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Dan Li

23rd May 2024

Interview & Editor-in-chief: Owen James Vincent

Photography: David Reiss

Styling: Olga Timofejeva 

Grooming: Maya Lewis

Red Eye has been ITV's most successful drama launch of the year so far and Dan Li who plays the mysterious Toni Zhang is an actor with an interesting story to tell. 

Li chats to us about working with Richard Armitage from Netflix's Safe and Crazy Rich Asian's Jing Lusi, funny memories on set and representation of East Asian actors.

Hi Dan! Can we start this interview with you starring in CBBC’s Horrible Histories? Loved that show. How was it being part of such an iconic show?

Hey! First off, I have to say that I've always loved Horrible Histories, so to get the opportunity to appear on that show was an honour - plus it's probably one of the only shows that my kids can actually watch that I am in!
It's  a crazy show to play a part in.  You just have to let yourself go and give into the barmyness of the script. I'm mainly to be seen as the Historic Chinese emperors and peasant characters, hiding behind lots of long whispy facial hair.

After doing my first season on HH, I joked to the producers that I'd only come back if I got the chance to do a song! And be careful what you wish for on this show, as they gave me a solo song and a couple of group numbers to do! To give you some context, you'll never catch me doing karaoke!! You might be able to catch it on youtube if you search for the HH Chinese emperor song, haha!

You’ve mentioned that at the start of your career, it was very hard to find roles that suited you and your background. Do you think this has started to change as we're seeing more movies and TV shows showing East Asian actors in huge films such as Crazy Rich Asians and the Netflix show The Brothers Sun? Or do you think we have still a long way to go?

I think that film and TV in the UK is slowly moving in the right direction. You can definitely see more ESEA faces on TV shows and films, which is brilliant, but it's still inconsistent. The fact that our mainstream soaps don't have any East Asian faces is telling of how our demographic is seen on TV. The US are without a doubt ahead of us here, with the amazing shows that you've mentioned and the incredible 'Beef' - which was just one of the best pieces of TV last year! American productions are bolder, in the way they can feature ESEA people as normalised characters, who are core to the storyline and not supplementary to one. This is something that a production like Red Eye is positive to change; thanks to ITV, Bad Wolf and Sony Pictures TV.

You’re starring in Red Eye!  What made you audition for the role of Toni Zhang?

When I received the scripts from Caroline Stewart (Casting Director), I was so excited and stoked. The scripts from Peter and Jing (ep4) were real page-turners and hooked me in instantly.  This is a show that features so many East Asian actors, which is a rarity. Also because my character Toni's journey is central to Hana and Nolan's storyline on the plane. I don't think I've ever wanted a part so badly - I knew I just had to offer up the best version of Toni to the production and thankfully it worked out. Every character on the show is mysterious and reading the script I genuinely couldn't work out who to trust.  Kieron Hawkes the director was also brilliant. He's got a verve and style to how he wants to shoot a show and you can't help but trust his process!

Have you got any fun memories on set?

Yes, lots! It was a mad experience filming on the plane set in the middle of summer last year! The heat and claustrophobia actually contributed to our performances. The action scenes were a lot of fun and discovering I had a shoe footprint bruise after one (not naming names) was memorable! I also loved playing around and investigating all the niknaks on the plane when I wasn't filming satisfied my curiosity. I caught Richard having a peep around the plane's nooks and crannies a couple of times. As the plane was set on a single level, we all had to pretend running up/down stairs and ladders, when we changed floors, as they didn't lead anywhere!!

There was such a good vibe filming on the plane from everyone. We all knew it was a special production. I still see quite a lot of the cast Jing, Thomas, Xiangyi, Tai, Daphne and Jemma!

The cast for Red Eye is amazing! Where you have Richard Armitage from Netflix Safe, Jing Lusi from Crazy Rich Asians, and Leslie Sharp from Doctor Who. What was it like being on set with these outstanding actors?

Yes, it was quite daunting at first once I saw the cast list with Jing, Richard and Lesley, as they are all incredibly experienced actors and I'd seen them in lots of shows! But they were all very giving and kind on set and having the opportunity to watch and learn from them was special. The whole cast and crew were an amazing group to create with everyday. Jing Lusi was a lot of fun to work with, especially as I had a few fight scenes with her. So being covered in bruises was the norm at the office! We had a friendly rivalry on set and it was also special to see her perform as the first ESEA actress to lead a UK show! I thought she smashed it!

Lastly, the question we like to ask everyone. What would you ReVamp and why?

Oh hard one! I reckon I'd ReVamp myself as one of the main characters in The Matrix! It's one of my favorite films and I love the dark and dystopian themes of the real world and the virtual world of the matrix. The whole film looks cool AF, it was like eye candy when I first saw it and exhilarating to watch! So yeah, to be in The Matrix or cast as an X-Men character, you can see my comic book love!

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