BBC Movies

"I never thought that one day I could be in this story"

January 10, 2006   |   Written by Stella Papamichael

Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang came to the world’s attention in Ang Lee’s whimsical martial arts drama Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). She then dipped a toe in Hollywood waters with Rush Hour 2 (2001), but it’s her work in Asian cinema like House Of Flying Daggers (2004), which has served her best. Now, she treads both continents in Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Memoirs Of A Geisha.

Were you, like many others, a fan of Arthur Golden’s book before the film was announced?

I read this book like five years ago. I heard [about it] from many of my friends and they just loved the book and they say you have to read this book. I loved this story, it’s so special and I never thought that one day I could be in this story and could be this character. When I first heard about this role I was happy and surprised but at the same time I felt tremendous pressure because I knew that Rob [Marshall] was going to make the movie in English.

For me, it is the biggest obstacle because English is my second language – I just learned [it] like two years ago. Also I knew they went through a very long casting process until at the end Rob picked me and I just felt I have to live up to their expectations – I have to give all my best efforts because you cannot have any regrets.

Did you meet any resistance as a Chinese woman playing a traditional Japanese geisha?

I think, you know, for us in this group [of actors] we have two girls from China – Michelle [Yeoh] and another few women from Japan. I think no matter who, from whatever culture and background, we have to learn and train hard to become a convincing geisha because they were so different. You have to learn, even if you were Japanese. For me, anyway, it is an international movie, it’s not a Japanese movie. That’s why we have very intensive training for six weeks, we have to learn every single detail.

The Snow Dance must have really tested your newfound geisha skills. Was it difficult to get right?

Yes. That dance was not easy to learn because even though I had six years of dancing background, it was still the hardest thing to do. You have to get used to wear[ing] those platform shoes… You know the first time Michelle saw those shoes, she said, “That’s a handbag!” They were so big and I said “Oh, it must be a prop,” but then our choreographer said, “No. You have to dance in them.” And I just thought, “That is impossible, how am I going to do that?” But you know after like five hours a day for a few weeks I could get it. Actually I love that dance because it involves a high degree of acting as well. I know the process was really difficult, but for me I enjoy the challenge.

Other than the restrictions of the costume, did you find it difficult to play a character who was forced to be unemotional on the surface?

Yes. You know dancing while the Baron [Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa] undressed me was really hard. I don’t think for those the characters the kimono controls you. I think because the character, Sayuri, had a very difficult life and because of the difficulties she became very strong. She became a very strong girl and, you know, she doesn’t want to show people her sadness. She had a lot of perseverance and that’s why sometimes I felt you cannot let all your emotions out. You have to learn how to control yourself. It’s really hard for me to explain it, but still in every single scene you can see the true feelings. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know how to act. That’s enough for me!

You’ve carved a reputation in martial arts films and now you’re a geisha. Which has been the hardest training?

I think to be a geisha is harder!