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Earlier this week, Johnny Depp made his first trip to China. More than just a two-day promotional tour for his upcoming sci-fi thriller Transcendence, the actor’s visit was also a culturally rich swing through Beijing.
Depp’s trip was hosted by Chinese film studio DMG Entertainment, which co-produced Transcendence with Alcon Entertainment. To introduce China to Depp and Depp to China, the Chinese studio arranged a slew of events tailored to the actor’s idiosyncratic counter-culture persona, including a concert and jam session with Chinese rock star David Tao, a visit to Beijing’s historic 798 arts district, where he did some sculpting with Chinese artist Ren Zhe, and a casual roundtable discussion with Chinese actors, fashion designers and DMG CEO Dan Mintz, held before an audience of students from the Beijing Film Academy. The studio also hosted a press conference for Chinese and international media at the Grand Hyatt in Beijing’s Wangfujing district.
Some of the events were filmed and are being edited into a 60-minute primetime TV special that will be broadcast across China by Zhejiang TV in the lead-up to simultaneous U.S. and China release of Transcendence on April 18.
“Much of the content was geared toward the audience understanding more of what the film is about and the science and technology behind it, as well as creating more relevancy for the film in China,” said Mintz. “Johnny had a personal agenda of learning and understanding more about China and its culture, and that was integrated into the program; but it was sincere — he didn’t come to China just to say, ‘I’m a star, look at me.’ Chinese fans responded to that.”
Transcendence stars Depp as a terminally ill scientist who downloads his mind into a computer, gaining powers beyond his wildest dreams. The film is said to explore the perhaps not-too-distant moment when computer intelligence surpasses the power of the human mind. It co-stars Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara and Paul Bettany.
“My expectations were very high,” Depp said at his first meet-and-greet event in Beijing, where he seemed to hug every Chinese person he came into contact with. “From the very first second, I was impressed. It’s beautiful, the foliage is different, the styles of architecture are different.”
Depp also let some personal news slip while in China, confirming his engagement to actress Amber Heard after months of speculation. The actor was spotted wearing a diamond engagement ring throughout most of his stay in Beijing, and referred to it on one occasion as a “chick’s ring.”
Asked by THR how he felt about his performance in Transcendence, he said “I don’t like to watch myself in my films and I stopped that a long time ago. And I don’t read anything about myself. I don’t want to be influenced by anything.”
On his first night in Beijing, Depp attended a red carpet event at a restored former factory in the 798 arts district. The party was hosted by popular TV personality Wu Zong Xian – occasionally described as Taiwan’s version of Ryan Seacrest — and attended by Chinese stars Ge You (Farewell My Concubine, Let the Bullets Fly) and Wu Xiu Bo (Finding Mr. Right). Chinese rock star David Tao headlined the event and Depp joined him on guitar for a cover of the ’90s Chinese rock classic “Yi Wu Suo You” (“Nothing to My Name”) – a powerful anthem for China’s younger generations, with some political overtones. Singaporean pop star JJ Lin also performed. The event was invite-only but Chinese fans swarmed the entrances.
The next day, Mintz took Depp on a tour through the hutongs (the warren-like alleyways between Beijing’s traditional low-slung courtyard residences) of the arts district, where they stopped at galleries and a record shop, and visited the studio of sculptor Ren Zhe, where Depp took in the artist’s work and did some clay modeling. Later that evening, he took part in a “House of Creativity” roundtable event, discussing the role of art, acting and craft in U.S. and Chinese society with veteran actor and director Zhang Guang Bei, fashion designer Guo Pei, singer Liu Jia, photographer Chen Man and DMG’s Mintz. The event took place before a live audience of Beijing Film Academy students and was taped for later broadcast in China.
While Depp’s visit was more substantive than most Hollywood stopovers, he is just the latest in a string of top Hollywood celebrities to recently touch down in the world’s second-largest movie market. Last week, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson promoted Captain America: The Winter Soldier at a shopping mall in Beijing, followed the next day by The Amazing Spider-Man 2 stars Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Jamie Foxx.
As China’s box office continues to boom – it expanded 30 percent in the first quarter of 2014 and is expected to reach $4.64 billion by year’s end – Beijing is replacing London and Tokyo as the most important promotional destination for Hollywood talent.
When asked about the financial upside the Chinese market offers international stars such as himself, Depp shrugged off interest in the business side of filmmaking, saying: “China has a lot to offer Hollywood. There is a level of art, eons of culture here. We can learn a lot from each other.”
“Thank you so much for the warm welcome to this amazing place,” he later told the crowds. “You never get enough time.”
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