His previous screen credits include a pizza deliveryman in Frequency and a sports announcer in John McTiernan’s underrated Rollerball yet his comedic timing in Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending is so dead-on you’d think actor Barney Cheng would have a longer resume. As a cinematographer’s Mandarin translator in Allen’s thirty-third feature film, Cheng faced the intimidating task of two-stepping his way with the Woodster through the film’s drollest sequence. Slant spoke with Barney Cheng about his up-and-coming film career, his trip to Cannes with the cast and crew of Hollywood Ending and his life as this year’s greatest scene-stealer.
How did you get your role in Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending?
A majority of the actors in the movie did not audition for Woody. Many of them met with him briefly at his screening room and were simply offered the parts. I’m not sure why my part was different, but I went through a very long audition process for the role. It was January 2001 when I first met Woody’s longtime casting director, Juliet Taylor. She liked my initial reading and arranged for me to meet Woody the next day. Then a week later, they wanted to see me again. I was very nervous, and because I was distracted by all the actors in the room, my audition didn’t go too well. I was so disappointed and convinced that I had lost the role. A month later, Ms. Taylor’s office called again. They wanted to see me again and I was so happy. I read the scene, then Woody gave me an adjustment. I noticed that there was a particular rhythm to the character that Woody was looking for. I did that. Three days later, I got the part.
How did it feel going one-on-one with Woody Allen?
Being in a scene with a great scene partner makes acting so easy. I felt that it was very organic and natural. There was a specific rhythm, chemistry or timing between Woody and me that worked. All I had to do was simply be in the moment and react to everything Woody was giving me. It was fun and very spontaneous.
Were you always a fan of his work?
I was not particularly familiar with his work before I got the job. I think the fact that I wasn’t a huge fan of his made it easier to audition for him. After I was the offered the part, I started seeing all his movies. I love Mighty Aphrodite and Small Time Crooks. I love his humor, the characters he creates and the situations that his characters are in.
As an unknown actor, how does it feel to hear and read from critics that you stole a film from actors such as Tea Leoni, Debra Messing and Treat Williams?
First of all, I feel so honored and privileged to have been able to work with such a special and talented ensemble cast. As an unknown actor, I certainly didn’t expect such favorable mentions of my work in so many reviews. After the initial shock, I can tell you it’s an actor’s dream come true.
Were you always interested in becoming an actor?
I had always been interested in performing. I sublimated that desire while studying political science at Stanford and it wasn’t until my junior year abroad at Oxford University that I got reconnected with the artistic side of [myself]. I was supposed to be reading philosophy but I ended up neglecting my reading and going to London to see plays. I went back to Stanford to finish my degree in political science then moved to New York to study acting fulltime.
Internet Movie Database says you had an uncredited role in Rollerball as a sports announcer. Did we really get to hear you at any given point during the film?
The actors playing “sports announcers” actually spent a lot of time in Montreal working on the film. We would have 12-hour working days. I play a sports commentator in the film, announcing the games throughout the film. Because there are many announcers in the arena, each announcer had very little screen time.
You were chosen to represent Hollywood Ending at the Cannes Film Festival along with Allen, Messing, Williams, Tiffani Thiessen and Jodie Markell. How did you feel when you received the invitation?
A year ago I was so thrilled to be working with Woody Allen and being part of a talented ensemble cast. I certainly didn’t expect that a year later I’d be walking up the red carpet with [them] to open the Cannes Film Festival. It’s simply surreal. This is such a rare occasion. Treat said that last time one of his films, Hair, opened the Cannes Film Festival was over 20 years ago. It’s an honor, and I’m so grateful to be part of it.
Were you caught up at all in the controversy surrounding Woody Allen’s presence at Cannes, specifically the demand from Jewish American protestors demanding that he boycott the festival because of anti-Semitism in France?
Surprisingly, there was very little media coverage on the topic at the festival.
Have you thought about or have an explanation for why Allen is so loved by the French?
Hmmm. I’ve spoken to so many people here at Cannes about this, and everybody has such diverse opinions on that. As an Asian American, I dislike making cultural assumptions and generalization about people so I won’t attempt to give a cultural explanation on that. Nevertheless, many French people that I talked to said that they love Woody’s films because they are artistic.
Did you get to see any films at the festival? Any favorites?
I saw Alexander Payne’s new film About Schmidt starring Jack Nicholson. It’s so great! I loved Election, but About Schmidt is even better! It’s made me laugh, made me cry and made me think about my life. Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen is very poignant and features very strong acting performances. Another one of my favorite films is a British film called Tomorrow La Scala! It’s about a small opera company staging Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in a maximum-security prison. It’s so funny and innovative. And finally there’s Blue Gate Crossing by a Taiwanese director, Chih-yen Yee, for the Directors’ Fortnight. It’s so simple, pure and sentimental.
What was your experience at Cannes and your feelings walking up the red carpet.
It was very surreal, magical but weird. I overheard a producer saying that he waited all his life and finally got to walk up the red carpet at the “sunset” of his career. This is the “beginning” of my career. I could not make sense out of it all except to be thankful and appreciative of every moment of it.
Have you received any big-time job offers since the release of Hollywood Ending?
There are two projects that I might be working on this fall. A film and a TV project. I can’t get into the specifics because the details are not finalized.
What’s your favorite line from Hollywood Ending?
When Val says, “I say let’s fire the cameraman and keep the translator!”