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EXCLUSIVE | Kunjue Li on working with Steven Soderbergh in The Laundromat

The young Chinese actress discusses her new role and what it’s like being as Asian actress in Hollywood

Interview

As cinematic roles go, landing a part in the new Steven Soderbergh feature The Laundromat isn’t too bad going, particularly when considering the cast consists of the likes of Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman. But this is just the beginning for the talented young Chinese actress Kunjue Li – and to mark this occasion we had the pleasure of speaking to her, to discuss what it’s like to collaborate with Soderbergh, the chances in America for Chinese performers, and why she feels being an actor is the best job in the world.

What attracted you to getting involved in The Laundromat?
There were a lot of things. They didn’t want to talk about China too much because it’s quite a sensitive topic, but what initially attracted me was the whole story of Bo Xilai, because I’m from the city that they were talking about. I actually know his son, because he studied at Oxford in England and I went there for University as well so we actually partied together before. So when I read the story, I knew the inside out of the whole story so I thought it would be cool. So I auditioned for it, and that’s how it started. I was a bit scared because it was a sensitive subject and one of the producers I know in China had advised me not to do it, but now it’s not a problem and it’s not sensitive anymore so it worked out for the best.

Li also had a role in British drama series Peaky Blinders

When you were advised by this producer to avoid the project, why did you decide to ignore than advice? Were you worried it could go down badly?
I was a little bit, but it’s not going to be screening in China and it’s Netflix which isn’t in China, and also the chance to work with Steven Soderbergh and so many big stars, that was super appealing to me, and also I think I’m an actress, I should be able to do projects that I feel attracted to. So that’s why I ignored the warning!

Let’s talk about Steven Soderbergh, he’s an incredible filmmaker, he such a unique perspective on the world and the industry – what was he like to collaborate with on this project?
He’s so cool and he knows so much about films. He started when he was super young so he was telling us stories of back in the day, but I was like, you’re not that old, he’s still a very young director. He’s worked with the same people over and over again, almost every crew member has worked with him for 10-15 years, and I’ a huge fan of his film Side Effects so I met a lot of people who worked on that project, and I was able to ask them what it was like to make that film. He’s just super cool, and he let’s you do whatever you want to do, and he’ll just shoot it. He’s more like a camera man, he let’s you do what you want to do and he then incorporates it into the film.

Soderbergh doing his thing

You’re based now in America, and we’ve seen in the last year Crazy Rich Asians take the box office by storm, and The Farewell did very well this year. Given the fact that films with Asian leads and all-Asian casts are doing so well – is this a good time for Chinese actors living in the States?
I think so, for sure, definitely. I have auditioned for huge stuff, stuff I would never dream of auditioning for. Accents doesn’t matter as much anymore. I feel right now it’s a really good time, and then you have Marvel’s Shang-Chi, there’s just going to be more opportunities for Asian actors, and also we’re pushing each other. I know a few directors who only do Asian stories and are hiring Asian actors, so it’s very good community where people are pushing diversity and people who are in a position of power are actually helping their own community as well.

You’ve made steps yourself in pushing for more diversity – tell me a little bit about Equilibrium?
We were trying to promote female writers and actors, directors, and every play we put on at the Soho Theatre, they have to be 50% female characters. They also should have female writers and diverse characters in it, and we try to match the stories with female directors we know. People went on to do amazing things, one of the directors he just did a play at the National Theatre, we’re so happy to see that, because this was two or three years ago, but people have gone on to do amazing things, and are still working together, it’s a real community as they try to work with people they’ve worked with before. We didn’t know if it would have an effect but it has, which is cool.

What a cast!

You grew up in the mountains – where did this dream of becoming an actress come from? Was it something you knew you wanted to do from a young age?
Yeah I always wanted to do it, right from a young age. People come to the world to pro-create or some people come to learn or some people come to experience, but I always felt like I wanted to experience everything. Acting is the best career to be able to experience everything. I’m super curious about human emotions and human thinking and I’ve always been like that, since I was a kid. So acting is the job where you can do all of that without having real consequences in your life, but you can lose your mum, without actually losing your mum.

Do you find it quite cathartic then? You see films where people are dealing with cancer, or they might be falling in love, or breaking up, and I always wonder if going through something via a character means if you ever have to go through something in real life, you’re emotionally more prepared for it?
Yeah, I think so. Because the emotions are real, if you’re true to yourself in that moment and you’re falling in love with someone, you are actually falling in love with someone. That’s why I don’t believe in love [laughs], it’s a momentary thing. Anyway… For example in March I auditioned for a Hulu show and the main character had a daughter and I had to give her up when she was nine months old because the character couldn’t provide for her, then she hears the daughter was adopted by a white family and she starts to fight for her daughter. I’ve never had a maternal feeling or anything and it’s something I couldn’t access, and they wanted me to go back for another audition but I couldn’t because the tears were not real tears, in that moment I was thinking about something else and for me it’s very important to be truthful. So I didn’t go back. But then something happened in my real life, so I got a cat and I wasn’t bonding with the cat and I decided to give my cat back to the centre, and then on my way I was crying so much and then when I got there I decided to not give her up, and I took her back home. Then she was sick and I had to take her to the vet and spend 500 dollars on here, and I know it’s not the same scale but the place that I had to access in my heart was the same place, the tenderness you wanted to provide and the patience that you have, and the bravery that comes from wanting to protect something, that’s the same. If only I had got the cat before the audition! I really think everything happens for a reason, like if I didn’t go for the audition I wouldn’t have the curiosity to explore motherhood, because for me it’s quite early to talk about that, I wouldn’t have that curiosity to think about what it’s like to be a mum. I would’ve got the role, and had Emmy nominations, all of it! [Laughs]

What a cast x2!

You’ve got Tigertail coming up, what can you tell me about that?
Yeah it’s really exciting. It’s an ensemble piece about immigrants, throughout different generations, going to New York, combining the new generation’s life with the old. My role was very empowering, she’s a girl who doesn’t know anything she just married a guy because her father told her to, and she followed him to New York, didn’t really love him but in New York she makes a friend who encourages her to explore, and eventually she becomes a teacher. It’s very empowering and very real. It’s not a big happy ending story, it’s based on reality.

The Laundromat is available to watch on UK Netflix now

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