CFI Q&A: Rian Dundon, English Tutor to China’s Leading Lady Fan Bingbing

Fan Bingbing is the most recognizable actress in the world’s fastest-growing movie market. Each year, her broad face, high- bridged nose and big eyes are omnipresent in China, adorning myriad products (L’Oreal cosmetics and Moet & Chandon champagne, for example) and driving countless movies, including critically acclaimed films such as Buddha Mountain, for which Fan was named Best Actress at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2010; commercial hits such as the Hollywood big screen blockbuster X-Men; Days of Future Past (2014); and the lead role in the lavish 2015 homegrown television series The Empress of China. Fan’s been trying to cross over into Hollywood, hoping that landing more roles in made-in-the-U.S.A. blockbusters will transform her into a global star. I spoke not with Fan—a distinct series of photos of whom appear here — but with the man who got to snap the candids (which he later turned into a book in exchange for modest pay as Fan’s tutor in her second language).

Please tell us your name and how you met Fan Bingbing.

My name is Rian Dundon. I first came to know about Fan through shooting in the Olympics in Beijing in 2008. A friend of mine was a set photographer for a film she was shooting in Inner Mongolia called Wheat in English. She got friendly with Bingbing on set and Bingbing needed a full-time language tutor. And word came back to me and I was looking for some gainful employment after the Olympics. A couple weeks later I was called upon to meet Bingbing’s rep at a Starbucks at the China World Hotel in Beijing. She kinda screened me, asked about me, my background and experience, and said “OK, we’ll call you. Don’t call us.” I didn’t think much would come of it. A few weeks after that, I got a call to come into her office at Fan’s production company. That’s when I first met her. Up until the point when I was first entertaining the notion of the job, I had never heard of her. So when I Googled her what I found out was some idea of the level of her fame. And, actually, I recognized her face on billboards from Lost in Beijing, the film that came out a couple years earlier that I hadn’t seen.

The first time I met her, I walked into her office to find it was decorated with a lot of Hello Kitty paraphernalia. She was reclining on a bed of stuffed animals ready to interview me.

What were the terms of your employment from the beginning?

The job they offered me was as a salaried language tutor and consultant. I was told at the front desk that Fan was queuing up to make a transition to more Hollywood films, so learning English would be part of that. I would be at her beck and call, with no regular hours and the expectation that I would travel with her and the rest of the company anytime they were doing anything, so that when Bingbing had a few minutes to have a lesson or just an off-the-cuff conversation, I was there. Having me around, she would learn English just by having the chance to speak English at any moment. Because I came through my photographer friend and was introduced as a documentary photographer, I was asked to, or rather told, that I would be allowed to photograph anything and everything while we were traveling or not. So that was kind of a side bonus for me and for them as well.

At what point were your assumptions about Fan shattered?

You Google her and you see she’s on the Forbes list and in a bunch of movies that to me says, “Oh, she’s super famous.” But I guess I didn’t really know what that entailed until we took our first road trip, which was a promotional tour and performance events for China Central Television. We drove from the hotel in Qingdao for a number of hours in a couple of minivans. All the time I was holding class with Bingbing, looking at the textbooks we were using. We pulled up at a soccer stadium and there were thousands of college kids ready to bum-rush her. We had to pull a sneaky move. It was all kids banging at all the van windows. The managers shouted, “Okay, one, two, three, go!” We all started running across in a line on either side of her, flanked by thousands of fans running at us. There was an open door at the other end of the path. I think at that point, I was like, “Oh, that’s what being famous in China means.”

Describe two sides of Fan Bingbing, the public and the private.

Even when we were walking or running through crowds of violently ecstatic people, she would always be super relaxed. She never got flustered or upset. She’s always smiling. It wasn’t even polish, it was more like her inner grace. She probably has developed it after all those years of being famous. But she really loved her fans. She respects people who love her. Privately, she was really funny, actually. She was always on stage, even if she was in a hotel room with a couple of people that she works with, she always was present. She is famous and rich and idolized, but she is quite humble privately. Once, at two in the morning, we were on set with bodyguards in Shanghai. She was expecting her costumes, whatever she was waiting for. Although she was a prima donna, she would sit with me and with other people too. She was humble.

Did you fall for her? Did she win you over?

I think anyone who is famous like her can use their charm to win you over, you know? Her personality wasn’t what was expected of a celebrity. She is very personable, very pleasant to hang out with. She would attend to the smallest thing. If someone had a problem, she would stop and help. In a sense, yeah, I like hanging out with her. There wasn’t a romantic game I was playing. There were a lot of eyes on us at all times. I was always a little insulted because whenever the paparazzi would shoot us, they always asked questions like, “Who is your foreign friend?” And they always speculated that I was the bodyguard. I’m like, “What! I can’t be the boyfriend? What’s going on?” But that was what I expected and that’s a really good thing.

How was Fan helpful to those around her?

I was often the only non-Chinese person around at the Chinese companies where I worked. My Chinese language was okay but I wasn’t fluent. I had only been living there for a couple years. The way Chinese companies are run—and Fan’s production company is no exception—I wasn’t an employee and that meant that I was often among the last ones in the know. I’d get a call at 10:00 at night and be told, “Be in the airport in an hour!” And I’d have no idea where we were going nor how long we‘d be gone. Eventually I abandoned my life for this job, which I knew would happen when I started. I knew I was going to make those photographs, so it was working for me. But there were times when I was a bit unsettled and I would get upset with other people. “You gonna f**king tell me where we are going? It’s been six months I’ve been living in a hotel room with some random producer guy who sits up and watches his porn at night and has eight cellphones that are ringing all day and all night long. And there’s nowhere to wash my clothes and nowhere to eat except for that shitty food that they give the extras twice a day while filming.” So a couple of times I had a little freak-out. But Fan was pretty responsive to that. She would say, “OK, everybody slow down. We gotta wait for Rian. You know, he’s not one of us. Let’s treat him…” It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but still working out for me.

Were you able to teach her anything?

Yeah. There was a marked improvement. She came into our business agreement with very little English. She doesn’t have the level of English that the upper-class Chinese women in their mid-twenties would have in Beijing. She has been through specialized education. I don’t think English would be an emphasis there the way it is among most young people in this generation in China. Fan had very little. It was a lot of work. I was also not exactly a trained English teacher. I taught English at a university in Hunan for a couple of years. But they’ll hire anybody. I didn’t have a really good lesson plan. We actually learned by hanging out and eating, and then we’d have a couple of books we’d go through. It didn’t matter because anytime I tried to let her sit down for a lesson, she’d be checking her phone or run around. She wasn’t interested in learning English to be conversational. She was interested in learning enough to memorize her scripts. She’d kill it. In every scene, she was professional. She remembered her lines, but I’d be there to coach her.

What were some of the more memorable moments of your time with Fan?

I’d be talking her through the script the night before the shoot. But when we got on set, I was told to back off because they didn’t want to be liable for anything messing up. So the production had its own language person who was supposed to help her. I was told to back off and hang out.

It seems like another world. On multiple occasions, we’d be late to a flight, delayed in the airport, and call ahead and they would hold the entire plane just for her for a long stretch. Not just a couple of minutes. There would be a plane full of passengers and they were held up when we were still driving to the airport.

Once, I was coming back from Macau, working on a tourist visa illegally. The customs guy in Macau asked, “Wait, do you live in China? What kind of travel is this? What kind of visa is this?” And Bingbing just kind of like brushed his shoulder and said, “He is with me.” The guy melted on the spot.