Last summer, to commemorate Cao Yu’s 100th Year Anniversary, Xiao Zhan conducted a “Theatre Talk Between Two Generations” with scriptwriter Wan Fang, Cao Yu’s daughter. Xiao Zhan asked: Is “truth” an important element in our creative process? In her response, Wan Fang mentioned a line from “Winter Journey”: No path leads towards sincerity, sincerity itself is a path. Xiao Zhan is currently on this “true” path, day after day, heading to the future.
In the spring of 2020, Xiao Zhan completed post-recording work for “Oath of Love”. One day in March or April, Xiao Zhan said to Lv Ying, the director of Oath of Love, that he really envies Gu Wei. He said, “Gu Wei is so happy, he has a simple and ordinary life.” Lv Ying recalls that he told Xiao Zhan, “You don’t need to envy him, your life will surely be even better than his.”
No. 1: Eyes on the Lake
Xiao Zhan has never gone to Xihu. So, after the last show of “A Dream Like A Dream” in Hangzhou in October, he was “egged on” by his colleagues and in the spur of the moment decided to go for a night walk around Xihu. There was almost no one on the beachside path. Xiao Zhan sat down on the tourist seat next to the lake. The face of the lake was expansive, reflecting the shadows of the nearby mountains. He looked at the lake and thought about “Patient No. 5”. “Of course, I didn’t see myself, but it was very artistic and calm, similar to how I felt then,” Xiao Zhan said.
In the play “A Dream Like A Dream”, Patient No. 5 was an architect who had a happy family, but he suddenly experienced the passing of his child, the disappearance of his wife and then came down with a weird illness himself, and everything spiralled out of control. In the last days of his life, he travelled the world, and came to a “lake in which he can see himself”, behind a castle in France.
This is a play about the unpredictability of life; “All I know that is since this strange, foreign illness found me, everything changed. Do I know him? I do not, but he came.” Patient No. 5 has such a line.
The executive producer of Yanghua’s “A Dream Like A Dream” 2021 production Wang Keran came to notice Xiao Zhan in the summer of 2020. Before that, he’s never seen Xiao Zhan’s work, but he’s heard a fellow scriptwriter who studies psychology and whom he trusts praise Xiao Zhan’s performance in a certain drama. Wang Keran invited Xiao Zhan to first read scripter writer Wan Fang’s memorial book “You and I” and raise questions. Then, he invited Xiao Zhan to “Cao Yu 100th Year Anniversary”, where Xiao Zhan and Wan Fang exchanged perspectives on theatre.
“From my interaction with him, I can feel whether he’ll be able to handle a role.” Xiao Zhan’s expressions, actions, and questions on stage all became pieces of evidence from which Wang Keran judged his character, motivations and passion for theatre and acting. He listed several plays for Xiao Zhan and had him raise ten questions for each. Xiao Zhan was very interested in Patient No. 5.
“It was like a dream,” Xiao Zhan said. Eight hours of “A Dream Like A Dream” began and ended with the ringing of a bell. He feels that Patient No. 5 isn’t simply a tragic character, but rather an ordinary person like the ones we have around us who seeks an answer to no avail.
Xiao Zhan believes in such unpredictability. He often hears friends say, life is so hard; when he goes through his friend’s posts, he sees people complain, when will this bad luck end? “Many things don’t have a result; they just happen, and we don’t have a choice; I trust that this happens to everyone.”
In the play when Patient. No. 5 gazed at the lake he might have seen Gu Xianglan, or he might have seen his own past life, we don’t know. On that night in October when Xiao Zhan looked out at Xihu, he realized: Oh, so when Patient No. 5 looks out at the castle on the other side, he might feel like this.
On the day of the magazine photoshoot, there was a lake in the second scene. Xiao Zhan stood surrounded by blue veils. An artificial lake, a recliner, he wore a pink and grey suit with props, the same colour of a tulip. He stood by the veil and raised his hands in turn as if he was greeting everyone outside. Then he took the steps that lead to the centre of the body of water and adjusted to that setup with the guidance of the photographer. “I was in a vast body of water; the sky and the water are all artificial.” From far away, we could only see his silhouette but not his expression. Beyond the veil, he’s being watched, and he’s watching us as well.
No. 2: Feeling “True”
“In these past two years, many stories happened to you. When it comes to acting and roles, whether it is your past or future ones, has your understanding changed?” the journalist asked.
“I think it definitely does change. Like if I were to look back on some roles, I would have different understanding and interpretation,” Xiao Zhan said.
During an interview in 2019, Xiao Zhan once expressed: His understanding of acting and of his roles are limited by his still-shallow life experience. “Back then, both my life experience or my awareness of the acting industry were thin and not multidimensional.”
