In his career Bruce Greenwood has starred in a plethora of genres, playing Captain Christopher Pike in Star Trek, President John F Kennedy in Thirteen Days, writer Jack Dunphy, Truman Capote’s partner in Capote, with supporting roles in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Dinner for Schmucks, Eight Below and Déjà Vu.
In his latest film Mao’s Last Dancer, he once again portrays a real person, Ben Stevenson, the Artistic Director of the Houston Ballet, who in the 1980s went to China to encourage an exchange of ideas and talent. This led to Li Cunxin (played by Chi Cao, who is Principal Dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet), a talented dancer, coming to Texas to join the Houston Ballet for a season. When Li decides to defect, Ben is put in the terrible position of supporting Li’s decision and struggling to keep an ongoing relationship with the Chinese government.
I spoke with Bruce Greenwood about his uncanny portrayal of Ben Stevenson.
I’ve heard from someone who knows Ben Stevenson that your portrayal of him is impeccable. When so few people know him, why was it important to you to capture his personality so precisely?
Some people know him though, and he’s around. I had a little bit of footage of him teaching in China, and I’ve seen a couple of interviews with him and I have some audio tape, so that was a jumping off place.
At the same time, I had to put my own body into a world that I had no business being in, which is ballet. So I started taking ballet lessons every day.
It was fantastic, I learned so much and learned very quickly how much I’ll never know. It was exhausting and energizing.
You play Ben with great flamboyance, but you never allow him to fall into a stereotype of a gay character.
That was conscious. It wasn’t so much a gay thing anyway; the guy’s a really demonstrative dancer. This is not inherently gay. It wasn’t a sexuality issue for me at all.
Who’s interested in seeing that? Not me, for sure. I’ve seen (the arrogant director) a thousand times and, as it happens, Ben Stevenson is anything but that.
He’s an incredibly complicated guy but, at the same time, he did something that nobody else had done before. He made use of his tiny crack in the access to
China and he began this dialogue and this exchange of art and ideas between America and the Chinese that had a really powerful ebb and flow, and was equally rewarding to each culture.
Into the midst of this really fluid exchange of art and ideas, that took a great deal of time and effort for him to develop and encourage, comes this kid who’s admittedly brilliantly talented but is suddenly confounded by this entirely new culture and falling in love.
He puts a wrench in the whole thing. So it’s not this bitchy impresario who is pursuing commerce at all cost, or somebody who’s only thinking about the art and doesn’t understand the realities of the business. It’s much more complicated and interesting than that.
You’re playing a real person, but at a totally different time in his life – were you able to talk with Ben?
Yeah, that’s interesting, do you go and talk to them now and get their take on what happened through a prism of their remembering it, which may color what was really happening?
As it happened, I didn’t have that problem because I wasn’t able to meet him before we filmed. I only met him a few weeks ago for the first time, and that was nerve-wracking in the extreme.
Li sent me an e mail saying, ‘Ben has seen the movie and would like to talk to you.’ I was like, ‘I’m busy; I’m not available, I’m leaving the country!’ So I said, ‘Okay, here’s my e mail.’ I got a really nice letter from Ben saying thank you for playing me so thin!
Then a couple of weeks ago at a big event in Houston, I met him and he was so charming and so loved by everybody. It was very emotional. I was really touched by being in his presence.
What was working with Chi Cao like, because he’s not primarily an actor?
He had never acted before. It was really interesting, he’s a wonderful dancer, a great interpretive dancer, and one of the things that amazes me about ballet artists in general is their ability to hear the music so completely.
He asked me, ‘What can you tell me about acting?’ Rather than get into any kind of (acting techniques) I just said, ‘Listen.’ And being the kind of artist that he is he completely (understood). He said, ‘Okay, I’ll just listen. I get it.’
So I’d talk to him and he’s actually listen to me, and if delivered a line in a different way, with a different intention, he’d respond differently just because he’d been told the listen and he was listening, he wasn’t pretending to listen.
As an artist who is used to being inside the music, he was a good listener.
Is there a difference for you as an actor when you’re doing a movie like this about real people or something like Star Trek, is it easy to make that real too?
Of course, you’re just imagining it, but 300 years from now and that’s all (really) happening, what we’re doing now is going to look ridiculous. But that’s all we can imagine now.
I’m always trying to ground (every film) in what the human cost is, what the emotional (cost) is, and if there isn’t any emotional (cost) then what am I doing there?