"When I fly into Beijing now, I have this feeling in my heart that I’m home"
Forming a bridge between the US and China has seemed to be a formidable task. With heavily criticised film projects such as The Great Wall and a looming trade war threatening to erode economic partnerships, the Sino-American relationship has been through its fair share of rocky waters.
However, American actor Matt William Knowles, who is building his career in China, sees one gleam of hope in bridging the two nations through their respective film industries. Regarded by some as the “white face of the Chinese film industry,” Knowles says he sees “more and more opportunities for connecting the Western and Chinese film industries.”
“I am more than happy to continue being a part of creating successful international collaborations and partnerships,” the actor tells me over a pint of the black stuff in his local London pub. “The US and China are both “home” to me, and I am excited to continue to be a part of bringing these two influential industries together.”
Born and bred in South Carolina, Knowles spent his most recent years immersing himself in China’s culture, language and film industry. Knowles, who is in his early thirties, has starred in a number of Chinese television productions and films after achieving fluency in Mandarin after four years. His latest project, Asura, is expected to wow audiences in China and more importantly, internationally.
Additionally, Knowles was recently made a mayor in a poor region of Guizhou, where he helps to inspire people and elevate poverty.
As China’s first film to have a $100 million budget, Asura hopes to impress audiences with its gripping story, stunning visuals and unprecedented scale. Described by Knowles as “the Chinese Lord Of The Rings,” Asura is a fantasy epic involving a chosen one and demi-Gods fighting over the well-being of the world. Released next month, Asura might just be this generation’s Chinese film that finally wins the hearts of western audiences.
Unlike Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, which was slammed for “erasing Asian people from the movie screen” by casting Matt Damon as its star, Asura prises itself for having a wealth of Chinese A-list actors. 17-year-old Lei Wu, who is described by Knowles as “China’s Justin Bieber”, plays the film’s protagonist, whilst Hong Kong legends Tony Ka Fai Leung and Carina Lau play the villains. Furthermore, the dialogue in Asura is entirely spoken in Mandarin, in keeping with an authentic Chinese production.
Knowles, plays Rawa – an elite demi-God rebel who is the equivalent of Hercules. Whilst he aids the Ruyi (Wu) in his quest to reunite with the rest of himself, Rawa is far from the ‘white saviour complex’ that notoriously corrupts the west’s depiction of the east. Fittingly, in fighting against desire, Knowles’ character represents justice.
Resonate met with Knowles at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) – one of London’s most prestigious drama schools – where he is currently enrolled. Knowles took us through his journey into China and how his experience has moulded his career and visions for the future.
Whilst in China, Knowles did his fair share of modelling, and it’s not hard to see why. His smouldering good looks, athletic build and youthful charm fulfil the criteria of any modelling agency. However, beneath his chiseled cheek bones and Abercrombie & Fitch abs lies a very humble and cultured man.
As we enter one of RADA’s many rehearsal rooms, Knowles welcomes us to his school where he spends most of his time as diligent drama student. At 6ft4, the American actor somewhat towers over me but whilst he certainly has presence, his immediate politeness and warmth is evident, making for a relaxed atmosphere.
Sitting opposite me, he begins to reveal how a career-ending and heartbreaking sports injury led him on an entirely different path on the opposite side of the world. “I was playing football in college at Clemson and my knees got injured senior year,” Knowles explains. “I had three surgeries on my knees – It ended any sort of dreams or hopes I had of playing football.”
“Growing up I always had a desire of going overseas and helping people for 1-3 years. I found myself with my dreams shattered but thought it would be a great opportunity to go overseas and help people somehow.”
By chance, an old friend had told him he was teaching English in one of China’s poorest regions and they were looking for another teacher. In a decision that would “change his life”, Knowles packed his bags and headed east.
“So I flew to Duyun, Guizhou with no idea of what China was about,” Knowles says. “It was a very beautiful, mountainous region that separated from the rest of China for a long time because it was so hard to get anywhere there. They say it was 20 years behind the rest of China.”
Foreigners were so uncommon in Duyun that some young children were actually scared of the 6ft4 American, “little kids would see me and they’d run away screaming, “monster!” They had never seen a big white guy before.”
