BJU Theatre Gives Professional Actor New Take on Film

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James Zhang on Performance Hall stage

When James Zhang came from China to pursue his master’s degree in theatre at BJU, he brought to the department his professional acting experience from more than 40 films and TV shows.

At a young age, Zhang watched many of his family members, including his grandfather, perform in Beijing Opera. Because of that exposure, he decided to pursue an acting career as well.

He got his first opportunity to act when he was in fifth grade. One day, a film director came to his school looking for a child to fill an acting role. As she watched the students walk by, she noticed Zhang. “She looked at me (and said), ‘Oh-oh, hold on, hold on. This boy — I need this boy,’” he said. “I knew nothing, but I was very excited.”

When Zhang was older, he formally studied acting. He acted for three years at his high school, which had a strong emphasis on drama and other fine arts. At age 18, he moved to Beijing to study acting performance in both theatre and film at a prestigious college. Each year, after taking five entrance examinations, only 12 men and 18 women are accepted into the program. Once Zhang was accepted, he persevered through the demanding work of the four-year degree. “If you graduate from that school, that means in the future you have a great job,” he said.

Because directors went to Zhang’s school to fill their roles, he was hired for roles in TV shows during his junior and senior years. He found the jobs nerve-wracking, even more than one-take, unedited theatre acting. “I don’t like performing just for a few people, for the director and some producer,” he explained. However, once he graduated in 2006, he continued acting in film despite his nervousness.

New Life and Priorities in Christ

In 2008, a friend invited Zhang to church. “I heard if you go to church, God will help you, so I thought, Oh, it’s good for me,” he said. “I heard if you worship something, something will give you a lot of hope.” But all his hope was in money and fame from acting. Although he felt empty knowing his success and merit as a role model were only external, he also felt certain that seeking God would not increase his success. However, he decided to go to church with his friend.

The people there expressed love and concern for him, but he thought their comments were just a social courtesy. “I told myself, it’s my first time to go church and also my last time,” he said.

However, Zhang agreed to give them his phone number. The pastor’s wife texted Bible verses to him daily. Out of politeness, he did not ask her to stop. For six months, he made excuses when he was invited back until finally, he went to tell the pastor and his wife goodbye. They asked if they could pray for him and his career, and he agreed. As they prayed, he noticed they were crying. “That time is the first time I was touched,” Zhang said. “We didn’t know each other, but they could cry for me.”

Before he left, they gave him a Bible. At first, he did not read it, but when they kept encouraging him to read Genesis and the Gospels, he decided to try. Once he started, he could not stop. He had never heard anything about the Bible. As he read, he understood his sin, his need for Christ, and the importance of living for eternity rather than temporal money and fame.

Searching for a Job

The year after Zhang turned to Christ, he could not find any acting roles for a year. He prayed daily for a job for eight months. Then, realizing that finding another job might not be God’s plan for him, he began to trust God to do His will.

God gave Zhang jobs again, but he realized God’s grace, not his skill, provided him with work. When Zhang found roles he thought he could do, he went to directors and sometimes took them to lunch. Instead of giving Zhang those roles, God gave him roles that he thought he had no chance of getting because of their popularity.

Transition to BJU

Eventually, Zhang met and married an actress who attended his church, and they started a family. But his career did not mesh well with his family life. When Zhang returned from a job that kept him away for eight months, his 1-year-old daughter did not recognize him. “It’s like a knife,” Zhang said. “Your daughter — she forgot you.” He and his wife decided to take a break from acting for four or five years to focus on their family.

People suggested he spend that time earning a master’s degree in the U.S., so Zhang looked for Christian schools. Church members recommended BJU because of connections with two BJU graduates. “Before, I thought Bob Jones was just a textbook for children and homeschooling,” he said. “I didn’t know the ‘U’ represents the University.”

In 2016 he and his wife came to the U.S. to visit BJU and another Christian college. Two months after returning to China, they decided he should attend BJU, and he applied before choosing a degree — and speaking English. “Five years ago, I knew nothing — just “hello,” “I’m sorry,” “yes,” “no,” “good morning,” “good afternoon,” “good evening” — maybe just 20 words or phrases,” he said.

With his background in acting, Zhang thought that BJU’s master’s degree in theatre would be a good fit. But because he could not speak English, he thought he would have to study music instead. However, after expressing his concerns to theatre faculty, they were enthusiastic about his interest and experience in acting and encouraged him to pursue the degree.

“A lot of people said I was crazy,” said Zhang. They thought he could only learn enough English to do shopping since he was in his 30s. Getting a degree at an American university, let alone in theatre, would be impossible.

Undeterred, Zhang moved with his family in 2016 to Greenville, South Carolina, to begin two years of intensive English studies at Agape English Language Institute. Afterward, he spent a fall semester in the Bridge to College English Program at BJU. Then he began his degree in theatre in 2019.

A New Perspective on Theatre and Film

During his time at BJU, Zhang studied, acted in a graduate student’s play and directed Bake-Offs and the recent performances of Operation Turkey Lurkey. But more importantly, his philosophy of theatre and film changed from the Hollywood mindset that film is an industry for financial gain. “In China, I always thought that theatre was just acting or directing,” he said. “But here, I understand theatre is religion, history, language, life, acting, directing, a lot of things in one thing. It’s like a weapon. We can use that weapon to do something to help people to understand the culture or to understand a Bible story, to understand a lot of knowledge. Even film is the same.”

After COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and Zhang can return to China, he hopes one day to create films that introduce the Bible to many people who are lost like he once was. In the meantime, he will work a theatre-related job in the U.S.

Even though Zhang has overcome challenges and spent many late nights studying for his theatre degree, he has joy from trusting God to help and direct him. Said Zhang: “Every day is new, so we just try our best and just pray. Let yourself follow God’s plan because God is bigger than you.”