Black Belt Inteview
Now I can die happy. I got to see Zhang Ziyi, the gorgeous young star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in person on her 21st birthday. (And yes, she’s even more beautiful without makeup.) The MTV Movie Award nominee recently granted me an interview, half of which was conducted in her hotel room in Las Vegas and the other half on the set of Rush Hour 2, where co-stars Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker were hard at work in front of the camera. – Mark Cheng
Black Belt: How did you get started in the movies?
Zhang Ziyi: In 1998 I did my first movie, The Road Home, with Zhang Yimou [the director of Raise the Red Lantern and several other Gong Li films], then returned to drama school in Beijing. Because I got the exposure from that initial project, a lot of people called up saying they were assistant directors or producers, wanting me to give them photos and meet with them; but many of these were just student projects that I didn’t really have the time for. So when Ang Lee’s people called, I didn’t take it seriously at first. After a few more calls from them, someone called again to say Ang Lee had 10 minutes to take a meeting with me. I was thinking: “Just 10 minutes! It must really be Ang Lee.” So right after class, I went to the meeting, dressed in school clothes and looking like a little girl. Meeting Ang Lee was quite an experience. He was very different from what I expected. He’s such a down-to-earth guy, the kind of guy whose face might blush when mine wouldn’t. Very humble and polite. So as the meeting went on, he said they were in the planning stages of a movie to be made in mainland China, and he wanted to know if I could kick high. I told him I had six years of formal dance training, so I had no problem performing things like that.
BB: What happened next?
Zhang: When I got back, I heard from a schoolmate that Ang Lee was looking for a tough-minded girl to play in his new production. When I heard that, I thought I didn’t get the part for sure. When I met him, I dressed like a little girl, acting cute, so I figured nothing could be further from what he had in mind. I just assumed that they’d find someone else. Quite a while passed before they called to ask for a second meeting. They took me to a big training room, and waiting there were Ang Lee, martial arts coordinator Yuen Woo Ping and a bunch of other people. A coach instructed me to warm up and do my best to imitate whatever he did. They were testing me. I put everything into each move, just hoping they’d find my performance adequate enough to give me a second chance.
BB: Had you had any martial arts training?
Zhang: None whatsoever. In fact, the first time I punched, I must have looked like a total goof. I remember how I punched then and how different it is from how I punch now. My elbow was out, sloppy form, everything. It had actually been a long time since I did anything that vigorous, but having that many years of dance training, I could follow the choreographed patterns pretty well. They just asked me to repeat the moves a few times, filmed me from a few different angles and then told me they were done. That was nerve-racking [because] I didn’t hear from them for another length of time, and then the call came in for me to model some of the clothes to see how I looked in wardrobe. Because the project required so much time, I had to take leave from school. We’d spend hours and hours in wardrobe and makeup just to get the look right. And then they let me begin the martial arts training.
BB: Yuen Woo Ping is known throughout Asia as the master of movie martial arts, and now that he’s done The Matrix, even Americans know of him. What was training with his team like?
Zhang: More intense than you can imagine. After each day, I went back to school aching from head to toe. If there is a way to make someone a decent martial artist in a short period of time, Yuen Woo Ping has the formula. But training with his people was only part of the initial training that I went through. Ang Lee also had a hand in my training, developing me as an actress right from the outset. Every day, he’d have me sing, laugh, cry, run the whole gamut of emotions just to be able to perform with power and presence on his command. Now keep in mind that all this was just part of my trial period. I still didn’t have the part. But Ang Lee was really smart. He wanted to see if I was the kind of person who’d be able to respond to his direction. That was a lot of pressure. They put me through so much training, but at the same time, nobody really told me what was happening. Every day my muscles and tendons felt tighter and tighter, and the soreness never had a chance to really subside. They worked me so much, yet there was no real communication as to what this was all leading to. So finally one day, my martial arts coach told me that this was all part of a great opportunity. And the person who’d get that opportunity would be the most skillful, most outstanding one. That motivated me to push onward.
BB: Did things become easier after you got the role?
Zhang: In fact, it was the opposite. There are a couple of responses a person could have in that situation. You could become complacent, or you could realize that your selection for such a role is only the beginning of your work. Ang Lee was gambling on me when he chose me to fill Jen’s role. If I didn’t perform up to task, I’d be the one who ruined the film and Lee’s reputation. I’m not the kind of person to be that irresponsible. I won’t let down people who put their reputations on the line for me. A lot of times, I’d cry at night, especially at the beginning when we were filming the desert sequence in Xinjiang [province].
BB: So those fight scenes were really filmed in the deserts of northwestern China?
Zhang: Exactly, and those fight scenes left me covered with bruises from head to toe. Since I’m built thin, I had a lot of bruises along my shins, forearms, everywhere. What was really interesting was to watch the bruises change colors over the days. It got to the point where I could tell which bruise was how many days old by the color it was.
BB: It must have been quite a change for you to do fight scenes. In many films in this genre, women have demure roles, but you played a woman who was sweet on the outside but fierce when she wanted to be.
