A U.S. actor succeeds in China, playing a cowboy, a jilted lover or a cool best friend

Jonathan Kos-Read has starred in over 100 films and television programs in China, and his portrayals of Americans and Europeans reflect the complex attitudes of Chinese society toward the West. (YouTube/Jonathan Kos-Read)

The American soldier roars down a crowded Chinese street in his Jeep, knocking an elderly woman to the ground. He jumps out and tosses some money in the old lady’s direction. “Here you go, granny, but you shouldn’t have been in the street anyway,” he barks — before being beaten up by a group of enraged Chinese patriots.

The scene, in a script for a Chinese TV series, wasn’t exactly subtle, and American actor Jonathan Kos-Read wasn’t impressed. Fluent in Mandarin, he has made his name playing Westerners in Chinese films and television shows for the past 14 years. “I turned that role down,” he said.

For many Chinese people, the 41-year-old Kos-Read is a familiar face, even if he is virtually unknown in the West. He has acted in about 100 films and TV programs here, playing everything from a bisexual Italian fashion designer to a gun-slinging, tobacco-chewing cowboy.

Typically, Kos-Read is offered four or five stock roles. They provide a window into China’s evolving attitudes toward the West, revealing a complex mix of national pride, fascination with life in the United States and Europe, and insecurity about the West.

For example, there is a role that Kos-Read calls “the wrong guy,” the Western man who falls in love and pursues a Chinese woman. She is torn between him and a Chinese suitor, but in the end, the actor said, she always makes “the right choice.” That, of course, is not him.

Another role is what he calls “the fool,” a character who comes to China but is disdainful of the local culture. Eventually, as he learns more about China, the foreigner changes his mind.

“Chinese people don’t necessarily need to approve of America, but they need America to approve of them,” he said.

Playing ‘the cipher’

China’s film industry, which was shut down during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s, is now flourishing. China boasts the third-largest movie industry in the world measured by number of films produced and is the second-largest market according to box-office receipts. Its soap operas attract massive television audiences.

But state censorship continues to be heavy, with controversial political issues studiously avoided — meaning that historical subjects are often safer ground than plots set in modern times.

While the TV script with the soldier may have reflected a stereotype of overbearing Americans, Kos-Read is rarely asked to play villains from the United States these days. Quite simply, the Japanese are overwhelmingly the bad guys in modern Chinese entertainment media as the two nations lock horns over disputed maritime territories.

And while the Communist government once churned out reams of anti-American propaganda, the U.S. relationship with China is today much more complex and nuanced.

Beyond politics, the portrayal of Americans and Europeans on TV and in the cinema reflects the diverse, multilayered attitudes in China toward the West. When this country opened to the outside world more than three decades ago, its people found much to admire in the West’s economic and technological progress. But a recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that while three-quarters of Chinese people admire the United States for its technological and scientific advances, less than half have a favorable view of American people.

The Chinese fascination with the West is evident in a character Kos-Read often plays, whom he calls “the cipher.” “That is when the Chinese scriptwriter wants to make some comment about his own culture, but feels it would have more weight coming from a foreign mouth,” the actor said. His character might, for example, appear in a scene mainly to interject something like, “In my country, people stick together.”

In a similar vein, there is the “best friend,” or the Westerner as status symbol. “The main (Chinese) character has to be an international player, so he has got to have a foreign friend, or even better, a foreign employee,” said Kos-Read.

But lately he has been playing a new kind of character — “the real person, a character who is a person before he is a foreigner.” After decades in which Americans were imperialist running dogs and then symbols of a wealthy but still not entirely trusted superpower, now they can sometimes be plain old people.

That may be due in part to growing familiarity with Westerners. When Kos-Read began his acting career here, very few Chinese scriptwriters knew anyone from abroad.

“They would say, ‘I read a book about foreigners’ — not Americans or French people, but foreigners, the way we do with Asians,” Kos-Read said. Nowadays, with the increase in Westerners moving to China, many scriptwriters have a foreign buddy or two, he said.

A native of the Los Angeles area, Kos-Read studied film and acting at New York University before switching his major to molecular biology. A desire for adventure, “to live the life of a movie character,” brought him to China in 1997 with very little Chinese. He eventually mastered the language.

Married to a Chinese magazine editor and the father of two young daughters, Kos-Read is better known here by his Chinese stage name Cao Cao.

Throughout his career, he said, he has wrestled with the question of whether he is betraying his own culture by reinforcing stereotypes. “It is a question all minority actors run up against,” he said, including African American and Asian actors in Hollywood, “because on one level you are a representative of your race.”

Kos-Read said a minority actor has to draw his or her own line in the sand. But he wonders if turning down the role of the evil American soldier really made much difference. “Somebody else did it — a Russian actor who couldn’t care less about how Americans are portrayed on Chinese TV.”

There are just a handful of foreign actors getting regular work in China. The top women are all blonde, he said, from the United States, Russia and Ukraine. “You can’t work (as an actress playing Western roles) if you are not blonde,” he said.

If Kos-Read is wary of Western stereotypes, he is also critical of the one-dimensional Asian characters who appear in Western productions such as “The Karate Kid, Part II” or “House of Cards.” “This is an open plea, to both China-wood and Hollywood: You need to pay a little more attention when showing things taking place in another country, in other cultures,” he said.

Occasionally, Kos-Read tries to persuade directors to add a little more nuance or accuracy to his roles. Once, he tried to gently point out — without the director losing face — that the Jewish character he was playing would probably not seek repentance for visiting a prostitute by kneeling and praying to Jesus. But there is, he said, “a limit to how much debate you can have on a movie set, both for the sake of your career and because there is limited time.”

He lost the argument about the Jewish character.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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