Movie preview: 'Mao’s Last Dancer'

Q&A with Director Bruce Beresford

Despite a resume that includes such widely regarded films as “Breaker Morant” and “Tender Mercies,” Australian director Bruce Beresford is probably best remembered for “Driving Miss Daisy,” his Oscar-winning screen version of the Atlanta-based play by Alfred Uhry that premiered at the Alliance Theatre in the mid-1980s.

“I still have so many wonderful memories about working in Atlanta, I wouldn’t know where to begin,” Beresford, 70, when asked about shooting the 1989 film here.

His new movie, “Mao’s Last Dancer,” tells the true story of Li Cunxin, who grew up in an impoverished Chinese village before being recruited by the Communist government to study ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. During a cultural exchange program that brought him to Texas in the early 1970s, he defected.

Chi Cao, a principal dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England, makes his acting debut in the lead role.

Q: How did you first hear about Li Cunxin and his story?

A: I read the autobiography he’d written and thought it was such a remarkable, astonishing story. I’d never come across anything like it before. I’ve always been fascinated by cultures that are different from the one I grew up in. When a story draws me in and inspires me like this one did, it moves me so much that I feel I have to tell it.

Q: What was your biggest challenge in the film?

A: How in the world was I going to find anyone to play the role? He had to be an Asian ballet dancer who could speak both English and Mandarin Chinese. In retrospect, it was absurdly optimistic of me to think we’d ever be able to cast it. There’s no doubt we couldn’t have made this film without Chi Cao.

Q: He also had to be able to act in scenes with Joan Chen, Kyle MacLachlan and Bruce Greenwood. Do you direct a first-time actor any differently than you do veterans like them?

A: Not in this case, because it was immediately clear to me how intelligent and film-savvy he was. Everything came very naturally to him. He already understood that the movie camera photographs an actor’s thoughts, that you can see it in their eyes.

Q: What was it like shooting on location in China?

A: I was quite apprehensive about the language barrier at first, but I became so embedded in it, all that eventually fell away. We cast a lot of non-actors in some of the major roles — the dance instructors were played by real teachers — because we wanted the acting to be very naturalistic, and none of them had learned any bad habits about overacting. (He laughs.)

Q: How involved was the real Li Cunxin during filming, and what sort of feedback have you received from him about the movie?

A: He loves it and has been promoting it all over the world. We went through the script with him very carefully, and spent a lot of time talking about his past, about what it was like growing up in that time and place. He visited us on the set in China a few times, and during the ballet scenes we shot in Australia, but basically he simply entrusted us with his story.

Q: Did you take any creative liberties with the story?

A: A lot was left out, but we didn’t make any major changes. Condensing the story was hard. The published autobiography is only a third of what he actually wrote, but we also had access to all the rest of the story. We really didn’t need to invent anything, because so many extraordinary things happened to him and his final achievement is so glorious, we didn’t have to make anything up.

Movie preview

“Mao’s Last Dancer”

Starring Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Joan Chen, Amanda Schull. Directed by Bruce Beresford.

Rated PG for a brief violent image, some sensuality, language and incidental smoking. At Regal Tara and Lefont Sandy Springs. 1 hour, 55 minutes.