Interview: Amanda Schull of "Mao's Last Dancer" and "One Tree Hill"

8/28/2010 Posted by Admin

Interview: Amanda Schull

By our guest blogger, Joel Crabtree

Amanda Schull, the breakout star of 2000’s “Center Stage,” takes the stage again in “Mao’s Last Dancer,” now playing in select theaters.

From veteran Australian director Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Double Jeopardy”), the film, based on the autobiography by Li Cunxin, follows Cunxin’s journey to becoming one of the world’s top ballet dancers. In the movie, Schull portrays Cunxin’s (Chi Cao) real-life love interest Elizabeth Mackey.

“Mao’s Last Dancer” has already garnered several awards and nominations from the Australian Film Institute, received the runner-up prize for the Cadillac People’s Choice Award at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, and won the audience prize at the Maine International Film Festival in July.

This fall, Schull also will return to the CW series “One Tree Hill,” after concluding last season with a potential deadly cliffhanger.

In a recent phone interview with, Schull talked about her work in “Mao’s Last Dancer,” her duel role on “One Tree Hill” and the thrill of almost having her hair dyed brown.

Joel Crabtree: What was it like working with a veteran director like Bruce Beresford?

Amanda Schull: Aw. Bruce Beresford is, like, every person’s dream director. He is a really incredible person. And a huge gossip, which makes it even more fun to work with him on set. He’s incredibly patient, which is a really nice attribute for a director to have, especially for somebody who’s been doing it as long as he has. I mean, because it could sort of be like, ‘Oh, I’ve done this a million and one times....” But he’s really patient and he really listens well.

There were a couple of days, I can remember, where we sat down and discussed things, especially during the consulate scene ... There are scenes in the Chinese consulate. We sat down with a few cast members and he just listened to everybody’s points of view, what they thought about what they were doing at this point or that point, and where they should be standing. Because these were such an important sequence of scenes, he was open to listening to everybody’s perspective, which isn’t always the case. Especially for somebody as established as he is. Plus, he’s absolutely hysterical, so that really helps things.

JC: Were you familiar with the story of Li Cunxin -- did I say that right?

AS: Oh my God, you said it right! (Laughs)

JC: Were you familiar with his story before you accepted the role in the film?

AS: It wouldn‘t be fair for me to say I knew everything about his story. But because I was a professional dancer myself, I had heard of his story, but not in great detail. So, it wasn’t really until I got the script.  I started reading it and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I know people who know these people.’ It was the fewest degrees of separation that I’ve ever had with a script.

So, I immediately called a couple people, and they were like, ‘Oh, I totally remember that guy.’ One person that I used to dance with in San Francisco was like, ‘Oh yeah, I danced with him in The Australian Ballet -- like knew him. And then I reached out to some people who had danced at Houston and knew the two of them together -- Liz and Li.   So it wasn’t until I booked the job that I literally got off the phone and walked down to Borders and got his book and read it. And, you know, learned everything else that was attached to his incredible journey.

JC: Elizabeth Mackey, of course, is a real-life figure. How closely do you play it to the real-life Mackey, and how did you prepare for that?

AS: Well, she is a real person, and I have to tell you, I’ve never met her. Because this was something that was a conscious decision, because it’s Li’s story. And so it was from his perspective. I did what I did in preparation for it and before we started shooting, I spoke with Li for a while and figured out everything.  You know, it's through stories that actors and  artists  learn so much, and he told me some stories and talked about their relationship.  From that, I got more of a feel of what she was to him in his life, and what they were for each other.

I mean, I don’t look exactly like Liz, by any stretch of the imagination. She’s very long, with long, dark brown hair. Actually, there are some pictures of her in his book. And I was in contact with the hair stylist while I was in L.A. preparing to go out to Australia before filming. And she and I were e-mailing back and forth, and she was like, ‘Yeah, so you’re going to dye your hair brown,’ and I was like ‘Yes, I’m going to dye my hair brown!’

