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Gold Rush

August 01, 2008   |   Written by John Powers
Whether bearing the torch for this month’s Olympics or lighting up the big screen, Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang is redefining global stardom.

Things are getting crazy in the ancient Greek town of Olympia. In two hours they’ll be lighting the Olympic torch. but as a kind of civic-minded aperitif, the mayor has decided to begin the day’s festivities by opening the new town hall. Naturally, he’s invited the visiting dignitaries: Greece’s president, Karolos Papoulias; the head of the Beijing Olympic committee. Liu Qi; and perhaps most glamorous, the Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang, she of the flying kicks in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

There’s only one problem. The local constabulary has failed to reckon with the hundreds of Chinese who’ve come halfway around the world to support the Beijing Olympics. The moment they see Zhang -wearing a resplendent modern riff in the palest pink on the traditional cheongsam, complete with embroidered dragon – they rush toward her, cameras in hand. Snapping away feverishly, her fans shove lens in her face, or else, trying to get into the picture, they sidle right up next to her and peer over her shoulder like Kilroy.

Such an onslaught would have most stars shrieking for their limos. But if I’ve learned anything from spending time with Zhang – friends call her “Zee” – it’s that her public manner is resolutely unflappable. She just smiles, signs autographs, and poses with the swarming throng. When the time finally comes to light the torch, it doesn’t matter that no one offers her one of the cars ferrying the politicians. Wearing very high heels, she simply walks to the ceremony, a good half mile or so down a steep grade, the image of effortless self-assurance.

At 29. the poised, boundlessly energetic Zhang has every reason to feel confident. She isn’t merely an icon in China, where she was one of the first to carry the Olympic torch, she’s its one truly international movie star. Enjoying a giddy ascent from anonymous Beijing schoolgirl to global screen goddess, she’s ridden the crest of her country’s soaring fortunes.
“When I was eight or nine,” she tells me, “everybody still rode bicycles. A friend of my family won a prize, and we took a taxi to see him, and I was so excited because I got to ride in a car. I sat at the window like this” — she mimes putting her face to the glass. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Twenty years later, Beijing’s streets are jammed with cars — and Zhang is the Chinese spokeswoman for Mercedes-Benz. Even though the city she grew up in is long gone, replaced by a sleek new metropolis, she still feels most at home there.
“Ziyi is just a typical Beijing girl,” says her friend Charles Zhang (no relation), one of China’s biggest dot-com tycoons. “Very spontaneous, very direct, very bighearted.”
Not to mention exuberant. The night of the torch-lighting ceremony, I join her at a rollicking country taverna, where she and her entourage quickly establish themselves as the most raucous table. They spend the night gossiping, telling bawdy jokes — Zhang tells a funny one she heard from a Louis Vuitton exec about a businessman in Bangkok — and eating bread with the delicious house-made olive oil. After downing kebabs, cheese, and grilled eggplant, she is the only one of us to have dessert. It’s one of life’s injustices that a woman of such wraithlike slimness could order, then eat, with such gusto.

Zhang is equally enthusiastic about this year’s games — despite the worldwide protests over China’s policies in Darfur and Tibet, which gained momentum when three French activists crashed the torch-lighting ceremony. While she acknowledges that people have the right to protest, she adds, “I don’t see why people are negative. The games are about friendship.” Typical of her generation — which has grown up watching China get richer and more liberal — she’s puzzled that the world would choose Beijing to host the Olympics and then complain after the city has knocked itself out to put on a great event. “I’m Chinese,” she says, “and I’m proud of my country.” Her pride is easy to understand. Talented and ambitious, generous and materialistic, bursting with energy and bored by ideology, Zhang is very much a child of the new China.

“Zee represents modern China, especially modern Chinese women,” says her friend Wendi Murdoch, the mainland-born wife of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. “She is charming, chic, independent, and very hardworking.”
Like her country, she’s grown ever more worldly. When we first met, around the time of Crouching Tiger, she didn’t speak a word of English. The next time I saw her, a couple of years later, she promptly said hello. Now, after years of language classes and listening to hip-hop — which taught her such essential phrases as “Wassup?” and “What the hell?” — she chats happily away with me as we take in a show of Chinese scroll paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few weeks after the event in Olympia.

With her delicate-featured beauty and love of fashion — she favors Armani, Prada, and Dolce & Gabbana for clothes, and Jimmy Choo, Tod’s, and Roger Vitter for shoes — Zhang invariably cuts a striking figure. On this cool spring morning, she’s wearing a black Armani pullover, checked Armani culottes, and Hogan boots, her look brightened by a gold LV handbag. She has told me how much she loves Manhattan — she’s a city girl, after all — and after the exhibition, as we head down the Met’s famous stairs to Fifth Avenue, I’m struck that she could easily be mistaken for a native New Yorker.

Career-wise, Zhang embraced the West from the beginning, taking on everything from a small tough-chick role in Rush Hour 2 to the lead in Memoirs of a Geisha. Although she has never stopped working in China — recently playing the female lead in the screen bio of a legendary opera singer for one of the country’s finest directors, Chen Kaige — the big-studio offers keep coming. She’s due to start shooting a new romantic comedy with Hugh Grant in September, and this month, audiences can see her opposite Dennis Quaid in The Horsemen, which she describes as “a Seven-like thriller. And I’m evil,” she says brightly. “Every night when I went to bed, I had snakes in my dreams.”

Even her personal life has gone global. She recently became engaged to Aviv “Vivi” Nevo, an Israeli-born investor based in New York and L.A. who’s one of the largest shareholders in Time Warner. Like everyone else, I’m instantly stuck by her astonishing engagement ring, which made me finally understand that old line about a diamond as big as the Ritz.

