This is part of an on-going series of interviews by Yinsey Wang with East Asian voices around the globe. The series aims to introduce perspectives from different walks of life.
Kunjue Li is an actress and model that has heralded leaps – although she humbly considers them minuscule steps – for the East Asian acting scene. Her appearances in both BBC’s period dramas Peaky Blinders (as the prostitute Chin) and Ripper Street (as an opium-trading madam known as Blush Pang) mark her transition into mainstream television. Blessed with resilient ambition and sharp intellect, she also holds a Master of Sciences in International Relations from the world-renowned London School of Economics and Political Science.
We decided to meet at the British Museum on a busy Thursday morning; punctual, the beautiful actress and I share a slightly confused telephone conversation as we struggle to spot each other at this notoriously crowded tourist destination. I identify her easily – she has striking features with long black hair and a congenial smile – and she greets me warmly as a friend rather than as a stranger. Whilst making our way around the location to shoot a few pictures for this piece, I find myself instantly discovering how sweet and enthusiastic she is as a person. She channels a subtle yet strong charisma that is complemented by a friendly curiosity for others (a trait – as I discover – that helps the actress develop her acting techniques). She is very easy to photograph – this does not surprise me given her background a model (having appeared in Elle Magazine and a wide range of advertising campaigns).
After shooting, we make our way through the hoards of people queuing for gifts, food and tickets for the museum’s special exhibitions and arrive at our destination: the Member’s Room (a delightful recluse for “Friends” of the British Museum). She selects to have an English breakfast tea with milk, and I begin asking questions to which she responds with thoughtful and insightful answers. Modestly, she also asks me questions; if I hadn’t known any better, I would have said that she was doing the interviewing!
Learning about Kunjue’s life, journey and dreams was a refreshing experience. Growing up in the mountainous region near Chengdu, she appreciates the smaller things in life and has an appetite for acting upon goals rather than waiting for them to happen. A great example to follow for aspiring actors, Kunjue demonstrates how good “old-fashioned” hard work, mixed with passion and talent, can churn out results. I spoke to the up and coming actress about her experiences working with Jurassic Park’s Sam Neill (“Dr Grant”) and Game of Thrones’ Joseph Mawle (“Benji Stark”), as well as her views on ethnic minorities in Hollywood, and interestingly enough, child psychology.
Tell me about your upbringing. What lessons have followed you up until adulthood?
Kunjue: Well, I wasn’t a city kid, I grew up in the wilderness and loved it – climbing trees and playing wildly with friends. It not only helped me appreciate the smaller things – which I value now, but I think it also shaped the way I view my objectives: I am not intimidated by challenges (a trait which all my childhood friends seem to share). If I want something, I will pursue it. Also, thanks to the wonders of the Chinese education system, my memory has served me well when it comes to lines (laughs)! In some cases, I am much faster in remembering things than my colleagues; hence, I owe to my traditional childhood upbringing!
How did you enjoy your time at LSE?
Kunjue: I had a great time during my Masters, making great friends. It is nice to have a solid group of people you can also rely upon outside of acting, because you can get away from the ups and downs of the industry. It helps you feel normal.
Tell me about working on Peaky Blinders. What was it working with big names such as Sam Neill?
Kunjue: Oh, I loved it! It was my first BBC job. I was looked after really well.
Sam Neill was so nice, and very protective of me. I think that because he is much older and as I am similar to his daughter’s age, he naturally assumed a fatherly role on set. For example, when I was standing for a camera mark whilst bare feet, he told me to sit with him and asked someone else to fill in for me – he was worried I was getting cold and uncomfortable! Also, was really shy about asking questions to the director, Sam would intuitively spot this and call him over to talk to me.
I play Chin, a prostitute, on the show. When preparing for the role, I imagined a woman with big boots and a seductive personality. However, funnily enough when I auditioned, the casting director asked me to change my approach and portray a sweet, innocent and caring character instead – after all, Chin is used by a gangster and wants to get help. I was successful and got the call back!
How do you get into character? How is your technique personal to you?
Kunjue: There are so many techniques. Each person chooses what works best for him or her. I find it easier to play more extreme emotions, for example in portraying seductive or angry moments. I find more “logical” characters challenging to master, for example the stereotypical teacher or scientist.
