Oscar winning actor Matt Damon says working with famed filmmaker Zhang Yimou on his China-set, fantasy epic The Great Wall was a dream come true.
Damon, who is 46, has been a huge fan of Yimou’s work for as long as he can remember. The famed Chinese director (known as the “Spielberg of China”) has directed such films as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower.
“Look, this guy can do things that no one else can do,” Damon told me during our recent interview in Los Angeles. “His movies are one thing, but when I saw what he did orchestrating the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I just knew that somehow, somewhere we would work together.”
Damon, plays an English mercenary who comes to China to steal gunpowder in the $150 million adventure fantasy about a Chinese army battling monsters.
The movie’s trailer sparked criticism when it was initially released in the U.S. that a white man had been chosen to play the lead in a film set in China meant to showcase Chinese culture. The uproar came amid other accusations of a lack of diversity and opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Damon said he thinks of the term “whitewashing” as applying to Caucasian actors putting on makeup to appear to be of another race, as was common in the early days of film and television, when racism was overt.
While the U.S. may perceive the film is about Matt Damon saving China, people in China think he’s just one character out of many and don’t really have an overt problem with him starring in the film. It’s a film about men helping the Chinese army, and it does not single Damon out as the film’s only hero.
The Great Wall also features Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones and Narcos fame as Damon’s sword-wielding partner in crime, Willem Dafoe and Hong Kong’s Andy Lau. Jing Tian plays the female lead warrior. Eddie Peng of the boxing drama Unbeatable and Lu Han, a former boy band sensation, also appear.
In the movie, China’s Great Wall has been built to keep out menacing, otherworldly creatures. The use of monsters and a hero saving the world are very much Hollywood techniques.
Director Zhang Yimou says that the script took Hollywood seven years to develop. “Although it was developed for commercial purposes, I felt there was room for me to play and put many elements of Chinese culture into it,” he said during our interview in Los Angeles. “I also really wanted Matt Damon to star in this film because I knew that he would be able to handle the action and the dramatic nature of the demanding role.”
As for what’s in the actor’s immediate future, he says he might have some surprises up his sleeve. When asked what he and his arch enemy Jimmy Kimmel might have cooked up for the upcoming Oscar Broadcast, he just smiled at me and said, “you’ll see, you’ll see.”
We can hardly wait Matt.
Here is my complete interview with Matt Damon discussing The Great Wall: