From the sports field to the spotlight: Civil engineering graduate Matthew Knowles makes it big in Chinese film industry
Matthew Knowles, Clemson University class of 2008, was walking through downtown Greenville, S.C., while in town not long ago, when he heard his name being called. As a Greenville native, this might not seem out of the ordinary. Yet this time, it was his Chinese name that caught his attention over the hum of downtown.
Turning around, Knowles was surprised to see a young Chinese girl excitedly waving him over.
“I thought to myself, this is crazy. How is there someone from Sichuan province in Greenville, South Carolina? I couldn’t believe she recognized me,” said Knowles.
With some context, the encounter makes a little more sense. After graduating from Clemson with a degree in civil engineering, Knowles took off to Sichuan province, China, to teach English at the local high school and volunteer. Originally only planning to stay for one year, Knowles — now a lead actor in China’s highest-ever-grossing action film — got talked into re-upping his trip, a decision that would prove to be life changing.
A Chance Encounter
As the son of a Presbyterian pastor, Knowles was excited to do humanitarian work and make his parents proud back in South Carolina. But during his second year in China, Knowles garnered a different kind of attention — from two local celebrities who heard him sing karaoke.
“I sang a Chinese song I’d learned when I was teaching, and they just freaked out. They were like, ‘You don’t sound like a foreigner. If I closed my eyes, I would think you’re Chinese. You sound like a superstar. You have to come on our show.’ So I went, sang and wound up signing with an agency as an all-around actor. I was an actor, host, model and singer,” Knowles said.
What sounded natural was anything but — at first. Upon moving to China, Knowles experienced a hefty dose of culture shock, which is what ultimately led him to become fluent in Mandarin.
“I went to one of the poorest areas in China, so I was in adventure mode. Things were obviously really different. I would ride my bike to the villages and little kids would see me and start crying because they thought I was a monster. They’d never seen anyone who looks like me in their village. For everyone new that I met, I was either the first-ever foreigner they’d ever spoken to or almost always their first foreign friend,” Knowles said.
“I realized early on that if I was going to survive and actually live here, I needed to know the language.”
Assimilating to a new culture was perfect training for his study as an actor. Now used to being thrown into an unfamiliar environment, Knowles worked hard and found the same fluency in screenplay as he did in Mandarin. Knowles also enjoyed success on stage (and drew extra attention) in part because of his physical appearance. Over six feet tall and clearly American, the only thing that allowed him to blend in was his near perfect Mandarin accent.
Under the tutelage of the head of his agency, Knowles was exposed to almost every facet of the industry and was eventually admitted to study acting at the Beijing Film Academy. As the premiere academy for the industry’s up and comers, admission was coveted. Knowles was the first non-Asian to ever study there, and he credits the academy with helping build his reputation.
He also credits Clemson with helping to develop his open attitude toward learning. “Any education in college helps you in life. It teaches you how to learn and the value of learning,” he said. “Clemson and Clemson football especially continued this thing I had in life of working ridiculously hard at things I wasn’t necessarily the best at.”
Rediscovering a Passion
It’s true that Knowles’ career path is unorthodox, to say the least. Yet even though he had to go to China to realize his acting dreams, Knowles is confident he would have followed the same path had he stayed in the U.S.
“It’s my passion in life. I rediscovered it in China because of the unique environment, but I probably would have discovered it faster and easier in the U.S., because it would have made more sense,” he said.
Knowles was involved with the arts from a young age, participating in various choirs, plays and musicals. When he was in elementary school, he was selected to go to the Fine Arts Center in Greenville and later performed for people in rural areas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when he was in middle school. However, with American culture placing higher value on sports than in the arts, Knowles pushed his passion for acting aside. “Once high school sports started and artsy stuff stopped being cool, I fell into the normal activities and really forgot about acting, truthfully,” he said.
Even then, success in sports was far from easy. After getting cut from his school’s football C-Team during his freshman year, Knowles’ confidence was shaken, and he ran cross-country instead. It wasn’t until he was in his second year at Clemson that former Clemson and professional football player Javan Bush approached him to play football while he was working out in Fike despite his lack of experience.
Resistant at first, Knowles went to a spring tryout where the defensive line had to teach him the basics — from stance to hand placement. Knowles walked on to the team, rounding out camp with the Most Improved Defensive Walk-On award. Beside picking up obvious football skills, Knowles believes that the most valuable lessons he learned were more personal.
“I learned from Dabo to place my goals really high and chase them. I’m all about putting in the work, taking it one step at a time, and building up those blocks until I can reach a hefty goal. Being a walk-on is hard — the ones that don’t quit are kind of crazy. We’re like this weird breed of people who cannot quit once they decide to devote themselves to something,” he said.
This unshakeable Clemson work ethic paid off in China as Knowles committed to absorbing the language and culture of his temporary home. “With acting I had to learn a craft and develop new relationships, and it’s hard in a lot of ways that people don’t understand. You need perseverance and you have to stick with it even when it doesn’t always look like it’s going to work out,” said Knowles.
Beyond preparing him to expect the unexpected, Knowles says Clemson has had an enormous impact on his trajectory. While his civil engineering degree doesn’t aid too much in helping him prepare for his roles as an action hero, his experience in college is invaluable.
“What I try to say is that the best people in the world are in Clemson. They’re the most supportive people — from the teachers and staff to the community and students, everyone is so positive and supportive and it’s a wonderful place,” he said.
This family feeling extended into China after Knowles recruited two of his friends, both named Kelly, to join him. In a city with a total of five or six foreigners, three of them are Clemson alumni.
Trust the Process
Chinese culture puts intense focus on the value of family, a sentiment Knowles understands both as a preacher’s kid and as a member of the Clemson Family. Though he wishes he could be closer to his South Carolina family (and would love to film in Charleston eventually), he’s committed to following work wherever it may take him. After all, it’s worked out for him so far.
At this point in his career, Knowles has just wrapped his biggest project yet. “I just filmed a $100 million dollar film called Asura. This is my big break as far as major features in the film industry go,” said Knowles. Based in Los Angeles, Knowles is taking advantage of the opportunities he’s been afforded because of his experiences in China, like his upcoming role as an assassin for the Japanese mafia.
“It’s my first bad-guy role. I’ve always played the good guy, so it’s fun to stretch the muscles a little bit in a different way,” Knowles said.
“Who would have ever thought that if you want to act in big movies, you should go to the poorest part in China?” he said. “It just sounds crazy.”
A few of Matthew Knowles’ current film works:
Red Star Over China
Journey to the East