Compared with many other Hollywood A-listers, Hugh Jackman is an old China hand. The Aussie actor has had a string of hits on the mainland in recent years, including "Real Steel," "Les Miserables" and "Wolverine." And Uncle Wolf — as Jackman is known to fans here — even sang in Mandarin in the 2011 film "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."
Despite having at least four promotional tours to China under his belt, Jackman nevertheless said he can still be surprised by some of the quirky questions he gets from local reporters.
"Just today I was asked, does Fan Bingbing represent Oriental actresses? And … how does her body shape compare to a European body shape?" Jackman said, laughing, when he was in the Chinese capital Tuesday promoting "X-Men: Days of Future Past" with fellow cast members Peter Dinklage as well as Fan, a mainland star who also appears in the 20th Century Fox production.
"I was like, man, I would never be asked that question [elsewhere] — a lot of those questions. I'm like: First of all, I'm married; I can't go there. Secondly, this is a lose-lose situation."
China's box office is booming, and Hollywood superhero films in particular are doing strong business. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," which opened eight days ago, has made $55.6 million already -- $5 million more than the first installment took in in 2012, film-industry consulting firm Artisan Gateway said Tuesday. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," has topped $115 million on the mainland. "X-Men" will debut here May 23 and had a red-carpet premiere in Beijing as well.
Accordingly, more and more foreign stars are making media appearances on the mainland — and learning that junkets and panel discussions here can have their own, slightly zany, China flavor.
At the Beijing Film Festival last month, a moderator queried French actor Jean Reno — particularly known here for his tough-guy parts in films such as "The Professional" — about why he was so smiley in pictures from his wedding that she saw online.
"Of course, it's because I wanted myself to marry my wife," Reno replied, a bit bemused. "I have a job, which is being an actor, but I have a life which is being a human being, living among people. It's two tasks -- completely different."
Johnny Depp, who came to Beijing in April to promote his film "Transcendence," was asked by a China Vogue writer whether he had ever considered designing women's underwear.
Depp paused for a moment and said no, but added that he thought he could do a "good job." (He also said he thought he'd be adept at making party hats and women's shoes "with buckles.")
To be sure, many Chinese film reporters come armed with encyclopedic international movie knowledge and thoughtful questions. "Captain America" co-director Anthony Russo remarked during a news conference for his film: "The thing I've been struck with most, sitting with journalists and talking today, I was very excited to find such a sensitive and thoughtful appreciation for movies and what this movie was trying to be."
News conferences for Hollywood films, though, are often hosted by effervescent moderators eager to extract from foreign actors and directors details about places in China they've visited, and any personal impressions of Chinese culture -- and Chinese food.
Scarlett Johansson, in Beijing in March to promote "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," volunteered that hot pot was her favorite Chinese dish; while her director, Joe Russo, said he'd been eating dumplings nonstop. Depp observed: "There are spices here that can transform you into another human."
Attempts to speak any basic Chinese — like ni hao (hello) or xiexie (thank you) — receive gushing praise. Foreign actors often attempt to bond with local audiences by showing off some appreciation for Chinese culture: Depp repeatedly displayed one of his tattoos, which he said was inspired by the classical Chinese text the I-Ching, while Robert Downey Jr., when he was in town last year to promote "Iron Man 3," told journalists that he has his own Chinese traditional medicine doctor.
Andrew Garfield, who came to Beijing in March to drum up business for "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," regaled his news conference with details of how he had played ping-pong in a local sports club. "I was not as good as Chinese women. … I won one game and lost 10."
Jackman shared his own ping-pong story Tuesday, saying he had spent an hour after getting off the plane with a top Beijing ping-pong coach and was now ready to "smoke my brother, who's been beating me for 40 years."
Chinese publicists often come up with creative ways to try to express to visiting foreign celebrities what kind of fan base they have in China. During a news conference for "Spider-Man 2," organizers presented a video of fans from dozens of ethnic groups in China, dressed in traditional garb, expressing their appreciation for the Peter Parker universe.
The moderator then asked, with great sincerity: "How is it like to be loved by 1.3 billion people? Andrew what is it like for you?"
Garfield, flummoxed for a minute, laughed awkwardly. "It feels great! I don't think. … I don't know about that," he stammered. "We are really happy to be here, presenting this movie. … You guys have welcomed us with such warmth. That video — I think I speak for everyone — was overwhelming and amazing."