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Publication Date : 04-11-2012
Ken Zhu talks about coping with the pain of fame and coming to terms with his place in the industry
In his latest drama, Hero, former F4 member Ken Zhu plays a secondary character. This would have been unheard of for Zhu at the prime of his career a decade ago when he and the other members of F4 were the poster boys of a new pop culture generation.
But Zhu, now 33 years old, will be the first to tell you that he has gone past that era and embraced the changes that come with life and growing up.
“The only thing that is constant is change itself,” Zhu tells popasia in an exclusive interview. “You face it, accept it and deal with it and then you let it go. Nothing is really yours. At the end of the day you’re only facing yourself. I’m only responsible to myself.”
In Hero, Zhu plays Fan Li—a minister under Chinese Emperor Guojian—who he described as someone many consider not so heroic. “He wasn’t really famous. His is such a role that, in history, was not very praised or written about all the time because he didn’t fit into the Chinese spirit that you have to die for someone you are most loyal to. He kind of left at a time when he thought he should leave,” he explains.
Filming for Hero wrapped up in March and the drama will be shown in mainland China this summer. Zhu says he did not mind accepting the role even if he wasn’t the lead and despite filming during the harsh winter because it was a character he found challenging. He notes this is also part of his growth as an actor, to expand into the China market where opportunity abounds.
“There are opportunities everywhere but Taiwan is not a place with a huge population so basically, that limits the size of the market. When it’s too crowded, it’s too crowded here. There’s only 24 hours a day, so much stuff you can squeeze into TV and down here, you have to be very local to achieve something,” he says.
He adds that the market is saturated with younger entertainers jostling for attention and he no longer finds it appropriate to compete with them. “There are new people coming out... so I mean why would I want to compete with someone who’s only 19 or 20 who has a crowd his age or maybe younger?
“Plus I already had my time and it was a good time. Now I see more a kind of life half-resting, half-planning on what to do next. Now it’s easier for me, I don’t really have to struggle. What I have achieved before, it’s already given me a life easier than that of other people. So for now, it’s more like experimenting with things I could do.”
Indeed, there are parallelisms between his Fan Li character and Zhu in real life with how he had made his choices. Aside from Hero, he also did a telemovie and a stage play last year, projects he says, he wouldn’t have even bothered to try 10 years ago.
At 22, Zhu was suddenly thrust into the spotlight when he starred in Meteor Garden as Xi Men, a rich playboy. When the drama sparked a craze across the region, he went from nobody to being chased around by paparazzi and fangirls. The fame took everyone by surprise and as he candidly admits, it took a long time to process what was happening.
He found himself dealing with pressure that came with fame as he struggled with his craft. “I can relate to every role and when I finish my work, I kind of leave a part of that character within me. So in essence, every character has become a part of me. To become a really good actor, you have to face all these pressure, you have to get in and out.”
But about five years since he started his career, Zhu experienced a personal crisis. “I was really having a hard time getting in and out of the characters that I did. Basically, something went wrong inside my head. I got all confused.” He was diagnosed with depression and later, with ADHD. It brought him confusion on what he wanted to do with his life. “I finally realised that I’m actually very simple. I’m just looking for a better life. And yet the thing I was doing didn’t really give me a better life. Instead, it gave me a more confused life… more complicated. But I realised it’s not anyone else’s fault, I only have me to blame because the choice was always mine.”
Zhu was glowing in the aftermath of his F4 fame and people advised him to take advantage of it. Instead, he decided to slow down on his work.
“It was a very, very painful progress. In the eyes of others, they probably think that ‘hey, look at Ken. He doesn’t have many projects, he’s probably having a difficult time.’ I mean, look at Vic (Chou), look at Jerry (Yan), at Van Ness (Wu). They’re so still so active. But from my point-of-view, I must be the happiest amongst them,” he says.
“When it comes to more projects, it means more trouble for you; more tiring stuff, things you have to struggle with. That means you have more problems than what I’m facing right now. I was a little confused at first because after all, I’m a public figure. But then, I realised it doesn’t really matter how other people think of you. If you’re in demand, people will always look for you. Second, if you have the skills, you don’t really worry about losing the job.”
Zhu, who wanted to be a singer when he first entered the industry, likens acting to RPG (role playing game) where he moves from one level to the next. He also sees himself in the same job even when he’s already 50. “I can see myself playing someone’s father. I don’t mind that. It’s not like I have to be the main character always.”
During that low-point in his life, he didn’t consider quitting the industry. “There’s no point leaving the business. There’s nothing else I can do better. I’ve been doing this since I was 22. What else can I do? Plus I do love the thrill of creating something. You go [to the set], you have a script, the scene, you know where the camera is, you know what the director wants, you want to change a little thing... it’s like doing an artwork. Once you get the thrill, it’s really hard for you to do something else.”
Zhu did manage to fulfil his dream of becoming a singer. He and the rest of F4 did a couple of albums and toured together, and eventually came the solo albums. He has two so far under his belt but he does not plan to come up with a new one soon.
For now, he’s focusing on his work as an actor. “I look at it as a process of healing others. I’m fine, I’m getting better and better. I have been offered more opportunities than other people to understand what life is all about.”
He also pursues other interests like tai chi, surfing, cycling and cooking. “I try to do a lot of things not because I love them but it’s also because I’m lonely. I feel empty sometimes and I need to find things to fill up my life. And by doing these, I can find some meaning and I want to tell people that maybe by doing these, you can find some meaning in your life too.”
As we conclude the interview, he turns to me and says: “I treat interviews like this as like talking to a shrink.”
As I bid him goodbye, I can only hope that talking about his growing pains and coming to terms with life and fame was cathartic.
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