Quickflix interviews Chi Cao and Amanda Schull from Mao’s Last Dancer

Simon Miraudo speaks to Chi Cao and Amanda Schull, the stars of Mao’s Last Dancer, about their history with ballet, their intimidating new project, and their rejection of Hollywood.

Talk about a baptism of fire. You’re a first time actor who has been chosen to portray a still-living legend (whose story is known and adored by millions around the world). The role requires you speak both English and Mandarin fluently. You must be funny, sweet, tormented, troubled and determined. And you have to be a good enough ballet dancer to emulate one of the greatest ballet dancers in history. So Chi, were you nervous at all? “I’m playing a ballet dancer. I’m not playing; I’m really a ballet dancer. I just show up and do my thing.” Fair ‘nuff. Forget I asked.

Chi Cao portrays Li Cunxin, author of the much-loved autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer, in the long-anticipated film adaptation of the book. Our interview continues in the same vein. I provide him with thinly-veiled compliments in the form of questions, and he plays down every one of his achievements as if anyone could do them. It’s not exactly arrogance. I think it might even be ultra-humility.

His co-star Amanda Schull is cheerful, self-deprecating and in awe of the man playing Cunxin. When I ask how Cao was chosen for the role, he claims he beat most actors because he had a better grasp of the English language. Schull suggested an alternative possibility: “They weren’t handsome enough?” He responds, only semi-jokingly: “Yeah, that’s part of it.”

The Bruce Beresford directed picture details Cunxin’s journey, which begins in poverty-stricken China and leads to worldwide fame in America as an esteemed ballet dancer. Cao embodies the adult Cunxin, as he falls in love with wife Elisabeth (Lis) Mackey and eventually gets caught up in a deportation scandal that went all the way to The White House. However, it is Cao’s startling dancing prowess on the stage that will have viewers swooning over him.

Like Cunxin, Cao began training as a ballet dancer in Beijing at a young age. “Both my parents were teachers at the ballet school and we couldn’t get nannies, so my father used to take me to his classroom, put me down on the floor and start teaching. I just sat there and watched; I guess that’s probably how I got into it. I eventually went to martial arts school and they said ‘you are too old to start if you want to train professionally’. The last thing I could do is ballet, so I did ballet.” It’s a typically off-the-cuff remark from Cao; something you imagine hearing from an amateur, not a member of the Birmingham Royal Academy. I couldn’t help but agree with his co-star Amanda Schull when she added, “Lucky ballet.”

Schull stars as Lis, a struggling ballerina who agrees to marry Cunxin to keep him in America. But Schull is no struggling ballerina. She recently retired from the San Francisco Ballet after seven successful years. However, her introduction to the art was, as she claims, more Western than Cao’s: “My mom forced me into it.”

Schull flirted with acting during her time at the San Francisco Ballet, where she scored the lead role in the 2000 dance flick Centre Stage. After the success of that film, she was offered a three-picture deal with Sony; a dream offer she turned down. Mao’s Last Dancer is the first major film Schull has starred in since. So why didn’t she jump headfirst into the acting game after getting her big break?

“Ballet is such a finite career. You only have a limited time; your body can only handle it for so long. I needed to do my ballet career justice. I don’t think I would have been ready (for acting). I wouldn’t have known what I was doing and I wouldn’t have been prepared for it, and that would have been the end of that. I would have been left without either dance or acting.”

It is a strategy that has served her well, as she has now scored a starring role in one of the most highly anticipated films of the year, instead of say, Save the Last Dance 3: Dance Harder. She has taken her time to make sure her acting stands up against the rest of the cast. Her portrayal of Li’s wife was approved of by the author himself. “I spoke to Li and I was able to talk to him about what he thought of her and he told me some little anecdotes about her that weren’t in the book or the script. So I felt comfortable. Having his validation was, of course, paramount.”

Cao attributes his family’s friendship with Cunxin to his eventual casting. “Li actually knew me when I was very young. He was training at the same school and he knew my parents. So when the project comes up, he said to Bruce ‘I’ve got someone in mind who can possibly play me. Go check this guy out.’” Li was right. Cao is an electrifying performer and fills Cunxin’s shoes with ease. It is a compliment Cao never expected to receive for a performance in a movie. “Ballet dancers do ballet. If you get a chance to do a ballet recording, to get on the video, that’s like ‘yeah, people get to see my dancing’. But never in a million years … ballet to films? Never.”

When I ask about their upcoming projects, Schull mentions heading back to the “grindstone” in Los Angeles. Cao is more certain about his future, despite the impending possibility of stardom. “Back to dancing. Get back in shape.” He seems either unaware of how deeply viewers will be taken by his performance, or he has no interest in returning to movies. Like he says, “ballet dancers do ballet.” It hasn’t let him down so far.

Mao’s Last Dancer
is in cinemas now.

6 Responses to “Quickflix interviews Chi Cao and Amanda Schull from Mao’s Last Dancer”

  1. I loved this book, I loved this movie so worth seeing it…. It makes it even better to know that li, actually danced at the same School as the guy who played hiom in the film 10 stars for this movie

  2. This is a truly exceptional film. Well worth seeing it. Full of passion and emotion, we were crying by the end of it. I've read the book and was a little skeptical at how well the movie adaptation would stand up, but was very impressed. Brilliant dancing, brilliant acting, captivating story, and very well written screenplay. Well worth going to see!!

  3. saw it and loved it,, very emotional movie and great work by the actors. and chi cao is hot.

  4. touched by the portrayals, and the reality of the times of Mao – what does the Chinese Gvmt think about that? I classified this as rated "A" (neither A+ or A-)along with but very differant from, Shall we dance and Mrs. Doubtfire – does that make me a dance fan?

  5. touched by the portrayals, and the reality of the times of Mao – what does the Chinese Gvmt think about that? I classified this as rated "A" (neither A+ or A-)along with but very differant from, Shall we dance and Mrs. Doubtfire – does that make me a dance fan?

  6. I saw the film last night. I finally got ballet at the age of 50! It was an extraordinarily beautiful and soulful experience. I found the characters as compassionate and kind and flawed as we all are. I also gained insight and a greater respect for the wonderful way the Chinese bring diligence and beauty to our world. Bruce Beresford has produced yet another masterpiece and Cao Chi's dancing was a whole new experience of pure joy. Thankyou to the whole crew who put this together.

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