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Zhang Ziyi, Sayuri

February 04, 2006

‘It was the most challenging work experience I’ve ever had,’ Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi describes, in impressively enunciated English, her role as Sayuri in the epic-romance Memoirs of Geisha. ‘In hindsight, it was quite amazing! I had to play Japanese – for American actors, it would be like playing a Russian and having to speak Thai, and do the whole film with a slight British accent.’

Zhang Ziyi has, with each successive role, built on her unique reputation as an actress who can balance ethereal grace with uncommon intensity on the big screen. This has never been more evident than in her latest and most challenging role to-date, as the titular Sayuri in Columbia Pictures’ new epic romance, “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

For her ravishing portrayal of Sayuri, Zhang received Best Actress nominations from the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and British Academy Awards. And from the looks of it, an Oscar nomination is coming her way, as well.

Set in a mysterious and exotic world which still casts a potent spell today, “Memoirs of a Geisha” begins in the years before World War II, when a Japanese child is torn from her penniless family to work as a servant in a geisha house. Despite a treacherous rival who nearly breaks her spirit, the girl blossoms into the legendary geisha Sayuri (Zhang). Beautiful and accomplished, Sayuri captivates the most powerful men of her day, but is haunted by her secret love for the one man (Ken Watanabe) beyond her reach.

Portraying the geisha Sayuri had been the dream of many actresses, but the role had several demanding requirements. The actress playing the luminous adult Sayuri would also have to portray her as the adolescent housemaid Chiyo. “We see this character blossom from girl to woman, and from servant girl to superstar, and we didn’t want to split that into two different parts,” director Rob Marshall emphasized.

“Our actress had to be credible as a 15-year-old and as a 30-year-old. She also had to be a strong actress, and speaks English. And we needed a brilliant dancer because dance is so important in the geisha world and a key element in Sayuri’s personal story.”

Zhang experienced a not uncommon reaction after reading Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha from which the film was based. “I couldn’t believe that a man wrote this book about the life of a woman,” said the actress. “And I couldn’t believe it was an American man writing with such detail about a little-known Japanese sub-culture.”

“It was the most challenging work experience I’ve ever had,” Zhang says in impressively enunciated English, which she learned for the role. “In hindsight, it was quite amazing! I had to play Japanese – for American actors, it would be like playing a Russian and having to speak Thai, and do the whole film with a slight British accent.”

The fact that Zhang was a dancer was a big bonus for “Memoirs of a Geisha,” giving choreographer John DeLuca the freedom to create more demanding choreography. This was particularly true for a sequence featuring Zhang that became a centerpiece of the movie. “Playing Sayuri would be too hard for an actor who isn’t a dancer,” said Marshall. “A geisha’s dance training shows in all her movements, and Ziyi picked that up like a sponge.”

Zhang followed up her memorable performance in Ang Lee’s Oscar-nominated “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” for which she won the Independent Spirit and Toronto Film Critics Awards for Best Supporting Actress, with roles in “House of Flying Daggers” and the Oscar-nominated “Hero” for director Zhang Yimou. She was nominated for BAFTA’s Best Actress Award for “House of Flying Daggers,” and won the Hong Kong Film Critics’ Society’s 2005 Best Actress Award for her performance in Wong Kar-Wei’s critically acclaimed “2046.” – Columbia Pictures

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