US filmmaker holds on to his roots in China as a Beijinger
Rooted in the land
Published: Mar 09, 2023 08:04 PM
Promotional materials of The Wandering Earth II are seen out of a cinema in Beijing. Photo: VCG

Promotional materials of The Wandering Earth II are seen out of a cinema in Beijing. Photo: VCG

"White face with a Beijinger's soul," this is the self-description of US filmmaker Andy Friend who has gained new popularity after playing the role "Mike" in the Chinese sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth II.

The 56-year-old US actor, director and concept artist has actually appeared in many Chinese movies, but "th  is is the first time I've worked on a big Chinese movie where I'm playing just an American, and it is the US ambassador in the United Nations," he told the Global Times humorously.

"Almost all my roles in China have been 'a foreigner' in a scene. But when we started shooting, directors would say my Chinese is too good and I needed to be dubbed with a foreign accent, then I lost interest in such roles," he said.

A unique growing path

Born in Beijing in 1966, Friend has been fully emerged into traditional Chinese art and culture under the influence of his parents and Chinese artists who were guests at his place.

His mother is an Italian collector who studied Chinese in the former Soviet republics and returned to China to study Eastern Asian art and history. She later was invited to translate the works of Chinese renowned writers including Lu Xun and Lao She; his father engaged in cultural and educational work in the US, and later worked in the Xinhua News Agency and China Radio International, and did English dubbing for many Chinese documentaries in the 1960s.

Andy Friend

Andy Friend

In Beijing, Friend experienced authentic Chinese education. With a strong interest in drawing, Andy was enrolled in the traditional Chinese painting department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and became one of the only five freshmen recruited nationwide in 1983.

During his studies, Friend drew a lot of inspiration from and was enlightened by Chinese painting masters such as Huang Yongyu, Li Kuchan and Han Meilin, as well as some painters from Dunhuang, Northwest China's Gansu Province. He did not know his solid drawing skills would help him gain a foothold as a storyboarder in Hollywood.

Friend calls many experiences in life as an "accident." His initial footstep in showbiz begun in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, where some Hollywood films were been shot. Under the advantage of his bilingual ability, Friend came to Guangzhou with great interest and successfully joined the crew as a bilingual interpreter.

Becoming a veteran filmmaker

By the late 1980s, Andy's parents passed away. He packed up his parents' belongings and left Beijing where he had lived for more than 20 years, to make a living on his own.

With his excellent multilingual skills and film production experience as a storyboard artist, Friend gradually gained a good reputation in Hollywood and participated in the art and special effect production of many Hollywood blockbusters such as The Bourne Identity, Batman and Mr. And Mrs. Smith.

"Being a storyboard artist is a fascinating job because you are creating between the time of the script and the time of the filming. You are the one who sits there and draws the pictures that everybody is going to make," Friend said.

He recalled when he first came to Hollywood, he met the director of Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who was working on Alien Resurrection, and needed a French producer. "Doing this job is mostly relying on word-of-mouth. If you did a good job, you will be introduced to other film projects."

Life in Hollywood is quite different from that in Beijing and Friend often missed the Chinese capital. 

In 2003, he resettled in Beijing with his family and brought the experience he gained in Hollywood to China. In 2005, he became the only Western director to be granted a permit to direct Chinese television content.

With over 25 years of experience on movie sets big and small, Andy is one of the best bilingual filmmakers working on co-productions and commercials in China.

Friend said he has worked with many excellent filmmakers both in China and abroad, and he has had a very unforgettable cooperation with Chinese filmmaker Li Shaohong in the Chinese drama A Dream in Red Mansions on which he worked as the visual effect producer. 

He said he has learnt a lot by communicating with the Chinese scholars who specialize in the classic Chinese literature.

"What's really exciting about working on films is that you take these really small details and it then gives you a window into something huge," he said.

Back to his birthplace in his 50s, what Friend remembered the most was the atmosphere of visiting old Beijing. He feels that the cultural core of old Beijing is still there, which makes him feel like being in his hometown. He said his roots have always been here.

"When I'm in the US, I feel like I'm just an immigrant but I do feel I'm a Beijinger," he said.

In the future, Friend plans to make some storyboard on his own project in animation, and hopes to stay in China holding a Chinese citizenship.