When he was filming in Xiangshan, Xiao Zhan went for runs in the field almost every day. The sky was so blue, and he often found himself in the midst of the paddy fields, with rolling hills of uneven heights lying in the distance. As the breeze gently blew past, he didn’t need to think about anything. His friend still has some of the videos he took in those fields, often filmed under the setting sun with only the sound of the wind and rustling leaves as the person taking the video is holding his breath. The camera would slowly pan up from over the fields, and occasionally there would be the sound of distant thunder, but the camera doesn’t waver. He is still at ease as he stands in the center of the field.
Part I: Assessment
Xiao Zhan’s life as a natural, ordinary person stopped at the age of 25.
In 2019 which just passed, he entered Weibo hot search 159 times; his high ponytail look, his arrow collar suit, whether he looked good under the Hunan TV lighting, whether there were holes in his pants, his waist, his smile, whether he dozed off at an event, whether his gaze was directed at someone, whether he cried or not. In order to see his expression at one exact moment, some fans paused the video, took screenshots, enlarged, and analyzed with Photoshop.
He became someone who was assessed constantly. Every morning when he wakes up, he’s worried about his condition. As a face that needs to appear before the cameras, he doesn’t have the right to be bloated. At 183.6CM, he only weighs 63.5KG, but his face still bloats easily. He doesn’t understand, is it because of that cup of latte? Staff suggested that he only drink Americano from now on. What if he can’t even drink Americano? At this point, he lay backwards with a thud, covered his face with his hands and said, “Let me live.”
The gazes that constantly assess Xiao Zhan do not have any blind spots. Every minor detail throughout his growth can be found on the internet; what naughty things he did as a child that got him spanked, what he drew before debut, what logos he designed, what his cat’s name is, whether he had a girlfriend, whether he knows how to skate, what his favorite drink is. His social media is monitored strictly; what minute of what hour did he log in, what minute of what hour did he post, what words did he use, pictures, punctuation — everything gets analyzed at length. People even guess whether the time has a deeper meaning to it – unfortunately, it seems like he has no privacy left.
The assessment of people in this vanity fair goes unsaid, as tone of speech and micro expressions can all become so-called evidence of your character. In this environment, director Lü Ying was able to accurately obtain Xiao Zhan’s information. Before starting to film “The Oath of Love”, he asked around about Xiao Zhan’s reputation. He called his friend and asked, “What is Xiao Zhan like on your set?” The response he received was given without any hesitation, “He’s great, he’s very cooperative, you’ll know once you use him.” So he felt at ease. Chinese people value tact in their way of speech and take care not to offend others, so beyond what they say, you need to listen to how they say it. If his friend had hesitated for a few seconds and said, “Um…he’s ok,” then that’s a polite indicator of “this person is lacking.”
After starting to film, Lü Ying was faced with the craze around such a popular star for the first time. He has done this job for more than 20 years, but he’s never been subject to so much onlooking on set. Every night after filming, he needs to help Xiao Zhan plan his route back to the hotel: which elevator to go down from, which side door to take, “It’s like a big escape.” He was a bit confused, he didn’t see many fans during the day, but they all pop out at night. “Could it be that they’re hiding in trees?” Even friends who hadn’t contacted him for many years messaged him saying, “Director, I’ll go visit you at work.” He laughed a bit, “You don’t fool me, you haven’t contacted me for hundreds of years, are you coming to visit me or Xiao Zhan?”
The first time “Portrait” went to visit Xiao Zhan at work, it was already 11PM. Xiao Zhan had finished filming and was in the car on the way back to the hotel, leaving the yellow lights behind him at a rapid pace. The people in the car were extremely tired. No one was on their phones, everyone was just resting with their eyes closed. After 40 minutes, the car stopped in front of the hotel, where it suddenly it became rowdy although it was already midnight. Crowds and lights quickly gathered, and Xiao Zhan was immediately surrounded. His staff came out of another car, pushing a huge makeup box with them. They looked at the situation a few meters away, then turned and said, “See, it’s very tiring being in the same car as Zhan-ge.”
As his staff members, they’re always very careful. In the elevator, when we unintentionally said Xiao Zhan’s name, they immediately stopped us with a look, because there were strangers next to us. They have to guard against everything. When they go out, they must all wear masks and put on anti-spy screen protectors to prevent fans from filming behind their seats on the plane. In the hotel, they need to check repeatedly if there’s anyone listening from beyond the doors. But it seems to be futile, as when they checked out, there were still fans who asked the hotel for Xiao Zhan’s room number then stayed in the same room later, as if it was a “checkpoint.”
The staff who accompany him unavoidably end up in pictures with him. When they go out, before even arriving at the airport they’ll find that their flights have been checked into and that their seats are sometimes intentionally separated from his. When they later switch seats, the process is usually smooth, and the other parties don’t ask for signatures or pictures. They probably just want to be able to get a glance at him close up.
Right now, he cannot get away from the fate of being focused on. Last July, Xiao Zhan didn’t put on makeup, wore a T-shirt and canvas shoes, and went to Shanghai Disneyland with his good friend. That was his rare day off after his tight schedules, and when he invited his friend, he was extremely excited. “I have time, I have time, quickly, leave some of your time for me.” He removed his mask to take pictures and videos, and in just a few moments, he was recognized. He could only walk faster and faster, hiding in restaurants until the amusement park became an escape room.
Five months later, again in Shanghai, the weather was nice on a Saturday, and he wanted to take a walk outside. His staff couldn’t dissuade him, so he put on his hat and mask, leaving only his eyes showing. He felt that his disguise was very successful. But soon people recognized him because of his hoodie and jacket. That night, he refused to accept this result, and went to watch the theater show “Sleep No More”. He thought that for sure this time it would be fine, because all the audience members would be wearing masks. But in the end, the result was the same.
This is his life, being chased again and again, closing one door after another. His activities become increasingly limited: from the hotel, take the elevator to the parking lot, get in the car, go to his schedules, wait until his events have ended, get into the car and go back to the hotel. He doesn’t have much of a chance to see the sky. He travels from one studio to another. They’re all closed spaces, the lights are bright, and sometimes when he has stayed in there for a long time, he doesn’t even know if it’s day or night. Once when he was filming, he stayed on set for several months, and staff who stayed with him also almost never left. Everyday he watched the fields outside the windows; he watched as they turned from green to yellow, and as the weather became gradually colder, he sighed, “By the time we leave here, it’ll be winter.”
He became more and more cautious. He used to have a Weibo post, it was called “Secret Garden”, where he would reply to his fans in the comments when he has time, he calls them “Xiaofeixia”. A while back, he closed this garden. Many celebrities get their family members to become part of their staff teams, because there’s a sense of security, but Xiao Zhan intentionally decreases the time he spends with his parents, because he wants them to be away from the cameras, to just be two ordinary people who can go travel freely.
But there are always things that he can’t predict or control. A while ago, after attending an event in Shanghai, the signed backdrop ended up with a big hole where his name was signed, and soon there was someone selling it in their moments. “Xiao Zhan’s autograph, real signature, come if you want to collect.” Or, he would never imagine that one day he would be stuck in the revolving doors of a hotel, unable to move, and that a director would be stuck together with him.
“Portrait” experienced a similar story: Xiao Zhan walked into the hotel lobby, people raised their phones and chased after him to take pictures. They almost bumped and hit his face in the process, and he suddenly broke into a run. The people in the crowd screamed, and if you were looking on, it would have seemed like a comet speeding down dragging a long tail behind it. Fortunately, the elevator was stopped on this floor and he dashed inside. It was like a scene from a movie. No one spoke, leaving only the shutter sounds of the cameras. The doors closed further until there was only a crack of space, and that’s when he turned his back on the closing elevators doors and leaned his head against the corner. It was like that director said, “We’re like animals in a cage.”
