or an evil man, so they both live in the body of this man.  We didn’t want to make too evil a guy of this one.  People can have different sides to their personalities. 
Also, for this character, he is a king; he should be very great, and have a great mind, and be very clever.  He has everything a king should have, and of course, the evil side of his personality.  So, that’s the way we did it.
LMD:  Please talk about working with Director Zhang.  Was he open to your interpretation of the character? 
ZK:  Yeah, absolutely.  He is a very open-minded man.  He lets you do whatever you want.  We tried everything; every different way to act.  He is very respectful.  He very much respects his actors. 
Every time, we would discuss; we can say, “Okay, Director, can we do this this way, or can we do this that way?”  He would say, “Okay, whatever you want to do, we will just try it, and I will just choose it.”  I think this is a very good way to build a creation.
LMD:  Your co-star, Ms. Sun Li, said that they were many, many takes.
ZK:  Yes, there were many takes, but not the most!  {Laughs}
LMD:  One of the things that struck me was the complicated love that the King had for his sister.  It’s so clear he adores her, yet was he really willing to essentially sell her to placate the enemy general?  Tell us about working with Director Zhang on achieving the character’s duality.
ZK:  Yes, actually, we discussed the battle scene for a long time.  As you can see, after he cried like a baby in that scene, you can see all his emotions on his face.  We wanted it to be a face that looked like nothing, but everything. 
That’s how we did it.  A king should be someone who shows nothing in his face, but he has everything in his heart, so that is how we thought of him.
LMD:  That makes sense, as well, because he is quite mysterious.  All through the film, I wondered if the king knew the man before him wasn’t really the Commander, but a double?  There were so many times that even through his drunken haze, you sense he knew something wasn’t quite right. 
Also, later on in the film, I was confused about whether the King really sent his assassin to kill a relative of one of his enemies? 
ZK:  That’s a very good question.  We asked the same question to the director.  He would say, “Okay, you can think he killed the relative, or you could think he does not need to do that.  You can have different thoughts of that, and both are right.”  We had asked the same question of the director.
Also, we had asked the director, after the Commander walked out of the court and closed the door, what happened?  Did he just go away back home, or did he turn around and turn back to the court?  That was the question.  That was the final question of the movie, and everybody had a discussion of that.  That was the most interesting part of the movie.  You don’t know what happens in the end.
LMD:  Many viewers in the west may not realise that these are historical characters that were immortalised in fiction in THE ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS. Without that awareness, what do you think are the qualities or philosophies of the film that transcend culture? 
ZK:  First of all, you can see the image is like what we call shui mo painting -- Chinese painting in black and white.  After that, you can see a lot of Chinese things, like Chinese instruments, Chinese writing, Chinese kung fu, Chinese weapons – everything, I think, has a Chinese element.  
I don’t know if the western audience is interested in these things, but all of those Chinese elements are made together, so it’s a Chinese movie.  I think it’s very Chinese, and it’s very right; it’s traditional, it’s right.  It’s totally Chinese.  {Laughs}
LMD:  Tell us what you as an actor and artist have taken away from working with Director Zhang? 
ZK:  First of all, I was very appreciative of this second chance.  And the most important thing, I think, is the whole movie group.  His group is very professional, everyone is like a machine, everyone is very happy in his group.  That is what I want to learn; to be a manager of the group.  Everyone is very good; everyone does his own job very well in the same group.  He has the special magic for bringing everyone together.
LMD:  While people might meet you for the first time with SHADOW, you’ve been in the industry for a long time.  I remember you in Zhao Wei’s debut film, SO YOUNG, in 2013, so you’re already a veteran in front of the camera.  Has your experience with Director Zhang inspired you to want to work behind the scenes as a director, writer, or producer? 
ZK:  Yeah, actually, I did.  I tried to be a producer last year.  I produced my own TV series {The Mask}, but we did it like a movie.  I was doing the voice work today, which I just finished.  It isn’t released yet, but very soon, I think.  
LMD:  What film projects can fans look forward to seeing you in through the end of the year?
ZK:  The next project is going to be a sports movie, about athletes.  Next year is an Olympic year.  I was trained for running the hundred meter dash in the Olympics.  I’m not young {Laughs}, I could do it before, but I cannot run again, so we wrote a script about it.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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