When Rotten Tomatoes first sat down with Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen, who plays the sweet and stubborn “Nai Nai” in writer-director Lulu Wang‘s hit indie dramedy The Farewell, she confessed she was feeling a little tired. Her movie was finally being released in China a week from our meeting in mid-November, and friends and family had been texting and sending articles about the film from home all night. “I was just so wired,” said Shuzhen. The days during her U.S. trip were offering little reprieve from sleepless nights: long chats with journalists like us, full-house screenings, fancy parties, photo shoots.
The 76-year-old actress, a veteran of China’s stage and small screen who got her start with the prestigious Harbin Theatre of China when she was just 16, does not show any signs of fatigue if she’s feeling it. Over an hour-long conversation, speaking to RT through a translator, she is, like her on-screen character, buzzing with energy – and charming as hell. Even before her stories are translated from Mandarin, you’re swept up in them as Shuzhen joyfully mimics patting co-star Awkwafina on the butt (a friendly gesture her grandma character shares with granddaughter Billi, played by Awkwafina, in the film) or chuckles at the thought of meeting acting hero Al Pacino at an Oscars party.
When she talks about the true story that inspired the movie – when Wang’s grandmother was diagnosed with a fatal disease, her family chose not to tell her, instead convening in China to see her under the guise of a relative’s wedding – she is visibly moved.
A new face to American audiences, the Harbin-born, Beijing-based Shuzhen is famous in China for her work in soap operas. After a lengthy career on stage playing the likes of Antigone and Ilsa Lund in a staged Casablanca, she has since the 1980s perfected the role of the Chinese grandma on TV, something she says may have put her on Wang’s radar when the director was casting the role of her real-life “Nai Nai” (grandmother). But early discussions about the role didn’t go anywhere; Shuzhen was busy with TV work and the money wasn’t quite right. “I just decided to put the film in the back of my mind and not really think about it,” she said. “I thought we had all moved on.” It was only when Wang called her directly and shared her story that she decided she was onboard, fully, pay cut and all.
It was the right decision. The film, still Certified Fresh at 99% on the Tomatometer, has been something of an indie phenomenon since it premiered at Sundance. Days after we met Shuzhen, the movie would be nominated for Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards and Shuzhen nominated for Best Supporting Female. As we move further into awards season, she can expect many more exciting late nights and tired mornings. Here, the actress and grandmother of two talks with Rotten Tomatoes about working with Awkwafina, meeting Nai Nai, growing Oscar buzz, the movie’s central deceit – and the complicated feelings she had about keeping it – and how a phone call changed her world.
Note: The following interview contains minor spoilers for The Farewell.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: You just saw The Farewell for the first time three days ago. Which is kinda wild given how big the film has been here. What surprised you most about the final film you saw?
There was a big difference between what I had expected and what I ended up seeing. When I first read the script, when I was preparing for the film, my impression was this movie is going to be very even-keel. It’s not a movie that’s heavy on melodrama or theatrics or conflict or incidence. That’s what I thought it was going to be, but then after seeing the film, I was just really impressed by the result and what came out. Especially in the last few days, having been able to interact with fans and audiences, people coming up to me and saying things like, “You reminded me of my real grandma. You reminded me of my family, and because of this film, because of you, I called my grandma. You remind me of how I was brought up and how my grandmother and family members and parents poured so much love and effort into raising me.” People have been telling me things like that and that’s just been so moving and inspiring and was just completely unexpected. Frankly, it’s overwhelming.
Did you expect the movie to have that kind of impact? You’ve become a bit of a star in the U.S.
Initially, I really didn’t expect this film to have such a big impact. Because my impression of Americans is that they’re less family-centered or family-oriented than the Chinese. In China, grandparents, parents, they raise multiple generations of their descendants; grandparents would help take care of their grandson, great-grandparents will take care of their great-grandsons. Whereas I know in the U.S., it’s more common for children, for example, once they reach the age of 18 to go off to college, they move somewhere else, there’s more distance between family members. Now I can see that the movie clearly has also resonated strongly with the American audience. I’ve come to appreciate that there’s also this emphasis on family within American society.
How did you first come across the role of Nai Nai, Billi’s (Awkwafina) grandmother in The Farewell?
Initially, I actually got in contact with the crew and the team of The Farewell through a friend. Very early on, we were discussing the film, but usually in China, one of the first things you talk about is compensation, and at the time, my understanding was that the compensation wasn’t very high. I basically decided that maybe this is not the film for me; I just decided to put the film in the back of my mind and not really think about it. I thought we had all moved on. But then I think Diana Lin [who stars as Billi’s mother Lu Jian] must have sent my files or my headshot or the relevant materials to Lulu, because what ended up happening later was that I just got a phone call from Lulu directly out of the blue. She reached out to me and told me the true story of what happened with her family, with her grandma. And she also made a point to tell me, “This really is a very low-budget movie. We have very limited funding. I know this is below your usual rate, but would you consider doing this?” I was so moved by the story that Lulu was telling me, I basically just told her, “Say no more. Don’t worry about it. I will do this movie without precondition. I’m going to be part of this.”
