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Qin Shaobo Tumbles into a Hollywood Career

Luck is an elusive thing. While most people strive for it, only a few get it.


Qin Shaobo has been lucky. While stars like Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li have actively pursued a Hollywood career, the youngster from southern China was plucked by Hollywood agents and thrust straight into a big production, which turned out to be a runaway hit followed by a sequel.


Ocean's Eleven (2001) and Ocean's Twelve (2004) are heist movies about a bunch of guys who join hands to rob Las Vegas casinos and then, hunted by the casino owner, have to rob someone else to pay for their ill-gotten loot.


Qin's role, as Yen, is small. But considering he is not even an actor, it must have felt surreal making his big-screen debut with the likes of Julia Roberts and George Clooney.


The funny thing was that he didn't even know who his co-workers were when he first arrived at the Los Angeles studio. "Honestly, I didn't know they were household names in the US and in metropolitan China as well. I hadn't seen many American movies back then," the 21-year-old admitted in a telephone interview, with a tinge of sheepishness.


Tumbling into fortune


Qin Shaobo was performing in Las Vegas when Hollywood recruiters came to look for someone who could jump from one high-perched spot to another and cram his body into a small barrel. The role of Yen was tailor-made for a young Chinese acrobat with experience in the US.


"I had toured in the States for two years by the time this chance popped up. I guess I fitted the job description perfectly," he recalled.


After a formal audition in Los Angeles, he was hired. But there was a catch: Yen was supposed to speak fluent English, but Qin still could not. As a matter of fact, he is not quite fluent in Putonghua either.


The American company that had hired him for his somersaults got him a translator. "He taught me all the lines, word by word. And he also helped me with communication with the other cast members," said Qin.


Whatever methodology his translator employed, the result was nothing short of eye-popping.


When Ocean's Eleven hit the big screen, American audiences were taken aback by this seemingly clean-cut individual shooting off a barrage of four-letter words and in a very authentic accent.


The foul-mouthed Yen did not have a lot of scenes in the first movie, but he did leave a memorable impression. By the second film, he spoke less and mostly in Chinese, which did not sound too cool in his blurry Putonghua.


The language hurdle kept him from getting to know the others on a personal level during the shoot. But "they were very nice to me," he said. "That Clooney guy was always joking around with everyone."


Julia Roberts, who received a 20-dollar bill from Clooney as "payment" for her work in the film, "always smiled at me and greeted me on the set."


(Roberts was rumored to be paid $20 per film, meaning $20 million, but Clooney and his gang took it literally, as a practical joke.)


Once, Clooney, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt were laughing when Qin walked by. "Are they teasing me or plotting something bad against me?" Qin asked his translator, who said they were just making fun of his poor English. But Qin suspected otherwise.


"Whatever they were saying about me, they meant well. They were just such a fun-loving group," Qin explained, adding that George Clooney once gave him a bike as a gift.


"Steven Soderbergh, the director, was tough on his assistants, but he was nice to us actors," he added.


Fun and fame short-lived


For all the exposure, the fun and fame did not last long. Shoots of the two films took a few months and the people parted ways. After the shoot in Italy and the Netherlands, Qin came back to his hometown in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.


"I gave some of the money I made from the two movies to my parents and they used it to build a house. I wanted them to live more comfortably," he said.


Qin started his acrobatic training at the tender age of 8, in Yulin, a small Guangxi city. By the age of 11, he was enrolled in the Guangxi Arts School, where he was trained to be a professional acrobat.


The training routine was grueling, similar to the Peking Opera schooling in the film Farewell My Concubine. But students had two hours of regular classes every day. In his spare time, he enjoyed singing and playing video games.


When he was 15, he and 10 other students were recruited by an American entertainment company to tour across that country. Chinese acrobatics has always been popular in US theme parks and circus shows.


Since returning to Guangxi, Qin has started to miss his days in Hollywood. The pay was good "of course no way near the level of the other actors," and the work was so much fun. He is keeping his fingers crossed that the third installment of the movie will go into production.


Meanwhile, he is preparing for a more permanent film career. "I'm studying in an acting school in Guilin, the picturesque town with the river," he said.


But he is not going to deliver lines from Hamlet. Rather, he has chosen to be a stuntman, as it is easy for an acrobat to cross over to the job of a film stuntman.


In spite of his two appearances in Hollywood blockbusters, Qin Shaobo prefers Hong Kong pictures and wishes that, some day, he could fly through bamboo forests and fight over billowy waters like some of his film heroes.


That, of course, will take another stroke of luck.


(China Daily August 12, 2005)

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