Zhang Ziyi on CNN Talk Asia
Hello, I’m Hugh Remmington, and for the next half hour I’m in the company of an actress who has been described simply as the most beautiful woman on earth, Zhang Ziyi!
This is Talk Asia.
So rapid has been her rise, Zhang Ziyi now rates among TIME Magazine’s most influential people on earth. But the one-time aspiring kindergarten teacher stumbled into her breakthrough role, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
“I didn’t know it was such a big role and such a big story, film, I knew nothing.”
Even now, with Hollywood at her feet – the Beijing native says her heart — and future — are back where she started…
“I still think my career, my home, my friendships, still in China!”
Hugh Remington: Zhang Ziyi welcome to talk Asia.
Zhang Ziyi: Thank you.
HR I know you’ve been studying English. How’s that been going?
ZZ: Um, it’s great.
HR: well you’re here, you are promoting another film again set in historic times, The Banquet. Tell us about this movie.
ZZ:This movie’s loosely based on Hamlet and I play the empress in the film. That role is very complicated. And the story is kind of sad, it’s a tragedy.
HR: It’s full of lust, betrayal, people being sneaky. It’s a great role for an actress to bury her teeth in!
ZZ Ya, when I get the script at the beginning I was really, really happy, because you know, for actors, no matter who, when you get a great role you feel treasure! But at the same time I felt quite nervous because you really don’t know how to handle it.
HR: Well you’ve had gigantic roles, you’ve had great films, still you are so young in your career, just 27 years old! You’re selling and starring in a big budget epic film. Did you dream of this when you were a girl?
ZZ: No, never.
HR: What did you dream of?
ZZ: When I was young I thought one day I could become like a kindergarten teacher, or an air attendant.
HR: A flight attendant?
HR: Really? That was your ambition?
ZZ: Ya, flight attendant, ya. And because my mom was kindergarten teacher and I spend a lot of time with her at her work, so I really like kids, I love to play with them, tell stories, and dance, kind of…ya, I just enjoy a lot. And for the flight attendant I thought, they are…no, still I think they are gorgeous! They are pretty and they speak English and Chinese, and they, you know, they are elegant. One day maybe it’s good if I can learn English and become one of them.
HR: So if all this falls apart you think a career as a flight attendant might still be available to you?
ZZ: Maybe one day I can play some roles.
HR: Maybe on snakes on a plane 2.
ZZ Oh yeah. Want to play the snake.
HR: Your first performance skill was dancing wasn’t it?
ZZ : Yes, I think that wasn’t my, how you say, that wasn’t my dream to become a dancer. When I was 11 years old, my mom… you know they always said I’m so skinny, so little and they want me to build my muscles!
HR: So you started dancing essentially to build up your strength?
HR: It obviously worked, one of the things about your acting is that, so often, especially in action films, it’s very physical. Do you find that you draw a lot on what you learned in your dancing?
ZZ: Ya I think my background really helps me, I can say that I’m good student, so no matter what the master taught me I just learn. So I’m not a martial artist, but I’m good student.
HR: Ya. When you were dancing, when you were young, I’m interested in where all this begins. Did you get a thrill, is there a moment when you just got a thrill out of performing?
ZZ: I didn’t like it…doing the whole like 6 years. I couldn’t find myself and I didn’t enjoy.
HR Have you found yourself in acting?
HR : That’s curious isn’t it, because acting is being someone else so …
ZZ: Ya because to be honest I’m not a good dancer, I wasn’t the best in the class. I wasn’t the best in the class, so I couldn’t find my confidence.
HR: Did that come when you started acting straight away?
ZZ: No, after Crouching Tiger.
HR: Not till then.
HR: Because many people in the United States might not be aware of your early start, but you met the director Zhang Yimou?
HR: What happened there?
ZZ: Oh, I met Zhang Yimou when I was 18 and he wanted to make a commercial and asked all the students from different colleges like Central Drama Academy, Beijing Dance Academy, you know, a few colleges. And I remember the first time when I met him, I was late because I got the wrong address and I went somewhere else. And I called the assistant of Zhang Yimou and I said I know I’m late so I don’t want to go to see him because I will be so, I will be very tense! And he said “No, no, no, you have to come! I told him there is a girl who is so unusual.”
So I just went, and I didn’t know, there were all the girls sitting in the room and that was quite a surprise, a lot of pretty girls. And Zhang Yimou was really nice. And I said, “I’m sorry I’m late.” And he said, “It’s okay, it’s okay, come in.” And then they took some photos and we wrote down our address and phone numbers. And that’s it!
HR: Have you ever wondered what might have happened to your life if they had said don’t worry if you can’t make it, don’t bother coming? Your life would be totally different!
ZZ: Maybe! Who knows? But when I was in the college, I never thought one day… even I already started acting, I never thought one day I could become actor! I just think okay, after 4 years, I could find somebody lovely and nice and just get married and have a nice family!
HR: Not a bad ambition.
ZZ: Ya, I still have the dream.
HR: We’re with Zhang Ziyi, when we return the blockbuster breakthroughs, Crouching tiger Hidden Dragon, and Memoirs of a Geisha.
HR: Welcome back, we’re with Zhang Ziyi. Your breakthrough film really was Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. How did you get the part in that?
ZZ: I remember Ang Lee had audition for like couple months, and I was, I think I heard someone called me and said Ang Lee is doing audition why you don’t send some pictures? And I can’t remember. I went to see him he asked me the first question was, “I heard you can dance, is that true?” I said yes, I had the background, I had 6 years. And he said okay.
HR: Did you have hopes after that stage?
ZZ: No. it just, you know I think its normal for director to see different actors, actresses. I had my normal life, study, school, and one day, the first AD called and said, “Ang Lee want to see you!” And I went to see him again and he asked me to do some movement and learn some martial arts.
