Wang Baoqiang who got his first break and critical acclaim in Li Yang's Blind Shaft plays a soldier in the TV series Soldiers' Sortie. [File photo]
Wang Baoqiang's signature innocent smile never changes. It was the same when he was a farmer, construction worker and extra actor. Now, he's an A-lister.
Since his big screen debut in 2002, he has created a hit role almost every year. Although most of them are stereotypically of humble and kind young guys from the country, audiences love him for his grassroots background and, of course, his smile, that reminds many people of a farmer looking contentedly at his bumper harvest.
After seven years of struggling in the entertainment world, however, the 25-year-old is more mature than his age or his looks suggest.
"Taking the role in Shunliu is like a bird flying suddenly from a cage, very exciting," he says, talking about his latest character, a sniper named Shunliu.
His own story is just as colorful as one of his roles.
At the age of 8, Wang left his parents' farm and started learning kungfu at Shaolin Temple, a sacred site for martial arts in Henan province.
A Jet Li film inspired him, but it was being part of an impoverished family in a small village in Hebei province and being bullied by other children that was his biggest motivation.
"Other children often bullied me," he says. "I wanted to make my family proud of me. Even if I failed, at least I tried."
The young Wang had to get up at 5 am in winter, 4 am in summer. He ran half-marathons and climbed cliffs with 45-degree angles as part of his training. During the six years he studied, Wang returned home to visit his family only at Spring Festivals.
Wang told his master that he wanted to be an actor, as he thought he would be able to earn a fortune, before arriving in Beijing, in 2000, with just 500 yuan ($73).
His first stop was Beijing Film Studio, at the gate of which gather aspiring actors every day, waiting for roles as extras.
Wang joined them and got his first role after two weeks. The daily pay was about 50 yuan. He had to work on construction sites while waiting for the chance to act further.
He lived with five other people in a rented, weather-beaten house without a bathroom. Rent was 120 yuan a month.
"Many people told me, you neither learned to act at school, nor are you good-looking. You should thank God if you end up as a double in action films," Wang recalls. "But the more strongly others discouraged me the more motivated I became."
The most difficult thing for Wang at that time, he says, was not the hard life, but missing his mother.
"During those most difficult days I found no one in the world cherished me more than my mother. I wanted badly to share my joys and hardships with her."
But from 2000 to 2002, he tried hard not to call his mother because he had not succeeded and felt ashamed.
"Life then was so far away from what I dreamed of," he says. "Things get smooth when you cross the turning point, but I never knew when that would happen."
His turning point came in 2002 after he received a call from independent filmmaker Li Yang's crew. Li's first film, Blind Shaft, needed an actor for the leading role, a naive village boy.
Li preferred amateurs, thinking they would be able to play the character better. Wang's humility, freckles and innocent smile won him the role.
Wang cherished the opportunity. Other actors withdrew when a scene had to be shot in a mineshaft hundreds of meters deep, but Wang went down.
Li was moved: "He was from the most ordinary class. He knows life is hard so he cherishes every chance."
Many of his co-strugglers outside the studio thought he was just lucky, but Wang knows luck is not everything.
He took a dictionary with him all the time, because he wasn't traditionally schooled at the temple. He wrote pinyin beside words he did not know and recited all the lines before the shooting started.
Blind Shaft earned him 1,000 yuan ($146), and a Best New Performer award at the Golden Horse Awards, known as Taiwan's academy awards. Most importantly, he received an invitation to work with famous director Feng Xiaogang.
Feng's films were frequently box office champions in China. Starring in his film meant exposure to tens of millions of viewers.
Wang drank three cups of wine when he first met Feng. "Drinking up" traditionally is a way of showing respect, but Wang was also drinking because he was nervous.
Feng asked him if he could set aside four months for the film, Wang's answer was, yes, up to a year, if necessary.
The character was as a villager, again, someone who believes there are no thieves in the world. But this time he worked with superstar Andy Lau. After 2004, people began calling him "Shagen", the character's name, instead of his own name.
To express his gratitude, he took a bag of rice from his hometown to give Feng.
He didn't need to work on construction sites any more.
In 2007 a TV series, Soldiers' Sortie, transformed Wang from an actor to an A-lister.
In the smash show Wang played a soldier slow at everything but who wins respect because of his strong faith and untiring efforts.
Wang hit the covers of all the major magazines in 2007 and was a guest on all the important talk shows. Some critics called his role the "Chinese Forrest Gump".
Wang had found fame, money and confusion. He started drinking and often had up to seven or eight interviews a day.
Recently, when he was on a plane with co-star Zhang Guoqiang, in Shunliu, the captain came to ask them for autographs. Zhang joked: "Is anyone piloting the plane?"
His whole family used to have a total annual income of about 1,000 yuan, but Wang has splashed out 500,000 yuan on building a new house for his parents, the best in the village.
"I always feel that I am a poor man," he says. "You feel you are powerful, but many are more powerful; you feel you are rich, but many are richer. I am a happy poor man now. I have a job that can sustain my life, it is OK."
Relatives and former friends now come to him, asking him to find them jobs. One of his assistants is his cousin from Hebei province.
He advertises cars and sang solo on the Spring Festival Evening Show, the most admired stage for actors nationwide. He even made a speech at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai.
Along with fame, however, has come intolerance. The media have criticized him for wearing designer shirts or singing karaoke until midnight, as if he should not enjoy a life other than that of a humble village boy.
Wang seldom responds to such news. He went back to Shaolin Temple, recently, and lived there for two week, repeating his kungfu studies from childhood.
He still carries his dictionary when working.
In 2006 he could still return to his parents and help them farm. It is impossible now.