Tuesday, October 3

Kevin Lee, China’s English Bad Boy: ‘I’m Happy to Play a Villain’ | Films

IIf the Chinese film industry needs a common foreign villain, I am their first port of call. I was a mercenary armed with Gatling guns in 2015’s Wolf Warrior, one of the first of the new wave of military blockbusters, and a hit man in Jackie Chan’s. kung fu yoga in 2017, among many others. And I recently played an American colonel in the Korean War in The Battle at Lake Changjin, the most expensive and successful Chinese film in history: it grossed $909m (£675m) last year.

It’s surreal, coming from my humble beginnings in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, to find myself in the middle of a huge field in Hubei province shooting movies like The Battle at Changjin Lake. You’d think you’re in a real-life war zone – there were hundreds of government-supplied tanks. I grew up watching movies by Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li, which fueled my passion for China. I originally came here to study martial arts in 2004. Then I came back 10 years later to work as a financial consultant, which I didn’t really enjoy.

He had had a few roles in small local movies, but a chance meeting with Wu Jing, now China’s biggest star, changed everything. I was at the Beijing Public Security Bureau, renewing my visa, when he went up the escalator. He looked like a superstar in his sunglasses and leather jacket, with the collar turned up. We talked, and when he realized he had studied acting, he said he needed a big guy, I’m 6’6”, for his new movie.

Kevin Lee.
‘There’s an unwritten rule about foreigners not playing lead roles here’… Kevin Lee. Photography: Courtesy: Kevin Lee

I went to his office to meet him again and read a few lines, but it was a disaster. The audition was in Chinese, and at the time, my language skills were not that good. But he said, “Kevin, there’s something about you that I really like. I want to give you a chance. A week later, I got a call from his assistant saying they wanted to offer me the role of Crazy Bull in Wolf Warrior. It was a huge success and opened the right doors. It was very fortunate for me to work on one of the first big Chinese action blockbusters.

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There is an unwritten rule about foreigners not playing lead roles here, but then how many Asian leads do you see in Hollywood movies? The Chinese public prefers to see Chinese protagonists. You can’t complain about that because we’re in your backyard. But I’m happy to play a villain, absolutely, even if sometimes someone half my size kicks my butt. Perhaps a little humiliating!

I’m not the first Westerner to specialize in playing foreigners here. American actor Jonathan Kos-Read, who became known in China as Cao Cao, started his career a few years before me when there were no foreign actors here. But he did a lot of TV shows and there weren’t a lot of movie roles of any kind for foreigners at the time. Then the floodgates opened. There is still only a small group of decent professional foreign actors here, probably less than 20 that I would personally recommend. But I’ve never had too much competition because of my height and the niche I’ve created.

Read on Dragon Blade.
‘If the Chinese film industry needs a common foreign villain, I’m their first port of call’… Read on Dragon Blade. Photography: Courtesy: Kevin Lee

As a foreigner, you have to tread carefully in China, being very patriotic. They have their history with what certain countries have done to China and the British doing their part. So I have to be careful how I’m perceived. In Changjjn and Sharpshooter, a movie I recently worked on with Zhang Yimou, I’m basically killing Chinese soldiers. So I can’t be too excited when I post things for my followers on TikTok/Douyin. I have to show a lot of humility and respect to the fallen Chinese soldiers. I try to be ambassador of Great Britain here; if people ask, I never turn down a photograph.

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If there is one thing that could change the Chinese industry, it would be to open the doors to creativity a little more. Scripts go through a lot of official scrutiny before they can be produced: Of the thousands that go through the vetting process, only about 5% make it. As a director or writer, you’re very limited in the types of storytelling you can do. Also, the standard of acting here is not as high as it is in the west, where there is more formal training. If we had the opportunity to work with more types of narrative, the acting skill set would improve and Chinese blockbusters would compete more internationally with Hollywood.

It’s a bit unfortunate that my mom can’t see a lot of the movies I’m in, though maybe Sharpshooter, which might even outperform Changjin, might outperform it. Will I stay here long term? We often talk about this among expat actors. I would like to be tested more. So I want to push myself and work out west where I can be surrounded by more established actors.

It may not be easy: I met an agent in the UK a few years ago and he wasn’t interested in any of the credits I have in China. He said, “I’ll be frank with you, I really want to hear your Jackie Chan stories.” He said he would probably have to start from scratch working on shows like EastEnders. But I will always leave the doors open here in China. I am very lucky and grateful to live here. It has given me success. I wish people would be more open-minded and give the country a chance. It’s a great place to be.

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