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Cha-Cheng! “Hollywood Ending” Star Barney Cheng at the Cannes Film Festival

Last week, I awoke from my newly unemployed slumber, poured a cup of coffee, and switched on my computer as usual, discovering a peculiar e-mail from one Barney Cheng with a subject line reading ‘Greetings from Cannes.’

Wait a minute, could it be… the Barney Cheng? The infamous bit-part actor/Manhattan office temp who made a big splash with his first major role as ‘Translator’ in Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending? The Barney Cheng of whom the staff has become oddly fanatical about? Indeed, either it was an elaborate hoax or it was really him. Of course, who would go to this much trouble to masquerade as Barney Cheng?

After a series of e-mails back and forth, Barney offered his insights of landing a prime role in a Woody Allen film, his on-site reporting of the latest and greatest from this year’s Cannes festival, and the benefits of working on a big-time Hollywood remake. Without further adieu, the man, the myth, the legend… the Barney. How did you land the role in Hollywood Ending?

Barney Cheng: I went through a very long audition process for the part. Many of the actors in the film didn’t have to audition for Woody. They simply met Woody at his screening room and were offered the job. My agent set up an audition with Woody’s longtime casting director, Juliet Taylor. She liked my initial reading and arranged a meeting with Woody the next day. The meeting went really well.

That afternoon, my agent received a call from Juliet Taylor’s office to check my availability in April. I thought that was an auspicious sign. A week later, I was called back for another meeting with Woody. When I arrived at the callback, there were so many actors in the room all auditioning for the role of the translator. The number of actors in the room distracted me, and I wasn’t focused and as a result, my audition didn’t go too well. I was so disappointed and convinced that I had lost the role.

Parallel to my audition for Woody’s film, I was up for this really great role in a play in Chicago. I thought I should just forget about the whole Woody Allen project and get ready to work in Chicago. A month later, Ms. Taylor’s office called and requested to see me again. I was so grateful for another chance to audition for the film. I read the scenes and then Woody gave me an adjustment. I noticed that there was a particular rhythm that Woody was looking for, which I applied to the character. A few days, I got the part.

Talk about the directing style of Woody Allen. How does his style differ from other directors you have worked with in the past?

Woody gives us a lot of freedom to interpret the role. At a recent interview in Cannes with the French daily paper Liberation, Woody stated that most of his actors are hired because they know what the characters’ motivations are. He seems to have a lot of trust in his actors and gives permission to change his lines and encourages improvisation. We’d rehearse once with the stand-ins, then we would do it. Once in a while he’d give a slight adjustment, but that happens very rarely. One thing I really enjoyed while working on Hollywood Ending was putting myself in the situation that my character was in.

Woody gave me the freedom to experiment, play and improvise in the odd situation my character is in, it was great fun!

Talk about the life of a bit actor. What experiences do you have from your roles as ‘Barney the food delivery man’ in Frequency and ‘Sports Announcer’ in the Rollerball remake?

I’m grateful for those film jobs. The summer before the Rollerball gig, SAG had a commercial strike. I hadn’t worked commercially for six months, and I was very worried about my eligibility for the SAG health insurance benefits. Because of Rollerball, I was able to continue receiving benefits through my health insurance. So I’m grateful for that.

Working on Hollywood Ending was very different from my experiences in Rollerball and Frequency. First of all, my part in Hollywood Ending is much more substantial and integral to the story. I was worked on the project for about two months. I was part of the ensemble cast. In the two previous films, I was hired to do the specific scenes, and I never felt like I was part of the overall picture or the cast.

What are the most important things to remember as you work up the ladder of acting gigs?

Choose projects carefully, be open to learning new things, have a life outside the profession, and have fun!

Name some of the day jobs you’ve held while pursuing your acting career.

Up until a month ago, I was still an evening temp at Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells, a law firm in midtown Manhattan. When I first moved to New York, I needed a job that was flexible enough for my acting classes and auditions. I was a ‘waitress’ at Lucky Cheng’s for about a year. That was my first ‘acting’ gig.

What’s next for Barney Cheng?

I just came back from spending two weeks in the Cannes Film Festival, where Hollywood Ending opened the Festival. I was invited to a lot of screenings, and I’ve seen a lot of amazing films by directors that I would love to work with.

Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt is brilliant! I loved his Election, but About Schmidt is even better! The film made me laugh, cry, and think about my life. There’s a British film called Tomorrow La Scala! a comedy by Francesca Joseph, so poignant and funny. Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen is a very touching story and features strong acting performances. And finally there’s Blue Gate Crossing, a film by a Taiwanese director, Chih-yen Yee for the Directors’ Fortnight. I’d love to work with any of these directors.

There are two fall projects that I’m up for: a film and a TV project. I can’t get into the specifics because the details are not finalized. I would love to do more comedy and of course, work with Woody again!

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