Mao's Last Dancer - Amanda Schull and Chi Cao
Mao's Last Dancer - Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull) and Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) © 2010 Samuel Goldwyn Films

Amanda Schull has danced all of her life, her mother being the President of Ballet Hawaii. She was discovered while an apprentice with the San Francisco Ballet and cast in the leading role in the successful dance film Center Stage. She has been a company member at the San Francisco Ballet since 1999.

In her new movie Mao’s Last Dancer, she portrays Elizabeth, a dancer who is trying out for the Houston Ballet, but who lacks the skills to be a great performer. While she’s rehearsing, she meets Li Cunxin (Chi Cao), who is visiting the company from China. They fall in love, and when Li is ordered back to China, they get married in order for him to stay in the United States.

Amanda spoke with us about the difficulties of playing a dancer who isn’t as good as she is!

This is based on Li Cunxin’s autobiography, did you know about his story?

Mao's Last Dancer - The poster
The poster © 2010 Samuel Goldwyn Films

I was familiar with his story just from the dance community, and actually knew some people who had danced with him.

He and I are from different generations, I didn’t know any of the details, it wasn’t until I read his autobiography and spoke with him directly that I (found out all the details). He was able to tell many more anecdotes and tidbits.

Do you think he really loved Elizabeth or do you think he used her to stay in the States?

That was one of the things that I first asked him about. I wanted it from his perspective.

I had already spoken with a few people who had danced with Liz at the Houston Ballet, who had their own perspective, and I didn’t really care to know what they thought. They weren’t involved in it; they didn’t know anything from the inside of what was going on.

And Li told a very different story. He’s since spoken with Liz, and they have been able to have an understanding of where they were at that time in their lives.

I believe that they were in love. I believe that it was first love and everything that comes with that, in that it’s so naïve and so innocent to think that you got married and that’s it, because that solves everything.

They did it because they had to at that time, because they were willing and they were in love.

How closely did you want to portray Liz?

Mao's Last Dancer - Amanda Schull and Chi Cao
Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull) and Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) © 2010 Samuel Goldwyn Films

I had been in direct contact with the lady who was our hairstylist on the film. Liz had long brown hair, and I was going to dye my hair dark brown.

She and I made the arrangements and I was walking out the door of the production office, and Bruce Beresford (the movie’s director) came up to me and said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to dye my hair brown,’ and he said, ‘We’re not making a documentary. Leave your hair blond, that’s who you are, you’re portraying a character, we’re not trying to be exact.’

How challenging was it to unlearn everything your body has learned as a dancer to play someone who is not at the level that you’ve achieved?

They had me making my legs turn in, when I’ve forced my legs to turn out my whole life. There are times with your self-esteem that you don’t want your ego to be bruised, ‘I’m so much better than that and people won’t know that.’ Get over it.

It was liberating in a way. I didn’t have the pressure. I sat there and watched Camilla (Vergotis) and Madeline (Eastoe) do these incredibly challenges pieces of choreography, and I was so inspired and yet relived too that I didn’t have to do it.

What do you think this movie has to say at this time about the arts, when funding is being pulled back?

Mao's Last Dancer - Amanda Schull and Chi Cao
Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull) and Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) © 2010 Samuel Goldwyn Films

I think what you’re saying about funding being lost, my mother, who is the President of Ballet Hawaii, has lost so many donors because they just can’t afford it. It’s devastating.

As far as the film is concerned, what I think Li’s story really drives home is the fact that if you dream it, there’s a way to do it. He came from a dirt hut. If you meet this man now in person he is refined, he’s elegant. I think it has a lot to do with his spirit and who he was internally and his drive as a human being.

I think as far as artists are concerned if we have nothing, we have drive.

If you didn’t love what you did, you wouldn’t keep doing it. You work so hard because there are 15 of you who are willing to take that spot if you don’t work your tail off to get that one opportunity.

So I think that really is a very strong message to be sent from the film.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.