Eastern Horizon Interview
Narrator: Zhang Ziyi, 27, was born in Beijing. Her father named her Ziyi in the hope that she would always find inner peace and control no matter how her life will be in the future, that she would enjoy what she has in life despite the pressure of daily worries. Zhang Ziyi began systematic training as a dancer at the age of 8 and found nothing else in her life but dancing in the following nine years. In 1996, she was enrolled in the Central Academy of Drama.
In 1998, director Zhang Yimou chose Ziyi to play the leading role in The Road Home, the very first movie she has ever worked in. Recently, she told DFSK during an interview that, in the early days at Central Academy, she was so scared of being a laughing stalk on stage that she even contemplated quitting.
Host: I read in the latest reports that you have been invited to join the Cannes Film Festival judging panel. Has it been confirmed?
Host: Now you will be judging others’ performances, how different does it feel?
ZZ: I think this is a kind of responsibility, because in many film industry workers’ mind Cannes is a sacred place. To me, I think you have your own angle of appraisal when you see a movie. Ten people means there will be ten different views and I expect some kind of discussion at the end of the day.
Host: Are you going to maintain your opinion?
ZZ: I will. In fact, as an actor, I usually insist on my own treatment of a character.
Host: I need you to confirm this: is it true that you once thought of quitting college in your freshman year?
ZZ: Yes. Because I felt I had no future (in acting) whatsoever, like I had no idea where my future was. And I really felt acting was beyond me, totally.
Host: You thought you couldn’t act.
ZZ: Right. And I was scared. The stage terrified me. So many people were watching me, it scared the senses out of me. I started shaking all over once I was in the spotlight and my mind went totally blank. It was that horrible. At that time it felt like mental torture, enough to make me think of quitting. I had no confidence in myself in those days, nor in my teachers (laugh).
Host: Neither self-confidence nor trust for others.
ZZ: Exactly. I thought it was a huge mistake.
Host: You thought you chose the wrong trade.
ZZ: That’s what I felt. Then I told myself being a professional dancer would be so much easier. You know, it’s kind of funny. We were students of performing art, but our teachers sometimes gave us topics to develop into short plays on our own. So, we were playwrights, directors and actors all at once. For a while I couldn’t understand why we had to direct and write scripts as well as act. Now I think that’s how the foundation of our career was built. It was really tough. At that time I slept in the upper deck of a bunker bed in the dorm.
At night I often stared at the ceiling and prayed, please God let me have a dream about a short play. But, as it turned out, the harder I prayed the sounder my sleep went.
The next day I would tell myself, ‘OK, I’ll get up at 5 AM tomorrow.’ But it was actually 6:30 when I woke up the next day. ‘Oh God, another one and a half hours wasted, and still no script.’
Sometimes I would go jogging around the Houhai Lake, which is near the academy, when I felt really bad. I ran really fast so that I could sweat a lot. Afterwards I would stand on a small bridge and cry my heart out, asking myself how I could finish my homework. Desperate as I was, there was no one to help me. I could only urge myself to beat the odds and hardship.
A year later, I became more confident as I gained more experience in preparing my acts. As I gained courage, my teachers also offered me more support. Then I gradually became aware no one was laughing at me when I was on stage.
Narrator: Zhang Ziyi had never acted in a movie before Director Zhang Yimou chose her to play the leading role in The Road Home. Nor had she had any experience in rural life. So, it was a tough job for her to fully grasp the feelings and emotions of the country girl in that movie.
Host: You were chosen by such a great director of international renown. How did you manage to become the character while working with him?
ZZ: We were sent to the countryside long before filming began, living there for two months. I remember it clearly, every morning I would leave the small dormitory and walk for about 20 minutes to a rural household in a village. My job was to cook meals and clean up the house. Then I’d have to fetch water from a well (shouldering two buckets of water on both ends of a pole) some distance away from the house, fed the pigs, peel potatoes and so on. I did all this everyday for more than two months. The family sometimes joked they had hired a maid from the city.
Narrator: It was during her stint in a rural village in Hebei Province that Zhang Ziyi identified with the character’s down-to-earth personality and was able to portray her naturally on screen.
ZZ: I realized this kind of pre-production experience is especially necessary for making any movie. I just need that two months to let myself become the character. And I would try my best not to take part in activities that have nothing to do with the movie. That way I won’t be distracted. I need this kind of setting for myself to gather materials (for playing the role). I believe this is extremely necessary, because it is so easy to get distracted these days. You know, in this business, there is so much temptation around an actor that it is very hard to keep oneself grounded. But I think if you want to do it, if you really want to accomplish something as an artist, you just have to work the old-fashioned way, like I said just now. It will never fail you.
Narrator: The Road Home went on to win the Silver Bear at Berlin Film Festival, making Zhang Ziyi another celebrated “Mou girl” (after Gong Li) almost overnight.
Host: With The Road Home, from the ordinary audience’s point of view, your very first movie gave you more fame than anything else. People got to know you through that movie, a “Mou girl”. Personally, what do you think is the biggest gain from this experience?
ZZ: I think that movie helped me realized, more than anything else, that I actually can be an actor. They taught me a way to act and create in this art form. You can’t do it by simply donning a costume. I don’t believe anyone can act just like that. Maybe you can, but definitely not the right personality.
Host: But there are geniuses, are there not?
ZZ: Not me. I don’t think I’m a genius in anything, but I’m willing to devote as much effort and time as necessary (to do my job).
