Zhang's action career flying high in U.S.
For someone who recently learned English, Ziyi Zhang is having nearly as spectacular a career in the United States as she is in her native China.
Zhang, 25, easily dominates the love triangle and air-flying fights that are at the heart of “House of Flying Daggers,” a sequel opening Friday to last summer’s Chinese hit “Hero,” in which she also starred. Often called China’s It Girl, Zhang (pronounced ZzzhUNgh) co-starred in two other hits: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Rush Hour 2.” Comfortable handling flying daggers or the attention of two rivals, Zhang now is starring in the Steven Spielberg-produced, Rob Marshall-directed film version of the international bestseller “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
Zhang had no ambition as a schoolgirl to do martial arts or to act. She had studied dance at a boarding school since she was 11. At 16, she was cast as a crusading peasant in “The Road Home.” Since that film scored with local and international audiences, dance became a distant memory.
Zhang couldn’t see dancing as a lifelong career. “If I can’t be the best, I wanted to do something where I could be,” she said. “I didn’t want to always be in the background.”
Now China’s reigning female star, Zhang lives in Beijing and Hong Kong and said she leads a normal life. “I still go out with my parents.” True, but a trip to the grocery store isn’t as simple as it used to be. “My mom will shout my name at the supermarket because people, they don’t think about it,” Zhang said. The call prompts the sudden appearance of an autograph-seeking crowd. “Then I have to say, `Mom, will you call (me by) my nickname, Little Dragon?’ ” Zhang laughed at the hopeless request. “My mom is, `I’m used to calling you by your name. How can you ask me to change?’ and I’m, `OK, OK, OK.’ ”
When Zhang was cast in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” she knew no martial arts. Likewise, she knew no English when she filmed “Rush Hour 2.”
For “House of Flying Daggers,” Zhang trained for two months and spent two weeks filming her dazzling opening sequence: Her character fights off a battalion of soldiers by using her kimono sleeves as weapons, banging on drums and deflecting flying daggers and weapons.
Zhang prides herself on doing her own stunts. “I know from `Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ the audience loves to watch you do your own action. Also, I think that I have the ability to do that. So I tell the action director, `Just give me more. I want to do more.’ I know that I’m better than before, so I can handle more.”
Zhang approached English with the same rigor as she does her martial arts training. It was about four years ago when she met Spielberg, who then was set to direct “Memoirs of a Geisha.” “I remember I couldn’t speak any English. I said, `Hire me, please’ – that’s what my managers told me to say,” Zhang said. “But that was simply an actress memorizing a line. When I worked on `Rush Hour 2,’ I didn’t know it (English), but I thought that I should start to learn English because I wanted to talk to people. My teachers told me, `If you have a dream in your second language, you can speak it.’ ”
Starring in her first Hollywood production brought more reason and pressure for Zhang to speak English. “In the movie, a lot of people cannot speak English, and for me, I have so much pressure to use a second language to act. That’s not easy. Rob has tried to let us relax and not try to put pressure on us.”
But the pressure can pay off.
“In Hollywood,” she said, “they have a lot more money. We have our own trailers and we have holidays and, of course, the working conditions are much better.
More importantly, Hollywood makes many movies.
“In China, there’s only a few, and actually we don’t have a lot of choice in China of good subjects, good scripts. I’m very envious of the actors and actresses in Hollywood because every day they can get a new script. There are so many great producers and directors. In Asia, I don’t think that we have this much chance. That’s one reason why I think that `Memoirs of a Geisha’ is such a great chance for all of the Asian actors and actresses.”
As for how the film will differ from the book, Zhang laughed. “Secret!” is all she’d say.