China's Tinseltown insider

China's Tinseltown insider
Betty Zhou arrives at Shanghai Airport to promote the release of Terminator Genisys in China.

Realizing that she was the last to arrive at a dinner event for the cast and crew of The Man with the Iron Fists, Betty Zhou quickly ducked into the last available seat and settled down among some of Hollywood's biggest stars, including American Chinese actress Lucy Liu and Academy Award winner Russell Crowe.

The function was a big deal for Zhou, whose supporting role in the movie as a prostitute-cum-assassin marked her debut in a major Hollywood film. Her first appearance in an American production was in the 2008 television film Kung Fu Killer, a somewhat forgettable B-grade action flick featuring the late David Carradine as a monk on the hunt for the killers of his Grandmaster.

Brief introductions and greetings were exchanged, and the talkative actress soon found herself exchanging friendly banter and jokes with everyone around her. She was hardly a recognizable figure in the glitzy Hollywood scene but Zhou has the uncanny ability to connect with others, including her star-studded posse, courtesy of an irresistible enthusiasm that makes the pint-sized Jiangsu native seem larger than life.

About 30 minutes into dinner, Zhou decided that she would ask the person sitting next to her about his role in the film, and it was then that she realized why nobody wanted to take the seat she was on.

The man was film director Quentin Tarantino.

Fortunately, Zhou was spared the embarrassment-she didn't get to ask the director of the movie she'd be starring in, "So, what exactly do you do?"

That might have resulted in a very awkward end to the evening. Or her career, for that matter.

"Just as I was about to ask the question, this woman walks into the room and goes 'Quentin!' before she proceeds to shake his hand. I didn't talk for five minutes after that," chuckled Zhou. "While the incident left me a little scared and nervous, it also made me realize that sincerity is the most important quality to have. Just being yourself is the best way to communicate with people."

Zhou's knowledge of Hollywood has improved by leaps and bounds since that incident. As the host of Talking to Hollywood with Betty Zhou, she has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Adam Sandler and Zoe Saldana. Created by a host of big names such as Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Walt Disney Studios, the show gives Chinese audiences an exclusive and intimate look into the world's largest entertainment industry. It also represents an attempt by the Americans to tap the rapidly growing Chinese market.

Fun factor

The show's unmistakable fun factor lies in Zhou's interactions with the stars. In the episode where she had to interview Tom Cruise for Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, Zhou was strapped into the passenger seat of a BMW as the actor performed a slew of tyre-burning stunts and high-speed manoeuvres. As Paramount Pictures Vice-Chairman Rob Moore revealed, the stunts were never part of the script-it was actually Cruise's idea to inject some action into the segment. Zhou, who was sporting enough to oblige, had the honor of becoming the very first journalist to sit in a car driven by the action superstar.

Picking Zhou to front the show was a no-brainer for the Americans. Recognized as China's prettiest bilingual basketball host, Zhou has carved a solid reputation for herself in the sporting infotainment sphere by hosting NBA coverage in China. Some of the basketball stars Zhou has interviewed include Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Taiwan hotshot Jeremy Lin.

Moore said that it was Zhou's infectious personality and her ability to draw out the funny side of these stars that convinced the management to have her become Hollywood's bridge to the Chinese market.

"I enjoy a good chemistry with those I interview because I believe in being myself at all times. I love to talk to people and make stupid jokes," she quipped. "I don't feel too intimidated by big stars because I'm always focused during the interviews. It's only after filming when I go back to the hotel that I realize I just played a video game with Arnold Schwarzenegger and danced with Megan Fox!"

When she was younger, Zhou had dreamt of becoming a journalist, even a war correspondent who could venture into conflict zones. She later decided that she would become an actress and went on to study performing arts at Shanghai Normal University's Xie Jin Film & Television Art College.

But Zhou's foray into the entertainment industry started even before she graduated from college in 2007. An overseas production company had talent-spotted Zhou and subsequently signed her on to star in a television series called Adventure Girls. As the title suggests, the travel program featured Zhou and another co-host in search of adventure in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, taking part in outdoor activities such as bungee jumping, diving and rock climbing.

Zhou later got to know some industry people from Singapore and was offered an acting career there. She decided to relocate to Singapore for a few years to hone her craft, and the move paid off as she managed to gain a considerable amount of exposure there, featuring in numerous magazines and television shows. During her time there, Zhou had the honor of becoming the only actress from China to star in a leading role in an English language production.

"I really like Singapore. It's like my second home," said Zhou. "I fell in love with a Singaporean and the country too."

A few years later, Zhou got to meet renowned Chinese R&B singer David Tao, who offered her a job back in China. Following this, Zhou was presented with the opportunity to front NBA coverage in her basketball-crazy country, and despite knowing nothing about the sport, she gamely took up the challenge, putting due diligence into researching the sport in order to become a credible host.

Zhou said that she has now accomplished both her ambitions, having acted in a Hollywood film and "coming full circle" in becoming an entertainment reporter and host. She also took time to count her blessings, saying that she is grateful for being able to learn from her interviewees and travel the world. As part of her work promoting the world premiere of the latest installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Zhou got to travel to San Francisco, Vienna and Vancouver.

Besides hosting, Zhou is also helping to co-produce Talking to Hollywood because of her familiarity with the nature of Chinese audiences. Being the only Chinese on the crew, her input as to what audiences like naturally carries a lot of weight, but she's hardly fazed by the pressure. In fact, she could probably pat herself on the back for a job well done-the first episode of the show, which aired on May 29 on CCTV 6 in China, garnered more than 1 million viewers.

"This is the first time I'm a host and producer for a show so each episode is my baby. I love all of them," she said. "So far all the comments I've gotten on Weibo (China's Twitter-like service) are positive. The fans love the show and how exclusive the content is. I've had someone say that he doesn't think I'm very pretty but he likes how I interact with the stars."

Rise to fame

Despite her rapid rise to fame, Zhou is surprisingly grounded. If anything, she has demonstrated that she's more of a media professional than celebrity diva.

When her makeup artist insisted on a touch-up before the cameras started rolling for this interview, she replied: "Not too sexy, please." When the cameramen gestured their displeasure at someone in the back of the room who was creating a din during the recording, she coolly said: "It's okay. I'll do this take again."

When asked if she thinks she can be considered China's "next big thing", she waves her hands and laughs it off. Despite having joined the gilded ranks of Chinese actresses like Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi and Fan Bingbing who have starred in a Hollywood movie, Zhou doesn't view herself as a superstar in the making.

"I am not the next big thing, but I hope this show can be," she said.

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