Part II: Party B
Xiao Zhan never complains about any of this. He has a certain clarity to him. He knows this kind of pressure and constant assessment is going to be the state of his life for a very long time. That’s the price he needs to pay for being in this line of work.
Having worked as a designer in the past, Xiao Zhan has a deeply ingrained awareness of the relationship between Party A and Party B. “Even the CEO of a company has his counterparties. In societal relationships, every ring is kept in check by another; no one can just freely be themselves.” If he wasn’t an actor, he might have even greater life pressures. “Maybe I would be crying on a train at this very moment.”
“The Untamed” producer Yang Xia is sometimes shocked by Xiao Zhan’s communication skills, he has a kind of self-awareness borne from his rich experiences.
He’s been beaten down by society. In university, he studied design. He had a lot of time for extracurriculars and did many things since his first year. He started up a photography studio with his friends, his parents gave him just a small start-up fund and told him, “If you regret this and come crying to us, we won’t help you,” then left him alone. To save on expenses, he and his friends went to wholesale markets and selected flooring, tables, bought water pipes, discussed electric wiring with the technician, and went to get their operating licenses. Then, they finally started up the studio.
It was hard to generate profit from just taking on individual clients, so they thought about a membership system. In order to get clients to sign up for membership cards, Xiao Zhan said he can do away with his pride. His work motto was, “I can bring you tea and water, when you’re in my store you’re my client, and it’s my job to service you, it’s my job is to make you satisfied.”
Later on, he opened a design studio, and he went to work every day, often staying up all night. Aside from creating hand drawn maps for manors and designing layouts for cafes, what he did the most was corporate logo design. The client would give him a request, and he would make three logos to choose from. His goal back then was clear – it was to “win the bid”.
“I have to win the bid, I have to get clients to see my logo, I think everyone needs to have this kind of ambition. It doesn’t mean you’re going to do anything bad, but rather that if you see someone doing a 3D effect, you’re going to do one too, and you’re going to add an animation on top of that. It’s refusing to lose. Everyone is studying art, and I’m going to do it best.”
This clear winning bid mindset stayed with him throughout his career as an actor. The role of Wei Wuxian in “The Untamed” was one that he fought for himself. In the process of selecting roles, Yang Xia met many people; some people said that they read the original work, but as soon as you asked them about it, their lie fell through. Xiao Zhan was honest, he hadn’t had time to read the book, so he said that he didn’t read it.
But he memorized the script like the back of his hand and wrote countless character studies. “Direct analyses, relationship charts, full of his notes, he did a lot of that; he was prepared to best of his ability.” This sincerity and professionalism touched Yang Xia. “From the moment he joined, I was never worried about Xiao Zhan. He’s a very clear-headed person, I don’t need to say much to him.”
He won’t do it if he doesn’t want to do it, he’s never thought about that.
Before as the Party B, he did his design work in layers and saved his work regularly. He watched as the end of the filename became 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 07, 08, and he kept saving, because clients would keep asking him to edit, and his computer also kept dying.
He needed to save the fonts, the resources, and the links, “My head hurts.” What Xiao Zhan was most scared of was opening his file and finding that the link is gone, that the image layers are messed up, or that the text is garbled. As he’s talking about this, he put his head in his hands and said, “Wow, it drove me nuts.”
His real work experience was passed to him by a Hong Kong manager. This sounds like a story from “The Devil Wears Prada”; the boss’s efficient, professional, and cold but precise display of work capabilities gave Xiao Zhan a huge shock.
This Hong Kong manager “forced” away 3 interns before. You need to answer his calls at 3-4AM, you must reply to emails within 10 minutes, and there’s no room for the tiniest error. If the promotional poster in the mall gets ripped by little kids, even if it’s just a tiny piece the size of your fingernail, he would notice it and demand that you switch it immediately. The supplier wouldn’t come for a small issue like this, however the manager didn’t care and only told Xiao Zhan, “I don’t care how you do it, you must change it today.” Often, he couldn’t convince his manager otherwise, and he would end up going to the factory himself to get the poster and stick it back on.
One time, Xiao Zhan made a huge error. It was for the mall’s summer promotion, they printed 4000 pamphlets and he was responsible for the image review. The day the pamphlets were delivered, he waited at the company from 8AM. As he flipped open to the first page, his brain went “boom” – there was a misaligned small image on the first page, and half of it was blank. He started to sweat, he thought it was all over for him; after all, this was a team so strict that they reprint if so much as a punctuation mark was off.
To this day, he still remembers that incident. He went to his manager, apologized, and explained the situation. His manager opened the pamphlet and said, “Oh, here.” He stood in place as his manager sat there, and they fell into a long silence. Finally, his manager, that strict middle-aged man, waved his hand and said, “It’s ok.” Then he started calling various people, contacted the publisher to reprint 4000 copies, and confirmed that they would arrive by the next day. After dealing with everything, the manager said something to Xiao Zhan that he still carries even now: when there’s a problem, don’t complain, the important thing is to resolve the problem, make up for it now, immediately, right away, using the least amount of time possible.
That’s the source of the strong sense of professionalism Xiao Zhan has displayed since becoming a celebrity. In the audition show, he hadn’t learned dance before, and he practiced dancing until his toenail fell off. When the director asked him if he was still going to dance, he said, “I’ll dance, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, and the day after that. I have to dance.”
When a group of them went to acting class, whatever the teacher told him to do, he would do seriously. Because they weren’t wearing drama costumes, it was more casual, and other people often laughed, but he never did. “You feel that he has the right attitude.” That’s the impression he gave to the people around him. Lü Ying still remembers that Yang Zi used to tease about Xiao Zhan’s seriousness. She said that you can’t joke with him on the filming set, because he’ll take you seriously.
Everyone we interviewed acknowledged his sense of professionalism. They come from different lines of work, work in different occupations, and tell us about different details: He could have stayed in the best hotel in Xiangshan but instead he chose to live together with the makeup and production team, so that he can save about 1 hour on the road everyday. He wanted to use this 1 hour saved on makeup to memorize his lines instead. When filming on a cold day, he turned off the air conditioning in his RV in order to get used to the cold, so that he would be able to stay in sharp condition and wouldn’t freeze up when he starts filming outside.
This sense of professionalism didn’t fade with time. His first experience playing the second male lead came with Ji Chong in “The Wolf”. For all the 300 scenes, he never left once, and stayed on set for the entirety of the 4 months to find the zone that actors should be in.
Last year was his third year as an actor. The director of “Joy of Life”, Sun Hao, was shocked. “He would be there even during lighting check.” Many actors use stand-ins and only make adjustments when it’s their part, but Xiao Zhan wasn’t afraid of the sun beating down on him and he would wait in his place no matter how long it took.
For Xiao Zhan, there’s no real difference between audition, filming, and design. It’s all work, and there’s no room for slacking off. He can accept staying up all night, he can accept working overtime, it’s all his personal choice, and he won’t feel like he’s suffering because of this. The only thing that pains him or drives him crazy is, “Why can’t I do this as well as other people? How are they able to think of this?”
Until today, he still remembers his days before entering this industry. Sitting in a row next to other young designers in a cramped space. Everyone’s computers were side by side, and they could all see what the others were doing. Everything was out in the open, and they were competing based on purely ability, aesthetic sense, and ideas. Everyone was working through the difficulties in front of their computer screens, until their faces were all oily. At the end, when they saw their designs displayed on the big screen, that was simultaneously the purest and the most complicated feeling – perhaps that’s the real nature of society.
