Matthew Knowles is no ordinary actor. After a knee injury that curbed his football career, he took to the selfless pursuit of volunteering to help others in China. He became fluent in Mandarin and went on to become the first non-Asian to study at the Bejing Film Academy. Recently he took on a role of Rawa in China’s biggest film production yet: Asura.
Fans can also catch him in a new short film that premiered recently at the LA Shorts Festival titled Poppies.
Katie Cardwell: I took a look at the trailer for Asura and was blown away by the look of the production. It is beautiful. What can you tell me about your role in the film?
Matthew Knowles: Asura really is a special film. I am so honored to have been a part of such an incredible production. I play the role of Rawa who is the biggest and strongest of the Demi-gods, basically the equivalent to Hercules. Rawa is a rebel but he is actually one of the good guys as he fights against the evil Asura king and is instrumental in protecting Ruyi, the chosen one.
He carries around a big battle axe so it was an fascinating experience to have to learn how to use such a unique weapon. All of the actors on the film had to show up for training for 2-3 months before we began shooting, and we all learned to use our weapons, choreography, rope work, etc because Peng, our director, wanted us all to try to do as much of the fight scenes as we could.
We all did most of our own stunt work on this film, and it was no joke! Peng is an extremely experienced stunt coordinator and stunt director so the fights and battle scenes are world class. We did things that have never been done on film before! At one point in the Himalayas we had cables connecting two mountain tops, and I remember seeing up to 15 people flying back and forth at the same time fighting in mid air.
From what I’ve read about Asura, it is based in ideas pulled from Buddhist philosophy. Were you familiar with the story concept before taking on the role, or was it all completely new?
MK: It was completely new to me at the time. The story is based on Tibetan Buddhist mythology, but the story is completely from Peng’s imagination. It is a completely new world with completely new, diverse characters. No story like this has been done before.
That is what really drew me to this project. It is a fascinating new world of the likes of Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings but it is new and fresh and really doesn’t copy anything before it.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know a lot about the foreign film scene. I had read that Asura didn’t do well in the box office – any insight into why? Do you think it will make its way into American theaters at some point?
MK: Yes, I hope that Asura will make to the American theaters soon. I think American audiences would really dig the uniqueness and epic scale of the film. I think it is a type of film that could be enjoyable to American audiences even though they would be reading subtitles.
As far as what happened with the initial China release, the film was unlucky and there are a tons of politics behind such a huge budget film in China. Something on this scale has never been done before.
We were expecting resistance from the Chinese market because the type of film is very different than anything that has been done there before. But the producers have plans to re-release the film soon, and I have high hopes! That being said, I have always said that I think Asura will most likely be better received and understood by the international audience than the Chinese one.
To be honest, that is one of the things that drew me to this project in the first place. I know that our director and producers would love for this film to get out of China to the international audience and I really think that people will want to see this epic film.
I wanted to switch to Poppies which recently premiered at the LA Shorts Festival. How did it do and what did you think about the final product?
MK: I am really proud of Poppies. It is very professionally made. I was surprised when I was filming it in LA because the set was actually bigger and more professional than some feature films I have worked on in the past. I was very impressed with our director, Myles Yaksich, and his extremely detail oriented and artistic vision, and it is amazing to see how well the film has turned out. It has just started its festival run and has already received a few awards. I hope everyone gets a chance to see it soon!
Could you tell me a little bit about the story behind Poppies, and what movie-goers can expect from the short?
MK: Poppies is based on the experience of our director, Myles Yaksich, who worked in finance in Asia for several years. The story is about a lawyer named Charles who is on a flight from Shanghai to New York. He finds himself seated next to an elderly Chinese woman who tells him stories of her life growing up in Shanghai.
Charles somehow falls into and experiences her stories and this experience helps uncover events that Charles has been hiding in his own life. The film is very film noir style and a bit leaning towards high art. Expect to see a beautifully designed film that may even bring a tear to your eye.
I noticed in your bio that you learned Mandarin while volunteering in China, what was it like to learn the language, and what it is like to act and take on roles in a second language? For example, I’m conversational in Spanish but could never imagine acting while also speaking Spanish! It seems like an added layer that might be an interesting challenge.
MK: My China experience has been incredible. I began learning Chinese when I found myself in one of the poorest regions of China in Guizhou Province doing humanitarian work in 2009. No one could speak English there, and I wanted to make friends and eat, so I decided I had to learn the language. It became an obsession for me. My 3rd year in China I started to do some part time acting work in Chinese and loved it.
Soon after I received a Chinese government scholarship to be the first non-Asian to study acting at Beijing Film Academy. I studied there with Chinese acting students all in Mandarin Chinese and really got to learn first hand how to express myself not only in Chinese language, but also express myself physically in a way that Chinese people would feel fit in their culture. My first few roles I did were in some really successful projects and I started to do more and more roles in Chinese films and TV.
It was hard at first, but soon I began to feel more comfortable acting in Chinese. It was weird when I moved back to the states because I felt like I had to relearn how to act in English. At that point I felt more comfortable acting in Chinese than I did in English.
Since everyone is watching you I’m always curious: what shows are you watching right now that you’re really enjoying?
MK: I’m a big Game of Thrones fan. I also LOVE old movies, especially old Hitchcock films and anything with Cary Grant.
Anyone interested in the world of Asura can check out the trailer which we’ve embedded below. We want to give a warm thank you to Matthew Knowles for a wonderful interview. To keep up with what he’s in next, be sure to follow him on twitter.