In the new film "Mao's Last Dancer," the 11-year-old peasant boy Li Cunxin is chosen by Jiang Qing - Madame Mao - to go to Beijing and become a ballet dancer.
When actor Joan Chen was 14 in Shanghai, during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, she was chosen by Madame Mao to become a movie star.
She starred in a series of propaganda films and became a huge star, in part because, as one writer put it, she looked "strikingly like the idealized young peasant woman of old Communist posters, healthy and clear-skinned."
She eventually came to the United States and has had a varied and successful film career, moving from exotic-beauty roles in empty-headed Hollywood epics such as "Tai Pan" to serious roles in independent films.
She is best known for being the last empress in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," and as the evil mill owner in David Lynch's TV series "Twin Peaks."
Chen has crossed into film direction, too, with 1998's "Xiu Xiu the Sent-Down Girl," filmed without permission in China and Tibet, which won her a slew of international awards, and later "Autumn in New York," a dreadful star vehicle for Richard Gere.
She has also returned to China for many film roles, and she divides her time between her home in San Francisco (she became a U.S. citizen in 1989) and China. She continues to split her career between big-budget films, small indie films and Chinese films.
Question: Is there something in Li Cunxin's story in "Mao's Last Dancer" you recognize from your life?
Answer: They're very similar. He got picked out of a classroom when he was 11, and I was picked when I was 14. He, to become a dancer, and me, to become an actor. And we came to the U.S. the same year. But he got it figured out much faster than I ever did.
Q: Was it intimidating to be chosen by Madame Mao?
A: It was happiness. This was an opportunity you wouldn't let get away from you. Your child would be taken care of if he works hard.
Q: What was your experience of the Cultural Revolution?
A: It's the most important 10 years for our generation; it influenced our lives and our world view. We saw at a very young age. My grandfather committed suicide when I was 6, because he was persecuted. And we were so ashamed. My brother and I didn't want people to know. And I wanted so badly to be one of the Red Guards. To be on the "right" side. But when you grow up a little more, you saw such naked human nature. The cruelty and the kindness, all very naked and exaggerated and all very memorable.
Q: How has China changed since your childhood?
A: Things are different now, completely different. We actually got to film this movie in China, which says a lot. China has opened up more than before. It's very much that everybody is just interested in making money now. And the biggest difference in show business is that it's no longer just a propaganda machine. It's the entertainment business, and you must be commercially viable now.
Q: How has the U.S. changed since you came here?
A: It is maybe my own perception of America that has changed. But the America we came to is the one you saw in films, and came to in order to realize your creative dreams, and in which people wanted to help. The great abundance shocked and confounded me, the great material abundance. America was somehow looked up to very much back then in my mind. Today's America has changed. The wars of recent years have changed America's position in the world. There is the sense, in "Mao's Last Dancer," of what America has been for thousands of immigrants. That is what America is, and we lose sight of that today.
Q: Has being beautiful been a handicap as far as being taken seriously as an actor?
A: I don't know. You're given what you're given and work with that. To be born pretty is fortunate. Even being typecast as an exotic beauty I now see as fortunate. Now that I look back, hey, I was working.
Q: Did it bother you when "Autumn in New York" got trashed?
A: I couldn't believe that a Chinese woman who did one little film would get to direct Richard Gere. They lost their director and needed the film to be shot quickly, before they lost the fall weather, so the job fell into my lap. It was a hard stumble, but a great experience. In a way, I'm glad I got to make a bad film, because now I'm not afraid of taking on another film for fear of failure.
Q: Did you do "Judge Dredd" for the paycheck?
A: I may have. But you can always try to find something to do, even in a bad film, that you haven't done before. I did my own physical fighting in that film, which was fun. Millions of people work for a paycheck. Do actors do jobs for paychecks? Yes, they do.by Richard Nilsen The Arizona Republic Aug. 26, 2010 12:00 AM