Part III: Sensibility
Listening to Xiao Zhan speak is enjoyable. He really likes to use sound effects in speech. When he talked about the moment that inspiration struck him during his days as a designer, it was like “ding”; his first time auditioning was like an opening ceremony with a “don”, it marked the start of his path as an actor. Sometimes directors test for improvisation skills, he said there’s a motor in his brain that starts with a “bzzt bzzt”, and he calls improv “partying it up”. When discussing his roles there are countless images in his head that go “bang”, when Wei Wuxian’s facades all fall apart, he raises his hand and brushes downwards – “shoo”.
It’s as if all his five senses have become engaged. On the topic of time travel dramas, he doesn’t like them because he thinks they’re “flighty”. On the feeling of staying at home, he says “It’s like falling into a cloud, you can toss and turn as you wish and there’s no stress.” When he sees a tree with leaves fluttering in the wind, he thinks it’s beautiful, as the light breeze blows past the leaves, the smell of dirt drifts from the ground, marking the coming of spring, “Spring has a smell to it, I don’t know when that smell will come, but if it comes, I will surely be able to feel it. That sounds poetic, but that’s how I feel.” At some point in time, he felt cold, and said it took him right back to when he studied in Chongqing more than 10 years ago, shivering as he memorized vocabulary in the classroom.
He described his favorite season in Chongqing to Portrait: slightly cool, at the very beginning of autumn, when you can wear a light jacket. The mornings are thick with fog, and through the fog you can see the bridge, it’s like a fantasy world. Buildings rest atop mountains, the train traverses between these buildings, and this city seems romantic and mystical. It’s subtle, and there isn’t one word you can use to describe it – that’s the most captivating essence of Chongqing.
Xiao Zhan has a natural sensitivity. During each interview, as the interviewer is observing him, he’s also observing the interviewer. Some interviewers are very confident, but the younger ones get nervous. He takes note of their tense state and says, “I see, if I have to portray a young person interviewing someone, I would constantly remove the pen cap and put it back on.” That’s the anxiety a rookie interviewer shows.
On set, he takes care to observe the staff. The sound mixer’s goal is to record audio, they need the sound to be perfect and there can’t be any noise, so they try to raise the mic higher as they grumble about it. He frowns as he imitates the sound mixer, “Didn’t I tell you already, turn off the wireless, turn off the air conditioning, also the outside air conditioning, stop talking, audio is falling through, oh, sorry.” As for the clapper boy, they’re always clapping the slate, “Is it ok here, here, higher, lower, farther, closer, hey which scene is this, is it a close-up of his face?” He likes these lively people of everyday life. “It’s so interesting, it’s really so interesting,” he exclaimed.
This kind of sensitivity gives him an ability to understand his role. “Joy of Life” director Sun Hao feels that Xiao Zhan is “a kid who has a lot to be uncovered”. Director Solon describes Xiao Zhan as a very clean sheet of paper. “Because he’s new, he doesn’t hold back his real emotions.” She thinks that everyone’s acting is a reflection of their experiences. “Where he’s born, what his parents are like, what he experienced as a child; like one day catching a dragonfly or having a certain encounter – this all affects the chemistry when it comes to his acting, that’s something you have to be born with. I think he’s born with that talent.”
Actress Zang Hongna has witnessed Xiao Zhan’s rich emotions firsthand. She also loves to act, and when Xiao Zhan first stepped into this industry, she was his fixed partner for going over scripts in advance. She’s played every opposing character for him, male, female, old, young, “I even acted as his props.” Together they’ve also observed people and things in life to use as a resource bank for their acting.
One year in Beijing, she was driving Xiao Zhan around, and they saw a man and woman delivering food. It was winter, and the wind was very strong. They were each riding a delivery bike, one was using their left hand and one was using their right as their free hands were tightly clasped in one another’s. She remembers Xiao Zhan sighing, that it’s such a beautiful scene.
Coincidentally, in January this year, Xiao Zhan starred in a short film called “Buying Ears”, and the main character was a delivery boy. His wish is to use the money he earned from deliveries to buy a set of hearing aids for his grandma who lives in their faraway hometown. Director Solon expressed that she had her doubts before she met Xiao Zhan. Before filming, she was constantly thinking about how to shoot it well. Because it was their first time working together, they lacked time to adjust to each other, and she couldn’t go through Xiao Zhan’s past works to discover his full potential.
When they met for real, Xiaozhan discussed the filming process with her. “Director, I’m not going to shave, I won’t do my hair, that way it’ll be truer to the character. Do you think that’s ok?” When he was in the elevator, he observed the delivery staffs’ actions, like how they sniff, how they walk hurriedly, or sometimes just run altogether. Because they wear gloves, often they’d open the packaging with their mouths, or bite apart the disposable chopsticks. Solon suddenly felt at ease, “I think these things are all part of acting.”
What moved Solon more was Xiao Zhan describing how he felt when he saw the script. “It’s such a coincidence, I got goosebumps.” Xiao Zhan grew up with his grandma who was hard of hearing. He’s very busy, and may not be able to meet with her even once a year. The most recent time they met was when his grandma came to visit him in Beijing. Before she left, she hugged him tightly and told him that he can come home if he’s tired. He said that after this hug, he truly understood this role.
This kind of empathy persists even after filming concludes. To Xiao Zhan, the role of Wei Wuxian is special; in the summer of 2019, he changed Xiao Zhan completely.
After filming for The Untamed wrapped, they held a final concert. During the ending, everyone said “farewell” to their character. Xiao Zhan said “Wei Wuxian, goodbye,” as the stage beneath him lowered slowly. Many fans cried, and that night, when Yang Xia went backstage to look for Xiao Zhan, she found that he was very sad too. She could feel that this boy doesn’t like to put things into words, “He keeps it inside, he has such strong feelings for a character, and it’s even stronger when it comes to his friends.”
Director Chen Yushan has also received Xiao Zhan’s Wechat messages. He said that he missed Ji Chong from The Wolf. That was his first time getting a key role; he entered Ji Chong’s life, and experienced the full range of his emotions. During his last scene as Ji Chong, Chen Yushan looked at him, and said, “It’s your last time wearing Ji Chong’s outfit.” His expression changed and he looked off. Chen Yushan still remembers to this day, it was an expression of “heartbreak”. She told Xiao Zhan, “In the future you will be faced with this situation countless times, and I hope that you’ll feel like this each time; love the character, love him until you don’t want to remove his outfit.”
Part IV: Step Into Battle without Armor
It was a long process to gain this sense for things, especially for Xiao Zhan from five years ago.
Back then, he was still a young adult who was at a complete loss in front of the cameras. His first time doing a photoshoot was during the survival show. Shu Qi was his mentor and she kept teaching him, right down to which ice block to put his hand on, how to focus on a spot and not move his face around, what expression he should have as he lies down, where his gaze should be… the show editors couldn’t help but add a caption next to his confused face – ‘the gaze of a boy desperate to get guidance.’
He remembers his first time going to an audition on set; he couldn’t find the cameras at all and kept blocking other people’s shots. Auditions are like battle arenas, everyone’s fighting for the same role, all your methods of acting and points of interpretation will be watched by others; that feeling is like going through a naked examination and selection.
Before entering this industry, he had no idea that this was how dramas were made: large-scale sets with hundreds to thousands of people. Even if they’re not capturing live audio, there’s no way that there would be a quiet environment for you to get into character. Just imagine, you’re acting out a tragic crying scene, while surrounded by a hundred people, some of whom are whispering, some talking on the phone and telling the delivery man on the other side, “Put it by the door, I’m working.” – That’s what Xiao Zhan actually experienced.