All this is a far cry from the world she was born into. The younger of two children — her older brother, Zinan, 35, now runs an ad agency — Zhang spent her childhood in a series of tiny state-owned apartments in south Beijing. Her father worked as an economist for the state-run telecom, while her mother taught kindergarten. Like nearly all Chinese families back then, they possessed very little. “I had only one toy,” she recalls, “a plastic doll that was losing its eyes. It was so ugly, but I loved it so much.”

The event that forever changed her life came at age eleven, when she was admitted to the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy. Everyone was thrilled except young Ziyi, who had to move away from her family and spend the next six years in a ferociously demanding training regimen: 6:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M., six days a week.
“I regretted being there from the first day,” she says, “but I couldn’t quit.”
Working hard for strict instructors, she learned the absolute self-discipline that defines her today. “They taught you how to fight your own body and your own mind,” she says. “If you thought you couldn’t do something, you’d do it over and over until you could get it.”

Zhang got it: At fifteen, she won the national youth dance championship.
But dancing was never her passion, and at seventeen she entered the country’s best acting school, the Central Drama Academy. Two years later she was introduced to Ang Lee, who was then casting the role of the feisty young troublemaker, Jiao Long, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
“I met Ziyi when she was nineteen,” Lee recalls. “She was young and shy and green. We did a lot of training — dancing and martial arts are very different — and it took a month before I could actually see her doing the part. They say your fate as an actor is whether the camera likes you or not. Well,” he says, laughing, “the camera really likes her.”
Zhang stole Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from her celebrated costars, Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat, and it went on to become one of the touchstone movies of the last 20 years. For Zhang, it led to a series of juicy roles, the best being the spurned lover in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, which suggested that her true gift might be for ardent romanticism.

Like her peers in Hollywood, Zhang is often frustrated by the parts she’s offered. That’s one reason she’s decided to generate her own material, starting with a Beijing-set screwball comedy written by a young Chinese woman. Alter that, she’s going to produce movies with Wendi Murdoch. “There are so many fascinating stories in China but not enough good films,” says Murdoch. “We both love [Lisa See’s bestselling novel] Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, so we asked, ‘Why don’t we do it together?’ Somehow the media got on to this and made a huge deal of it. But we’re going to take our time. It’s not like we’re creating a DreamWorks studio. People keep wanting to give us money, but we say, ‘No. we want to do it our own way.'”

For Zhang, doing things her own way means staying mum about her romantic life. Over lunch at Woo Lae Oak on Mercer Street — as usual, she’s ordered enough to feed a small film crew — I ask how she met her fiance. She politely declines to answer, saying, “I need some things that are my own. Maybe he will tell you.”
To my surprise, I do hear from the 42-year-old Nevo, a quick, affable man whose desire to stay out of the limelight has led some to call him “mysterious.” He volunteers that he met his future bride eighteen months ago at a New York restaurant with mutual friends.
“I came late,” he remembers, “and frankly didn’t know who she was. But besides the fact that Zee’s very beautiful, what intrigued me was her tremendous elegance — she was totally composed and had an amazing smile. Now, the restaurant was loud, and in the middle of that din, she said something that struck me. She said, ‘What I want most is a family and kids.’
“I remember getting back in my car and thinking, Wow, that’s nice; that’s impressive. Caring about family and kids really strikes a chord with me. And she really means it.” He chuckles. “The second time I met Zee, I met her mother.”
Because Nevo doesn’t speak Mandarin and Zhang doesn’t speak Hebrew, they communicate in English. Theirs is a meeting not just of two very different cultures — “It’s challenging in one way,” he says. “and exciting in others” — but of two overstuffed schedules that often find one of them jetting off to Asia or Europe to meet the other. When in the United States she stays at his homes in downtown Manhattan and Malibu, where she keeps her beloved dog, a cockapoo named Teddy.

One senses that Zhang really will enjoy family life, as she is genuinely devoted to kids. She talks a lot about her two young nieces in Beijing and does most of her charity work for children, as a global ambassador to the Special Olympics and a spokesperson for Care for Children, an initiative that’s attempting to put a million mainland orphans into foster homes within China by 2010.
Like most of the world, she was transfixed by TV images of the earthquake that killed lens of thousands of Chinese on May 12. “It was such a tragedy that I knew I had to do something.” she later tells me from Beijing.
She couldn’t return straight home, because she had obligations in Cannes, so she quickly got in touch with the festival director, Thierry Fremaux, and her friend Caroline Gruosi-Schetifele, the copresident of Chopard, one of the festival’s big sponsors. Almost overnight — personally passing out invitations by hand — she arranged a fundraiser that earned $500,000 for the Ziyi Zhang Foundation to give to the earthquake’s victims, who were mainly children. Seeing her countrymen suffer was a sobering experience. “I realized more than ever that I have a responsibility to use my position to help people.”

Such ald-fashioned values are much a part of Ziyi’s character. “I’m actually very traditional. I want to have kids, and I will one day, hopefully soon. But I won’t give up what I’m doing now. My mom’s always telling me, ‘Have one, your life will change.’ My mom was 30 when she had her first child, and I told her,`Maybe any first child can be born when I’m 30.’ But I’m going to be 30 next year — she laughs — “and that’s too soon.”

For the moment, this typical Beijing girl is doing all the wondrous things that she never could have imagined growing up — flying around the world, starring in movies, marrying an international tycoon, and watching her home city explode with spas, restaurants, golf courses, shopping malls, and world-class architecture. Not to mention the Olympics.
Of course, her country’s economic boom can get out of hand. Zhang sometimes feels a bit conservative when she sees how the Chinese young take prosperity for granted.. “They have to have big logos. They want to show everyone they can afford Louis Vuitton and Dior,” she says. “But they need to remember how hard their parents worked, how hard family life was. It’s not like you get to just have everything. You have to earn your own life.”