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November 14, 2010

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Taking the long way to success

ACTOR Wu Xiubo took the long, winding and very hard road to success. He was an anonymous actor and a down-and-out traveling singer, he released a few albums, he ran a restaurant, a karaoke club, a beauty salon, a clothing store. Everything faltered. He's been flat broke, washed up, it seemed. And he even was forced to ponder the meaning of life when years ago he was diagnosed with cancer (incorrectly, as it turned out). That's an experience he never forgets.

Today, at 42, Wu is anything but anonymous. The Suzhou native who spent most of his life in Beijing is a sought-after actor who recently gained acclaim for his role in the popular TV spy thriller series "Before Dawn" (still aired on Dragon TV).

The series is set during the Chinese Civil War (1945-49) in Shanghai and elsewhere. Wu plays a complicated character, Liu Xinjie, a cynical alcoholic who spies for the Communist Party of China (CPC) within the Kuomintang secret service.

Some critics have called Wu the best actor in the spy genre after Sun Honglei, protagonist in the spy serial "Lurk."

Wu's true-to-life portrayal of the hard-bitten spy is quite different from his other screen portrayals.

"I don't want to deify the underground Communist Party warrior Liu Xinjie as an almighty person," Wu says. "He has weaknesses, like everyone. He's an alcoholic and a cynical man, but in his dangerous existence there's a lot of tension, melancholy, loneliness and even fragility deep in his heart."

Many of Wu's fans, known as "bomi" fondly recall a 2008 romantic drama "A Poem for the Oak," in which he plays an ordinary decent man whose fiancee of seven years betrays him.

When the protagonist recites Shu Ting's sentimental verse, "A Poem for the Oak," in memory of his lover, viewers were deeply moved.

Wu also regards the drama by veteran director Sun Zhou as a whole new source of inspiration for him in acting. He says it helped him change his acting style from one that was self-conscious to one that is now more natural and relaxed.

"Now I try to imagine myself as an empty cup - calm, centered and prepared to perceive the character, motivation and nuances of every role," Wu says.

"You know, acting is a profession about illusions. An actor should truly believe in the imaginary circumstances, and then all his true emotions would surface organically. A steady heartbeat and a positive mood can help him quickly adjust to the lives of others."

His favorite foreign actors are Tom Hanks and Dustin Hoffman.

"They are not only excellent actors but also good mentors in life," Wu adds. "They teach me that an actor is just like a piece of glass that has two faces. The actor's interpretation of the character as well as his own personality will merge and be reflected in his performance."

Every year Wu reads about 80-100 scripts, but he thinks none of them has exceeded the artistry of "Man from Atlantis," a short-lived American science fiction television series (1977-78); and the Japanese romantic TV series "Long Vacation" (1996).

"A good script is always the foundation for a successful TV or film production," he says. "What's the problem with us (in China)? Why there are so few imaginative and emotional scripts today? Are we losing our ability to imagine or create in this world permeated by people's material desires?"

In a surprising move, Wu recently declined an invitation from famous film maker Zheng Xiaolong to star in "Harem," a lavish costume drama based on a popular online novel of the same name. Wu could have gained instant fame among China's younger generation, since the original novel received more than 100 million clicks.

"Many friends asked me why couldn't I put aside my current job (shooting a comedy romance in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province) and immediately move on to this bigger project," Wu says. "My answer was 'promise is a promise.' My earlier life experiences have taught me how critical credibility is to success in any career."

Wu was born and grew up in Beijing, where he lives today. He says he may have inherited characteristics of the old city of Suzhou, especially "tranquillity and aloofness."

Born into a family of intellectuals, Wu was admitted to the prestigious Central Academy of Drama when he was 17. After graduation, the young dramatic actor joined a state-owned theater company but found the life routine and tedious.

Still, he was grateful that the troupe paid a huge bill for medical treatment when he was diagnosed with serious cancer - it was later found to be a misdiagnosis. But the experience between life and death, between hope and sadness at such a young age, his early twenties, shaped his attitudes. For a long time he lost his faith and his bearings in life.

"I dabbled in many fields, knowing a little about a lot of things," Wu recalls. "I ran restaurant, a karaoke club, beauty salon and released my own albums. However, without good planning and perseverance, most of these projects ended halfway."

In his early 30s, he even couldn't afford the traveling expenses to Shenyang, Liaoning Province, for a football match. Instead, he watched it on TV in a shabby apartment, and wept.

It was in 2003 that Wu made up his mind to pick himself up, dust himself off and start all over again. That was after the birth of his son. At that time, acting seemed like the only field that he knew, where he had confidence.

With the help and recommendation of a childhood friend Liu Bei (a star owing to her role in Feng Xiaogang's high-grossing 1997 comedy romance "The Dream Factory"), Wu returned to acting.

He distinguished himself with his talent, diligence and credibility.

"One thing is for sure," he says. "My former experiences in so many different and seemingly irrelevant fields have exerted an influence on my acting.

"But I'm still wondering how it all works. In many ways, life is like a play. I've had a lot of experiences and adventures, which give me a strong acting impulse. They also provide memory and imagination, two important qualities for an actor to portray many different characters."

Sometimes the roles he plays remind him of his own experience, such as running a clothing store and a brief attempt at music production. And these sudden flashbacks seem to have a restorative function; he feels grateful for what life has offered and still offers him.

"Now my second son is already 4 years old," Wu says. "In children's eyes I find our long-lost innocence, courage, sincerity and goodness. Many fathers say their children make them grow up from an 'older child' to a real adult, but I should say that my sons take me back to the simpler and less utilitarian way that a child lives."

Wu's new highly anticipated spy thriller "Chase" are released as a TV series this month. His next work is a hospital drama adapted from best-selling writer Liu Liu's new novel "Angel Heart," about problems in doctor-patient relationships in China.

Although Wu has the potential to become one of China's best actors, he is also considering script writing, directing and producing his own films.

Nowadays, the acting departments of the theater academies are filled with young star-wannabes. Wu advises them to think twice and never regard acting as a short-cut to fame.

"It has taken me 25 years to grasp a bit of the essence of acting," he says. "Anyone who wants to take up this career should be patient and prepared for a long, tough road ahead."

Wu's life exemplifies the Chinese proverb: Great minds mature slowly.


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