Because he didn’t have any projects, for almost three years, the actor Xiao Zhan was a nobody in the industry. He had many small roles, even as a dancer in a crowd of people in “Monster Hunt 2”, shaking and wiggling as part of the backdrop. The scene passed over him quickly and his screen time could be calculated in seconds. “Village dancer” – that became a joke people teased Xiao Zhan with. Director Lü Ying laughed out loud when he said this. He remembers that when he directed “Suddenly Summer” several years ago, some people recommended Xiao Zhan to him and he liked this boy who was pure and bright, but, “The distribution platform said no, he doesn’t have enough popularity, we don’t want him.”
Xiao Zhan’s first time taking on a lead role was in “The Wolf”. This was the result of Xiaozhan’s repeated efforts. Before meeting with director Chen Yushan, he was just a member of an idol boy group. Chen Yushan has produced many famous idol dramas; a handsome face is not enough to move her. Xiao Zhan put in a lot of work, he reviewed the story beforehand, described why he liked this character, to the point of explaining that if he actually played the part of Ji Chong, he didn’t want to be a typical wandering hero, all flirty and teasing while taking a swig of alcohol. He hoped that Ji Chong can have a different side to him.
Zang Hongna met Xiao Zhan through this drama. Back then Xiao Zhan was a rookie in this field. He was very quiet, and always seemed out of sorts on set; he doesn’t know what to say to everyone, because he doesn’t have experience. His filming progress was slow, and he always berated himself. He worried that he wasn’t doing a good job, that he wasn’t doing the role justice. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, as a gesture of apology, he ordered many mooncakes and shared with everyone.
Being an actor is too different from being a designer. Like every young person crossing over to an entirely new field, Xiao Zhan encountered a feeling of defeat he had never faced in his life before. He was confronted with a startling realization that his previous life experiences were no longer enough.
“The Wolf” filming set was stationed in Shangri-La, it’s a land of snow-covered mountains, deep river valleys, and overnight temperatures that span the four seasons. When it’s cold, the wind is like ice daggers as it blows with a force strong enough to knock you over. In the forest, at an altitude of 4000 meters high, at the point where the horses can’t gallop and the martial arts trainers can’t run more than a few laps, Xiao Zhan’s eyes had a reaction to the UV rays and were as swollen as lightbulbs as he tried to act out a crying scene. “I just couldn’t cry for the life of me.” He even pinched himself, but it was useless.
“I broke down, I just couldn’t act it out well and I didn’t know what the issue was.” He fell into self-doubt. After he finished filming each night, he attended acting classes until 2 to 3 AM then got up at 7 AM to get his makeup done, but it was still useless. Many nights after coming back to his room, he would go straight to his bed without even removing his makeup. He just lay there, staring at the ceiling for 20 minutes, as he kept asking himself, “Am I really fit to be an actor?”
One day, the acting teacher Xu Jiehui brought a bottle of Kaoliang liquor and told him, drink some, you need to relax. That day he drank, he fell into a daze, and the teacher complimented him, “See, you act well once you relax, now go back and write down how you felt.” Xiao Zhan went back and started tapping away on the keyboard, and as he typed, he started to cry. “I vented with the help of alcohol.” He cried as he wrote, and he remembered the images of the children who wrote their homework while crying; they don’t want to do it, but they have to do it, so they end up doing it while crying.
“Rather than the red carpet and spotlight, what he loves is acting, this isn’t a person who is in love with the ‘by-products’.”Sun Hao
From time to time, Xiao Zhan realizes that he’s not young anymore. He entered this industry at 25 years old, and for this industry, it is a little late. Starting all over means having to push yourself to breaking point.
The breakdown wasn’t an isolated case, there was a scene in “The Untamed” that he can’t forget even until now – “38-1”. Yang Xia commented, “The killer scene 38-1, Xiao Zhan’s eternal pain.” It was a group scene, many actors were there, Xiao Zhan’s role was like a detective, and he had to answer everyone’s questions. He had two whole double-sided pages of lines, he highlighted his own part using orange highlighter, and the entire pages were just orange.
He had the lines memorized perfectly in the car, but as soon as they started filming, Xiao Zhan’s mind went blank and he couldn’t remember them. All he could remember was the orange color of the highlighter. Aside from apologizing, he didn’t know what else he could do, so he kept apologizing, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I really can’t memorize it.” The strict director didn’t scold him this time, “I hope everyone will understand, he’s been filming for the whole day, his brain is really running on its last legs.”
In this new world, everything is foreign, he must grasp every opportunity to learn and adjust. Xiao Zhan considers “Joy of Life” director Sun Hao his “shifu” (master).
Before filming, Xiao Zhan intentionally compressed his schedule to take six acting class sessions with him, and Sun Hao could feel that Xiao Zhan has a strong desire to learn, “He’s like a sponge, he stepped into battle without armour.”
In the Jiuxianqiao apartments, the master and disciple pair spent six fulfilling afternoons together. Xiao Zhan would generally wear jerseys “that you can roll around on the floor in” to class. The acting classes had a lot of repetitive training and Sun Hao found that if you ask Xiao Zhan to be lonely in a crowd he would be lonely in a crowd, if you ask him to “walk in the door” dozens of different ways, he would think about it with all he’s got. “He has no distracting thoughts.”
Sun Hao once observed Xiao Zhan through the monitors during a group scene with a lot of fighting. The focus wasn’t on him, but still he never relaxed or struck a pose and left it at that, he was always very focused and immersed in the character. Sun Hao likes this kind of student, “He’s pure and harmless, he’s never been corrupted, so he’s easy to teach.” He knows that Xiao Zhan has experience in society. He made his debut late, and he knows to cherish this. “Rather than the red carpet and spotlight, what he loves is acting. This isn’t a person who is in love with the ‘by-products’.”
“The Untamed” last summer was Xiao Zhan’s first time carrying the male lead role. He had more than 900 scenes and complicated lines. The Hong Kong director’s style was highly efficient, when they finished one shot, before the actor could even sit down, they already got ready for the next shot. The director prompted the actors live on set, and asked them to act out certain expressions and actions without there being an opposing actor. This required the actor to be very familiar with the script and have that image themselves so they could react immediately.
Yang Xia said, “Xiao Zhan did the best out of everyone in this aspect.” He went through several copies of the script. When the director prompted him, “Ah Zhan, be a bit sadder,” he could immediately go from a neutral expression to a sad frown, and he would go through many different emotional states for the director to make the final selection. Even after a year, in many interviews, he can still accurately repeat Wei Wuxian’s lines. Yang Xia knows how much Xiao Zhan gave to this character, she could feel during filming how Xiao Zhan intentionally sank deeper and deeper into Wei Wuxian’s character.
At a lunch gathering after filming for “The Untamed” had wrapped, Yang Xia felt that Xiao Zhan had changed. Before on set, he was like a little sparrow, chattering nonstop. Anything you say could make him laugh and everyone would tell him, ‘Xiao Laoshi, that’s enough, stop laughing.” Back then, Xiao Zhan said that he’s really quite introverted, but no one believed him. This time when they met, Yang Xia realized that he is actually a quiet person. Suddenly she began to understand why Xiao Zhan was the way he was back then – he changed himself into Wei Wuxian, “Being lively became a way for him to relieve that stress.”
Part V: Day Are Just Days
Xiao Zhan isn’t an energetic person by nature, but it not like he’s unenergetic either. When you’re interviewing him, you can see the effort he puts in to try to liven the atmosphere. His good friend Zang Hongna observed that to some extent, he’s often a little out of sorts at loud and lively parties.