You know, he gave me like 10 minutes, so I just tried my best to show him I can do those things. And I remember he asked me to do a little bit of acting performance and he told me, “it’s very dark! You are in a dark room! What smell can you feel?” I’m in the hospital, and I can feel all the doctors walk around, you know I tried to make story to him.
HR: How badly did you want the role?
ZZ: I didn’t know. By the time I didn’t know what he want me to do, I didn’t know it was such a big role and such a big story, film, I knew nothing.
HR: When he hired you for the film, he trained you in a whole number of things that seemed to be almost on the edge really of what an actor normally does — calligraphy, and etiquette lessons. What did you think of his methods, what was he trying to get out of you?
ZZ: He want, he wanted to build another person, the role, Jen in his mind. And that’s why we had martial arts training for almost 2 months. He hired different teachers, taught us how to walk, how to sit, and how to you know talk like old period, from that period of time.
HR: Now this was about the time you started to think that maybe you were an actor, that you could act?
ZZ: No, no.
HR: Still not yet?
ZZ: No because I, something happened during my training. I saw a lot of girls come to see him since I was already started my training. So I was confused, totally just lost. I said why the director still, you know…For me, that means that he wasn’t confident about this actress. And it really put a lot of pressure on me and I just think I have to do a better job then others and make him confident and trust me.
HR: Did you predict, did you have a feeling that that film would be as big a success as it was?
ZZ: My only goal was, don’t let him down. I want to, you know, I want to make him feel that he was right to pick me. Because the process was really hard. When he decided okay that’s the girl for the role, that was hard and I went through a very difficult process.
HR: Were you surprised by what came out of that film in terms of the sudden international attention.
ZZ: Yes, I think not only me, I think everybody from the crew felt that way. That was a big shot, a big hit.
HR: And so how did that change your life?
ZZ: Um, I started being confidant, and I started thinking I can act.
HR: Suddenly being a flight attendant wasn’t the top priority. You appearing on that stage, magazines started to call you, you know one of the most beautiful people in the world.
Is there a point where it just seem to crazy?
ZZ: I had very hard beginning, even though people think I was very lucky, very fortunate to get to work with the best directors, Zhang Yimou Ang Lee… But the beginning was difficult because people always think you’re lucky and they ignored how much effort you put into your movies. And that’s why no matter how famous I am now, I still think my focus is on my characters. And each time I will just give all my best into my characters.
HR: You then, not long after that, you had the pressure, beautiful films, well received films, but then you were headlining Memoirs of Geisha, a Hollywood film based on a best selling novel. So lots of expectation going on there, and you were having to speak English and you were having to do it with a Japanese accent. How was that? Talk to me about the pressure of that.
ZZ: That was, that was really hard. The movie is beautiful, but the training, the process, was like nightmare. We had intensive training for like 6 weeks and we had to learn everything.
But I learned a lot from that movie because I think for me, and for all the Asian actors, we got a great chance to show the whole world that our Asian actors can do. We can act, because people think Chinese, Japanese, they can fight on screen they can kick ass, they can do all the martial arts, but we don’t know, we’re not sure about acting skill. But this time really, that’s why I’m very appreciative to Rob Martial. He gave us the chance to show people we can do much better then just kick ass!
HR: We’re going to take a short break. Our guest is Zhang Ziyi. When we return, Hollywood! And the difficulties of landing a husband.
HR: Welcome back to Talk Asia. Our guest is Zhang Ziyi!
On the back of your success you’ve now twice been a presenter at the Academy Awards. What did it feel like to sit at the holiest of places and look out upon all those faces, the great directors, the great actors?
ZZ: I think the first time I walk on the red carpet and then the second time, was very different. The first time I went to the Oscars with Ang Lee, with the actors. I didn’t know what does the red carpet mean, what does all the cameras means, and what just the Oscar, just the word, you don’t know what that mean. And I was like, went to a party you know I see Julia Roberts, I see Tom Cruise and I say Oh my god, I see them in person, and you know, you didn’t understand what they were talking. It was just totally very strange world!
And the second time I went because of Geisha, after Geisha, ya. And then I started to… people, you know, like some movie stars, say “oh I love your work, I love crouching tiger, I love hero, I love the Geisha!” You know, they started calling my name and they tried to talk to you. And um, you know that feeling oh, now I can understand a little bit and I can have a conversation with them!
But still for me it’s a totally different world, maybe just go and you know do the work, but I still think my career, my home, my friendship still in China.
HR: It doesn’t make you want to conquer the world of Hollywood?
ZZ: No, not really. Because sometimes I feel sad about what Hollywood offer you. For them they have a certain role in their minds, they think Chinese, they can play poor girl, or prostitute or someone who is sold to America. I just think it is hard to find the right role especially you know you can do a better job, you can act! So I don’t want to repeat like Rush Hour 2, that kind of role. Its fun, but once is enough.
HR: Because in China, you’re playing empresses, you are playing powerful women, you are playing mysterious women, and that must be much more satisfying.
ZZ: Ya I feel much you know, I can play with my role.
HR: Do you also think Chinese movies are just more beautiful then other movies at the moment?
ZZ: I think because our culture, we have such a long history and we have a lot of details in our costume. There’s a lot of things you can do with, you can play with.
HR: So you said that you wanted to um, maybe wait a few years and find a nice man and maybe settle down and become a kindergarten teacher or an air hostess. Is this life that you are leading now, taking you away from that?
ZZ: I think acting is my work, my job and I enjoy. But one day if I have my family, my kids, I would love to do something else.
HR: Well fantastic to talk to you Zhang Ziyi. Thanks very much for joining us for Talk Asia.