Every week Knowles taught around 1500 students and during the weekends he would run humanitarian projects in the mountains. As the days rolled by, Knowles fell in love with Guizhou and its people. “They were some of the most hospitable, welcoming and kind people I’ve ever met,” Knowles says of the Duyun people. “They were always wanting me to come to meet their family and go to their village. When I went to their village, the village elder would kill a chicken to celebrate!”
In fact, Knowles felt so comfortable in Duyun that he considered the region his home. However, he quickly got a taste of what being a foreigner living in another country was like. “I really wanted to fit in but every day I would get on the bus and everyone would look at me and start laughing,” Knowles says. “After the second year of being there, it really hit me hard – to them I was always a foreigner even though I felt like it was my home. It really messed with me.”
Because of this experience, Knowles says he can now relate to and empathise with his Asian friends in the west. “We have so much in common,” Knowles says of his Asian friends in America. “Growing up in the US as a white guy, I never thought Asian Americans were treated differently.”
“But after experiencing the opposite in China where I thought that was my home but I was always different, I understand a piece of that. Their whole lives they have felt America is their home but other people treat them differently. It kills me but it also creates a bond between us.”
Instead of taking the experience personally, Knowles was inspired to learn Chinese as best as he could. “If I could speak Chinese perfectly like a newscaster and learn the culture, then they’ll accept me,” he said. In order to achieve this, he moved to Chengdu and enrolled in school.
Not only did Knowles achieve fluency in his language capability, but he also learned to sing perfectly in Mandarin. At a KTV one night, a famous host happened to hear Knowles sing in Mandarin and was so impressed that a white person could sing Chinese songs like native, he invited him on his TV show.
“You can’t take Hollywood’s standard of acting and apply it to the world.”
After getting a taste of onscreen life, Knowles pursued a career in the television industry. “I ended up signing with an agency as the first ever white actor/host/model/singer,” Knowles explained. “For the next two years, I built my name up for myself in Sichuan. I went on countless TV shows and concerts. I would host concerts for Chinese celebrities. At the time my accent was pretty darn good – that’s why I got a lot of work doing news shows and hosting.”
Eventually, Knowles earned a scholarship from the Chinese government to study acting at the Beijing Film Academy where he was the first ever non-Asian student. “I was in a class surrounded by Chinese, learning Chinese way of acting,” Knowles recalls. “That really gave me a unique experience of how they act there and how it differs from acting in English. It gave me a great platform to start acting in different roles in China.”
“Pretty soon I started getting offers for roles like Red Sorghum, which was a beloved show in China. I also did Deng Xiaoping at History’s Crossroads and a ton of others.”
Reflecting on the differences between acting in English and Chinese, Knowles says the approach and culture are vastly different. “It’s not just a language disconnect, it’s a complete world view,” he explains. “If there was a scene in English, you would act it comedically but if it was in Chinese, you could end up crying.”
Knowles added that the criticism of Asian cinema as being “plastic” or “overacted” is unwarranted and stems from a culture difference. “You can’t just translate it over to what a Hollywood actor would be doing,” he says. “If you put a Hollywood actor into a Chinese role in their culture, it wouldn’t fit. You can’t take Hollywood’s standard of acting and apply it to the world.”
Fast forward a few years and Knowles finds himself on set of China’s first $100 million film, which is 2-3 times the normal budget. As described by Knowles, Asura is a “mythological story about Gods and demi-Gods in the realm of desire based on Chinese Tibetan Buddhism.”
The film is a story about a chosen one named Ruyi – one of the three heads of the Asura King and the equivalent of Aries, the God Of War. Knowles plays a character named Rawa – the biggest and strongest of the demi-God rebels and is the equivalent of Hercules. Rawa tries to steer Ruyi into the realm of justice in an effort to stop him from giving into the realm of desire and destroying the world.
“People in the US are starting to get a taste of reading subtitles”
Reflecting on his first days on set, Knowles recalls being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the production. “I remember walking into [the director’s] building in Beijing,” Knowles said. “It was like a warehouse of artwork and sculptures and paintings of the different costumes and thousands of weapons and trees. They literally created an entire new world.”
Knowles added that the entire film was shot in China. “We went to the Himalayas to one of the highest lakes in the worlds – Qinghai lake,” he said. “We shot in the desert in Ningxia and several studios in Beijing. The sets were ginormous. We had an Oscar winning costume designer from Lord of the Rings and an Oscar winning set designer.”
