Film star Zhou Xun surprised viewers by returning to TV. Then again, the 'queen of quirk' is known for atypical antics. Xu Fan speaks with the actress about her role in the serial Red Sorghum.
It's unusual for China's big movie stars to take to the small screen. Then again, Zhou Xun is exceptional in many regards－leading CNN to dub her "China's queen of quirk" in a 2010 profile. But that's not the only thing that has surprised viewers of the TV serial in which she plays the lead.
The 40-year-old has courted controversy by playing the 19-year-old protagonist of Red Sorghum, an adaptation of Nobel-winning author Mo Yan's 1986 novel.
Yet many point out she looks young for her age－unusually young.
The 60-episode series aired by four major satellite channels since Oct 27 chronicles the struggles of the brave Jiu'er (literally, Nine) in rural Shandong province in early 1930s.
Zhou tells China Daily in a WeChat interview she took the job because she was so impressed by the script.
"I had dinner with the director, Zheng Xiaolong, who'd impressed me with his talent. Since I'm a longtime fan, it didn't take long for me to agree to work with him," she says.
Zheng has directed a series of popular productions, including the historical drama The Legend of Zhenhuan, which has been adapted into a six-episode miniseries for broadcast in the United States.
In an October media conference sponsored by Beijing Satellite Channel, Zheng said he didn't expect Zhou to agree.
"It's like a dream come true," he says.
"Zhou had always been in movies. It's unbelievable she said yes to the TV series."
The actress hadn't performed on the small screen for a decade. She says adjusting to the tight schedule was challenging for the first month.
A 120-minute movie typically takes three months to shoot. But a 45-minute episode of Red Sorghum was finished in two to three days, which is a comparatively slow pace for domestic TV dramas, Zheng says.
"There are so many dialogue scenes," Zhou says.
"I was sick of remembering the lines."
"One day, I almost vomited from trying to recite so many lines."
Perhaps her greatest challenge was contending with the legacy of Gong Li, who became an instant superstar for playing Jiu'er in the 1987 namesake film that won a Golden Bear at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival.
Gong, who's 1.68 meters tall and has a fuller figure, fits the archetype of Shandong women as tall and robust.
Zhou is slender and petite.
But she says she doesn't need to compare herself with Gong.
"I respect and admire Gong Li. I've watched all of her films and even a performance of hers at a film-shooting location," Zhou says. "I believe my Jiu'er supplements hers."
Zheng points out Zhou also has Mo's support.
"Mo was very satisfied when he heard Zhou would take the role. He revealed the fictional character was based on his grandmother, who was even shorter than Zhou."
Huang Xuan, who plays Jiu'er's first boyfriend in the series－even though he's 11 years her junior－says Zhou is straightforward and her sincerity is "touching".
The actress is known for wearing her heart on her sleeves.
Her last sensational public revelation of her private life came in July when she attended a charity show in Zhejiang's provincial capital Hangzhou clad in a wedding gown and announced she married Chinese-American actor Archie Kao.