Talking to the stars

For Hollywood movie promoters, China’s Graham Norton is Betty Zhou

Betty Zhou

Oooh Betty: host and producer of Talking to Hollywood with Betty Zhou

One reason Tom Cruise gives for why he loves to appear on the irreverent, vastly popular British TV programme The Graham Norton Show is the freedom that guests have to express themselves.

“You can say anything on this show,” he reassured fellow guest Seth McFarlane. The Family Guy creator had just answered one of the Irish host’s questions with an expletive and laughed to the studio audience that it would probably get cut (McFarlane had form: only weeks before he was bleeped for swearing during a US talk show appearance). Cruise – who’d been on Norton’s chat show twice before – assured him it wouldn’t be cut by Norton (and it wasn’t).

Talking to Hollywood with Betty Zhou is a different animal from The Graham Norton Show. After all, it is aired by state broadcaster CCTV. So it’s naturally less scatological, very low on swearing and there are no generous glasses of wine being drunk by host Zhou.

But it’s what it has in common that makes the show interesting. Chinese chat shows, with a few exceptions, tend to be dull affairs, with participants lined up along long couches at careful distances, and given to delivering lengthy monologues about whatever product is being pushed, or recounting schmaltzy family tales. So far, so bad.

Talking to Hollywood with Betty Zhou is sparky and fun, critics generally agree, and Zhou connects very well with her Hollywood guests.

The programme doesn’t excel at asking tough questions (but then again, neither does Norton; his mission is to amuse, not to be Jeremy Paxman).

And indeed Chinese audiences like the fluffy inside access to Hollywood stars and celebrities. For example, when Zhou interviews Cruise about Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the latest high-octane outing of his multi-billion-dollar franchise, she is not averse to reaching out and grabbing the action star’s muscles, or yelling in a frankly alarming kind of way to frighten him.

Cruise appeared on the show late last month. And just as an appearance with Graham Norton can help a film’s box office performance in the UK, it can be worthwhile to answer a few of Betty’s questions too.

In the week to September 20, Rogue Nation took an additional $33.7 million to bring its Chinese box office haul after 13 days to $120 million, according to data from the research outfit EntGroup.

That already puts it well ahead of the $101 million which Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol made in China in 2011.

Zhou’s show began screening in June on CCTV6 (CCTV’s movie channel) but an extended version is also available on the online video platform iQiYi.

The series was co-created by Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures, in partnership with Zhou and several Hollywood powerhouses including Disney, Universal Pictures and Sony Pictures.

“It’s unlike any other show [about Hollywood] in China,” Zhou told The Daily Telegraph. “I just have fun with the celebrities, which you probably don’t see in other programmes… I’m thrilled to be bringing a little Hollywood glamour to Chinese audiences,” she said.

Some of Zhou’s more memorable moments: she has sparred with Arnold Schwarzenegger and helped him open a Sina Weibo account; she played Pacman with Adam Sandler; and discussed the real size of Antman with Paul Judd.

Zhou was born in Jiangsu province but started her career in Singapore, where she appeared in the English-language sitcom Payday.

But she is best known in the West for her supporting role in Quentin Tarantino’s The Man with the Iron Fists (as the Black Widow). She also spent time as a bilingual host for CCTV’s sport coverage, working on the NBA’s All-Star events and the NFL’s Superbowl.

Producing Talking to Hollywood has been made a lot easier by a simple fact: these days, a visit to China has become an essential part of Hollywood’s promotional trail – that is, if your movie is one of the lucky ones to make the quota of 34 foreign films a year in China.

That’s why Cruise, 53, came to the world’s second biggest film market with his co-star Rebecca Ferguson and director Christopher McQuarrie and did the usual run of press appearances in Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai.

But an appearance on Zhou’s show looks increasingly to be promotional gold.

Zhou took to her weibo account after the interview: “Super nice Tom Cruise gave an autograph to every fan. He is so famous and so handsome, but he also works so hard. Really admire him.”

A highlight of their encounter was Cruise taking Zhou for a high-speed spin in a purple BMW. (The cornering on the test-track was a whole lot more than Zhou was used to judging by her screams.)

Also amusing is her effort to teach the US star his local nickname. “In Chinese, we say your name is A Tang Ge, which means ‘Dear big brother Tom’,” she tells Cruise.

“That’s beautiful,” replies Cruise.

She then makes Cruise say “I am A Tang Ge”, and when he can only come up with a broken sentence, she corrects him like a school mistress, instructing him to try it again. It’s a Graham Norton kind of moment, but yet very Chinese too.

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