That is not John Cho, folks. That's Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou in Columbia Pictures' The Green Hornet.
I interviewed Taiwanese pop star, composer, singer and actor Jay Chou (周杰倫), who stars in the new comedy-action The Green Hornet, directed by Michel Gondry and also starring Seth Rogen and Cameron Diaz. The Green Hornet has seen many lives, but is most famous for introducing Bruce Lee to the wide world in the 1966 TV show. Chou plays Lee’s character, Kato, sidekick to Rogen’s main character. .
Known as “Chou Dong” (Boss Chou) among Chinese folks, Jay Chou is one of the most popular singers from Asia -- known for being a powerful, lyrical piano-player/composer that would make any Chinese mother proud. He’s also starred in several Chinese films, including Initial D and Curse of the Golden Flower. His music's distinct sound fuses classical/romantic, hip-hop and Chinese styles. (My almost 4-year-old son is a fan. And when he misbehaves, I have to gently remind him, “Ting Mama De Hua” -- a popular song by Chou that roughly translates to “listen to your mama.”)
Jay Chou chatted with me over the phone in an interview that was mostly conducted in Mandarin, and partly Chinglish (an edited version of the interview is below). He talks about his struggle to learn English for the film, teachers in China using his lyrics in the classroom, and how he showed Cameron Diaz some magic tricks. Chou turns 32 this month. The Green Hornet opens today, January 14th.
I’m going to say the questions in English and you can reply in Mandarin, and we’ll go from there. I might need the translator’s help.
Ok, let’s get started. So, this is your US and Hollywood debut. What do you expect from it?
I hope a lot people watch it, and I hope it will be a big hit and more people will know who Jay Chou is and listen to my music.
How was it different making a Chinese movie versus making a Hollywood film?
Chinese movies are made faster. Everyday, it’s like rush, rush, rush. Rushing to finish filming. Hollywood movies, it’s almost like a vacation. Everyday, there’s something to eat and there’s time to relax. Each has its positive.
Do you have any stories to share, working with Michel Gondry, Seth Rogen and Cameron Diaz?
If I could speak English better, I think we’d be like close buddies because they’re very friendly people. Like Seth (Rogen), sometimes my English would be wrong, and he will help correct me. The script is flexible, like you can change the words or ad-lib while you’re filming. Michel Gondry (who is French), his English -- the both of us are the people who speak English the least, but he understands a lot more than I do. Sometimes we had to use body language to understand each other. Cameron Diaz also would be like an English teacher to me, if I say something wrong, she’ll help me. (Rogen and Diaz) were both very nice and would help me with the script.
Jay Chou (left) as Kato, with Seth Rogen, in Columbia Pictures' The Green Hornet.
How did you prepare for English for the film?
I studied English for about a month to prepare for the film. So I learned and made sure I understood everything in the script. I also had to understand the characters’ lines, not just my own. So that took about a month, learning English, and also driving the car, and martial arts. But learning English was the most difficult.
When I was little, I didn’t like studying so I didn’t learn English very well. If I had studied English harder when I was younger, it wouldn’t be so difficult today (laughs).
So, I’m kind of switching topics to your music, your main work. You’re seen as a pioneer in Taiwanese popular music and you write about serious stuff like family, domestic violence and war. What do you see as the musician’s role in society?
A lot of kids probably look up to me as a role model. So I can’t do any bad things (laughs). So even though I hate the paparazzi, for example, I can’t hit them. I have to keep a positive image. I have a song called, “Chao Ren Bu Neng Fei” (superheroes can’t fly). Its about me. It’s about real life. And sometimes my lyrics become curriculum. So I can’t write about crazy things. It’s like I’m not really like a regular person anymore. Even though I am a regular person, but I can’t really act like a normal person because of my work.
Because a lot of really young kids look up to you…
Yes, and they are learning Chinese. Actually, there are a lot of textbooks in China that use my lyrics. Because a lot of my lyrics contain Chinese aesthetics, so they take my lyrics and use it as a part of their curriculum to teach. So I can’t write about crazy stuff. I don’t cuss in my lyrics either (laughs).
What songs of yours do they use?
“Qing Hua Ci” (blue and white flower porcelain). It’s Chinese antique, a type of China from the Tang dynasty.
Wow. Is this common, using pop song lyrics to teach in China? I thought it was just something teachers in the US do, use hip-hop songs to teach English because it's like poetry.
Yes. Actually, using lyrics, the more kids will learn and be more interested and understand more. It’s not as serious. They do that in China too.
And why this song?