Zhang: It’s funny. You know the scene where Jen fights the barbarians in the desert and she does a split kick? When the director told me I had to do that kick, it wasn’t that big of a deal, but I was also instructed to scream a war cry when I kicked those two guys. That scream was actually one of the harder things to pull off, since that was so against my nature. We did a few takes of that kick, and each time I couldn’t get myself to scream like that. I’d jump up, do the kick and open my mouth to scream, but no sound would come out. That happened a couple times, and then I started getting worried about what the director would say if I kept screwing up the scene. Finally, my nerves got the best of me, and on the last shot, I jumped up, threw the kick and this amazing shriek came out.
BB: By the time you started filming, had you already completed your martial arts training?
Zhang: No. In fact, that was the source of a lot of stress. I’d go over to the martial arts coordinator or trainers and ask if they knew what moves we were supposed to do the next day or in the next scene. I figured that if I knew what was ahead, I could go off somewhere and practice on my own so I’d look a little more polished when it came time to shoot the scene. But the stunt coordinators couldn’t tell me what the fight scene was going to be like from one day to the next. Depending on the surroundings or terrain, they would construct the fight scene that day. Having to pull off a scene like that – seeing it and filming it the same day – was a lot of pressure. For about one week in Xinjiang, I cried myself to sleep every night. When I talked to my schoolmates, they were great about continually putting things in perspective for me, encouraging me and reminding me what kind of opportunity Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon really was.
BB: That’s a lot of pressure for someone so young. You were still a teenager when you did that movie.
Zhang: Sometimes the teenager side showed through. There were times during the filming when I’d go all-out in front of the camera. After every take, I’d give it more and more and more, just hoping for a little hug or something from Ang Lee. But he’d just pat me on the shoulder and tell me to rest, then go back to doing his thing. When Michelle Yeoh did her scenes well, Lee would give her a hug. I kept pushing harder and harder just for that one hug. When the wrap party came, I went up to thank him for giving me the opportunity to do such a project and learn under his tutelage, and I was filled with emotion. Ang Lee saw the tears in my eyes, and he finally gave me that hug. As soon as he hugged me, I burst out crying like a little kid. It’s kind of funny to think that I played such a rough character, someone so fierce, and here I was crying like a baby.
BB: Describe the training program Yuen Woo Ping’s team put you through.
Zhang: At the beginning, I learned the basics, just like anyone else: kicks, punches, stances and calisthenics. But because of my dance background, I had a pretty good range of motion and agility. Then they started showing me the essential moves and flavors of martial arts. That was a big change for me. With dance, the idea is to convey beauty with your motions. In martial arts, the objective is to embody power and strong intent in every motion. So even though I didn’t do the techniques perfectly every time, the martial arts coaches knew I was putting my heart into each one. Every little motion had to be done fiercely, confidently and powerfully. In terms of stylistic things, we did a broad spectrum of arts. The coaches taught the modern wushu movements to me, but we’d also do tai chi every day with Ang Lee. It was a lot of fun to be training with the other actors. I would get to the training location, and there’d be Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Chang Chen and Cheng Pei-Pei – all of us training for our scenes. From the start, I also got to work with the sword that was the centerpiece of the movie. As time went on, they gave me a heavier sword so that I’d build up the muscles and control to work better with a lighter one when it came time to film.
BB: You even learned to fly for the film, didn’t you?
Zhang: Wire work is a lot more challenging than you might think. Because I’m so thin, the harnesses would chafe my hip bones badly. There were times that I was really in pain while doing those flying scenes. If you’re not paying attention, it can give you whiplash, too. To get my mind off the pain, Chow Yun Fat would sing to me between takes.
BB: The media reported that a lot of injuries happened on the set, including one incident in which Michelle Yeoh broke her leg. Did you suffer any serious injuries?
Zhang: Probably the most memorable injury that happened to me was when Michelle and I filmed one of our sword-fight scenes. I was supposed to do a flip, and I came down a little early. I missed the timing to block her sword properly, and it came down on my finger instead of against my blade. I tried to play it off like nothing happened, but inside I was dying to scream. After that happened a couple times, Michelle noticed me wince. When people thought I was hurt, everyone came running up and I started bawling. One of the stunt guys filled a bag with snow and wrapped my finger in it. But no matter what happened, the experience of [making] that movie will be among the richest of my life.
BB: How did Jackie Chan find you for Rush Hour 2?
Zhang: Brett Ratner, the director, decided to use me for a role, actually. He’d been in Hong Kong and saw me in a magazine. He was already curious about me from my role in Crouching Tiger. Then his people got in touch with me, and after meeting with him in Beijing, here I am. Jackie Chan is like an older brother to me. Having the chance to work with him is like a dream. He’s one of the most warmhearted guys you’ll ever meet.
BB: Is the action in Rush Hour 2 easier now that you have done Crouching Tiger?
Zhang: Absolutely. It’s not to say that the action scenes aren’t exciting, but having gone from total beginner to martial artist under Yuen Woo Ping’s training [makes it] comparatively easy, especially now that I’m more familiar with the martial arts movements. I’m not afraid of doing something physical like that anymore.
BB: What’s your character like in Rush Hour 2?
Zhang: She’s naughty. (smiling) She is a cute little girl whose trademark weapon is a grenade. She’ll come up to you, smiling and giggling while she leaves a bomb next to your seat. Then she’ll walk off to a safe distance and watch gleefully as the bomb blows you away. Jackie and Chris Tucker’s characters know that this girl is the villain, but when it comes time to fight her, they can’t get themselves to hit such a cute little girl. That gets her out of a lot of sticky situations. I think people will like her.