Actor Liu Ye is best known for playing a self-sacrificing, loyal, introverted and nervous character.
For example, the son of an old postman in the mountains in "Postman in the Mountain" (1999), the devoted and loyal gay student Lan Yu in "Lan Yu" (2001) and the young man Ma who keeps his love a secret because he knows his friend also loves the same woman in "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" (2002).
No wonder then that Myriad Pictures picked him to play the brilliant but tragic student Liu Xing alongside well-known American actress Meryl Streep in "Dark Matter." The film is based on the true story of a disgruntled physics student from China, who shot and killed six people on the University of Iowa campus in 1991.
However, in real life, the 28-year-old Liu is straightforward, optimistic, cheerful and wears a sunny smile.
After completing Zhang Yimou's "Curse of the Golden Flower," and before flying to Salt Lake City to continue shooting for "Dark Matter," Liu will perform in Meng Jinghui's multi-media play "Amber" at the Poly Theatre from July 20 to 30.
"I bet you will regret it if you miss the play. It is much more interesting and meaningful than many blockbuster movies or dull TV series," Liu told China Daily during a break in the rehearsal early last week.
"I was deeply touched by the story when I first read it. It is the kind of story that makes your blood boil, like 'Purple Butterfly,' 'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress' and 'Dark Matter'," he said.
Serious during rehearsal, often discussing his role with director Meng Jinghui and playwright Liao Yimei, Liu was all fun and frolic at break time.
"Amber," created by the avant-garde husband and wife super-duo of Chinese theatre director Meng and playwright Liao is Liu's first stage work since graduating from the Central Academy of Drama in 2000.
Starkly different from the characters played by Liu on screen over the years, Gao Yuan, in "The Amber," is a playboy who gets lucky and rich from the dot-com business.
"He is an impassive, manic and a cheeky man not my usual type of role but he fascinates me and somehow is like my real self," Liu said.
The drama premiered at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in March 2005, starring Liu Ye and Yuan Quan, who plays the female protagonist Xiao You.
According to scriptwriter Liao, the two classmates from the Central Academy of Drama, are the very best choices to play Gao and Xiao You.
"They fit the roles perfectly," she said. "When I saw them on stage, I knew they were the right Gao Yuan and Xiao You. That is why I hope they can return to the play and that is also why I could not rewrite the story for a movie as requested by many producers."
In fact, the play, with six sold-out shows, has become the second most successful drama in the Hong Kong Arts Festival's 33-year history, after the Beijing People's Art Theatre's signature work "Tea House," 19 years ago.
As both Liu and actress Yuan Quan are busy with movies and TV series, they have had to squeeze some days out from their tight schedule to re-stage the show in Beijing.
Director Meng believes the re-staged production will surpass the premiere shows, saying both Liu and Yuan have made great progress in movies and in theatre since last year.
Right after finishing the 11 shows of "Amber," Liu will fly to the United States to finish "Dark Matter." The shooting of the film began in 2004 but was postponed untill early this year.
Directed by the Chinese-American director Chen Shizheng, "Dark Matter" depicts the humour, frustration and heartbreak that result when different cultures collide and communication fails.
The film follows the story of Liu Xing (starring Liu), a brilliant Chinese science student, who strives to impress his mentor Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) with his theories on the origins of the universe. Helping Liu Xing adapt but unable to protect him from academic politics are Joanna (Meryl Streep), a patron of the university with a passion for all things Chinese, and Hildy (Blair Brown), Reiser's secretary.
The film marks Liu's debut in Hollywood. He said it was a great challenge to perform with Streep, but he worked hard on his part and with confidence.
"I did not want to play in the movie at first," he said. "I was not willing to work abroad. For me, it is hard to work in a situation that is not familiar to me. What's more, Hollywood does not value Chinese actors highly and most of them star only in the kung fu movies.
"I also heard they chose me because they saw 'Lan Yu' and 'Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress' and felt that I fit the character of Liu Xing."
"I did not want to always play one type of role and wished to do something new," he added.
But the cross-cultural story and the tragedy of the Chinese student finally moved Liu. Although the character of Liu Xing is somewhat controversial and some people see him as a negative example of Chinese students abroad, Liu agreed to play the role.
"As director Chen says, it is about what happens when people from different cultures interact in a highly competitive environment and the roller coaster ride of excitement, anxiety and missed opportunities that those interactions bring about.
"Liu Xing is an ambitious and talented student," Liu said. "He is ruined by the campus politics and has to solve the problem in the way he thinks right."
As soon as he took on the role, Liu did much homework, practising English and experiencing the life of Chinese students in the United States. He read all the material he could get on what happened in 1991.
"I hope to convince Hollywood that Chinese actors perform as well as and as professionally as the Western ones," he said.
Some Westerners have little knowledge of China and Chinese people, he said, but they like to surmise what Chinese people are like.
"To those people, I would not give in (my principles)," he said.
He said that he spoke English only during on-location shooting. Talking about his experience in the United States, Liu looks like a boy who has just won a game.
"Don't think I was not happy in the United States," he said. "I made friends, chatted with them in English and we had a lot of fun, climbed the snow mountains in Sundance and drank in bars after work."
He is especially thankful for the chance to work with Streep.
"Streep is my idol. She is nice and a very good actress," he said.
"In the first few days, I faced some difficulties while performing because she likes to improvise. Gradually, we got familiar with each other and our performance became more and more natural.
"In my opinion, it does not matter whom you perform with. The point is you should play your own part well."
(China Daily 07/19/2006 page14)