To Play The Part, Actors Must Talk The Talk — In Chinese : Code Switch As Hollywood and China grow closer, more roles are opening up for Asian-American actors to play Chinese-speaking characters. But before they can sound fluent on screen, some turn to dialect coaches.
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To Play The Part, Actors Must Talk The Talk — In Chinese

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To Play The Part, Actors Must Talk The Talk — In Chinese

To Play The Part, Actors Must Talk The Talk — In Chinese

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Fans of the Netflix series "House of Cards" know that part of the show's success is in the details. For a storyline on China, the show consulted political scientists, and some episodes feature actors speaking Chinese. But as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, listening closely, that's one detail the show didn't get quite right.


HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Fellow binge-watchers, you'll remember there was a character in the first season of "House of Cards" who spoke in heavily accented Mandarin Chinese.


WANG: You wouldn't expect St. Louis billionaire Raymond Tusk to be a fluent speaker. But in the show's second season, there are a few roles that would call for actors to perform in Chinese fluently. So, I turned to an expert.

KIRSTEN SPEIDEL: (Foreign language spoken)

WANG: Kirsten Speidel, my Chinese language instructor in college, who says...

SPEIDEL: Because I'm correcting people's pronunciation daily in class, I'm pretty critical when I hear Chinese in American movies.

WANG: And in television. But she hasn't seen the show yet, so I played her an audio clip of a businessman from China who speaks both English and Mandarin.


SPEIDEL: Not a very good accent here. Could be that he knows some Mandarin, but not very good pronunciation of each word.

WANG: And another clip of a Mandarin translator working with a reporter.


SPEIDEL: This speaker, I feel, is much more fluid and fluent.

WANG: So an A-plus for this one?

SPEIDEL: Yes. Comparatively speaking, yes.

WANG: And, yes, we are nitpicking but over a show that is obsessed with authenticity.

KENNETH LIN: Obviously, we're always trying to get as close to accurate as we can get.

WANG: "House of Cards" staff writer Kenneth Lin wrote the Mandarin dialogue for the show's Chinese characters.

LIN: Whether or not they sound like natives of Beijing or not is certainly questionable. But, you know, if you go to China, people have a lot of different accents.

WANG: Characters from China in American TV shows and movies are often played by Asian-American actors who are not fluent Chinese speakers.

JANET YANG: The assumption is that nobody will notice or care. As it is, people can't really distinguish between Chinese and Japanese and Korean and Vietnamese and any Asian, so Asians tend to get lumped together.

WANG: Producer Janet Yang has worked for decades on films in both China and Hollywood.

YANG: It's been, for the longest time, catering first to American audiences and then the rest of the world just sort of gobbled up everything that was being made here.

WANG: But today, there's more entertainment that's designed to work in both America and in China, which means more demand for dialect coaches like Doug Honorof. He helps actors pull off the illusion of speaking Chinese fluently.

DOUG HONOROF: And it's not just to sound Chinese. They have to be able to act in Chinese. You have to actually be able to own it so much that you can actually then just perform.

ANDY YU: We're trying to help people escape into this world that scriptwriters created.

WANG: Andy Yu is both a Chinese dialect coach and an actor. He says that Hollywood roles for actors of Asian descent are still mostly limited to immigrant or foreign characters. So, language skills are especially important to get past casting directors.

YU: One of the reasons they hire us is because they expect us to know our language and our culture really well. So we have to deliver.

WANG: Lines delivered even in a slightly off accent can ruin the illusion for audiences in the know. But this is one detail that hasn't stopped season two of "House of Cards" from gaining an audience in China. Since its debut on Sohu - China's Netflix equivalent - it's the most-watched American show. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

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