He’s actually someone who likes to be alone and have his own personal space. At the same time, he has a unique perception of life and days.
This Chongqing boy likes worldliness, he likes the grounded feeling that life gives him. For example, what his grandma said to him as she was leaving – that he can come home if he’s tired.
He would also say, “Days are just days, they’re not sweet, but they’re not bitter either.” When talking about the entertainment industry, he still likes to use words like fantastical and absurd which seem like they’re coming from a distanced onlooker. Like an industry senior around him once said, when it comes to being a top star, he’s still on the way to getting used to it. “He’s still insisting and telling himself that nothing has changed, but the problem is that the entire essence of this has changed, you don’t get a choice.”
But this familiarity with an ordinary life will allow him to not be restless on this path.
In the first 25 years of his life, Xiao Zhan lived in a traditional Chinese style family. His father worked, and his mother was a homemaker. He occasionally argued with his parents, but it was a warm family. His father is a reasonable person, he’s not strict for the sake of it, and he never pampers. He always taught Xiao Zhan to think for others and lead by virtue. “All that stuff, it was very Chinese style.” He got his share of spankings, especially in middle school, because of “some small and random events” – like when he did poorly on an exam, when he came home late after school, when he got a question wrong and the teacher made a “complaint”, or when he fought with classmates. If he really messed up, neither his mom nor dad would defend him, and sometimes he gets the “doubles” treatment.
His father did things in an orderly and structured manner, and had the same requirements for him. Since elementary school, he already knew what a “keypoint university” was, and he knew that he had to get into a keypoint university. He knew about Peking University and Tsinghua University very early on, because these two top schools held summer camps, which his father demanded that he attend. Even if he didn’t attend summer camp, he couldn’t just lie around, as his father said, “Kids can’t only have grades.” He was enrolled in various extracurricular classes – violin, go, calligraphy, brush calligraphy, drawing… sometimes this elicited a retort from his mom: You signed up for so many classes, can he learn it all?
To this day, his father still continues this orthodox and strict style of education. Awhile ago, a friend sent Xiao Zhan and Naying’s “Night at a Naval Port” to his father, and his father replied, “Xiao Zhan has made big improvements under the guidance of the senior artists.”
Thinking back on it, it seems like since back then, Xiao Zhan had grown to be a very competitive child, or rather, a child who had high standards for himself. He liked to draw, and would set goals for himself, he felt that he had to win awards, because “winning awards is a proud accomplishment” and if he did anything, it had to “create a splash”.
He has a hard time accepting effort without results. During his entrance exams, he wanted to get into Sichuan Fine Arts Institute and continue to draw, but he messed up on his exam, and got a low score on his best subject of sketching; to this day, he can’t forget the embarrassment. He turned off his phone, took out his sim card, didn’t eat, and just lay in bed in a daze, staring at the ceiling. He experienced the first “breakdown” of his life.
But this “breakdown” eventually passed, he calmly accepted this result, and went to a university. Like many young adults in their 20’s, those days were lively and vibrant. He often went to parties at his friends’ houses, he called his friends’ moms “other mom”, he lay on the sofa in all sorts of positions. They watched movies, played games, and board games. When his two friends who were in a relationship fought with each other, he was the third wheel and made peace between them.
When he first stepped into the entertainment industry, he had a life and he had freedom. Back then he was unknown, he didn’t need to wear a mask on the streets, he could freely walk around in the mall and in IKEA. For a long time, after landing at the airport he would carry his own bags and suitcases and take the taxi home. Sometimes fans recognized him, and he would take out his earphones, smile, and wave hello, or even share his snacks.
He could recognize some familiar faces among those fans. He would write down his thoughts in his notes and post them on Weibo: It’s raining over here, how about for you guys? On days when he didn’t have schedules, he would stay at home and read or watch a good movie. He also posted weekly vlogs barefaced, chattering away without a main point, like plain water.
Zang Hongna witnessed what Xiao Zhan was like when he had just entered this industry. Back then, he had a lot of free time, and sometimes he would do some random dumb things. Once, she went with him in the winter at 4AM to Tiananmen just to watch the flag raising, the wind blew at him to the point of tears; another time they road-tripped to go skiing, Xiao Zhan blocked his friend off the course then took a picture of him faceplanting. Xiao Zhan is a good cook, and at every gathering he would be the main chef.
When they were filming at Xiangsha, there was a field near the filming set, and when they wrapped early in the evening, Xiao Zhan brought Zang Hongna to run in the field. They ran more than 10KM everyday, sprinting towards the setting sun. It was lovely, and they still talk about it now, “This feeling of youth, it’s what we miss the most.”
After The Untamed, work filled his life. Almost everyone told us, they haven’t seen Xiao Zhan for a very long time. Yang Xia said, “Right now, Xiao Zhan is someone who doesn’t have a life.” This producer is very busy, our interview took place over lunch, she ordered two dishes, one meat and one vegetable, one sushi, and one dessert. Her requirement for herself is that no matter how busy she is, she must have at least one normal meal a day. But for Xiao Zhan, he can’t even fulfill this requirement of eating. “He’s actually someone who loves food, he likes dessert, and likes cute animals.”
He doesn’t use Weibo much anymore, fans noticed that he became increasingly less inclined to share about his life, and they commented, “On the internet, in real life, where does he have any personal space?”
He became more cautious about how he interacts with his friends. If Xiao Zhan goes back to Chongqing, when he goes out to eat with friends, they need to carefully plan their routes, see if there’s a private room, if there are a lot of people, and if they really can’t avoid it then they just stay at home. If they can’t go to the theatres, they stay home and watch movies that they downloaded for him ahead of time.
Because he doesn’t have any time, his reunions with his family are also rushed. After New Year’s this year, Xiao Zhan’s parents along with his grandma came to visit him in Beijing. They stayed for three days, but because he was too busy with work, in the end he was only able to have two meals with them. From when filming of “The Oath of Love” wrapped until now, in more than 80 days, he hasn’t had a single day where he slept until he woke up naturally. He’s too sleep deprived, and what he says most often every day is, “I’m so sleepy.”
Xiao Zhan still tries to hold on to some things from the past. He didn’t change his Weibo account, he says it’s because it’s “troublesome”, but his friends all know, it’s because he still wants to live a little like a normal person.
He’s not someone who really likes to go shopping, but now he thinks, “Shopping can make me happy, just the feeling of walking on the streets and breathing in the fresh air is enough to make me happy. I don’t need to buy anything, just walk around.” He doesn’t want to lose the ability to have a normal life, “If you wake up and realize, I need to go get my makeup done, I need to get on stage, and every single day is just like that and nothing else, then this person will be an empty shell.”
In this rapidly changing industry, he’s someone who values loyalty. When his teacher Sun Hao went to visit him at work, Xiao Zhan prepared green tea for him very early on. Even though a long time had passed since they worked together, he still remembered his teacher doesn’t drink coffee. When his teacher was about to leave, even though the outside area was full of fans and he told Xiao Zhan not to come out, Xiao Zhan still didn’t mind. “This guy walked me out, and walked with me for a long time.”
Yang Xia feels this too. July of last year was a critical time for her, “I encountered the biggest hurdle of my life.” Xiao Zhan felt that she wasn’t in a good mood, and he didn’t intentionally try to put on a display for her, he just talked with her normally. At that time, “The Untamed” had already finished airing, but he still attended the follow up concert. It was only later that Yang Xia found out, Xiao Zhan was having a really difficult time with filming back then. “I remember this favour he did for me; this was immense support that he gave me.”
Previously in an interview, Xiao Zhan expressed his sadness over drifting friendships. In an interview with Ma Weiwei, when they discussed this topic, he fell into a long silence, and when he started talking again, he sounded choked up.
