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Wang Xueqi at the red carpet ceremony on Saturday. [Photo: Mtime.com]
Of all the characters in Iron Man 3, Wang Xueqi's is a rarity. Seen either in a suit or a doctor's coat, Dr. Wu is perennially urbane and doesn't engage in the skirmishes – and this is a film in which even Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts gets some screen time donning the Iron Man armor.
Ironically, Wang is the member of the cast with a real-life action hero pedigree. Unlike his co-stars, he has served in the Chinese army. His life as an actor actually began with the military-affiliated August First Film Studio, from where he then moved to the Chinese Air Force's Modern Drama Troupe before his film and TV career took off in the 1980s.
The discipline instilled in him during those years have remained. A much-revered icon in his country, the 67-year-old actor starred in Chen Kaige's landmark 1984 film The Yellow Earth. He is a multiple award-winner at home and abroad for Chen's 2008 film Forever Enthralled, in which he plays a seasoned Chinese opera star, and for Teddy Chen's 2009 film Bodyguards and Assassins, in which he plays a patriotic 1920s businessman. Wang has tended to take roles in which he appears as a dignified figure in an industry (and society) slowly spiraling toward an adulation of the superficial.
It's perhaps this old-school dignity which led to Wang's skepticism when he was told last year of Marvel Pictures' and DMG Entertainment's interest in giving him a role in Iron Man 3.
"I was told of this 'good news' – that there was this part on offer," he recalled in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter after the film's press conference in Beijing on Saturday. "I was like, 'Oh, right.' And I said to this person contacting me, 'It wouldn't do if it's a character who's finished off after a few fights.' I was then assured that, 'No, you're going to be the man who saves his [Tony Stark] life.'"
Wang was still not convinced, especially after he learned that production had already begun.
"So they had this young guy recording a scene with me," he said. "And then we met and did it, and he's very well-versed with the dialogue. He was advising me where I should speak faster, and where I should do it slower. I was thinking, 'wow, this young chap is really professional!' Afterwards I learned that he's been preparing for a month or so just to do this with me."
He said he signed up partly because he was moved by what he saw as the producers' genuine respect for him, but also because of the complexity of his part. "It's not a character which exists in the original comic series," he said of Dr. Wu. "And he's a very complicated individual: he's at once a specialist in Chinese medicine and Western medicine, but also a scientist and someone who has an in-depth knowledge of ancient Chinese culture. They've really set the bar very high."
He added that the character is someone from Tony Stark's (Robert Downey Jr.) past.
"It's a very challenging role. I don't get a lot of scenes, but you have to convince viewers that [Stark and Wu] are friends from way back," Wang said. "It's not like in other films when you can get to show that through a lot of interaction between the characters."
In the film, Stark and Wu only meet twice: once in the present, when the former is already a superhero, and once in a flashback, when he's just a man living in Miami. Having traveled twice to the U.S. for filming (Wang also shot in Wilmington, North Carolina), the actor said he speaks Chinese on screen throughout, which added to the challenge of creating the resemblance of camaraderie between the two protagonists.
"It's quite difficult when we can't communicate in the same language," Wang said of his exchanges, both on and off set, with Downey. "Even the bosses were very concerned about whether we could sound like friends when we speak in different languages. What they would want is to develop [Dr Wu] if there's a fourth installment—because after all, it's him who propped Stark up when he's in his most difficult time."
Wang said he is pleased Stark's physical redemption stems from Dr. Wu's employment of traditional Chinese medicine, a turn of events which represent what he described as "the best wishes of the peoples" of the U.S. and China. "This could allow our friends from overseas to understand more about China and our medical expertise," he said.
But the actor is also experienced enough to see the pragmatic side of the Iron Man 3's producers' enthusiasm in creating Dr. Wu and setting the film, a joint production between Marvel and the China-based DMG, partly in Beijing.
"The significance lies in how the role could be developed," he said. "The producers decided to inject the film with Chinese elements because China is slowly becoming a very powerful country. And we have a very big market as well. And Chinese audiences are still very passionate about Hollywood films."
While the actor stated he is glad to see a younger generation of Chinese actors getting roles in Hollywood productions—recent examples include Li Bingbing (Resident Evil: Retribution); Zhou Xun (Cloud Atlas); and Wang's friend and manager Fan Bingbing (who is featured in the Chinese version of Iron Man 3, and was recently cast in X-Men: Days of Future Past)—he said he harbored no ambitions for more parts in U.S. films.
"It's not something I'm thinking about, because I don't understand U.S. culture, just like Americans don't understand ours," he said. "This discrepancy could pose some problems. For example, when I did certain things while we were filming, people would laugh. I would think, did I do something wrong? But they said, 'No, it's just that it looks cute'. This is what I mean when I talk about cultural differences."
He then cited an example from just hours before speaking with THR, when he and Downey embraced on stage during the Iron Man 3 press launch.
"I know he hugged me to show affection, but it's not something I am used to. Men don't usually do that here," he said. "It's not a personal issue, but something more cultural. This is just a small thing, of course."
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