Filmart: How to Make It in China as a Western Actor

Matthew Knowles

Former college football star Matt William Knowles discusses his unlikely journey from sleepy Greenville, South Carolina, to movie stardom in the Middle Kingdom.

American actor Matt William Knowles thought he was going to be a professional football player. Instead, he went to China and became a local movie star. 

Originally from Greenville, South Carolina, Knowles, 31, was a standout defensive end for Clemson University before a senior-year knee injury brought his NFL ambitions to an abrupt end. Shortly after, in 2009, he moved a world away to China's Guizhou Provence — the poorest region of the country — to do service work.

Standing 6-foot-4 and looking not unlike a distant cousin of the Hemsworth clan, Knowles inevitably began getting modeling and appearance offers from China's booming entertainment and advertising industries. Soon he was doing everything from Chinese reality TV to bit parts in movies, hosting a travel show and even playing a gladiator on a local version of American Gladiators

As more offers came, he grew more selective, picking parts that would help him develop as an actor. In 2013, he won a scholarship from the prestigious Beijing Film Academy and enrolled as the institution's first-ever non-Asian acting student. The alma mater to most major Chinese directors — Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Zhao Wei and Jia Zhangke all studied there — the BFA further legitimized Knowles in the local industry. His recent roles include lead parts in Shanghai Media Group's hit TV series Love Me If You Dare and CCTV's period military drama Red Star Over China. He'll next be seen opposite rising Chinese star Lei Wu in Asura, a $100 million fantasy adventure film directed by Peng Zhang for Alibaba Pictures. 

"Looking back, it's all kind of crazy," Knowles says. "The goal was to be in the NFL, and now I speak fluent Chinese and act in Chinese movies? This is way outside anything I ever could have imagined for myself."

So, what took you to China?

After my football career came to an end, I decided I wanted to go somewhere in the world and help people — do some good for a year. And China just came up. A football buddy called me and said, I'm in the poorest area of China and they need a teacher at this high school and you can do humanitarian stuff on the weekends in neighboring villages. I knew nothing about China, but I just went. Through that experience I learned Chinese and started doing a lot of random things, and eventually started getting opportunities in entertainment. And the ball just started rolling for me in China. I moved to Sichuan Province and signed with an agency there as their first foreign talent. I did everything from endorsing pandas to singing in concerts with giant Chinese celebrities. But my big break was getting this scholarship to study at the Beijing Film Academy. Every major film production I've been involved with, at least half the people went through the Beijing Film Academy. They have a legacy that's quite important here. 

What kind of parts do you get offered? How does the Chinese industry tend to use you?

I get all kinds of stuff. For the most part, I try to stay away from the stereotypical roles that most foreigners get, like the "white devil" bad guy or the foreign boyfriend who can speak Chinese that the girl is going to run off with. I did those things at the start, but recently I've been lucky enough to be getting more interesting roles. 

Recently, I played Colonel Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, a famous hero of WWII, in an epic TV series called Eastern Battle Field. In Asura, I play this mythic demigod named Rawa. It's a very cool role. 

Are you usually asked to perform in Chinese?

About 50 percent of my roles I perform in Chinese. The strange thing has been that the deeper I've gotten into the Chinese industry, the more English roles I've been offered. But even if you're performing in English, there's a huge benefit to being able to communicate naturally with the director and crew, who many not speak English. It makes the process smoother and more comfortable for everyone. 

I understand you're now doing some work in Los Angeles, too. What are some of the differences between the two industries for actors? 

Well, it's a very different culture. Unions are illegal in China, so the biggest difference is probably the hours. There's no eight-hour workday. At the end of the day, hours don't really matter in China. If you sign onto a production, it's more about "let's get the production done, whatever it takes." A traditional Chinese production would be 16 or 18 hours a day, seven days a week, full on for three or four months. There's not a lot of thought about whether you have time to sleep or eat — those things are all in the background. You see these guys at the end and they are just drained. 

That sounds tough. 

Yeah, but you have to be a good sport about it. There also isn't the elaborate advanced planning that goes on with an L.A. production. Here, they kind of wait for problems to happen and then they fix them — usually very quickly. But a lot of problems do come up. But as they say all the time, "This is China" — things are different. If you want to live and work in China, you can't bring your expectations from another place. You have to be willing to go with the flow. As Bruce Lee said, "Be like water." 

Are you recognized by fans in China? What's fame like for you there? 

Yeah, especially in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, where I started. I was a big TV personality there. I'd go about my day and then catch dinner with some friends somewhere and they would all know where I'd been all day, because people were taking pictures everywhere I went and posting them online. People would follow me around. It was a bit weird. Even when I went back home to South Carolina to visit my family, I'd notice Chinese people there recognizing me. 

What was it like for you to work in L.A. after getting your start on Chinese sets? 

I always say that working in China is amazing training. If you can handle acting in China, working on a set in L.A. is like heaven. You mean someone actually thought about lunch and I get all of my lines ahead of time? This is amazing! 

What do you enjoy about the Chinese industry? 

There's an energy in the air that's just amazing. There's so much creativity happening and an explosion of opportunity. These are the golden years for China. It's not just the growth of the economy; it's the government, too. The government is pushing to have their industry and culture go out to the world. The development of the film industry is being encouraged in every way. That's exciting. Everyone here is thinking about building something. 

