Trained in Peking Opera, John Lone Leaps to Life as the Iceman

updated 05/21/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1984 01:00AM

This man—or is it an animal?—is afire with savage sensuality. He scampers, he grunts, he shrieks, he thumps his chest. He is 40,000 years old and has leaped into life after having been cryogenically preserved in a primordial arctic wilderness. He is the Iceman, central character of a new movie of the same name. When Timothy Hutton, who portrays a hip young anthropologist, approaches this defrosted orphan of prehistory to offer human friendship, the Iceman barks at him while prancing about in a mesmerizing simian dance. Then, after a few Alley Oop pleasantries, the strange creature suddenly grabs Hutton by the crotch. Needless to say, Hutton, with his trademarked, puppy-dog vulnerability, emerges from this raw encounter very red in the face.

The Iceman is John Lone, 32, one of the most startlingly original actors to crash onto the screen in years. With this, his first major role in a feature film, Lone has turned in an Oscar-caliber performance that should keep his name alight on movie marquees for a long time. "His physical grace, dancer's sense of movement, and ability to transcend age, sex and culture," proclaimed one New York Times critic of an earlier stage performance, "make John Lone an extraordinary performer by any standards."

Offscreen, Lone is genteel—and scarcely recognizable without his brow-broadening makeup, coarse facial hair and sharp incisor teeth. His eyes sparkle with firecracker energy and he gestures with sleight-of-hand refinement as he talks about Iceman. "I am very well-disciplined physically," he says bluntly. "I don't need a mirror to know what I'm doing."

Lone approached his role in Iceman with a monastic sense of dedication. "I deliberately isolated myself from everybody," he says. During 17-hour workdays on location in a remote region of northern Canada, he stayed in character between takes by retreating into a corner to repeat a primitive chant. "After 15 minutes of chanting," he says, "I'd suddenly feel very centered, and nothing would bother me."

Lone's rigorous self-control took shape during his childhood in Hong Kong. He does not like to elaborate about his family circumstances except to say that his European father and his Chinese mother had separated before his birth. Lone's mother signed his life away when he was 10. She sent him to a Peking opera troupe in Hong Kong, which had taken in 50 children from poor families to teach them the refined vocal and acrobatic traditions of classical Chinese theater. Apart from bus rides to and from performances, Lone was cut off from all contact with the outside world.

"Every day was the same," he recalls. "At 6 o'clock we all got up. First we did a handstand for a half hour. I remember that each of us had our own sweat spot on the floor. At 6:30 we went up to the roof to scream and yell, to 'break' the voice. Then we went downstairs to have a little hot water to soothe the throat. After that, we'd practice acrobatics until noon, when we ate porridge." Afternoons and evenings were devoted to drama rehearsals and voice training. By 10 o'clock the children trotted off to sleep on bamboo mats in two large open rooms. Girls upstairs. Boys downstairs.

"It was like a secret religious world," Lone says. "Our religion was the theater. But there was no preaching. In fact, my masters were very foul-mouthed. And if you disappointed them, they would smack you across the face."

Lone ran away at 18 and soon found work in kung fu movies. But he was unhappy with professional standards in the Hong Kong movie industry and turned down a 10-year contract offer with Run Run Shaw Studios, the biggest movie outfit in Southeast Asia. "I was very innocent because I was not worried about money," he says. Luckily an American family offered to sponsor him to come to the United States.

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1970, Lone had one suitcase and almost no understanding of the English language. "I went to Disneyland, and it was like the Iceman waking up," he says. "I was very touched by the fact that one could spend all day in the place and just play and eat." Lone took a job selling juleps and fritters near Disneyland's Pirates-of-the-Caribbean ride, and went to night school to study English.

In 1976 Lone began a two-year course in acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena. Moving to New York in 1980, he quickly won critical praise for his leading role in David Henry Hwang's off-Broadway play F.O.B., about a fresh-off-the-boat Chinese immigrant. Several months later Lone directed, choreographed and starred in Hwang's The Dance and the Railroad, which, together with his F.O.B. role, earned him a prestigious Obie award and drew the attention of Iceman director Fred Schepisi.

Next Lone would like to perform in a contemporary drama, perhaps even a comedy. He is especially anxious not to get pigeonholed into ethnic roles. "I hate it when people label me a Chinese actor," says Lone. "I'm an actor. Obviously I am not blond haired and blue eyed, but I refuse to look upon that as a handicap."

Single, and as yet unspoiled by the trappings of Hollywood, Lone lives in a $600-a-month apartment in Queens, N.Y. A creature of habit, he spends a few hours each morning doing English-language drills before heading to a gym for a workout. "My life is rather simple. I'm-very practical and self-nurturing," he says. "People are beginning to see what I am capable of as an actor. Without arrogance, I can say they have not seen anything yet."

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