The naivety is fading, but in this half year, he is also growing rapidly. Before when he encountered issues, he would be a bit lost, like “Ah? What do we do?” This time when Zang Hongna went to attend Xiao Zhan’s birthday celebration, she found that he had become much calmer in how he deals with many things. Now it’s a very orderly “one, two, three, four,” yet he doesn’t forget to ask for your opinion, “Do you think it would be better like this?”
When she went to see him, it was already 2AM at night, but there were still many fans gathered at the hotel. She knocked on the door, and Xiao Zhan opened his arms and hugged her. That hug lasted for a long time, there were many staff members around them, and they didn’t say anything. She felt that Xiao Zhan was so, so tired; that hug was like a friend saying – “You understand me.”
Part VI: Open Field
When he was filming in Xiangshan, Xiaozhan went for runs in the field almost every day. The sky was so blue, and he often found himself in the midst of the paddy fields, with rolling hills of uneven heights lying in the distance. As the breeze gently blew past, he didn’t need to think about anything. His friend still has some of the videos he took in those fields, often filmed under the setting sun with only the sound of the wind and rustling leaves as the person taking the video is holding his breath. The camera would slowly pan up from over the fields, and occasionally there would be the sound of distant thunder, but the camera doesn’t waver. He is still at ease as he stands in the center of the field.
Back then, his worries were still very simple; it was a young adult’s uncertainty about the future. Chen Yushan remembers, Xiao Zhan liked to chat with everyone when they were not filming; he had a lot of feelings, like he didn’t know where the future lies, or how to position himself after he filmed “The Wolf”. Chen Yushan often laughed, “The worries of a little kid.” She told Xiao Zhan, “No matter how bad the environment is, you just have to keep acting, like what you’re doing in “The Wolf”, just keep acting to the best of your ability; that’s all that you can do.”
Those words comforted him. At night, everyone went to the seaside to stargaze. When they were tired, they lay on the beach, and imagined what kind of people they would become, what kind of things they would do. Xiao Zhan’s idea of himself was an “Entertainment Industry Labour Worker”. To this day, Zang Hongna remembers him saying seriously, “I picked this career, so I’ll do the best I can.”
What he’s faced with now is a new world that has multiplied in complexity many times over. He must face many things alone. His friend said that during the course of this, he displayed extraordinary stress tolerance and shocking decisiveness. Just as how he quietly established his own studio and designed the new logo – it’s the character “Zhan”, in full strokes and with force.
Almost everyone we interviewed expressed their concern for him. They care for him, but they’re worried about disturbing him. Many people are quietly protecting him in their own ways. Director Sun Hao watches shows that he goes on, and worries about his student, “How about leaving out the part where I mentioned him doing the lighting adjustment himself? I’m worried that it sets a precedent, that in the future he will need to do that for all his dramas, it’s too tiring.”
But Xiao Zhan himself is very clear that the real problem he’s faced with now is a different one: What kind of project should he take on next? An actor’s work is what’s most important. Before when film crews reached out to him, he didn’t need to think about anything, he grabbed on to the opportunity. Now the most difficult question is how to choose; he receives many scripts, and most of them want him in a “male god” role, but he doesn’t want to limit himself to such a characterization. Then, ABCDE, which one should he pick?
Last year on Xiao Zhan’s birthday, his good friend wished him happy birthday and only said six words to him, “Hope everything goes well, remains steady.” Well refers to him staying healthy, to not tiring himself out, and steady refers to how he’s only had this popularity, this fame, for half a year, and hopes that he can hold steady and try not to make a wrong turn.
From how it looks now, Xiao Zhan has been able to hold steady. He’s always polite and courteous in his every appearance, and treats every job with sincerity. After gradually becoming accustomed to this industry, he realized that many things are not as difficult as he had imagined. “Often, we need to learn to compromise with life. People need to grow up, and need to constantly improve and become better. As long as it doesn’t touch your bottom line, I think it’s ok to compromise. You don’t have to like it, and it won’t affect the grand scheme of things; as long as what you initially believed in doesn’t change.”
Xiao Zhan isn’t a person devoid of ambition. Several people mentioned a certain forcefulness in him. Chen Yushan likes this forcefulness, she views it as a form of ambition; it reflects a person’s standards for themselves. “But he doesn’t easily reveal his ambition, you need to provoke him to see that side of him.” She compared Xiao Zhan to a white fox in the snow, “He’s very smart, he’ll only show you what he wants to show you.” That zealous part of him is what lies underneath his polite and elegant appearance.
Yang Xia has a strong impression of that tenacity. Xiao Zhan suddenly popped out as a rookie in his first lead role, but you didn’t need to worry about him at all in “The Untamed”. He had pressure, but that pressure wasn’t all from work, it was also his refusal to admit defeat. “That was his requirement for himself, to give himself some pressure and push. He would set a goal, then he would definitely push towards that goal.”
This aspect of him is similar to that of his role, Wei Wuxian. “Even in Luan Zang Gang, he would think, should we plant potatoes or radishes, I also want to grow lotus flowers and lotus roots. I think Xiao Zhan has that same kind of tenacity. For an actor, that’s a vital trait to have.”
Chen Yushan has always remembered a specific moment: when they were taking character photos for “The Wolf”, she stood there, and a clean and pure boy walked towards her. He had already grown a stubble, just like she hoped he would, and his appearance led people to feel as if there was an open field right behind him.
This was Xiao Zhan’s first important role, and where his open field began.
Talk with Xiaozhan
“Innocence, Needs Timeless Passion and Innocence.”
Portrait = P
Xiaozhan = X
P: You said that you grew up in a traditional Chinese family, what made you feel that it traditional?
X: My dad was very dominant, and had strict requirements. Since I was young, he taught me to think for others, to lead by virtue, all of that, it was very Chinese style. My mom was very domestic, and relied on my dad a lot. I pretty much grew up getting beaten, they played doubles, all kinds of beatings. If my mom came home from early, she would do it, until my dad came home; when my mom gets tired of hitting me, my dad takes over.
P: What was the most intense confrontation you’ve had with your parents?
X: We’re Chongqing people, so we’re really loud when we argue. Every time I argue with my mom, we capture the attention of people around us. I think we argued pretty frequently. The most intense one, let me think, I can’t even remember what we argued about, actually it wasn’t anything big, it was probably just that I didn’t do my homework and wanted to play computer, or watch TV. We argued a lot, to the point that my mom threw stuff, then cried. Back then I just thought, oh, now that I think back on it, I’m like how did we argue so much over something so small? And I regret it.
P: When did you change, and felt that you had grown up or matured?
X: In university, my first time staying in the dorms. Before that I walked to school, it was 15 minutes from the school to my house, I saw my parents everyday, of course there would be conflict living like that. When my parents sent me to university, I still remember now, my dad drove me. For the first time, I experienced the emotions in the article “View of My Father’s Back”, and I could finally understand what it was trying to express. They sent me off, and said, off you go, your mom and I will leave now. As they walked towards the parking lot, I looked at their backs, and I felt, I’ve grown up, but it seems that they are really getting older. In that moment, I said, I need to be good, I can’t make them angry anymore.
P: When you were young you wanted to be an artist; do you still draw now?
X: If I have time. During filming before, when I didn’t have so many scenes and had some time in between, I would draw with my phone or iPad; it was fun, just like illustration. When I saw the moon, I drew it, and spent quite a lot of time, around half an hour, but it was a representation of how I felt, something in that moment.
