“The Forbidden city had become a theater without an audience. So, why did the actors remain on the stage?”
John Lone has had a prolific career from starting in Hong Kong at the age of seven in the Peking Opera to TV to independent films to shepherding a revolution for Asian-American representation with guerilla-style theater in Los Angeles to releasing albums to major blockbusters opposite such talent as Peter O’Toole, Mickey Rourke, Jackie Chan, and Alec Baldwin. Whatever he did, he did it with style, grace, and an intrinsic understanding of human movement and understanding.
Lone was born in Hong Kong in October of 1952 as Ng Kwok-leung. As an orphan, he was sent to the Chin Ciu Academy, where he trained in the classical style of Peking Opera. Completely isolated from the world, the training Lone undertook was extremely rigorous, undergoing all-day training in acting, singing, dance, mime, poetry, weaponry, acrobatics, and martial arts. The intense training and isolation often left young Kwok-leung feeling “alone in the crowd,” which would lend itself to the origin of his new moniker “Lone,” as well as adopting the name of “Johnny.”
Leaving the Chin Ciu Academy, Lone found himself somewhat in high demand, getting offers to join Maurice Bejart’s dance company in Brussels and a decade-spanning contract to make Kung Fu movies; however, John had grown up with a great love for western films and was determined to make it in the land of opportunity. He made the brave trek to Los Angeles, California, barely able to speak English. Un-waivered he began taking night classes at Santa Ana Community College to learn English so he could start taking acting classes. Overcoming that barrier, Lone attended The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, graduating with the class of 1978.
In the next few years following his study at The Academy, Lone had a few small roles in film and television, such as Hill Streets Blues and Eight Is Enough but soon ran into a problem. All the roles he was getting were stereotypical Asian characters that often lacked real depth. Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang expounded upon the problem in 1983, “[w]hen you’re writing for Asian actors, they often don’t have as much experience as you might want. It’s a vicious cycle: actors who don’t work don’t get better; therefore, it’s hard to cast them, therefore, they don’t work.” Luckily, Hwang and Lone found artistic liberation with the esteemed East West Players.
The East West Players was founded in 1965 with the mission to create “multi-faceted representations of the Asian Pacific American experience in the performing arts.” Among the original founding members were James Hong (The Sand Pebbles, The In-Laws, Everything Everywhere All at Once), June Kyoto Lu (Big Trouble in Little China, Blood Work, Lost), and Mako (The Sand Pebbles, Conan the Barbarian, Avatar: The Last Airbender). Mako, having been an acting teacher of his, sent a script to Lone saying, “[t]here is only one actor that could handle this: John Lone” (Breslauer LA Times). The script was Hwang’s F.O.B., the story of a Chinese immigrant “fresh off the boat” who must deal with the different customs of the United States as well as the conflicts that arise between Asian Americans and new immigrants. Directed by Mako, the play left Los Angeles and made its off-Broadway debut at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York in June of 1980. Hwang won an Obie Award for his writing, and Lone won an Obie Award for his performance in the lead role. The production also featured Tzi Ma. Lone had been a part of The East West players for ten years and was suddenly experiencing a career blossom.
Lone would go on to direct the one-act plays The Sound of Voice and The House of Beauties (known collectively as Sound and Beauty) with the troupe, having to step into a female role once an actress was fired three days before rehearsals began. He also directed, choreographed, composed music for, and performed in The Dance and the Railroad. The acting troupe was instrumental in establishing a rich theatrical presence for Asian Americans not only in Los Angeles but the world, as many of the actors would go on to have significant roles in major Hollywood films.
In John’s case, Hollywood came calling in 1983 with the sci-fi picture Iceman (released in 1984). “He spent five months last winter in Canada working up to 17 hours a day under heavy makeup,” as he played a prehistoric man found frozen and dethawed by an arctic exploration team (New York Times 1983). Although the experience was grueling, Lone found his time on set rather enjoyable and a welcome challenge. The cast included Timothy Hutton, Lindsay Crouse, Josef Sommer, and Danny Glover. The film was received relatively well by critics, with Roger Ebert giving it a four-out-of-four stars.