Lulu has said that her initial phone call with you was very emotional. Can you talk about that call?
We both got very emotional on this call, particularly at the point when Lulu started telling me about her grandma’s illness and how they all had to travel back to China and use the wedding as a pretense in order to bid farewell to her. I think that particular story, when she told me that, she got very emotional. The fact that she did end up leading a happy and healthy life… I think that all these things were very striking, moving for me. Also, I could tell when talking to Lulu that she had just a genuine sense of affection and love for her family, that this is someone who places a lot of importance on family. And to me as a Chinese person, we Chinese, we really value that. Once that conversation got going, I started crying listening to her story and then she got very emotional as well.
When did you first meet the real Nai Nai? And what was that like, knowing the story and that she didn’t know about her illness, and having been so moved by what you’d heard?
I met Nai Nai because Lulu really wanted me to do this job well and to really act well and be like the real Nai Nai, the real grandma. Lulu had repeatedly told me, “Make sure you don’t expose anything. Make sure you don’t tell Nai Nai what’s actually happening.” I went and paid her a visit in Changchun, which was where the film was shot, and also where Nai Nai actually lives. It was very striking because it didn’t even seem like she was sick in any way, shape, or form. She seemed very healthy, very vital. She was very optimistic, very warm, and also she’s a very strong and fierce person at the same time. And she was just so hospitable and nice to me. She gave me gifts. She treated me like a family member.
At the time, I actually felt quite emotional. Seeing her, how healthy she looked, but also knowing that she has this illness that she doesn’t know about, and also how her family had done so much in order to help her, also to make sure that she doesn’t know… I was emotional, but it was also a very complicated feeling that I had interacting with her.
Were there specific things that you took from your time with her and put into your performance?
After that initial meeting, she made such a strong impression on me. I grew confident that I could do this, but also what was important was that it instilled in me a conviction that I must do this job well. I think for me in terms of my style, my look, my appearance, there’s some resemblance between me and the grandma. But in terms of personality there’s a big difference, because Lulu’s grandma in real life is a very strong and very confident person, very self-reliant. She’s very kind, very generous, very warm, but there is a fierce side to her. She can be very assertive, very opinionated. Whereas me in real life, both in terms of my real personality but also in terms of the grandmas I had portrayed in the past in TV or on the stage, they tend to be softer, more tender, more mild-mannered.
I observed her behavior very closely when I was with her, I observed her gestures and ticks. I really tried to do my best to mimic her, to imitate her in ways that would make sense for the movie. Even while we were shooting, Lulu would constantly remind me, “Hey, remember to really think of my real grandma and act like her.” Whenever Lulu told me that, that’s when I realized, “OK, there’s still a little bit of distance between me and the real grandma. My acting’s still not quite there yet.” I really had to force myself to be stronger and fiercer.
I had a sense at times when watching the movie that she surely must know what’s happening – she seems too smart and savvy a person not to. But perhaps that’s just me coming at it as a Westerner. Did you ever play her as knowing, or was she always ignorant of the big plot in your characterization?
My sense, and the way I portrayed the grandma, [is that] I think she really doesn’t know any of this. As you saw in the film, early on in the movie, whenever she had to go to the hospital or take medication or antibiotics, it was all under the pretext that, “Oh, this is just a minor illness. It’s a cold.” I think that’s how it really was. The fact that everyone is coming home at the same time, they all look depressed and blue, the way I played the grandmother, the way I think she acted in real life, [is that] she probably just thought, “Oh, they look so depressed and blue was because there was a lot going on at work, at home.”
There are even scenes in which my character tells Awkwafina’s [character’s] dad, “Oh, you’re drinking too much. Don’t drink.” And then when I see people not eating, I would tell them, “Oh, why aren’t you eating? Just eat, eat, eat.” I was just more preoccupied with their well-being, rather than my own well-being, and I was just happy to see all of them coming to China and celebrating this wedding, which is a very big deal to my character.
She was so concerned with other people that the thing that was going on with her, she didn’t really focus on or think about too much, yeah?
I think you can really say that. She gives so much. In this regard, she really is the archetypal Chinese grandma, someone who’s just so loving and self-giving, she doesn’t even know what’s going on with herself. That one scene when she got sick or was not feeling comfortable – she even went to the hospital by herself. She didn’t want to bother other people.