Today I saw a tree, and I felt that the tree was really beautiful as its leaves fluttered in the wind, signalling the coming of spring. I don’t know if it’s because I studied art since I was young, but it’s like I can feel and capture some breath of nature. I think that spring has the taste of spring, summer has the taste of summer, fall has the taste of fall, winter has the taste of winter. I don’t know when this taste will appear, but when it does, I will definitely be able to feel it.
P: What is the taste of spring you feel?
X: Like a gentle breeze. In the spring, the wind blows past the leaves, and the smell of dirt drifts from the ground, as I’m greeted by this smell, I feel that it’s very familiar; spring is coming. I feel it strongly, the changing of the seasons. Or if at a certain point in time there’s a jolt of cold, I’m thrown back to 10 years ago with a “shoo”, maybe back to when I was shivering in the classroom as I was memorizing vocabulary. It’s really incredible, I love this kind of feeling.
P: I understand, it’s a kind of immersive experience, it’s like when you really become fully immersed in something.
X: So, I realized it’s important to like and be passionate about what you’re doing. If you’re doing something now that you really don’t like, then it’s grueling. It’s the same for work; with my personality, if you ask me to sit in an office all day long dealing with some documents, I might say I can’t do it, I’ll go nuts. And there are some people who like this kind of comparatively peaceful life, but it’s not really doable for me.
On Entering This Industry
P: As an ordinary person stepping into the entertainment industry, your life changed suddenly.
X: Yes, so I really experienced the emotional journey of an ordinary person who has lived 25 years of a normal life suddenly getting pulled into an industry like this.
P: You made your debut at the age of 25, when you see yourself surrounded by competitors younger than you, do you feel pressure or worry?
X: No, I often feel that I’m young too. Like people ask me, what do you think youthfulness is? I don’t think it’s about age, it’s not like I would give off a strong sense of youthfulness because I’m 16 years old. Of course, I’m a youth at 16 years old because my age is 16, but would I have that youthfulness? Not sure.
P: What is your understanding of youthfulness?
X: I think it’s that energy, that energy to charge forward, refusing to lose, not giving in to life, and not being scared of anything. Even though I don’t know what lies ahead, even though I know that it’s not all bright, but if this path is one that I must take, then I will continue along it, and tell myself that I will definitely be better in the future. I think that kind of passion is youthfulness. Innocence, needs timeless passion and innocence, really. If even you think of yourself as old, then that’s too difficult.
P: Have you done anything that made you feel like you were youthful?
X: I think stepping into this industry was pretty youthful of me, it was that energy.
P: But when you were really about to enter this industry, were you conflicted?
X: I wasn’t, what was there to be conflicted about? Actually, rather than saying I wasn’t conflicted, it would be better to say that I wasn’t given any time to be conflicted, I was pushed forward.
P: After your group was formed, between 2015 and 2016, there was a period of time when you didn’t have much work.
X: Silence, a period of silence. After the audition show, there was a period of hiatus, but I didn’t let myself stop during that period, I still continued to work on things.
P: Back then, did you hope for those days to end soon?
X: I really didn’t, it’s strange. Actually, those days didn’t last that long, the period of time when there was absolutely nothing to do was only those three, four months, but during that time I went to class, I had dance classes, and acting classes. The rest of the time, I stayed at home, eating salads, and going for runs at night.
P: When you look back on it, was that period of silence bitter?
X: If you ask me to look back on those days, I don’t think they were bitter. They were just days, without any defined attributes; they weren’t sweet, but they weren’t bitter either. If I don’t work for 3-4 months now, it would feel like hell on earth, but back then I didn’t feel anything, I just wanted to lose weight and attend my classes well.
P: After really becoming famous, you didn’t change your Weibo account, why?
X: I didn’t, I didn’t think there was any need to change it. There’s nothing unsightly. In that age, year 2010, I think that’s what it was like, I’m open, I don’t think there’s an issue. What that also says is that my personality isn’t a goody two shoes, I’m just a very real person. I don’t think I’m a perfect person, and I don’t want to be a perfect doll.
P: How’s your understanding of yourself?
X: I’m very clear about where I stand. With my appearance, I really don’t think it’s stunning, I think it’s just comfortable, that’s it. With my various skills, I don’t think they’re too spectacular, so I won’t and I don’t want to be that kind of perfect idol, there’s no need. It’s fine to be real, if I need to go shopping, I’ll go shopping, if I need to go eat with friends, I’ll do that, so what if they get me on camera? I hope to show everyone a lively Xiaozhan. There’s one comment about me that I really like, that he’s like an older brother next door within reach, but at the same time, he’s shining so brightly; that’s a state I like.
P: Do you care a lot about being real?
X: For example, in many interviews they show people the outline or the script, but I just ask, is there anything I need we need to pay special attention to? Then please write those down, and I won’t look at anything else, otherwise aren’t you just memorizing a script? How can you answer with anything real? For me, I feel like if I want to give a very good response, it must be something that I’ve experienced personally and something that I can feel.
P: When you first started to act, what was your state of mind like?
X: Back then I was in a state of extreme lack of confidence, I couldn’t find myself. I struggled for very long over how to naturally express something in front of the cameras, how to mould this character. Honestly, rather than feeling lost, I think I was very naïve. Or not even that, but it was very single-sided. Back then, whether it was my life experiences or my understanding of the entertainment career, it was too single-sided, too flimsy, there weren’t multiple sides to it.
P: When you worked in design before, things were in your control. But as an actor, it’s totally foreign territory?
X: My first time filming, I even broke down. I still remember, it was when I was filming “The Wolf” in Shangri-La, there was a crying scene, it was very cold, filmed atop the mountains, at night, and it was raining. I just couldn’t cry for the life of me, I just really couldn’t cry, I wanted to strangle myself. Director Chen Yushan also came to comfort me, she’s from Taiwan, and she’s really gentle, she said, it’s ok, if you can’t cry today, we won’t film today.
I said, no, no, how can we stop filming because of me? If the film crew stops because of you, that’s a huge loss. I thought to myself, no no, no, no way, what do I do? I kept trying to muster up the emotions; that night, I really wasn’t able to cry.
P: In the end it wasn’t a story of success?
X: I don’t think they were able to get what they wanted that night, and just wrapped up. After I went back, Director Chen Yushan messaged me and said, it’s ok, we’ll try again the next day. The second day, I passed in one take, I think my condition was just right. Condition matters a lot to me, because for me, I don’t have that much technique, I either got it or I don’t. Some actors can use some techniques, but I can only just do it, that’s where I have to improve going forward, because I rely too much on emotions. If I have the emotions, I can do it well, but if I don’t, even if you beat me to death, I won’t have it.
P: Then why did you pass in one take on the second day?
X: I don’t know, I just became immersed in the character.
P: Did you encounter this kind of defeat when you worked as a designer before?
X: I didn’t. Every night after filming “The Wolf”, I would just go straight to my bed, without removing my makeup, and just lie there staring at the ceiling. I would lie there for about 20 minutes, then get up to take off my makeup.
P: What were you thinking as you lay there?
X: I don’t know what I was thinking, I was just stressed back then. Not really stress, I was sad, it felt gray, because I wanted to do well, but I was powerless – that is the saddest feeling.
P: But maybe everyone didn’t have such high requirements of you considering it was your first time acting.
X: Everyone comforted me, but that made me even sadder. They all said, it’s ok, it’s your first time acting, you’re already doing a great job. But the audience won’t think, it’s Xiaozhan’s first time acting so we’ll let him go, of course not. It’s not as if when I’m acting, there’ll be a little subtitle permanently next to my face that reads: his first time acting. Of course not. Since you took on this role, you must be responsible to it.
P: When there are many mishaps, did you want to escape back to your comfort zone?
