Steven Rea, Inquirer Movie Columnist and Critic
Bruce Greenwood: first captain of the USS Enterprise in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, John F. Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis drama Thirteen Days, the slick dinner host of the current Steve Carell comedy, Dinner for Schmucks.
And now for something completely different. In Mao’s Last Dancer, the based-on-a-true-story of Li Cunxin, a peasant lad sent to learn dance in Beijing and who later defects to the States and joins the Houston Ballet, Greenwood plays Ben Stevenson, the Houston company’s long-time artistic director.
“Basically I dance like a monkey,” says Greenwood, the affable and hardworking character actor with more than a hundred films and TV titles to his credit. “So I had to spend a lot of time at the barre under the eyes of a very strict professional, who really helped me get a grasp on, if nothing else, how hard dancers work. I used muscles that had never been used…. You try to lift the leg in a certain way, and it’s like you’re looking down at a stranger and going `Hey, why are you just hanging there?’”
Of course, in Mao’s Last Dancer, directed by Bruce Beresford and starring the gracefully acrobatic Chi Cao as Li, Greenwood doesn’t do much real dancing, per se. But he does lead Li and the rest of the Houston hoofers through their regimens and rehearsals, trying a few teacherly plies in the process. And while Greenwood plays Li’s dance mentor onscreen, Greenwood played Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cao acting master between takes. The celebrated Chinese-born dance star makes his screen debut in the film.
"Chi said to me early on, `What can you tell me?’ And I thought rather than load him up with a bunch of acting school stuff, I just said, `Listen.’
"And not everybody gets that, that doesn’t quite land for everybody, even actors who have been trained," Greenwood explains, on the phone from L.A. "But he just got it. He listened. And so depending on how you were behaving with him [in a scene], he would respond to you in a different way. He was very present…If you can absorb that simple thing you can really, really use it… It keeps you from being self-conscious, and if you’re listening -- boom, there you go! The secret to acting, right there.”