In the past year, Xiaozhan can only describe some of what happened as “like a dream”.
In his graduation year, he started a studio with friends. He was the main photographer, and Chen Man was his idol. “We studied Man-jie’s work together, to see how she uses exposure, how she edits to achieve special effects.” And in this moment, he’s standing before Chen Man’s lens, doing a photoshoot for the cover of “Harper’s Bazaar”.
“I’m so nervous!” His bambi eyes sparkled, “Man-jie created her own unique aesthetic style, it’s still a familiar feeling to see the composition of a photographer I knew of when I worked as a designer, but now I’m the subject myself.”
As he said this, he took a deep breath, and his gaze fell upon an undefined point in the distance. The corners of his mouth turned upwards, “That’s dreams turning into reality.”
One Minute on Stage, Ten Years Off Stage
In the variety show “Our Song” that he’s been recording recently, Xiaozhan also feels the same sense of surrealness. As he sings together with singers like Na Ying and Wakin Chau, Xiaozhan is a little dazed. He listened to their songs growing up, and naturally he is nervous and scared as he stands on the same stage as these “kings and queens”, he needs to constantly bring 120% of his energy.
“The first three episodes when I sang with Na-jie, I was incredibly nervous, and I was even more nervous during rehearsal than the actual recording. I was afraid that I would mess up on a note, and my two ears were constantly trying to listen for the harmonization.” He won’t allow himself to make a mistake, he’s afraid that the senior artist will think he hadn’t prepared seriously; it’s one whether or not he sings perfectly, it’s another thing whether or not he put in the effort.
Even though many of the songs performed in the show were old songs, he needs to set aside the deeply implanted impression of it, and learn an entirely new harmonization. “I have to make sure I don’t go off tune, and I have to make sure the harmony doesn’t clash…it’s really difficult.”
His schedule now is booked down to minute, he doesn’t have blocks of time to practice, so he combines all the little pieces he can grasp. He listens to every demo to the point of memorization, “In the car I have my earphones on and I just listen repeatedly, even if I’m sleeping, it’s like practicing by brainwashing.”
Xiaozhan quietly watches various details in the senior artists: not only do they choose songs that are suited for their vocal range, they also consider their partner and the harmony. During rehearsals, they continuously communicate with the music director, stage coordinator, and adjust their singing style, changing their technique and delivery. Seeing the seniors’ versatility on stage, Xiaozhan further feels that a successful performance relies on the accumulation of experience, and definitely not good luck.
Xiaozhan vividly recalls the nervousness he felt when he stood on the stage of the audition show, his legs felt like lead. For a time, he couldn’t even move, but his hands shook nonstop. “You need to be confident on stage, but whether its that impromptu spark or a spontaneous burst beyond your usual capabilities, it requires endless practice offstage. Only by having full control over what you’re going to be doing on stage, can you create a better performance.”
The senior artists shared many vocal training tips with him, including how to relax his vocal cords. “They all have a lot of professional experience, the things they told me were the shortcuts that they had figured out.” Before going on stage, he was filmed “pouting” several times. “I’m not ‘trying to be cute’, pouting, puffing out your cheeks then suddenly relaxing is a way to relax your mouth, it’s very helpful for both delivering lines and singing.”
If he has an important recording or performance, Xiaozhan doesn’t eat anything after breakfast. It follows the principle of ‘play instruments on a full stomach, sing on an empty stomach’: “My condition is better when I’m hungry, and the feeling of hunger keeps me more alert.”
Play to your strengths and avoid your weaknesses is another one of his principles, “My voice is more suited to ballads or light and refreshing songs. I have 70% confidence on stage when it comes to ballads, but some songs that require a lot of power may not be too suitable for me.”
The charisma of the stage is in those “moments”, he likes that feeling of spontaneity, whether its his own condition or the audience reception, it can’t be copied, it can’t be repeated. “I will watch my own performance videos over and over, I know in my heart if it’s good or not, but let all things past, pass.”
Working hard won’t guarantee success, but not working hard will guarantee that you don’t succeed.
Xiaozhan doesn’t think “actor” or “singer” is a single answer question.
“Why is it necessary to create such a clear distinction instead of just having both? Iremember we all liked all-rounded idols when we were young, actors recognized for their stellar acting like Chen Kun, Zhou Xun, they can also sing good songs like “Crescent Moon” and “Look at the Sea”.”
“Now why does it have to be that idols are idols, actors are actors, singers are singers? Actually, I don’t understand that, everyone’s just doing what they love, isn’t it fine as long as they do it well?”
But to be able to do everything “well”, it’s not enough to just have some talent and a good opportunity. There was a trending search on Weibo, marvelling at the conditions Xiaozhan is just born with. But Xiaozhan describes his own visuals as average, and says his vocals are just natural. Of course, he knows he’s fortunate to have had the opportunities he did, but in order to match up to that good fortune, he needs to rely on dedicated effort.
Recently, the drama “The Oath of Love” wrapped up filming, this is his first real modern drama.
He had already gradually become accustomed to the filming conventions of historical period dramas, become accustomed to the wigs, the outfits, and the atmosphere created by the way of speaking. Now that he has to portray a realistic character in a modern world naturally, he feels nervous. “When you’ve done too many historical period dramas, you carry a “style” with you, like you can be more exaggerated, and emphasize stressed words and emotions.”
Suddenly he concentrated, and said with clear articulation, “Master, is such to your satisfaction?” In this dressing room filled with clothes, it did make people feel out of sorts.