And I was so excited about dying my hair brown--I’ve never had brown hair in my life--and the idea of dying my hair brown was the most thrilling thing for whatever reason.  So we planned, she made an appointment, we were going to do this. When I got to the production office, I had a little costume fitting and then she and I were literally walking out of the production office door when Bruce Beresford walks up.  He asked what we were doing and I said, ‘Oh, you know, I’m going to dye my hair brown.’ And I didn’t realize that nobody had cleared it with him. He said, ‘Why would you do that?’

And I said, ‘Well, Elizabeth has dark brown hair, you’ve seen the pictures of her.’ He said, ‘We’re not making a documentary, leave your hair the way it is.’

So, in response to your question, I’m not Liz exactly. But I am who she was for him as told by Li to me.

JC: So you’re also known for your dancing, as you’ve already said ...

AS: Have I said that? ‘Excuse me, Joel, I’m known for my dancing.’ (Laughs)

JC: (Laughs) Well, not in those words exactly ... but which part of the character did you find more challenging, the dancing or the acting?

AS: The acting. Yeah, definitely. I don’t dance that much in it. I am a dancer, but I don’t dance that much in it. All the heavy-duty dancing is left up to Chi and some Chinese dancers and the incredible dancers of the Australian Ballet.

For me, the dancing part probably would have been more natural, because at that point I hadn’t been acting professionally for very long. So, it’s still a discovery process, a little bit, for me.

JC: Now, the film has played at so many film festivals throughout the world, I was wondering if you had the chance to tour with the film, in a sense, to visit all of the places that it played at?

AS: Well, not all of them. Chi Cao is the luckiest guy ever. He’s gotten to go Morocco, he might have even gone to Brazil and Tokyo for the film. I got to see it for the first time at the Toronto Film Festival last year. So that was exciting. That was the first time that he saw it, I saw it, Kyle MacLachlan was there, Bruce Greenwood. And then, what was really great for me, was the film actually premiered in Australia last year on Oct. 1. So, I got to go to five different cities on a promotional premiere tour leading up to it. Which was really neat. Because I love Australia so much. To be able to go across the country and see Australia and be able to promote this film and be with these people was just icing on the cake.

On top of “Mao’s Last Dancer,” you also played a pivotal duel role in “One Tree Hill” last season. What was it like playing the very sweet and sympathetic Sara and then her total opposite in Katie?

It was fuuuun. Do you watch “One Tree Hill”? (laughs)

Yeah ... I gotta admit I do watch a little “One Tree Hill.”

I didn’t know when I signed on for it as Sara that it was just supposed to be two episodes. And it just developed this life of its own, which I loved. But, you know, when I went to do the first couple of episodes, I didn’t even know I was dead. Mark Schawhn didn’t tell me, nobody told me. Rob Buckley accidentally just let it slip out of his mouth, and I was like, ‘I’m what?’

Then before we actually shot it, Mark called me and was like, ‘Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you’ll never be on the show again.’ And he was right. But I needed to know it, because during all the scenes, we weren’t able to touch in any way--when he was speaking with Sara--because it crosses over that wall, that boundary.

And then to come back as something so different, just the antithesis of everything that Sara embodied was just a lot of -- and actually I’m going back -- a lot of fun.

I was actually about to ask, as you know, the show ended on a pretty serious cliffhanger. How much can you tell me about the upcoming season?

ou know, what I do know about [it], I was supposed to come back pretty early on in the season, and I think they just got picked up for an entire season. I think they’ve had more freedom with being able to expand their storylines a little bit. I’m going back soon and you know, I don’t even know which character I’m going back as.

Oh ...

I assume Katie, because I finished with Katie. But I haven’t seen the script, I don’t know anything. All I know is that they called and I’m going back.

What other projects do you have lined up at the moment?

That, and I’ve been doing a recurring on "Pretty Little Liars."And I look forward to going back again ... I know nothing. I’m good for nothing, really, Joel. I don’t know anything until they tell me to go someplace. I just show up where I’m told. (laughs)

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