Young Briton finding her feet in new Chinese series

Updated: 2015-04-30 07:26

By Belle Taylor(China Daily)

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With her blonde hair and fair complexion, Isabella Charlton may have the Hollywood look, but those blue eyes are set on China.

"I think China is the ideal launching point to get into film and TV, there are opportunities here you might not get elsewhere," Charlton says. "Beijing is really where all the exciting action is in the film industry right now, and I can only see it getting stronger."

Charlton, originally from the United Kingdom, is a qualified barrister, but after a few years in the courtroom she decided her real ambition was to be in front of a camera. And the booming Chinese movie industry seemed an obvious choice for the fluent Mandarin-speaker.

The 28-year-old recently finished filming Longhao Ji Che, or Dragon Train, a TV series based on the true story of a Scottish entrepreneur who traveled to a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) court in the hope of bringing a railway project to China. She plays the character Miaoli in the 30-episode series that is set to air in the fall.

"My character is the niece of this British guy who comes over to China and brings over the idea of building a train ... He comes here with all these great ideas and raises all this money but then it never really gets made," Charlton says.

"But the reason it doesn't get made is because it's during the Qing Dynasty and the empress dowager has a court that's very divided and she has some very conservative factions who really believe that the train is evil and they try to sabotage it," she says.

"There are some really funny scenes where they say that a rabbit told them it was evil."

The show's director is Ying Da, who rose to prominence in the 1990s with the show Wo Ai Wo Jia, or I Love My Family. When Charlton was first introduced to Ying he spoke to her in Mandarin before suddenly switching to flawless English. "I was like, 'what!'" Charlton demonstrates her shock, mouth dropping open with surprise. She laughs.

"He was obviously just testing my Chinese." She passed the test. Charlton secured the role, but admits she found it difficult at first, her previous acting experience being predominantly theater based.

"It probably shouldn't have come as such a surprise, but it was very hard work, getting up at 4 am to get hair and makeup done, having to do an hour, sometimes two hours more (of hair and makeup) than the guys," she says.

Her Chinese co-stars say she took the long hours in her stride.

"When I was filming with Isabella, I could feel that she is very dedicated, especially since Chinese is not her native language", says Cao Yunjin, a comedian and actor. "She is always eager to learn and always open to advice and new ideas. I believe she has a great future."

Charlton grew up in Hong Kong, where her British parents were then living, but later moved to the UK to study law. She became involved in theater at university, and the experience convinced her that her heart was in acting - and in Asia, so she packed up and moved to Beijing.

She arrived in the Chinese capital in 2012, securing small roles in two historical TV drama series, Eastern Battlefield and Haitang Yijiu. She also started to develop an interest in xiangsheng, or cross-talk, a kind of Chinese standup comedy in which two people engage in onstage banter back-and-forth using rhyming slang and telling stories for laughs.

"I had done standup comedy before in English, so to do it in Chinese seemed like a natural progression," Charlton says.

"Beijing's a great place to get into xiangsheng, there are great teachers, and then comedy brought me more into acting."

Charlton is currently filming a movie called The Cairo Declaration, about China's role in World War II. She is playing Mary Churchill, the youngest daughter of late British leader Winston Churchill. After that, she has plans to tour Taiwan with a lead role in a Chinese stage production of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Young Briton finding her feet in new Chinese series

 Young Briton finding her feet in new Chinese series

Isabella Charlton plays in Longhao Ji Che, a 30-episode series based on a true story in the Qing Dynasty. Provided To China Daily

(China Daily 04/30/2015 page21)