The movie is about to open in China, and it’s getting a lot of interest. Do you think Chinese audiences will connect with it in the same way as Americans and other Western audiences have? The central deceit is presumably less surprising to Chinese filmgoers?
I think at the outset when the Chinese audience watches this film, they initially may not be able to relate to Billi. When they see that, “Oh, she really wants to tell the grandma what’s actually happened,” the knee-jerk response from the Chinese audience is, “Why would you do that? Don’t do that. That’s a very silly idea.” This kind of occurrence is very commonplace in China, this idea of family deceiving their family members and not telling them their diseases and illness. Traditionally, I think the Chinese mindset and our mindset is that older people… you should just leave them be. Let them enjoy the remainder of their years; don’t give them any psychological and emotional burden. But the movie really does a great job interrogating that impulse, interrogating also the parents’ impulses. The movie also does a good job presenting the conflicting values between the East and the West, the conflicting perspectives and the worldview, and does an even-handed job of presenting and interrogating those things. I think ultimately Chinese audiences will be able to appreciate the journey and understand that tension and be able to look at it from a very compassionate and objective perspective.
The relationship between Nai Nai and Billi is beautiful, and funny, and feels really genuine. Did you know much about Awkwafina before the movie – and what were your first impressions of working with her?
I actually didn’t know who she was at all.
You didn’t go and look at her online rap videos?
[Laughs] No… Even when we first met in person, I didn’t know who she was. All I really knew was that she’s done a lot of funny stuff and is primarily a comedic performer. But one thing about Awkwafina that was striking to me was, while we were filming, you can tell she is someone who is also very close to her own grandma in real life. Whenever we were on break, she would just constantly be doing video chats with her grandma. She even put me on video chat with her grandma a few times. Awkwafina is just someone who is very lovely, who’s a great actress, and who’s funny and charming, and who also in real life is very close to family, especially her grandma.
The bond between you feels so real and unforced. Did you spend lots of time before shooting to establish that connection or was that something that happened naturally?
That rapport and chemistry organically developed as the filming went along. It’s not something we had rehearsed or planned or practiced in advance. Awkwafina in real life, she’s someone who’s really concerned with her grandma. The way that her relationship with her grandma manifests itself in real life is very similar to how her character is in the film. And for me too, I have a grandson who’s also a very similar age as Awkwafina, and I say to my grandson the same things as Billi’s grandma does in the movie. I would ask him, “Do you have a girlfriend yet? Do you have a special friend yet? Is everything going okay? Drive safely. Make sure you wear enough clothes.” I’m very concerned with my grandchildren like that. We acted like real granddaughter and grandmother because we were able to draw from our real-life experience, our relationships with our own family and relatives. The dynamic is rooted in real emotions and real love. It didn’t even feel like acting.
In America, the movie has been out for quite a while, and even all these months later it’s being touted as a major awards contender. And people are talking about you as a potential Best Supporting Actress contender. Has that sunk in?
Before this trip, I really had no idea that was even remotely a possibility. It just never even occurred to me that this would even be talked about. Because for me, the Academy Awards, that’s just something that’s beyond my reach, that’s something that’s just so far away. It was honestly only in the last few days, interacting with journalists and media people telling me this, that I really found out. Obviously, now people have asked me that a lot. That’s really when I started to get a sense of how beloved this movie is and how beloved my character is. I’m just very grateful, frankly, for the attention from the media and from the audiences. Last night after our screening, there was an audience member that came up to me and she just starts tearing up as she was talking to me, telling me how grateful she was for my performance. Things like that, it’s just so moving for me and it’s so gratifying. I feel like the audience’s approval, their positive response, that’s gratifying to me enough. As for talking about the actual Academy Awards, the actual Oscars, all I can say is I sort of long for it. I sort of hope for it. I could just dream about it. That’s where I’m at right now. I watch it every year, and in fact, the way I would describe it is, to be very honest, it’s true: When you watch the awards like that, my attitude is, “Wow, I fantasize about it. Maybe one day I can be on the stage.” I do think about that from time to time.
Have you seen many recent American movies – the kinds of films that might be up against The Farewell during awards season?
I have just been so inundated and so preoccupied with my TV dramas and acting, I haven’t really seen a lot of new films. At most, I would maybe watch a video clip or someone will stream something, but I haven’t been really been able to pay a lot of attention to contemporary American film because I’ve just been so busy. But I do love a lot of classic American films. I love movies like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca – which I’ve done a version of on stage; I love The Godfather. I love The Count of Monte Cristo. I love Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino, love The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Those are the movies that I watch a lot and also because I admire those actors.
You may get a chance to meet Al Pacino this awards season; he’s on everyone’s Best Supporting Actor list. Will you introduce yourself?
[Laughs] I’ll take a photo with him.