I like watching people in their environment and learning why they do certain things – this way, I can draw inspiration from real life characters and in turn make my acting more convincing. I suppose my fascination with psychology helps – I really believe each person is a product of his or her environment.
In fact, I started a charity called “ACT” with a friend from the University of Cambridge. It was about shaping the identity of 6-11 year old children – as I think those years are the most crucial in determining a person’s development. We helped children (mainly immigrants) through workshops to discuss identity. For example, we worked on storytelling (such as “The Gruffalo”) and provided the children with a set of tools to discover more about themselves.
Have you ever gotten lost in character?
Kunjue: In fact I have! There was a character I played called Lucy who fancied a boy in the script. I didn’t fancy the actor playing the role but when the story came to an end, I felt as if it was me that was going through a major break up!
I will miss Blush from Ripper Street – she brings out certain characteristics that I lack but admire. Even though she’s a bad woman, she’s confident and strong!
Ultimately, due to how I don’t have a strong sense of self, I absorb my characters more easily – that shows that acting really feels like my calling.
Which actor or actress do you most admire?
Kunjue: Zhou Xun. She’s a Chinese actress and is phenomenal when portraying emotions with her eyes. Her facial expressions traverse the screen and you literally feel what her character is feeling. The actress herself has many friends but she also values being alone to sink into her characters.
I can totally understand why: if I isolated myself to clear my thoughts, almost as if to transform my soul into a blank canvas, it would be easier to fit into a character.
Is there an actor or actress that you would like to model your career upon?
Kunjue: Lucy Liu. She is incredible in how she’s managed to secure a foothold in America. She dares to take up roles that are not necessarily written in as requiring a particular ethnicity. That versatility is rare and incredible. My five-year plan involves myself moving to America and hopefully finding similar success.
What was your most challenging role?
Kunjue: Definitely Ciao Britain. It was a sitcom and I was involved in a comedy role. I found the timing SO difficult! I’m not naturally a funny person, so I really had to push myself – at the same time, I appreciate you can’t force a laugh out of your audience!
Why is there such an appeal towards Hollywood? Can you comment on the state of the industry right now for ethnic minority actors and actresses?
Kunjue: I think that Hollywood is definitely the most open-minded place to secure an acting career in the West. I want to move towards Hollywood movies because by doing that, I can meet great directors and actors. It would be lovely to work on joint venture films between China and the West – it is a big business with a huge market.
In terms of ethnic minority positions, I find that white roles are more predominant in the UK than in North America. The latter tends to be a bit more colour blind in casting: it’s not perfect yet, but it’s still more progressive than here.
However, the UK is increasing in more opportunities. I’ve been super impressed by the efforts here to be more inclusive. For example, EQUITY is a huge casting organisation that looks to encourage ethnic minority performers to build their careers.
Tell us about your character on Ripper Street.
Kunjue: I play Blush Pang, a female gangster-antagonist in charge of drug and opium trading during the Victorian era. It was great to gain exposure towards portraying such a character. The costume is just stunning! I was so delighted with the details in which they use to create her image.
In terms of the acting, everyone is so good at what they do. Even small speaking roles are played with intense dedication. This really pushes me to improve and set myself a bar: in other words, for me not to be the worst on set – which is already quite a high standard!
I’m working with a BAFTA nominee, Joseph Mawle – he is just so amazing as a person and actor! I’m super shy but I’m trying to pick up the courage to ask him to become my mentor. It’s just so reassuring because I see him using the same techniques as me, but with so much more understanding and experience behind him. Hence, I feel that I am going in the right direction and it’s experience that I need to improve upon rather than selecting the right method.
Tell us about your formal drama education and how it helped you.
Kunjue: Drama school was important to developing technique and providing the tools to start out in acting. I think it’s essential to land a good agent – I’m lucky to have done so – who helps you gain exposure to the right people and searches on your behalf for suitable roles.
Any tips for aspiring actors or actresses?
Kunjue: I just try to stay a positive and good person – I truly believe that means good things will come to me. Of course I get jealous from time to time when others do well, but I’ve come to realise you should be happy for others. Not only does this let you learn from them but it also generates a good energy and develops lasting friendships.
For aspiring actors and actresses: stay positive at drama school, and if you learn anything, the most important lessons are to be punctual and nice. Be punctual because no one will wait for you. Be nice because you never know who you’ll meet.
Interview by Yinsey Wang