Wolf Warrior 2’s Hong Kong star Celina Jade on landing Wu Jing’s box office hit – and why she won’t play the ‘sexy, kick-ass Asian girl’
Accidental actress Jade is one of the biggest names in Chinese cinema, giving her the clout to work with film greats such as Wong Kar-wai and Zhang Yimou, she hopes. But the daughter of a martial artist will fight for the right roles
Celina Jade is no stranger to the spotlight. At the age of 15, the Hong Kong-born actress had already released a debut music album and had her face on a four-storey-tall billboard. Modelling to pay the bills while at university, she also appeared on magazine covers and starred in advertisements.
Even so, the 32-year-old co-star of Chinese production Wolf Warrior 2 was caught off guard by her sudden fame after the film broke Chinese box office records within 12 days of its July release.
She was mobbed by fans on arrival at Beijing airport, forcing her to hide in the toilet and call her manager for help. Back in Hong Kong, where the film still hasn’t opened in cinemas, she was approached six times by passers-by while on a coffee run.
“I didn’t expect it to happen overnight,” she says. “We knew the figures were great but it doesn’t quite register in your mind what it really means.”
The film had grossed more than five billion yuan (US$750 million, HK$5.9 billion) by the end of its fourth week. It also became the first non-English-language title to enter the ranks of the top 100 all-time global box office hits, knocking 1994’s Forrest Gump from the No 100 spot.
An estimated 140 million people have seen the film. “Out of every 10 people, one has seen it. No wonder people recognise me on the street,” says Jade. “And I’m Eurasian. That kind of sticks out like a sore thumb.”
Jade briefly visited Hong Kong recently for a photo shoot for a local fashion brand. Now she is on a world promotional tour for the film that will keep her busy until October.
In Wolf Warrior 2, Jade plays United Nations doctor Rachel Prescott-Smith, who is the romantic interest of elite Chinese soldier Leng Feng, played by Wu Jing, who also co-wrote and directed the film. The pair had previously collaborated in 2007 on Legendary Assassin, Wu’s directorial debut and Jade’s first film.
At the time, Jade had just graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science with a degree in management and was focusing on her music career in Hong Kong. Her manager mentioned that Wu was looking for a lead actress and asked her: “Can you fight?”
He was probably not aware that Jade’s father is American actor and martial artist Roy Horan, who appeared in the Bruce Lee vehicle, Game of Death II (1981), and opposite Jackie Chan in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978).
“My father is very intelligent. He decided to go to the Arctic in his 20s in search of the meaning of life, only to be told by the Arctic Indians that the meaning is within,” Jade says. “He said, ‘That sounds like Asian philosophy’. That’s why he travelled to Japan, [mainland] China, Taiwan and then to Hong Kong.”
In Hong Kong, Horan fell in love not just with Asian culture and martial arts, but also with Jade’s mother, Christina Hui.
Jade, then 13 years old, and her younger sisters grew up taking part in activities their father loved, such as archery, shooting and tae kwon do. “He used to hide his BB gun high up in his closet. Boys would bully me and I would just pull it out and shoot through Coca-Cola cans and tell them, ‘Don’t bully me or this is what happens to you’,” she says.
Jade’s fighting skills impressed the producers of Legendary Assassin, who offered her a role, but she initially turned it down. “I never actually aspired to become an actress. I’ve never taken a drama class. I was always the shy kid in school,” she says.
Jade told the producer she had no box office pull and advised him to find someone better. But Wu was determined to have Jade in the film and arranged another meeting, where he offered to script the character to suit her personality.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘You have met me twice. How could it be possible that you know my character or personality?” Jade says.
Jade was finally persuaded to take the role, playing a female police officer in the action flick. Legendary Assassin was not a big hit at the box office, but it opened doors for Jade to find further action roles in both Hong Kong and Hollywood.
Wu approached her again for Wolf Warrior in 2014, but she was in Vancouver shooting Netflix series Arrow. The pair caught up again at the Shanghai International Film Festival last year, when Wu had already begun filming Wolf Warrior 2. Afterwards, when Jade went on a holiday, she bought Wu a souvenir intended as a joke.
“I bought six cans of organic tomato sauce, because during the making of Legendary Assassins, he made this Chinese dish, with fried eggs and tomatoes. We had a good laugh,” she says.
The gift paid dividends when, in July last year, Jade received a call from Wu in China, saying: “I need a lead actress. Can you fly tonight? Seriously, I really need you.”
Again, Jade says she didn’t immediately agree to take the role. Instead, she spoke to her mother in Hong Kong, who was suffering from terminal cancer. Her mother, who had always wanted to see Jade acknowledged as Chinese and develop a career in China, gave Jade her blessing to go.
“She was like, ‘I finally have the motivation to battle cancer. I want to come see your premiere. I want to come visit you on set.’”
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Jade took the first flight out of Hong Kong the next morning. “I read the script on the plane. I still couldn’t get a hold of my manager because he was on holiday in Cuba,” Jade says. “I landed [in Beijing] and went straight into filming the hospital scene.
“He told me it’d be a two- or three-month shoot. We actually shot over 10 months. But it was perfect because there was time in between. My mum passed away while I was next to her,” she says.
Although her mother never made it to the premiere, Jade was able to show her playbacks of her scenes before she died.
On other family matters, Jade says that over the decade she has known Wu, she has noticed how marriage and children have mellowed him. “I definitely saw that,” she says. “It’s a difficult film for him because there’s a tremendous amount of pressure. I’ve never seen a director so prepared in terms of how to create that emotional connection with the audience. For every single scene, he has a description of what the connecting points are.”
Now that she has earned recognition in China, Jade has big things – and big names – in mind. “This is an exciting time for me. I finally have the numbers to start talking to bigger directors in China and collaborating with people I’ve always wanted to work with,” she says.
Those names include Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou and Clint Eastwood. Jade is equally as picky when it comes to the roles she wants play.
“I like to choose roles of characters I admire. That’s not to say I wouldn’t play an antagonist, but I would look at the complexity of the antagonist. If I read the script and feel that if I were in her position and had her upbringing, I might make the same choices, then she’s interesting to me,” Jade says.
“But if you’re going to come to me with a role that’s a sexy, kick-ass Asian girl, f*** it. Forget it. I’m not going to waste my time.”
Wolf Warrior 2 opens on September 7
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