Like Shakespeare, the ancient Chinese style of language is hard to learn. In China, back in ancient times, they talked a certain way. It’s not as easy, not like “you, me, him.” My lyrics, it’s not like the way people talk today. Yeah. So they use it to teach kids today this type of Chinese.
Do you write your own lyrics today?
No, I didn’t write that song. 90 percent is written by other people. The songs that are more like hip-hop and rap, I write those lyrics.
Do you want to write more of your lyrics in the future, or will you keep it the same?
Same. I compose the music, but I think my music partner (Vincent Fang) is better at writing lyrics (laughs). Most of the hip-hop songs, I write my own lyrics. I write about my family. Because I come from a single parent family, I write about my family. I wrote about my mom’s importance, “Ting Mama de Hua.” Yeye, Nainai, Waipo -- I put all my family members in my songs. I write them all into my songs. I think it’s a good idea because not a lot of people write about their families. A lot of the hip-hop in the US is about drugs, crime, criticizing society. So I think my hip-hop is a little more wen nuan (heartwarming, positive and encouraging).
How did you get so good at the piano?
Because when I was 4, I started learning to play the piano, until now. My mom was actually very strict, by my side, making me play everyday for 2 hours. I was always envious that others were playing. So when I was little, I thought piano was a waste of time and I wondered why couldn’t I play instead? So when I was little, I learned piano but didn’t spend much time learning English (laughs).
Do you play other instruments?
Piano. Cello. And guitar. In music, I basically know these. Actually, besides music, I don’t think I’m really good at anything else.
Who are your biggest musical influences, Chinese or Western?
Can you explain who that is to the US audience (thinking he's some famous Chinese singer I've never heard of)?
Xiao Bang. How do you say Xiao Bang in English? (Translator helps out here). Sho-pon. Chopin.
Ohhh! Yes, Chopin.
Chopin. Chopin is my favorite. Everyone who learns classical piano music will probably play his music. Every musician is different, but he’s considered a romantic composer. I think my music is influenced by his. A lot of my hip-hop music, in the background, has classical music and has a classical influence. That’s why my music is different from other hip-hop songs.
Do you have a new album coming out?
New album? Coming soon (laughs). In May.
What can we expect from the new album?
I might sing some in English in the album. I want people to know what I’m singing about, so yeah, I will put some English in it.
Do you have any hobbies or interests besides music?
Magic. I like magic (laughs). I think magic is like music. It’s a type of language. It’s something that’s universal, that goes beyond languages.
What kind of magic?
Not like a magic show, but like with poker cards. And coin tricks.
You know magic tricks?
I show them to my friends (laughs). When we were making the film, during breaks, I showed Cameron Diaz some magic tricks. With magic, you don’t need to talk, I feel like it’s very easy, like a universal language. These things can bring different people together quickly. Yeah, these two things, music and magic.
Are you a Bruce Lee fan?
Of course. I think everyone is Bruce Lee’s fan! He made Chinese people’s jing shen (spirit and energy) known to the world. I think maybe people aren’t afraid to mess with us because maybe when they see us, they think we know martial arts (laughs).
Speaking of martial arts, did you do all the martial arts by yourself?
No, not everything, I don’t have a martial arts background. I just like action movies. I used to watch a lot of action movies when I was little [and] copy their moves. The harder moves, spinning in the air and stuff, in the movie, was done by a stuntman.
After this experience, do you want to make more Hollywood movies?
If the movie is about music or a musical, or an action film, then I would be more interested. But, like I heard Jackie Chan say, “If I want to do another Hollywood film, the role has to fit me. Then I will play it.” When I heard what he said, I thought it made a lot of sense. Because Kato is from Shanghai. So his English doesn’t have to be good. So I said, ok, that makes sense. So if I were to play an ABC (American Born Chinese), then it wouldn’t really fit my background.
Did you expect to be so popular here?
I think I don’t have a lot of fans here (laughs). I think a lot of people in the US don’t know who I am. So it’s actually very free here. It’s very relaxed. Like, there’s Santa Monica here. I like walking around there, and seeing the street musicians and artists performing, singing and playing guitar, it’s kind of fun and interesting. It’s very free. And playing basketball by the beach, at Venice Beach. I think it’s very enjoyable.
Because when you’re in Taiwan, everyone recognizes you…
Yeah, I always have to wear a mask and it’s very uncomfortable. I do it so people don’t recognize me. And I dress very low profile.
Is there anything you want to add?
I hope you like the film. I hope all my Chinese fans and friends here will come support the film. Thank you.
Thank you for the interview!
Hao, xiexie. Byebyeee.