How self-described ‘token white guy’ in Chinese cinema bridges cultures

Global Business

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, China is the third biggest film producing country and the second biggest movie market in the world. With 13 new cinemas opening every day, there has been higher demand for foreign actors in Chinese films. CCTV America’s Grace Brown reported this story from Beijing.

Jonathan Kos-Read, or “Cao Cao,” came to Beijing after studying acting and Chinese at New York University. After a stint as an English teacher, he saw an ad in a magazine for a foreign actor and replied.

Although actors create illusions, there’s one thing he couldn’t fake — fluency in Mandarin. Over the last 15 years, he has performed in more than 100 Chinese films and TV shows.

“There aren’t a lot of people who can play the white guy in a Chinese movie. You know, there are guys who are much better looking than me. There are guys who are better actors. There are guys who have better Chinese, but it’s hard to have a package. So I work a lot,” Kos-Read said.

Demand for his services has grown as China’s film industry expands. Last year, China’s box office raked in more than $3.5 billion, up 27 percent from 2012. And that means even more work for Kos-Read. In his latest TV project set more than a century ago, he plays an engineer who builds a new train in China, battling bureaucracy and superstition.

His real life presents a different set of challenges.

“Acting in a foreign language, that’s hard. In the states, people talk on TV mostly how they talk in real life. But in Chinese TV shows, there’s a special kind of language that gets used that’s only how people talk on TV. It’s not the kind of language that gets used in real life a lot, and because I learned all my Chinese from talking to people, I have trouble memorizing those lines,” Kos-Read said.

But the fans in China have no trouble remembering “Cao Cao.”

“Cao Cao is a really outgoing dude. I don’t know where he came from, probably America, but his Chinese is very good. I’ve seen one of his shows,” a fan said.

As a self-described “token white guy” in Chinese cinema, he’s also become something of a one-man bridge between cultures.

When Kos-Read first started shooting TV and movies in China, he said a lot of directors had never met a foreigner. Now, things have changed.

“Most of the script writers have actually met foreigners and they write more realistic foreign characters that come from their experience. Just like what happened in Hollywood in the 1930’s,” Kos-Read said. “People didn’t know a lot of Chinese people and they wrote Fu Manchu-type people. And now, you get a lot more realistic Chinese people on screen, like Lucy Liu in Ally McBeal. The character is not about her being Chinese, she just happens to be Chinese.”

One of the country’s most famous directors, Ying Da, said foreign actors now play a wide range of characters.

“They’re going to have a different love for Jonathan, because when he speaks Chinese that well, the Chinese fans would think ‘he’s one of us,'” Ying said.

In the next two years, Kos-Read could host a new overseas show.

“We’re probably going to be doing an international travel show for Chinese tourists, because Chinese tourism is exploding all over the world. ‘Cao Cao’will take their hand, show them the world,” Kos-Read said.