“No one speaks like that in daily life, I’m actively trying get rid of this “style”, so it’s actually more difficult.” That kind of natural is different from “being yourself”, after all.
“When I’m on stage singing, I’m Xiaozhan who has lived as myself for more than 20 years. But when I’m acting, I need to become a different person, so I hesitate when it comes to certain details – should I hold the chopsticks like this for this scene? Is it ok to take a sip of water after saying this line?”
When he was filming “The Wolf”, he would write a long essay reflection everyday after filming. Even though this is an excessive step that he can’t continue in the present, he still maintains the habit to summarize. “Back then it was like I was writing a year-end report everyday, divided into several sections with an outline. I would record what I learned today, what I could and couldn’t do today, and what I want to do next time…it was very detailed.” At first it was the teacher’s requirement, but gradually Xiaozhan felt that this kind of “tough work” is very helpful.
“You might forget some things as soon as the lesson ends, but if it’s recorded, even if you don’t have a very clear memory of it later on, the forgotten details will be pieced together by just taking one look at it.”
Through studying with the acting teacher, he learned that delivery of lines and physical actions have almost equal weight. “During classes the teacher used to ask me to say my lines with my eyes closed, and use different emotions to express anger, happiness, sadness, or restraint.” “Ultimately, his goal is for me to break out of those lines, and not be blocked by technical obstacles.” The teacher tossed him a dictionary, and said, “If you finish reading this dictionary, victory is yours.”
Xiaozhan believes in the right time and place. When he was filming ‘The Untamed”, one time he felt that his condition the previous day wasn’t good enough, so he asked the director if he could re-do the scenes from the day before, but after 4-5 takes, the director decided the first one was still the best.
“Human emotions are fascinating, when you try to give more and do better, often it doesn’t match up to the naturalness of the first take. The first take is full of unknown, neither the opposing actor nor I know how much power to use, everyone is provoking each other and that will incite the realest emotions. What comes after has that set-up, and actually gets more premeditated.”
Usually before the start of an important scene, the entire set falls into a serious atmosphere. “Sometimes I actually think, let’s not think about the extraneous things, trying to muster up the 100% of my strength, sometimes instead it doesn’t come out. I still don’t have a lot of experience when it comes to acting, but I think you need to be relaxed and enjoy the process. If you’re tightly wound to the point of snapping, you can’t do well.”
The director also told him, he needs to let himself live, art is always filled with the beauty of regret. “If I can’t do well, of course I’ll be upset, but I always accept the existence of regret. There are limits to my abilities, but I can do everything in my power; regret is not an excuse, I still have to give it my all.”
Xiaozhan already understood this when he was learning how to draw as a child. Some people are born with a sense for art that exceeds the average person, a talent that others can’t attain. “The most important task for everyone is to accept yourself, you don’t need to feel disheartened or despair just because you see other people’s talent.”
“Everyone has different paths in life, don’t compare with others and lead yourself to a dead end. Find what works for you, and trust that effort will pay off. Yes, working hard won’t guarantee success, but not working hard will guarantee that you don’t succeed.”
The Wish to be an “Ordinary Person”
If in the beginning, acting was just “going with the flow”, now Xiaozhan already treats it as a goal he’s working hard towards and something he loves to do from the bottom of his heart. “As Xiaozhan, I might never be able to experience all sorts of crazy things. As a public figure, I can’t live too freely and unstrained and release my emotions whenever I want, but in dramas, I can experience different lives.”
It’s only been a month since filming for his last project wrapped, but he finds that he’s already anticipating to start his next one. “It’s that desire, to move into my next life, I like that feeling of removing myself.” But in the end, he will say goodbye to each role, and resume his own life.
In 2019, “Xiaozhan” became one of the names that receives the most attention, even though he rejects any kind of “character” and just wants to show his most natural, real self, he is still subject to all kinds of imagination by those giving him attention.
As a byproduct of that, there’s excessive attention paid to his private life, which makes him feel rather uneasy. He hopes he can continue to have the space an ordinary person does, that he can go out to eat, watch movies, and maintain a normal mindset.
“Of course, I will be more cautious with how I express things. I’m already very cautious, because I don’t just represent Xiaozhan as one person, but there’s a lot to do with my team, and even if it’s not for myself, there’s no need to create unnecessary trouble.” When he encounters difficulties, most of the time he works through them himself.
“Honestly, I haven’t encountered too many problems that I can’t solve myself. But with many problems, other people can only give you some suggestions, give you a bit of direction, and just cheer you on, they can’t actually solve it for you. To hold on, to get through it, you need to rely on yourself, because only you know what happened.”
This year he’s flown nonstop, rushed nonstop, but when it comes down to it he doesn’t feel it’s much different from living as a designer. “Designers also have to work overtime, and now I can still relax a bit on the weekend.”
The night before the photoshoot, he couldn’t sleep well, so he “passed out” a bit during makeup. He quickly ate a few bites to get through breakfast and lunch, that’s just how he lives these days. “This is a phase, it’s difficult, but I have to push through. And I don’t feel that this is anything too hard, I enjoy my work, and I enjoy the sense of security and fulfillment being busy brings me.”
He still has endless aspirations, like to have some hobbies outside of drawing, or to take design one step further, and recently he’s been thinking of whether he can learn how to play an instrument. “But sometimes what I want to do the most is just go back home or to my hotel, lie in my bed and relax. Then think about what comes after, after.”