In the second half of 2020, Xiao Zhan began filming for drama “Ace Troops”. Gu Yiye, whom he portrays, is a hardworking and strong character, and kept him company for the last four months of 2020. “I think that he has respect for the work and for the role, and has his own considerations and understanding, so he’s able to craft roles that reach people’s hearts,” director Liu Yan expressed. Xiao Zhan said, Gu Yiye has too many qualities, he would be talking for a long time. The journalist asked for Xiao Zhan to list just a few, so he said, “Righteous, and has a sense of responsibility.”
“The environment of the filming set and Gu Yiye, what kind of existences were these like for you?”
“It was a form of strength, a very powerful strength. I can’t pinpoint if it was that it motivated me or gave me confidence, but it definitely influenced me.”
Later, Xiao Zhan went onto the filming set for the historical drama “The Longest Promise”. “Shi Ying is complicated inside, he’s not as carefree as he appears. When faced with his life, his future, he needs to be stubborn and persistent to survive,” Director Jiang Jiajun analyzed his fate and personality. In the script’s characterization, this character carries responsibility of a nation, and has a fate trial when it comes to his love life. “It’s painful.” Jiang Jiajun feels that Xiao Zhan has an accurate grasp of the emotions in each stage of Shi Ying’s growth. “Every actor has their own experiences; I think he definitely inserted some of his own emotions.”
“True” is a word that Xiao Zhan and his colleagues bring up repeatedly when interviewed. During the script reading and on the set of “The Oath of Love” in 2019, Lv Ying recalls that both Xiao Zhan and the actress Yang Zi often asked at the start: Director, what are you looking for? Lv Ying would say, he just wants ‘feeling’. Later, when Lv Ying arrives on set they would immediately say, “We know, we know director, you want, ‘feeling’.
This year is Xiao Zhan’s seventh year in the entertainment industry, and the sixth year since he became an actor. In the early stages of his career, he lacked acting experience and gave the most of what he could when it came to emotions. Some directors like this, because a blank sheet of paper means that you can colour it and guide him. But this also means that his technique was lacking. In several interviews in 2019, Xiao Zhan mentioned the difficulties he experienced as a rookie actor in earlier years: the nights he broke down but was unable to cry, he questioned whether he was suitable to be an actor; after filming for an entire day, the entire crew is waiting at night, but he suddenly can’t remember the lines he had memorized perfectly and can only apologize.
Xiao Zhan learned technique from every set and acting teacher and uses emotions to the fullest extent. “What’s remained unchanged for me is how to bring sincere emotions to the audience… But you can’t just have passion and nothing else, sometimes you feel that your emotions are already at 100% but the audience only feels 50%, so how will you express the remaining 50%?” said Xiao Zhan in 2021.
No. 3: Only 30
One of Xiao Zhan’s works that aired recently is Douluo Continent in February, on CCTV and Tencent Video. When he dubbed for the role, he appraised his own performance and felt that it was “immature”. As he said that, he smiled bashfully and then said seriously, “So I wanted to find areas I could improve on, see my shortcomings more clearly, and try to avoid them in the future.”
When the drama ended in March, Xiao Zhan scrolled through his phone album until he came to two years ago – on a certain day in 2019, he finished a scene in “Douluo Continent” and felt that it didn’t go smoothly, but he didn’t know how to make adjustments which made him feel disappointed and helpless. “The sea breeze drifted over, there was no one around, the moon was so bright and cast a beautiful reflection on the sea surface. Even though there were no streetlights, all the trees and mountains were lit up.” He sat there for twenty minutes, or maybe half an hour, then stood up and went back to his room; he felt a little better. He stepped out again, turned on his phone and captured the scene that comforted him.
“It still happens now.” After each work, there are lasting disappointments: Why can’t he do this well, why can other people do this so well? Thinking or looking back on his past works, all his firsts, are burned into his memory; the scenes he didn’t perform well, “And then, aiyaya, it’s coming to that part, but there’s nothing I can do, it happened.”
It’s like that line in “A Dream”, “it’s all real, everything happens in the present and if you can’t record it with a lens, it’ll pass,” Xiao Zhan said. After each show, the director will have six to seven A4 papers lined with notes and tell everyone where they were lacking. “It was this big,” in the dressing room, Xiao Zhan gestured to the interview notes to make his point, “it was lined with handwriting, about every actor and actress, and down to the lighting and the music.” He admired this. The director would say, “today you used too much force, reign it back in; the audience reaction was a bit strong; you guys got a little carried away today, don’t go along with the flow, you need to control the stage.” When Xiao Zhan received the feedback, he would adjust. Then the next day, maybe he internalized this, but the director would say, and also that point too, and there, you can do even better. So, he continues to adjust.
The journalist asked Wang Keran, after half a year of touring, and so many rehearsals and shows, does he still think back on the reason he noticed Xiao Zhan and made the link between Xiao Zhan and Patient No. 5, Xiao Zhan’s experience and situation.
