Taiwan Export Godfrey Gao Joins the ‘Mortal Instruments’ Team

Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—In the big screen adaptation of “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” Godfrey Gao plays Magnus Bane, an 800-year-old warlock whose considerable charm and good looks—he doesn’t look a day over 20—make him irresistible to both men and women.

Though the character wasn’t specifically written as Asian, Gao, a big star in Asia, both figuratively and literally—he’s 6-foot-4—had the intense charm and personality to convince the casting agents he’d be right for the role. Born to a Taiwanese father and Malaysian mother, Gao moved with this family from Taiwan to Vancouver when he was a schoolboy and he decided at an early age he wanted to become either a professional basketball player or an actor. After graduation from college, he returned to Taiwan where he began modeling and appearing on Asian TV shows and in film.

At 28, Gao reveals he’s had his eye on Hollywood for some time so when the opportunity came up to audition for “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” he leaped at the chance. Not only could the film introduce him to a whole new audience, it also has the possibility of generating multiple sequels—there are six books in Clare’s fantasy series—so he gave it 110 percent in his audition tape.

With his mom sitting quietly behind him during an interview, Gao spoke about making his first Hollywood movie and what he hopes to do next. Hint: It would involve superpowers.

Q: Did you read the Cassandra Clare books?

Gao: Honestly, I didn’t know much about them until I was told they were casting for the Magnus role and that’s when I got into the books. Now I’m a fan myself. I love these books. I enjoyed how Cassie (Clare) has put all these characters together and the fact that there is an underworld that (humans) can’t see. I always wanted to know what happens next, what the characters’ history was.

Q: How do you feel about your character Magnus? He’s pretty colorful!

Gao: Magnus is one of my favorite characters and he’s a fan favorite. He wears nail polish, glitter and has all these custom-made suits and underwear. He’s got a fun personality. On one side he’s a warlock and a party animal and on the other he is very caring about Clary. It develops into a nice relationship in the series. He has all these secrets. He’s a mysterious person. To actually bring him to life was a tough job. (Director) Harald (Zwart) said that he’s like a rock star that has been around a long time and experienced life to the fullest. It’s pretty sad for Magnus. He’s lived for so long and anyone he loves will just eventually die. He feels pretty lonely in his world. He’s bisexual, which makes for a fun character.

Q: He’s not a tall Asian guy in the book.

Gao: (He laughs.) I know but they were casting an Asian actor for the role. I’m just glad I was on the list. They saw a lot of people. I heard they had a tough time finding the right Magnus. I was filming in Shanghai so I put myself on tape so they could see how I looked and acted. They gave me feedback so I threw in some changes and sent it back again. It was a two or three week process. I guess they really enjoyed my presence as well as my look and performance. I talked to Harald on Skype and a couple of days later I got the job. I was pretty shocked actually. I’d never taped myself before. It was a great opportunity. The whole thing doesn’t seem real to me.

Q: Can you talk about bonding with the other cast members?

Gao: There was a lot of bonding. “We were chosen” for this movie.
Everyone was friendly and outgoing. The first day I was on set, I was under a lot of pressure playing Magnus. It was my first Hollywood film and English feature. I didn’t expect everyone to be so nice. My first day, Lily (Collins, who stars as Clary) and Jamie (Campbell Bower, who plays Jace) came up to me, introduced themselves and greeted me. I wasn’t expecting that. Lily was like “I can’t wait to rehearse and talk more about our scenes together.” That was cool. At that point I could take a big breath. Not so stressed anymore. We had fun on set—a bunch of young kids. It was more like being back in high school for me, hanging out with your friends but working. Back in Asia, a lot of the actors and actresses I work with are much older and don’t speak English.

Q: Do you have a favorite memory of working on the film?

Gao: The most memorable part was the Magnus party scene. I saw all these cool costumes with people dressed up as vampires. I thought that was pretty memorable. I like how they did it. It wasn’t in a studio. It was like at some Medieval Times thing. It looked like a castle and Magnus’ room was great. There was a swing in it and incense burning and cool lighting. It was amazing to see that huge set.

Q: Did the cast hang out and party together when you shot in Toronto?

Gao: Yeah, but when we were shooting in Toronto at night it was maybe minus-one degrees so all of us had somewhere to rest in between shots. We had this little room with a heater and we all gathered around like it was a campfire. That was the best bonding time and we all chitchatted. It was like chilling with friends in high school. Very relaxing.

Q: The Asian film industry is exploding and you are big there. Do you see yourself doing more films in Asia or do you want to do more Hollywood films here or elsewhere?

Gao: I always wanted to come back to North America. I lived in Vancouver for most of my life. I went to high school and college there. I’ve done some background work in Vancouver for Hollywood movies, just as an extra. I decided to go to Asia, to Taiwan where I was born and they gave me the opportunity to act. I was a basketball player but I thought I could have a longer career in acting. I started out from scratch not knowing anything. I got some gigs in TV in Taiwan, and then movies. I still want to do movies in Asia but hopefully I can do Hollywood films as well. That’s my goal.

Q: What other things have we seen you in?

Gao: My previous work has been in (Chinese) romantic comedies but I’m a big action buff and I look forward to being a bad guy in some Hollywood action films or even a superhero. I’m a sucker for Superman. People say I look like Clark Kent when I put my glasses on. Maybe an Asian Clark Kent? I took karate when I was little and got my black belt. I have a good basic background of tae kwon do and karate. It’s been a while since I’ve done them but I’ve got some moves.