After a life of writing, teaching guitar, programming computers and doing a hodgepodge of various other jobs, 58-year-old Ben Thompson eventually left his home in the UK and made his way to China, where he has lived for the better half of the past eight years. After a brief stint teaching English, Ben now lives day-to-day as an actor: He’s appeared in movies, shows, documentaries and TV plays and hopes to continue acting as long as he can. But first he made an appearance at the International School of Beijing to answer questions from Malcolm McCormick’s middle school drama class.
Did you ever think of acting in your childhood?
Not really, no. My theory is that all children act, when they dress up and play. I think some just don’t grow out of it and they turn into actors.
After you put on your costume to film a movie, do you feel really different?
I do. Sometimes they give you false whiskers, or a false beard and moustache, or a weird hairpiece; they do your makeup and they do your eyebrows. I really like that because you look in the mirror and you see yourself changing into someone else.
How did you find your first acting job?
Somebody found me. Someone came into the cafe at the language university and said he wanted someone to do a commercial. Then he rang me up after that and said, I want you to do a scene in a film. Someone came over in a car and took me to a set in Beijing and put a costume on me. So I did these lines, and it was great. I didn’t even know what the film was until years later.
Do you speak in English or Chinese?
It can be either. Sometimes it’s in Chinese, but usually in English. There are two ways to film a TV play. One is when they record the sound as you’re acting; they have a big microphone that comes over the top and they record the sound. The other way is where they don’t record the sound; you say the lines and then afterwards somebody dubs it, or somebody puts the sound over it. Most TV plays are done without recording the sound, so if the place where you film is noisy and people are sounding car horns, it doesn’t matter and you don’t have to keep re-doing the shot. In that case sometimes I will speak English and they will dub me over with Chinese. But sometimes they do record with sound and I have to speak Chinese, and that’s the hardest.
How do you memorize your lines?
Well, memory is like paint. If you’re painting a room, you paint once and you can still see the same old color, so you paint over again, and then it’s done. Memory is like that. You do it once, and then forget it and then you memorize it again. If the lines are simple, you can just do it in one go.
Have you ever forgotten any lines? What do you do if that happens?
Yes. It happens to everyone now and again. In TV, you just do it again. I once had a line in a play that went: “All you Chinese people say – oh, I’ve forgotten,” and everyone came up to me after and said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry” – they thought I’d really forgotten it! But that was actually my line.
What is your favorite movie that you did?
My favorite movie that I did was actually a film called Yuan Ming Yuan (Old Summer Palace 圆明园). It was a documentary about Yuanmingyuan, how it was built and how it was burned. I played the man who burnt Yuanmingyuan down. That’s my favorite for two reasons. One is because Yuanmingyuan is my favorite place in Beijing; I think it’s really beautiful and prefer it to any place in Beijing. The other reason is because it’s such an important piece of history. More Chinese people have seen this film than anything else that I’ve been in.
What is your favorite character you‘ve ever played?
I played a character in a thing called Parker Revolver (派克式左轮), where I played an American professor who had a very bad temper and was always smoking a pipe. I had 93 scenes in that film and I was filming it for two months. He got shot in the end of the film as well.