X: No, since I already made up my mind to come here, I won’t leave easily, I will do it well. If I leave, it’s because I want to leave, not because I can’t do it anymore. I can accept leaving this industry, maybe one day I’ll want to live a new life, and I’ll leave. But I won’t give up over things like a roadblock in my acting or a very difficult character. I won’t; I’ll definitely push forward and grind it down.
P: When did you feel that you had grown as an actor?
X: After filming “The Wolf”, immediately I felt that I had grown. Back then I often discussed with Li Qin and Zang Hongna, when an actor would experience a sudden awakening, like “Ding!” Of course, I don’t know if I’ve awakened yet, I don’t think so, because there are still many possibilities. All I can say is that back then I had surely improved, in comparison to my past self, it was a big improvement.
P: “The Untamed” was a major turning point for you, did the producers give you feedback on what it was that moved them to choose you to portray this character?
X: I did ask the producers, they said it was sincerity. Sincerity, this word is intriguing. I think first you must be sincere, and you also have to love the role, you have to truly like it. If even you don’t like your character, then how can the audience like your portrayal of it?
P: Yang Xia said, you have your own understanding of Wei Wuxian, and you didn’t want to portray him as turning evil.
X: We discussed this point for a long time, this was a difficult point in the drama, because Wei Wuxian had already come back. What people find enjoyable is how you have to be like so and so after coming back, but where is that line?
Only he knows the suffering he endured for three months in Luan Zang Gang, the belief that kept him up was that, I must stay alive, my friends, my family, they’re all waiting for me, so I must stay alive, and take revenge; I think that was his sole motivation for staying alive. But his roots are what they are, since a young age he lacked a sense of security, he yearns for family, he yearns for familial love, he yearns for someone to offer a safe space for him. I think he’s someone who’s extremely lacking a sense of security, so when he came back, whether it was with an intense hatred or disdain, I didn’t want to portray him as turning evil. In my heart, he’s never been evil. He was pushed forward by society, by the things that were happening then, and he had no choice but to do what he did, he’s actually a very pitiful person.
P: Many people mentioned that they like you because you’ve experienced the professional world, and they can relate to you.
X: People may have found a shadow of themselves in me, because I’m just a very real person living life. I did design before, I worked, I’ve had ordinary societal experience, so now if you ask me to portray an office worker, it would probably come naturally to me (laughs), because I understand the feelings of an office worker cramming into the subway, trying to beat the clock and get there at a certain time to sign in, I understand it all too well.
And now as an artist, I think this process was magical, I never thought about it, and if you ask me to think back on how I got to this point, I don’t know either; just when the opportunity came, I grabbed onto it. I think it’s not just limited to my current work, but that’s what you need to do in any job – when the opportunity comes, you have to grab it.
P: When you were in the professional world, what did you want the most?
X: What I wanted the most then, and I’m speaking completely honestly and realistically, I wanted to win the bid. I have to win the bid, I have to let clients see my logo, I think everyone needs to have this kind of ambition. Of course, this kind of ambition doesn’t mean that I’m going to do anything bad, I’m just going to do my job well.
I remember even now, back then all of us little designer friends sat in a row, everyone could see what the others were doing, there was positive competition. We were all young people refusing to lose, and trying to do the best work. I trust that a person and a company can only do well if everyone has this mindset.
P: As there was competition, did you guys hold back when communicating with each other?
X: No, that’s why I feel that a good environment is very important. Everyone is competing with their raw skill, because when you’re making something, the screen is right there, how do you hide it? When you come over, I minimize the screen? Of course not. Everyone is open, and it’s a question of ability, of aesthetics, and of ideas. Everyone’s taste and opinions differ, if the clients like it, they like it, if they don’t like it, no matter how well you do it, they won’t like it.
P: So you’re a very competitive person?
X: When I was young and drawing, I had to win awards, if I won an award it would be a proud accomplishment, and when I see my parents be proud, I would feel proud too, that’s competitiveness, and it does exist. My competitiveness stems from the fact that if I can make a splash doing something, I would feel proud of myself. In the working world, this pride would be, a logo is worth a certain amount of money, this kind of pride is similar in the entertainment industry; the pride you feel when your work is recognized and the confidence that spurs.
P: Have you thought about what you would be doing if you never joined the entertainment industry?
X: Sometimes I think about it too, if time turns back, and maybe I went to the school I liked, would my life’s path be the same? It might be different, maybe I would really still be in the design industry, and I would probably be crying on the subway train. It’s very possible, right? People today have so much work pressure, the prices of housing, living, and children’s education are so high.
P: Maybe you would be a corporate slave.
X: And maybe I would be a peak corporate slave. It would be a different life, so I think fate has an arrangement for everything, now that I’m here, I’ll make the best of it.
P: So are you satisfied with your current state?
X: I’m very satisfied, what is there to not be satisfied about? I’m very satisfied with my current state, but I think I can be better. There are still many areas I haven’t ventured into, whether it’s in acting or in singing, in various areas, I can still develop further.
P: Many people’s opinion of you is that you haven’t lost yourself after shooting to fame.
X: I think that it might be related to my experiences. I’ve experienced the real society, so I don’t need that fake stuff. Everyday I tell myself, I didn’t do well today, I didn’t do well here, or there, and people sometimes comfort me saying, it was good, so and so, but I would say that I know it wasn’t. I’m aware, and like we said earlier, about people around you who butter you up, whether or not they exist, I don’t think it matters; what’s important is yourself.
P: After stepping into this industry, do you feel that you’ve become complex?
X: Becoming complex isn’t a bad thing. For me I’m 29 years old, I think for a person to grow continuously and survive in this society, you need to learn to be complex. If you’re just naïve and rash, I don’t think that’s suitable. Complexity is not the antithesis of kindness. A complex person might take many, many things into consideration. For me, I care a lot about how other people feel. Before I say something, I will consider how it might make other people feel, whether it will make them uncomfortable, or if I’m directly pointing out an area in which they’re lacking, whether that will make them feel embarrassed. These are questions that a complex person will think about, multi-sided and multi-layered, but that doesn’t mean this person is not kind or not innocent. People all have multiple sides, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but you need to always maintain that initial pureness and kindness.
P: What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
X: I envy how some actors are very young but have a notable work to their name, work with widespread influence, I really admire that. But I don’t envy the feeling of being surrounded by people singing your praises, because it’s not what I’m after. Of course, I’m thankful that so many people now like me, but that’s not what I’m solely after. What I would like is to have a very good acting project that everyone can remember me by, that’s what I want to attain, and what I want to achieve the most.
P: How do you measure a good acting project?
X: I think one that can stun the audience, but of course this kind of stunning might also be different for everyone, but at least it would be a project that would allow professionals to give a very professional review.
P: What is it about being an actor that you’re most crazy about and unwilling to give up?
X: There’s nothing that I’m crazy about, what I’m unwilling to give up is that I really want to act, I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with it, I really want to come across a very good role again, the kind that allows me to immerse myself in another person’s life, that gets me really excited, because I think Xiaozhan’s life is just like this, and I can’t live a wild and crazy life anymore.
P: So what’s Xiaozhan’s life like now?
X: Just like this, what you see: work, work. Can I still go live a crazy life? When I say crazy, I mean like the experiences you see people in dramas and movies experience, those things are impossible for me now, but I can experience them when I’m acting, that’s very exciting, I can do anything when I’m acting. Because I’m no longer myself, if you ask me to lie in the streets in a drunken mess, I can do that too, because I would be him.
P: When people mention Xiaozhan, how do you want to hear them describe you?
X: Just that he’s really putting his heart into this.
P: Approval for your attitude?
X: Attitude is important, but results are also very important.