By Shang Yang and Raorao | 2012-11-20 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
American Jonathan Kos-Read has been acting in China for 15 years, playing such roles as foreign official in the Qing Dynasty imperial court, and becomes one of the most familiar laowai faces on China's silver screen.
A 39-year-old American living in China for 15 years has it all: Plenty of acting roles for an laowai who speaks Chinese, a Chinese wife and two daughters, and a life in the country he loves. Shang Yang and Raorao report.
Jonathan Kos-Read frequently appears on TV and cinema screens across China. The enthusiastic photographer and doting father could be a script writer or a DJ, but he has chosen to be a full-time actor.
The 39-year-old Los Angeles native has been living in China for 15 years, seeking a romantic adventure after learning Chinese language and history while studying acting at New York University.
"Usually when you learn history, you learn the history of your own country first, and then you sort of spread out to the countries around your country," he says. "But why don't I do it the opposite way," he asked himself at the time. "Why don't I, on a lark, start with China, and then go in reverse?"
In his Chinese class at NYU, his longing to come to China prompted his teacher to give him a passing grade, leading the adventurous young American to embark on his journey to the Middle Kingdom.
In his first two years in Beijing, life was not easy. He tried his hand at many jobs before finally landing in the job held by so many other foreigners here: teaching English.
"It was so boring that I would fall asleep when I was the teacher. Students had to hit me in the shoulder. It was just boring and boring," Kos-Read complains.
One day, while on a walk with his Chinese girlfriend, he spotted an ad for a white actor for a movie. After talking with the director for two hours, he was given the part.
In his first Chinese movie, "A Dream of Youth," Kos-Read played a documentary filmmaker. Imbued with a sense of confidence after his first movie role, he started getting more roles and now he's a fixture on Chinese screens - the go-to guy for roles that require a white face coupled with flawless Chinese.
"The part I played a lot was this rich, white business guy who comes to China and falls in love with a Chinese girl, and then persuades her for 15 or 20 episodes. She is torn, but at the end she makes the right choice and sticks with her Chinese boyfriend," he says.
As the number of foreigners in China has increased, scriptwriters have started to write more nuanced foreign characters defined by fewer stereotypes.
"It is a good change. It is a trend that should continue here and should continue at Hollywood," he says.
Although he has won some fame, as well as his own talk show in Beijing, there was a time when he panicked about losing his acting career.
"One day I got so drunk at a friend's wedding, and I could not even stand up, and it was during that time I got a phone call and was asked to audition for a caveman role," he says.
Unwilling to let inebriation stand in the way of a role, the drunk but bold fellow took a cab to the audition and before seeing the director, he took off all his clothes and got his hands dirty on the ground and rubbed his face with the dirt. That tactic paid off and he got the role.
"I like to know what part I would be playing and try to look like the role, that really matters," he explains.
His appearances and roles in TV shows and movies already seem countless. In his latest TV show he played Joe Stilwell, a 60-year-old American general who led multinational forces during World War II, in a role that proved to be a challenge for him.
"I have to endure three hours of makeup every day for five months and besides, the lines are really hard. There are sometimes two-page-long lines of military jargon for me to say," he explains.
Kos-Read says he doesn't plan to leave China.
"There are guys who speak better Chinese than I do, and there are lots of guys who are better-looking than me, guys who are better actors than me. What's really hard to have is this whole package," he says. "I fill a niche here."