“Of course, I think about it, I think life is such a magical journey. If you treat creation with sincerity, the magic of life’s journey will enrich your creation,” Wang Keran said. He didn’t ask Xiao Zhan how he uses his life experiences in his creative process. “You can search up the questions (during his conversation with Wan Fang),” Wang Keran told the journalist, “The questions he raised were what he was looking for, I can feel that from the questions.”
In the talk that summer, Xiao Zhan asked Wan Fang about whether she “even had a little bit of difficulty” when she was memorializing her parents.
The answer was, of course. Wan Fang’s reply was: “(…) As an actor, everything you experience, including the pain, will one day show a positive said. And that is when you’re portraying a role, you’ll have a deeper level of understanding. I think that’s the positive aspect of pain for us.”
(Regarding understanding of a role) “I don’t think it’s related to age, but rather experience. When people say that you’ll grow once you’re older, you’ll become more mature, there are stories in your eyes, I feel like that’s about experience,” Xiao Zhan said.
On his 30th birthday, Xiao Zhan made a post, with the image of him climbing a mountain. That was from August, and he was filming “The Longest Promise” in Alxa. As he climbed, the sunlight streaked through the clouds and fell just on the edge of the horizon. When he reached the top, instead of a narrow mountaintop he was greeted by a plain, and the horses were galloping. “It felt like the world had opened up.”
“So, what if I’m 30, I’m only 30.” He repeated this in the interview. He doesn’t feel anxiety about his age.
Part 4: Kite
On a night at the end of October, Xiao Zhan went kite-flying at Lianhuashan Park. “I didn’t think that you would be able to hold a glowing kite without a care in the world and run on the fields without anyone carrying about what you were doing. It took me back to my childhood. It was relaxing, and free. The nights in the South are windless, Xiao Zhan might have run 1000 metres with the kite in hand before it finally few and stayed up for tens of seconds.
“That’s why I say I’m amazing, I broke the line of the kite – when it flew high.” After the photoshoot ended, Xiao Zhan changed into his casual hoodie and did the interview in the dressing room. He laid back with his back straight as an arrow, and reached up with one arm, as if he was gesturing the height of the kite. “My line had run out, I couldn’t pull the kite back, and it snapped. I think I already reached its limit.”
In the two years when he just became an actor, Xiao Zhan often went for runs at night. Later, that habit became running on an elliptical in his home. He still likes to go out and roam about, record it as a vlog and treat it as “a way to experience the present.” At Hangzhou Theatre, his colleagues walked the path to the balcony first, then told him to go for a walk, and look out from there. His colleagues said from outside the frame, they hope he can breathe the air of freedom, and come in touch with nature. At Lianhuashan park, even though the camera was still recording him, he had a bamboo-copter in hand, and he let loose and had fun. “Protecting the freedom of toys.”
We can tell that underneath the thick layers of onlooking and public opinion, Xiao Zhan tries his best to keep his own space. He likes sharing drawings. In 2020, he drew a child holding a moon lantern, he draws plum blossoms, and outlined a whale around the blue skies and white clouds. The first snow fell in Beijing in November, and it was heavy, he quickly captured it.
He’s the type who doesn’t like to clean up his camera roll, and he still has photos from as early as 2016 in his phone. “Because memories are limited, you’ll forget them.” Each drama we talk about, he has relevant memories and things come to mind. For “Douluo Continent”, it’s the highways and beaches in Xiangshan. For “The Longest Promise”, he thinks of the blue skies of Alxa League, the strong winds, and the red and white outlines of Zhu Yan and Shi Ying as they stand in the desert.
When filming for “The Longest Promise” wrapped, Xiao Zhan made a short post, and referenced a line Shi Ying often says, “Humans can win over the heavens, human effort can achieve anything.”
“It’s a living being’s instinct – I want to do better, I want to live every day to the fullest, and I want other people’s recognition. Is there anyone who doesn’t want that?” He laughs and waits.
“I do want that,” the journalist answered after two seconds.
“Right? I think the majority of people want to do well, including their own work and recognition from their partners, they want to receive their upper level’s praise, as all this becomes a form of strength that gives you confidence to want to do better.”
“From when you first came into contact with Patient No. 5 until now, have there been moments where you felt like your life experiences intersected?”
“Yes, as I got closer to the end I could feel some shared emotions with him, like living every day well without seeking for an answer.”
He referenced the “Seven Scrambled Egg” theory of Patient No. 5’s emotional partner in France, Jiang Hong: If you already succeeded on the fifth egg, your life won’t come to this point, right? “For me it’s the same: You made this choice, you can’t go back and break the fifth egg again, you can’t relive your days, so live today well,” Xiao Zhan said.
Translated by @xzhan1005 and beta read by @dilfzhxn
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