Excellence of the Acting Persuasion with Director Qiyu Zhou

The vision of a film is first conceived in a director’s mind. It may be difficult to find a “new” story to tell, meaning that the originality of a production often resides in the director’s concept of how to tell the story. The most visual connection we have as the audience is with the actors whom embody the characters in these films. Working with the actors to manifest the desired tone and interpretation is likely the greatest strength, and the greatest challenge, of every director. Qiyu Zhou has garnered a reputation within the industry for being particularly adept at this, both to the satisfaction of the actors in her productions as well as herself. Communication is deeply ingrained in Ms. Zhou’s filmmaking approach. Holding degrees from the Beijing Film Academy (BFA), Florida State University (MFA), and the prestigious American Film Institute (MFA, Directing Fellow), Qiyu’s literal and artistic language spans vast styles and schools of thought. She’s been recognized for her powerful and original voice as a filmmaker. In addition to winning the Remi Award at 53rd WorldFest Houston and a Best Director Award at the Independent Shorts Awards, her 2020 release Miss Boundless earned high praise and glowing reviews at prestigious events such as the Urbanworld Film Festival, the Oscar qualified Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival, and dozens more. Zhou has proven, in a variety of genres ranging from adventure and action to comedy, that she aids her onscreen talent in unearthing factors which are truly essential to the personality of these productions.

Rebuking and personal “one size fits all” directorial approach with actors is the cornerstone of Ms. Zhou’s style. The aforementioned Miss Boundless offers a perfect example of how dissimilar the background and training of a cast can be. Russel Wong (Romeo Must Die, Twisted, Mummy 3) is an extremely familiar face in international film, while Junru Wang is a former Cirque Du Soleil artist who won China’s Got Talent in 2013. Nicole Jia was Miss America’s “Outstanding Teen” (2017) and Henggao Li is a natural actor void of any professional training. There was no way to capitalize on the strengths of each of these cast members by using the same method. In order to achieve this for Miss Boundless, Qiyu created her own exercises for the actors to create the desired dynamics. She relates, “Miss Boundless takes place in the Qing Dynasty, when men were unconditionally superior to women. Zhang, a noble girl, played by Junru, wants to prove her value to her father, who later decides to adopt her male cousin, played by Henggao Li, to inherit the family business. In order to get the cast into the emotional state, I designed an exercise that mimics the power balance between their relationship. I let Junru lie on the ground and gave an irrecusable task for Henggao which was to walk from spot A to spot B while Junru was in the way but laying on the floor with no self-defense. If Henggao wants to complete the task and reach spot B, he had to physically walk across Junru’s body. This exercise is an imitation of the circumstance Chun encounters — a young man who is compelled to sit on the chair of ‘supremacy.’ Though he was not willing to tread on Zhang’s territory and dignity he had no choice.” When the Mandarin language spoken in this film created some difficulties for one actor, Zhou implemented a new version. For Russell Wong, whose first language is English, some grammatical challenges of Mandarin (the language of the film) were effecting his interaction with other actors in certain scenes. By making the choice to rehearse the scenes with Russell speaking English, Zhou aided in his resonation with his character fundamentally. The same process was repeated during filming with great benefits to the chemistry onscreen. Qiyu notes, “When making a film with bilingual talents, switching the languages is a good method to lubricate the over-rehearsed moments.”

Qiyu espouses the importance of vulnerability, not only in her actors but in herself as a director. By interacting with the actors and asking them about how they see their characters, a respect and trust if cultivated. Rebuking the need to establish a sense of personal omniscience fosters a collaborative environment on set and onscreen. In the irreverent and laughter filled Fun Size Trouble, Zhou worked with a number of actor/writers in the cast including Emmy watch winner Jaclyn Bethany and Zita Bai (co-writer and producer of Fun Sized Trouble). The film presents many of the modern social situations which women find themselves in. There was a high spirit of improvisation in the film resulting in sometimes shocking humor; a benefit of the director’s communication with her cast. Qiyu divulges, “For actors with a ‘behind the camera’ background, I love to have conversations with them thoroughly about the structure of the script. Yes, just like the way I work with writers because once they know the ‘wants’ verse the ‘obstacles’ of the character, they know how to bring it to life. Once the actor gets her goal, you can let her start with some improvisation with her opposite. And this helps with avoiding predictable reactions.”

There’s no avoiding the importance of casting to find the ideal actors for a film but this is only where it starts for Qiyu. Her 2015 film The Koi earned four Gold Awards, including a Best Director Award for Qiyu. Among others, the cast includes Allen Theosky Rowe (of multiple Primetime Emmy Nominated TV series Hawaii 5–0) and Julia Banfil. The performance between the two is riveting. With this film as with so many other productions, Ms. Zhou confesses to a method she learned when taking part in acting classes herself (as a means of understanding the process better). She relates, “I’d never give a negative comment to any performance any cast delivers at any time because there is never a mistake in acting, only different versions. Yes, you need a certain version for a certain clip; however, what the actor gives you might not be the thing to use in the film but it will always be his/her subjective truth when the camera is rolling.” In not imposing that her version is the “only true version”, Qiyu continues to expand the possibilities while deepening a sense that every choice is valid. How does this work if a director doesn’t get the take they hoped to acquire? There are so many options to consider as she communicates, “The cast has certainly altered the story in all the projects I made. I appreciated the casts being the ‘second writer’ after the screenplay was done.” Qiyu’s visionary mind and confidence in her artistic choices instills ideas in others the idea and stimulates everyone to bring their best. For directors who possess such brilliance and a solid direction, there is no fear in taking creative risks with their cast.

Kelly King writes for numerous popular online media outlets in addition to being a staff writer for NYC & LA based/internationally published Drumhead magazine.