For Knowles, Asura is special because, “people outside China will want to see it. It’s not hard to understand, it’s not dialogue heavy. It’s an epic fantasy story. The world they have created, the story, the characters and the never done before action sequences are very special. Those people who are outside China who like comic books are really going to dig Asura.”
Working with Wu Lei was like “being with my little brother” according Knowles, who has a brother who is the same age as the young Chinese superstar. “Tony Leung and Carina Lau are old school Hong Kong actors,” Knowles said. “They were both incredibly experienced and they bring great energy to the set and inspire everyone there.”
Although Asura is expected to achieve phenomenal success in both China and the west, Knowles believes it is only the tip of the iceberg for the Chinese film industry. “Most money is made off the cinema goers in China,” Knowles says. “China is creating better and better content. They are specialists at moving very fast. They are starting to put out some really great movies that will break out of the mould and into the rest of the world.”
He added that America is ready to welcome foreign content and are not deterred by subtitles. “People in the US are starting to get a taste of reading subtitles and being ok with it because the content behind it is something they really want to see.”
Knowles doesn’t see the buck stopping with China either. “Not only do I see Chinese films doing better in the world in the future,” he said, “but I think it will open the doors for foreign content in general, expanding from a place where people only want to see Hollywood movies.”
Knowles’ achievements as a successful foreign actor in China have not gone unacknowledged either. Last month, Wanda invited him to return to Guizhou to become a mayor of a town. “I was honoured to go back and become the mayor there and inspire the people and elevate poverty,” Knowles said. “There’s a huge government push to enable the people there. I went back and spoke to the college there, which was built by Wanda to encourage the people there.”
“Wanda promises that if they graduate, 50% of the people will be employed there, he added. “I had a great talk at the university to inspire them and telling my story. Dreams are only attainable when you have the correct infrastructure and opportunities to do them.”
Knowles has also expressed interest in joining the cast of the film adaptation of Peter Hessler’s River Town, which mirrors Knowles’s time as a humanitarian in Guizhou.
There is no doubt that Knowles’ love for China is genuine and sincere, and his gratitude for the opportunities presented to him by the Middle Kingdom has not gone unappreciated. So when Knowles recently learned that his great, great aunt was buried in China after being held in in a prison camp by the Japanese during WWII, he was pleasantly surprised.
“[My great aunt] was in Wuhu, Anhui province,” Knowles tells us. “She helped to start some hospitals there before WWII. When the Japanese invaded, all the foreigners fled. We have this letter written about her that said she did not want to leave and abandon her Chinese friends.”
“She stayed behind and put in a prison camp by the Japanese. During the war she got a disease and passed away in China. At great risk to their lives, Chinese friends snuck her body back across communist lines to Wuhu and buried her there. We haven’t found where she was buried but we found the prison camp she was in.”
When Knowles visited her grave, he finally understood why he had felt connected to China all this time. “I went back there last year to tour the camp, which has been renovated to what it looked like in the 50’s,” he said. “It was a surreal experience to know that my ancestor had been there and seen what I was seeing. By a weird series of events I ended up in China and felt connected. Now I know why.”
In another strange series of events, Knowles also recently discovered that his great uncle was in the 1941 American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force, The Flying Tigers. “[My uncle] was the chairman of the Flying Tigers reunion after the war,” Knowles says. “He has pictures of him and Chennault’s wife and the ambassador to China.”
Knowles hopes to one day recreate his great uncle’s achievements on screen. “The Flying Tigers is the story of China and US friendship in Chinese history,” he said. “I filmed roles in China where I was a pilot but I would love to film a Flying Tigers role.”
Asura will be released on 13 July 2018 in China and is expected to have a worldwide release soon after. A successful Chinese film in the west is long overdue and at Resonate, we’ve got our fingers crossed that Asura knocks it out of the park.
After speaking to Knowles, we’re also excited for the future of the Chinese film industry and its growing partnership with Hollywood. Dwayne Johnson’s Skyscraper might be this summer’s more familiar China-America production but Asura seems to have the potential of finally bringing authentic Chinese cinema to the west.