Every time I've tried to step away from China I've been pulled right back, because the whole industry is still exploding. The opportunities have been immense. Sometimes I've been on five different shows in one week. I have a couple different movie projects coming out. 

So would you say it's easy to make a good living as a Western actor here? 

There are different ways of doing it. If you want to just make good money, you can definitely do that — just accept every role that comes and do appearances constantly. There's plenty of money to be made, if you have the right profile. Or you can be more selective and try to build something. One of the benefits of China, for a young actor starting out, is that you don't have to spend a lot of money here. Of course, you can — there's a big luxury lifestyle to be had —but you can also live very cheaply. There's not the big overhead like in L.A. or New York, where if you're trying to make it, you have to work as a waiter or whatever just to survive. You could do a few jobs and live off of that for a long time. That's very freeing for someone with creative ambitions. 

Yeah, the aspiring actor's life in L.A. is a pretty familiar idea — auditioning, working odd jobs, etc. But what's the daily life of an actor like in Beijing? Do you have to audition a lot? 

Five years ago, you'd go in and shake the director's hand and he'd size you up and say: "Hmm, yeah, I think you would be a good fit for this role." And that's how casting would work. Only in the last few roles have they started auditioning a lot. Many of my roles are direct bookings, because they've seen my work at this point; but recently, most projects have entailed an audition of some kind. They're a lot less standard than in L.A., though. Often they give you the lines when you arrive. You can take a little time to prepare, or just go for it. You don't necessarily know what it's going to be like until you get there. 

Another difference is that there are lots of middlemen in China who call themselves "agents," who basically go around to all of the productions and then try to find actors for the roles they hear about. It's not uncommon for me to get 10 different messages in a day about different productions and jobs — everything from movies to TV to advertisements. All from different people I've met before or maybe don't even know. When things get going in China, they really get going. It's more of game of figuring out what's actually worth doing. They produce a huge amount of TV series that never make it to air in China. You can work and make money, but maybe no one will ever see the stuff. 

How do you make those judgments? 

You have to look at track records, get Chinese friends' opinions, look at the size of the budget, ask more friends whether the budget is legit and often make a leap of faith — do I have a good feeling about this? 

One thing that's definitely different about picking projects here is that you often don't get the script until very late in the process. Usually, you have to decide before you've even seen it. They protect the script a lot more in China. Because if the script gets out and someone else copies it and makes a similar TV series first, there's not much you can do about it. You can't sue people as easily as you can in the U.S. and it takes a lot more effort. 

Of course, any actor in L.A. would feel that they absolutely need to see the script to know if the role is right for them. But that's not always the way you have it in China. You need to have the experience to suss out whether it makes sense, take the leap of faith and then do your best with whatever it is. 

How is acting itself different in China?

Well, again, it's a different culture, and so much comes with that. It's not just a matter of translating a language. There's also a different way of acting in China, because there's a different mindset on how you emote. It can be as simple as the way an American would smile at a person and show that they're happy in a certain circumstance; but in Chinese, smiling isn't really natural or appropriate in that situation — maybe it's much more normal to remain a bit stern. There are endless versions of these cultural differences. And understanding these differences is so important, because if you don't understand the culture, how are you going to understand what they're trying to portray in the script and how your fellow actors are playing a scene? 

If I have to generalize, I would say Chinese emotion often goes in waves. There's no emotion and then enhanced emotion — overly excited and then completely closed. It's definitely different from the way people act in the U.S. A lot of times the way an American would play a part just doesn't fit in a Chinese film. 

Are your actor friends in the U.S. reaching out to you about getting introductions or making a start in the Chinese industry? 

I get messages all of the time. Tons of friends in L.A. seem to want to come over. Everyone's interested in taking jobs, but most of them just want to work here, not necessarily live here. And it's not just a simple matter of getting the right introduction. China is a place where they really value you being here. They want to meet you, and have dinner with you and develop a lasting relationship on which you can build trust. So it's hard, unless you really come to invest the time. 

So what's your standard advice to Americans on how to break into the Chinese industry as an actor?

First, I would say it's not a short-term thing. You have to be willing to give a few years to learn Chinese well. And, honestly, I would say don't move to Beijing or Shanghai. Move to a small Chinese city and invest your time in getting really immersed in the language and the culture. Because it's more than just the language — you need to understand how friendship works in China. That's all integral to the film industry and any business here. Then move to Beijing and enroll in an acting program, whether it's Beijing Film Academy or China Central Academy, and build relationships. That path has served me well. 

Do you think more people will come to Beijing and the city will begin to have some of the melting-pot atmosphere that characterizes Hollywood or Silicon Valley, which both seem to owe most of their success to being able to attract the world's best talent?

I do. Here's the thing about China — there is a lot of foresight. The industry is not just going to go away. They're buying studios, setting up schools, and it's a long-term venture. We're only seeing the beginning of this. Every week I hear of people from New York or L.A. passing through, looking to see how they can be a part of this explosion that's happening. Will it surpass L.A.? I don't think so. But I see it becoming the world's second major hub. They have the market and they are totally self-sufficient, which is something they've protected in a very smart way.