China has a big impact on today’s global economy, but its culture is still a mystery to a lot of Americans. “Shanghai Calling”, which was screened at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York, is a Sino-American co-production, is a romantic comedy written and directed by Daniel Hsia. Daniel Henney plays the character of Sam Chao, an ambitious Manhattan attorney, who is dispatched to Shanghai to open the firm’s new satellite office there.
If Sam completes the three-month assignment, they will give him the promotion he’s been dreaming about. But Sam may not be suited for life in China. His first day in Shanghai, he humiliates Amanda (Eliza Coupe), the lovely relocation specialist hired to smooth his way into the expat community, browbeats Fang Fang (Zhu Zhu), his hyper-capable office assistant, and insults everyone he meets with his refusal to adapt to local customs.
When his insistence on doing things his way costs an important client a potential billion-dollar deal, Sam must rely on the very people he has alienated to fix his blunders and save his job. As he painfully learns to temper his take-no-prisoners style, Sam slowly discovers a new way of looking at the world—and at Amanda.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Daniel Henney for AsianinNY.com. Daniel was very gracious and well-spoken. He was in Seoul and had just finished a 3 hour basketball session in the heat. He spoke about how he prepared for his character, his dream role, and his hope for Asian American audiences to support the movie.
What attracted you to the project?
The script was wonderful. I met with Daniel, the director and Janet the producer. We had really good chemistry and I thought it would be a great working environment. On a larger level, there are not a lot of films like this that I’ve seen. As I had mentioned in previous interviews, I grew up in the 90’s, which was one of the greatest decades for Rom Coms. Sleepless in Seattle. Jerry McGuire. You don’t see as many of these films these days. When I saw ‘Shanghai Calling’, I saw a really great fish out of water story, in a way I haven’t see one before. A fish that’s really out of water. I think it’s timely. I thought that if we could make it right, present the film on a great platform, such as a film Festival, that we could make a really great impression on audiences, and paint a really great picture of, not only the city of Shanghai, but Asian culture in general, which a lot of people still don’t know a lot about. It could be a film that could potentially be used as tool.
In the production notes, you described the audition as “brutal”. Can you tell us more about the process?
I guess “brutal” was not the proper word. Usually when you go into an audition, it generally takes at the most, about half an hour long, if they like you. They’ll have you to do a scene probably two or three times in a few different ways. For example, the director might ask you to do the scene as if you’ve just won a million bucks. With “Shanghai Calling”, they made me do virtually every scene in the movie. So it was two hours of crazy auditioning. Luckily they were enjoying what they were seeing and we were having a good time. But when I walked out of the audition, I felt like I just ran a marathon.
How was it like working on the set with such a great cast. What was energy like on set?
It was the single best acting experience in my life. I have been working in Korea for a long time now, which I love very very much. But, when you’re working in Asia for a while, as an American, you hope that one day you could do a film like ‘Shanghai Calling’, where you get to work with actors that are on your level linguistically. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on an English script that has been written that well. And I’ve always wanted to do that. It was so enjoyable. Everyone got along so well. Eliza and I are lifelong friends. We definitely have a love for each other. We talk a lot. Bill Paxton is a also a great friend friend. I never wanted to go to work so badly in all my life. I woke up every morning at 4am. Happily. At the gym for an hour. I was on set by 5:30. Happily. Had my coffee and ready to work for 12 hours. That’s all because of who you’re working with. The energy. The Chinese crew was amazing. They couldn’t have been nicer. Everyone so gracious. It was a great experience. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
What were differences working with a Chinese versus American crew?
Laughs. There were lots of differences. China and Korea are probably similar in many ways. It does feel much more like a family environment. We’re all in this together. We’re going to go through this experience together, through the good, through the bad. Ultimately you become very close to your crew, when you work on Asian projects, which is great. I knew everyone by first name. We’d go out and have beers afterward. We’d do all kinds of things afterwards. Whereas in the states, it’s much more of a business. You finish your scene and you go home. Actors don’t really hang out that much, unless you’re on location somewhere. It’s more like a business in the states, which is fine, because it is a business. But I kind of like the Asian way a little better.
How was it like working with Janet Yang?
I spent everyday with her for 2 months. She’s very hands on and the sole producer on the film. She was very much part of everyday. She has a lot of clout in China. Without her, the film would have never happened. She was opening all kinds of doors for us behind the scenes. She was getting permission and she worked so hard. She’s a good friend and I’m very thankful to have worked with her.
How did you prepare for the role?
Daniel is a very hands-on director. He was very nervous about the fact that I hadn’t done a lot of comedy. So we sat down, we did a lot of stuff, worked together at his place. We did a lot of rehearsals. I also shadowed a lawyer in Los Angeles, who was basically the same as Sam, at Sam’s level. I went to his office a few times and watched him, studied him, and asked him all kinds of questions. Probably freaked him out a little bit. It was fun though. It was great barometer for me to have, in terms of his overall energy, when he spoke and how he spoke. It was very useful for me.
Did you see audience reactions to the movie? What did you think?
I did attend the Newport Beach Film Festival and LA Asian Pacific Film Festival. I was completely overwhelmed with the audience response. It was crazy how much people laughed. What kind of gets me is that the Western audience, like in Newport Beach, where it was mainly Caucasian crowd, you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. It felt like the roof was going to come off the theater sometimes. Whereas with the Asian American crowd, it’s a little closer to home with the film. It took a while for them to warm up to it. Ultimately, they get more out of the film, because they can relate more to it. I think it works in so many ways. That was our goal, to make the film work for both audiences. And I think we did that.
How about the Asian audience?
We were very nervous to show the film, because it is a Chinese co-production. So we were nervous to see how they would respond to the film because China is notoriously tough on films, especially American films. And it was so good that they bumped up our release date in China. It was originally supposed to be released on the 27th. Now it’s releasing on the 10th of August.
Do you have any dream roles? Any actor or director that you would want to work with?
I have tons. I just want to work with creative people, good people, nice people, with vision. People who are excited to be in this business. As far as characters, I’m open to anything. I’ve had a love affair with the 007 series since I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to play James Bond as a character. I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen, but one can hope. I just keep my options open.
Ever since ‘My Lovely Sam Soon’ in 2005, your career has been on an upward trajectory. Have you had any surreal moments?
Everyday. Things have calmed down, which I’m very happy about. After Sam Soon in 2005, it was really intense here for 2 years. It kind of overwhelmed me. So I kind of had to take a break afterwards, to get back to who I was. But now, I’m at a point where I’m very secure with everything and excited about where my career is going. I literally talk to my manager about it 2 or 3 times a week. “Can you believe what we’re doing? Can you believe this is happening? You know how lucky we are?” I think it’s very important to think that way and be aware that nothing is forever and you have to appreciate what you have. I definitely have been very lucky. I’m just very lucky to have this career, so we’ll see where it goes.
Question from New York fans – Any plans to be in NY soon?
I’d love to be. I was actually supposed to be in New York for this festival. I was very excited to go and unfortunately the schedule didn’t work out. We’ll see. I’d like the Asian American audiences to know that for movies like this, we need all the support we can get. Asian American audiences are very tough to please. For films like this, it’s very important that we get good distribution. If people like this movie, and if this film gets shown all over the states, that’s a big step in the right direction for us, as a community, as Asian Americans. When does that ever happen? So who knows? If the film gets good distribution, which we’re hoping, I’m sure I’ll be back in NY soon. If not, hopefully for my next movie. And I love New York. I lived there for four years. It’s a second home to me in the states.