Chinese actress Sun Li: Feisty on screen, nervous off screen

Legend Of Mi Yue’s Sun Li, who plays China’s first empress dowager in the series, is soft-spoken in real life

Dubbed China’s Queen Of Television, Sun Li once took part in the 2011 edition of the Channel 8 TV talent show, Star Search. PHOTO: SINGTEL TV


Chinese actress Sun Li of hit palace drama Legend Of Zhen Huan fame has returned to the palace in her latest period epic, Legend Of Mi Yue.

While her role as concubine Zhen Huan had her manipulating the politics among the concubines in Emperor Yong Zheng's imperial palace during the Qing dynasty, her new empress dowager character talks politics with government officials in the royal court.

The 33-year-old plays the titular character Mi Yue, China's first empress dowager, who ruled on behalf of her young son.

Summoning her inner statesman proved to be a challenge for the soft-spoken actress.

She says: "I get nervous when I have to raise my voice in a room full of people. I was worried I wouldn't be able to emanate a domineering aura in the royal court.

"In Legend Of Zhen Huan, my character was dealing with women. Mi Yue has to talk politics with the male officials. I needed to convince the men I was a capable leader."

Sun need not have worried as Chinese audiences lapped up Legend Of Mi Yue, prompting television channels Tianjin Satellite Channel and Liaoning Satellite TV to broadcast the series a second time last month, reported Chinese news site Sina.

The actress has been dubbed China's Queen Of Television and she got her first taste of acting in Singapore. She took part in the 2011 edition of the Channel 8 TV talent show, Star Search. While she did not win the contest, she was talent-spotted and got acting gigs, setting her on the path to stardom.

She went on to star in TV dramas and movies, such as romantic drama Jade Goddess Of Mercy (2003) and contemporary series Hot Mum!(2013).

One of her latest films is the comedy movie Devil And Angel (2015), in which she co-stars with her actor husband Deng Chao. He also directed the film.

The 37-year-old Chinese actor holds his own in Chinese show business. He is the leading man in director Stephen Chow's latest box-office hit, The Mermaid (2016). He is also one of the regular hosts on the ongoing game show, Hurry Up, Brother, which is based on South Korea's variety show sensation Running Man.

The couple have a four-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter.

1 How did you prepare for the role of Mi Yue, especially for scenes where you had to have a commanding presence in front of royal officials?

I had to rely on my confidence to put on a convincing act onstage.

There are not many shows to reference Mi Yue, as she mostly appears as a side character. So I asked my husband to act out the court scenes and I recorded them for reference.

He has played many emperor roles. Mi Yue is a female emperor. I took pointers from his acting.

2 Did your husband have to persuade you to star in the comedy Devil And Angel (2015), which he directed?

There was no need for any convincing. I love comedy. I've starred in comedies such as Just Another Pandora's Box (2010). Perhaps some audiences can't accept a comedic Sun Li, but there are viewers who love me that way. A friend commented that she felt my best performance to date was as a debt collector in Devil And Angel.

3 What is your husband like as a director? Does he hold back on criticising your acting on set?

He is a good director.He started out as an actor, so he understands actors. He's passionate about directing. Of course, he gives me comments. As an actress, I like to listen to the director's feedback. In fact, I'd be nervous if the director didn't give me pointers on the set.

4 As you and your husband are actors, there will be comparisons. What is your take on comments that you are more popular and command a higher fee?

We're not holding a contest at home. As husband and wife, we wish the best for the other. If he's doing well, I am happy for him. If I'm doing well, he is happy for me. There's no issue.

5 On your social media Weibo account, you uploaded a photo of your children drawing on the wall at home. Why did you allow them to do that?

Their scribblings are a memento. Some netizens felt that we were indulging our children, but we want them to grow up in an environment where they are free to express their creativity.

Of course, there are limits. If they cross those boundaries, I will educate them on why it is wrong to do so.

6 Have you ever considered being a stay-home mother?

I get anxious at the thought of having to leave home for long periods. I've suggested to Deng Chao that I quit my job to look after the kids, but he encouraged me to continue acting. He said I should have my own life, as children will leave the nest one day. He wants us to travel the world then.

7 You took part in Singapore TV talent show Star Search in 2011. Why did you then choose to pursue your acting career in China?

I'm timid. Till this day, I still get nervous about going overseas for long periods.

I can travel abroad, but I will find it hard to live in a foreign country for a long period.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I hope audiences will remember the real me.

I don't want to be too conscious about getting people to remember meas a good actress or a good mum.

• Legend Of Mi Yue premieres on Jia Le Channel (Singtel TV Channel 502) Thursday at 10pm. It airs on weekdays at 10pm.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline Chinese actress Sun Li: Feisty on screen, nervous off screen. Subscribe