Former Clemson football player Matthew Knowles is a big star in one of the largest countries in the world. Check out our interview with him.
Knowles is a former Clemson walk-on, who played for former football coach Tommy Bowden and current coach Dabo Swinney. He was a defensive end from the spring of 2007 until he graduated in December 2008.
He came to Clemson in 2004 as a 6’4 175 pound civil engineering student, walked on to the team at 6’4 220, and graduated at a solid weight of 265. After his football days and classes were over, Matthew decided to raise money, so he could travel to China to be a volunteer English teacher.
Today, he is a successful actor with over 100 show credits in China that includes television, movies, commercials, and theatre. Matthew currently has one American film, “Vikingdom” to his credit but it won’t be the last. He lives in Los Angeles now but frequently flies back to China to film.
I recently caught up with Matthew Knowles as he was filming in Shanghai.
Q: Give me a brief summation of your high school football career and did you have any scholarship offers.
I went to JL Mann in Greenville, SC but did not play football, rather I played soccer. I tried out for the C-team football squad in 9th grade and was cut. I was really skinny and the coaches told me to run cross country. My mom even went to the coaches after I was cut and begged that I be allowed to be on the C-team, especially since my father had played football. But they just told her I was better suited for cross country. I still remember when I walked onto the Clemson football team, my mom marched over to JL Mann to the head football coach’s office with the newspaper clipping! I went to Clemson on full scholarship, but it was from academic and need based aid.
Q: What made Clemson your choice as a college destination?
I actually grew up a huge Georgia Tech fan. I almost disregarded Clemson because I was annoyed at how much people talked about the school growing up. But when it came time to do school visits my junior year of high school, I just fell in love with Clemson.
Q: You decided to give back by volunteering as an English teacher in China. What was the best part about teaching and how were you initially received?
The best part was being able to make a positive impact in the lives of so many kids. It was a huge learning experience for me to be in another culture and language environment for so long. But it was so rewarding because of the relationships that I made with my students and other local friends. I still remember the first time I had class, the students were all perfectly quiet and then started cheering and clapping for me. It was like running down the hill all over again! Because the area where I lived in Guizhou was pretty backwoods, most people I met had never had a foreign friend before, so I had the honor to “expose” them to the West. Usually when walking around the streets, I’d have multiple people following me around and commenting on everything I did to their friends. It wasn’t until the second year that I could finally understand what they were saying. It was usually along the lines of, “He is so tall!”, “Look, the foreigner likes to eat apples.” “Look, the foreigner likes to eat oranges.” Needless to say, I took lots of pictures and ended up in many family photo albums.
Q: Do you remember that moment when you knew you wanted to become an actor?
From the first time I was on a real movie set filming “Vikingdom” I knew that I would like to be an actor. But it wasn’t until I started studying acting at the Beijing Film Academy and learned to develop this creative side of myself that I had repressed for so long, that I realized I absolutely loved acting.
Q: I know you are fluent in Mandarin Chinese so speaking parts aren’t difficult for you but are there some cultural differences that you encounter in the industry and adjustments have to be made before a project is finished? Any example that you can share?
You have to be very flexible and have lots of patience. Sometimes things don’t run as smoothly as they should in China, but you have to be able to roll with the punches or you will go crazy. You also have to be willing to work long and hard hours. I remember one time filming for 23 hours straight then sleeping 3 hours followed by filming for another 19 hours.
Q: Yao Ming is one of the most famous public figures in China and the height of his fame came from playing basketball in the NBA. You’re 6’5 so did people just assume you were an American playing basketball on a Chinese pro team?
6’5 was my football height. I’m actually 6’4. Yes. Chinese people love basketball, and I am asked if I play basketball several times a day. I tell them I played football and many get a puzzled look on their face. I get to expose a lot of people to what American Football really is.
Q: Vikingdom is your only American film, right? Do you see yourself strictly acting in America in the future or is your star too bright in China and you will continue to pursue opportunities there?
Actually, the film Bond:Kizuna has a Japanese director and crew who are all based in Los Angeles. I have a supporting role in that as well. I also produced and acted in a pilot recently called “Journey to the East.” Most of my roles have been in China, but my move to Los Angeles does not mean that I will give up on China. China’s film industry will be bigger than Hollywood’s in less than two years. What the world does not have is an American actor who speaks fluent Mandarin and can work in both markets. I plan to be that guy.
Q: If you decide to exclusively be an American actor, you might encounter a problem. I’m sure you are aware of the other Mathew Knowles, Beyonce’s dad. I know your first names are spelled differently but even a google search of your name produces his name repeatedly. Have you considered a pseudonym or a moniker?
No, I have not considered a pseudonym even though I get a lot of angry messages that are supposed to be for Beyonce’s father. I think of it as a good judge of my career status in the US. If I ever come up before Beyonce’s father in a google search, then you know I am probably on the right track.
Q: What do you think about coach Dabo Swinney and what Clemson football has become?
Dabo is great. He is the reason that I was given a chance to walk onto the team in the first place. I was there when Tommy Bowden stepped down and although we were sad to see him go, we were very excited that Dabo got the job. I am not surprised that he has done as well as he has. Dabo actually sponsored me and gave me $1000 when I was first raising money to go to China. I think we have only begun to see the greatness of Dabo.
Q: Were you able to watch the football games this season?
I watched most of the games and was in Los Angeles before the National Championship, so I was thrilled to be able to drive over to Arizona and support the Tigers. I am ashamed to say that it was my very first Clemson football game, since I graduated 7 years ago and left for China. But it was a good one!
Q: Favorite moment as a member of the Clemson football team?
My first day of “tryouts” was mat drills. I remember after a week of mat drills Tommy Bowden walked by me and did a second take, looking at me surprised and said, “You’re still here?!” I just didn’t give up. I couldn’t give up. It’s hard for me to ever give up on anything that I really put my mind to. Another memory is from spring practice. I got cut from the C-team football team in 9th grade and never had the courage to play again… until I got much bigger in college. I did very well with Clemson Rugby and was encouraged to walk on the football team. I remember the first day of spring practice Coach Rumph(Chris) told me to get down in my stance and I didn’t even know how to do it. The other guys on the defensive line really took me under their wings and taught me literally everything I knew. By the end of spring practice, I was awarded the Most Improved Defensive Walk-on Award. And in the Fall, I got into a game-my very first year ever playing football.
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Could Matthew Knowles be like another former Clemson walk-on, country music star Lee Brice? Brice has become very successful in the U.S. and Knowles has the same goal for himself. In China, he is already a megastar with the abilities to host, sing, rap, dance, and produce. And he is hoping that those abilities, his fluency in two languages, and his martial arts background will make him very appealing in the American film industry.
Dabo Swinney has built such a winning environment at Clemson that guys like Knowles are just as likely to succeed as the Sammy Watkins and Chandler Cantanzarro’s(a former walk-on) of the NFL. Dabo believes in himself and Clemson, and it helps his players believe in themselves and what they can become at Clemson and beyond.
Knowles couldn’t make his high school football team, but he lettered on the collegiate level. He didn’t give up on football and he won’t give up on being a great American actor. His Mom now has more than newspaper clippings to show the J.L. Mann coach, she has movie clippings and numerous shows. By the way, she meant no disrespect to the coach, she just believes in her son.