Barney Cheng is in shock. People have been telling him he's the highlight of Woody Allen's latest film, Hollywood Ending, in which he plays to perfection Chou, a naïve Chinese-American translator hired to help a director (played by Allen) communicate with his non-English-speaking cinematographer (a scenario inspired by Allen's real-life collaboration with Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei on his last three pictures). When Allen's character suffers a case of temporary blindness, Chou secretly serves as the director's eyes during the making of the movie. Hollywood Ending is a disappointing film in most respects, but Cheng steals the show, upstaging his better-known co-stars (Allen, Téa Leoni, George Hamilton, and Mark Rydell).
Not only has Cheng never performed comedy, he never considered himself to be particularly funny. Indeed, when he saw Hollywood Ending for the first time at the New York premiere a couple of weeks ago, he could barely stomach watching his performance.
"It was so horrifying for me to see myself on-screen that at one point I actually got up and went out of the theatre because I couldn't endure it," said the Taiwan-born actor, who was completely stunned when at the premiere's after-party strangers approached him to praise his performance. Even Allen passed along compliments to the bewildered actor, who is now jet-setting to such places as San Francisco and the Cannes Film Festival to promote the film with Allen.
Until three weeks ago Cheng was still employed as a temp at a Manhattan law firm. "Nobody knew that I did the movie," said the actor, who wrapped the film about a year ago. "After I got it I did a huge mailing to the whole world. Nobody responded."
Cheng is quickly learning how fickle this industry can be. "These past two days I've been getting a lot of calls—even agents from L.A. have been calling."
Perhaps the question on everybody's mind is how this relative unknown landed such a great part. Prior to Hollywood Ending, Cheng had only done small roles in film and television, some commercials, and performed off-Off-Broadway. Until two years ago Cheng didn't even have an agent. Then Ann Steele, of the Ann Steele Agency, took a chance on him.
Cheng, who moved to New York in 1994 after deciding to switch gears from a career in law to pursue his true calling, landed a prized audition with Juliet Taylor, Allen's longtime casting director, after a year of being submitted by his agent. As is typical of Allen's projects, the story, the script, and the role were kept under wraps. With neither preparation nor knowledge of his character's motivation, Cheng read a page of sides for an impressed Taylor, who asked him to come back the next day to meet Allen.
Recalled the actor of his first encounter with Allen, "I read it and he liked it. They called my agent immediately to say that they wanted to know my availability in April . I thought, I got the part. I was so thrilled."
Two weeks later Taylor's office called Steele again with a request to see Cheng for a third audition. Cheng arrived to find a room full of Asian-American actors of his type, many of whom he considered more experienced. His nerves took over and he proceeded to give what he considered "a really bad reading." Cheng was convinced he had lost the role.
A month later, to Cheng's surprise, Taylor called his agent. They wanted to see him again. He recalled, "Juliet was so good to me. She said, 'Barney, we want you to go to the room and prepare and let us know when you're ready. Just take your time,' and so I did. I really focused and I did a great audition. Three days later they offered me the part. What a roller-coaster ride!"
Cheng admitted he was far more excited about getting such a big part than he was with working with Allen. Said the actor, "I must confess that, at the time, I wasn't really familiar with Woody Allen's work. The fact that I wasn't totally crazy about Woody was better for the audition, because I wasn't totally worshiping him as if he were a god," said Cheng, who after getting the job proceeded to watch most of Allen's films and realized, he said, "I love his humor."
As for working with Allen—who is famous for his lack of direction on the sets of his films—Cheng found the experience both thrilling and nerve-racking. He explained, "The first day on the set Woody told me, 'Barney, I want you to feel comfortable, and if you feel that you need to change the lines or a word, feel free as long as the general idea is there,' and I did. We did a lot of improvisation, and I loved that. We'd rehearse once and he'd be like, 'OK. Let's do it.' And we do one take and he'd go, 'OK. Let's move on.' A lot of times I would start questioning my performance, but I'd think, You know what? I have to trust him as much as he trusts me."
Cheng particularly enjoyed stepping up to the plate with so many well-known actors. "Maybe I expected people to be arrogant, but that wasn't the case. They treated me like I was part of a team, and I was a part of the team."
Given the strong reactions to Cheng's performance, chances are he will get more chances to be a valued team player.