Mark Chao: Zero to hero

Director Tsai Yueh-hsun (above) on ruining his own vocal cords to speak in a low gruff tone as the villainous mastermind of the terrorist group Nightwalkers. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES
Director Tsai Yueh-hsun (above) on ruining his own vocal cords to speak in a low gruff tone as the villainous mastermind of the terrorist group Nightwalkers. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES
Mark Chao (left) with Black & White director Tsai Yueh-hsun. -- PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO
Mark Chao (left) with Black & White director Tsai Yueh-hsun. -- PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO
Mark Chao (right) as Hero with Lin Gengxin, his sidekick, in Black & White: The Dawn Of Justice. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES
Mark Chao (right) as Hero with Lin Gengxin, his sidekick, in Black & White: The Dawn Of Justice. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

Director Tsai Yueh-hsun cast then-unknown actor Mark Chao as lead in his Black & White TV drama based on a feeling

Five years ago, no one had heard of Mark Chao.

Today, the 30-year-old Taiwanese-Canadian actor is one of the hottest stars in Chinese-language cinema, working with the biggest names in the industry, including the likes of film-makers Tsui Hark and Doze Niu.

But the one director that Chao truly owes his success to is Tsai Yueh-hsun, 46, who cast the then unknown actor as the lead in the now iconic TV drama Black & White (2009), amid doubts that Chao could play a righteous, hot-headed cop.

"Many people I know were surprised to know he had been chosen as the lead because no one knew who he was. He was just this polite kid who returned to Taiwan from Canada with no acting experience. But I told others not to underestimate him. I can't explain what it was, but I had a feeling he would be pretty great for the role," Tsai says.

Speaking to Life! last week to promote new movie Black & White: The Dawn Of Justice, along with Chao, Tsai explains cheerily in Mandarin that he saw "an explosive quality" in the actor that was perfect for the role of the cop named Hero Wu.

"When you look at him, Mark looks like the ultimate nice guy, the gentleman. But I could tell there was a big explosive force within him waiting to get out."

Right on cue, as if to shatter the illusion of him as a gentleman, Chao suddenly pipes up with a grin: "Did you notice my explosive quality when we were in the toilet or something?"

The two burst out in laughter, evidently pleased by their own goofiness. They do this often throughout the joint 20-minute interview, poking fun at each other incessantly, even finishing off the other's sentences.

Chao, in particular, looks utterly relaxed and is in the mood for jokes - unlike the actor whom Life! spoke to two months ago who was friendly and charming, if utterly polite to a fault. It is obvious Tsai not only sees a more colourful quality in Chao - one that is surprisingly playful - but also draws it out of him.

Black & White: The Dawn Of Justice is their third collaboration and the second big-screen follow-up to the TV drama that was a huge ratings hit in Taiwan at the time of its broadcast, often topping the viewership charts for a drama in its time slot. It made Chao a household name and earned him the award for Best Actor at the Golden Bell Awards, Taiwan's equivalent of the Emmys. The show also won a Golden Bell for Best Drama and, for Tsai, Best Directing For A Television Series.

In 2012, Tsai took the TV show to the movie world with the film Black & White Episode 1: The Dawn Of Assault. It was a massive box-office hit, earning NT$120 million in Taiwan and 430 million yuan in China.

The latest movie in the franchise, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, is already making its mark at the box office in China since its release there last week. In three days, the NT$600 million (S$25.2 million) budget film earned more 120 million yuan (S$25 million).

In the new film, Hero is hailed as, well, a hero, for keeping the citizens of Harbour City safe after he took down airplane hijackers in the previous movie. The peace is only temporary, as an elite group of terrorists known as the Nightwalkers bomb all access routes out of the city.

For Chao, playing Hero for the third time "feels a bit like coming home", he says.

But that does not mean that filming the movie was effortless. For the action-packed film, he says he had to execute 90 per cent of his own stunts.

"The stunt doubles all got fat on this film set because all they did was watch us from the side while happily eating their lunch," says the actor with a laugh.

"These days, technology is advanced enough that we can just get the stuntmen to do all the work and then use computers to switch their faces for the actors'. But the director likes to see the actors suffer. I had bruises all over."

Tsai attempts to placate him: "No, I made you do the stunts yourself only because you do them so much better than the stuntmen."

Besides, the director himself suffered too, playing the role of the villainous mastermind of the Nightwalkers. It is the first time that he has taken on an acting role in more than two decades, since he played a gangster in crime drama Joe-Goody (1992).

Tsai says: "On the first day of filming, I was in so much pain, I could barely move. On the third day, unable to move, I sat on my balcony, furious at myself. I kept asking myself, 'Why did I ever agree to do this?'"

He took on the role at the last minute, after the original actor pulled out due to scheduling conflicts. Knowing that viewers would find his performance a great novelty - and possibly get distracted by it - he decided to make his character look and sound as far from his usual genteel manner as possible.

That meant donning a frizzy long hair wig and ruining his own vocal cords so he could speak in a low gruff tone, the way Batman does in Christopher Nolan's movies.

Says the director, who is married to and has four children with film producer Yu Hsiao-hui: "I would yell and scream as loud as possible until I could taste blood in my mouth. Then, I would drink icy water and eat something sour so it hurt the cords even more. Only then could I sound like that for my role."

Chao, always ready with a joke, says: "Yeah, he's crazy. You know how the Taiwanese like to chew on betel nuts? The director on set likes to chew on nails and knives."

Tsai says he will not likely be acting again soon, even if this experience was "quite fun".

"People have been telling me that they love seeing me on the screen again, but I think I'm still more suited for the director's chair," he adds with a chuckle.

While the director has been focused on making movies in recent years, he does not mind going back to directing TV dramas, the medium that shot him to fame. Before Black & White, he directed a string of blockbuster TV shows, including the mega hit Meteor Garden (2001) starring F4 and Barbie Hsu, and dramas Mars (2004) and The Hospital (2006).

"I have a whole bunch of new ideas for both TV and movies. The reason I've been making movies in the last few years - and you'll notice that both have been Black & White movies - is because I felt the Black & White story on TV had not ended. There was so much I wanted to do with the show, but due to constrains of budget and scope, it was better to bring it to the big screen.

"Now that I've made two Black & White movies, it's time I move on to other things. But of course, if any other director is interested to take over the franchise, I'd be happy to act as producer."

Chao, who is married to Chinese actress Gao Yuanyuan, laughs and says in mock anger: "Of course, that would depend on my schedule as well and whether I still want to do the role, right?"

Suddenly, he looks excited and suggests: "How about we switch out the director, leads and entire cast and have a whole new version of Black & White? That would be so hilarious."

The two throw their heads back, laughing in delight at the notion.

Somehow, a Black & White project without these two at the helm just does not feel right.

yipwy@sph.com.sg

Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

Black & White: The Dawn Of Justice opens in cinemas tomorrow.