In his next film, Lone went toe-to-toe with one of the hottest commodities at the time, Mickey Rourke, in the Year of the Dragon. This blood-soaked thriller followed the attempts of police detective Stanley White (Rourke) to bring down the Triad and Mafia organized crime families in Chinatown. John Lone plays Joey Tai, an ambitious gangster who rises to the top of the Chinese Triad Society, catching Detective White's ere. The film received mixed reviews. Directed by Michael Cimnio, Dragon suffered due to the grandeur of his recent failure, Heaven’s Gate, and thus was stifled with a tight budget and producers down his neck. Due to time constraints, Cimino brought in Oliver Stone to help work on the screenplay in exchange for funding, from producer Dino De Laurentis. Lone’s ruthless Chinese gangster earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
“I think the Emperor is the loneliest boy on earth,” says Reginald Fleming Johnston, played brilliantly by Peter O’Toole, in regards to the plight of Emperor Pu Yi. In the late eighties, John was an established working actor with some substantial credits under his belt, but 1987’s The Last Emperor cemented Lone into the annals of classic film history. Set against the stunningly beautiful backdrop of the Forbidden City in Beijing (the first western film to be granted filming access by the People’s Republic of China), the film chronicles the journey of China’s last emperor Pu Yi from birth to old age. Having the background that he did, Lone felt a strong connection to Pu Yi, saying, “I have tremendous compassion for him. I feel sad when I think of him.” The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Bernardo Bertolucci. It won all nine awards. The role of Pu Yi landed John his second Golden Globe nomination. John had a real love for the film, turning down several high-paying jobs while production was delayed a multitude of times. His love is understandable, for Emperor is a magnificent, stirring tale of the human need for identity and purpose even through grand palace walls.
Following The Last Emperor, Lone did a string of smaller “art-house” films such as The Moderns and M. Butterfly. The Moderns was a comic tale about a struggling artist hired by a woman to forge paintings; the man becomes emotionally torn between this woman, his wife, and his wife’s husband (Lone) who is unaware that she is still married…. The film was well-received by critics with an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Supporting Male Actor for Lone’s unaware husband. Mr. Lone once again found himself in drag for David Cronenberg’s film adaption of David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly. A French diplomat, played by the commanding Jeremy Irons, falls in love with an opera singer in China, only to find out that the singer (Lone) is not what he expects and must attempt to delude himself otherwise.
The Shadow in 1994 saw Lone return to the big-budget blockbuster, starring opposite Alec Baldwin and once again dawning the role of villain - Shiwan Khan, the last living ancestor of Genghis Khan. Hellbent on finishing what Genghis started, Khan plans to take over the world. The only thing that stands in his way is Landon Cranston masquerading as The Shadow. With the ability to make himself invisible and cloud men's minds, The Shadow sets out to stop Khan’s plot to hold the city ransom with an atomic bomb. The film was based on the 1930s pulp fiction and radio drama series.
At the turn of the decade, Lone began to branch out, releasing his first musical album, Coming To My Own, in 1990 under the Warner Bros. Records label. The album was a mix of electronic, soft rock, and pop-rock; with original songs by John, as well as songs penned by Tom Waits and Charlie Rich. Under the Decca label, Night and Day would be released in 1997 and was a compilation of mostly Chinese songs.
For the rest of the nineties and early 2000s, John would bounce from small independent movies in Chinese and American markets to big-budget blockbusters, such as the Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker-led Rush Hour 2 and War. Both films saw Lone return to the role of a Triad gangster, albeit Rush Hour 2 was for a more comical effect. War starred Jason Statham and Jet Li, and as of 2022, it would be Lone’s last screen credit.
“I’m trying to be many different things and different parts of this whole life experience.” Even though he had dashing good looks and a transmittable, slightly enigmatic smile, John Lone often found himself molding his appearance to fit a certain character. He had a deep desire to climb through the swamps of humanity through characterizations. “I grew to love it because of the discovery. The process I go through. Expanding, picking myself apart, and facing the truth about myself. It’s like a flower. You just keep growing until you have to stop.”
“How should we say goodbye?”
“As we said hello.”
- The Last Emperor