Narrator: Six months after The Road Home, Zhang Ziyi got another opportunity – joining the cast of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
ZZ: I was a small potato on the team. Everybody else around me was a big star, such as Director Ang Lee and cinematographer Pao, who is the best known cameraman in Hong Kong, while I had no one to look after me.
Host: Was it hard?
ZZ: Very hard. My weight was worn down to less than 45 kilograms.
Host: How much do you weigh now?
ZZ: More than 45 kilograms (giggle).
Host: It’s supposed to be a secret, isn’t it?
ZZ: I’m not saying I’m fat now, but at that time I was really out of shape. When we were shooting in Xinjiang, I shared a tiny room with two other actresses. Everyday after work, the first thing I did back in the dorm is to have a hearty cry.
ZZ: No exception. It was definitely one of the more trying experiences in my career.
For six months I practically fought through it non-stop. I received numerous injuries during filming. Some of them have remained in me ever since. Just one simple example. Now when I have Mongolian hotpot (one of Ziyi’s favorite Beijing dishes), I can only manage to raise my arm (to dip some sliced mutton into the boiling hotpot and then take it back out with a pair of chopsticks) about a dozen times. It’s because I practiced sword play everyday on and off the set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon whenever I had time to spare, sometimes alone. I made it through by telling myself you have to prove to people the director was right (to cast me). This actor can do it better than you guys thought she could. I had this will to win a hug from Ang Lee.
I often saw Ang Lee encourage Michelle Yeoh after filming a scene, with a pat on the back and words like “very good”. Then I thought, if I did well today, maybe he would treat me the same way. I always stayed for five more minutes everyday after filming my scenes, waiting for him to come over and hug me. But it never happened. It really hurt me pretty bad. I thought: OK, today I’m gonna work harder and see if he would give me a hug. Still none coming my way. Day after Day I repeated the routine, until one day – the day we wrapped. At the dinner party that night, I sat next to him. I still remember, soon after the dinner began, Director Ang Lee turned to me and said: Ziyi, I know you worked exceptionally hard for this movie, and you did very well. I’ve never told you this, I am really satisfied. And then he gave me a long hug, till I was all tears.
Narrator: The movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a tremendous international box office success. It was nominated for 10 awards and won four, including the best foreign language film, at the 73rd Academy Awards Ceremony in 2001. It also let more people throughout the world remember Zhang Ziyi, especially her determined look.
Host: After making this movie, what do you think is the biggest reward for you?
ZZ: My biggest reward is that I found out I have this explosive strength deep inside me. I realized I have a kind of power I can use. It may sound somewhat casual, but what I mean is that this kind of inner power can push you forward. It’s not something you can see in my eyes or in the way I speak, but hidden in my heart.
Host: You had not realized this before (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)?
ZZ: Not before. Just imagine, I was dangling in midair, and Director Ang Lee told me to let out this grunt to show I was fighting really hard. I really wanted to utter the required sound but I just couldn’t while acting out the stunts. I was too nervous. It was so embarrassing. So many people were staring up at me, including those big stars I mentioned earlier. I was nervous as hell and they were all watching. How could I utter a sound! I was really embarrassed. Then Ang Lee told me: “You have to act like this. It’s an action movie.” So I said to myself, what the heck, I can do this. And you saw the result.
Narrator: If we see Zhang Ziyi’s movie debut in The Road Home as “freshman” performance, then Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon should be taken as a sign of maturing. She won the best new comer from the Asia-Pacific region recognition, the Future Star nod from American Movie Theater Association and the best actress in a supporting role from the LA Film Critics Association for her performances in the two movies.
After making a few action movies, she found herself faced with another important film in her career – 2046. From martial art flicks to art-house movies, less physical dangers but more difficulties for an actor’s mantel – acting skills.
Host: I read in some interviews where you said Wong Kar-wai taught you how to act. Did you really say that?
ZZ: I don’t think it’s true to say Wong Kar-wai taught me how to act. It’s more like I learned what real acting is through working with him. I spent six hours making up everyday in those days and, when the director arrived at the studio as I was almost done making up, he would have a couple pages brought to me by someone, hand-written in Hong Kong style traditional Chinese (mainland schools only teach simplified Chinese). Then someone had to explain to me what scenes the director wanted to shoot and how the story went in them.
I learned there and then you don’t have to be thoroughly prepared to give a really good performance, because it depends mostly on your mood at that moment. It depends on how much the mood affects you and how much feedback you display in acting. That’s what I call performance with minimal acting.
Host: After these films, did you feel you can act, know how to act and is a good actor?
ZZ: That’s correct. I realized I would use what I have learned in my next creative project. So, I don’t think I will wish to prepare mentally for the right mood before filming a scene in the future, like I’ve somehow reached a certain level of enlightenment. I no longer see the need to memorize every word in the script and then rehearse every move and how to deliver my lines. I just don’t like to work like this any more. I like unblemished naturalness, which sometimes gives you the urge to cry, or smile.
Narrator: Zhang Ziyi’s performance in 2046 has been described as a breakthrough in her acting career. The film won her the best actress in a leading role honor at the 11th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Award Ceremony. Meanwhile, her progress also drew attention from celebrated Hollywood Director Steven Spielberg, who signed her up to play Sayuri, the leading character in the period drama Memoirs of a Geisha he was producing. Because all dialog in the movie is in English and recorded simultaneously, it was yet another tough challenge for Ziyi, who could hardly speak a complete sentence in English at that time.
Host: I heard you talked to Director Zhang Yimou after accepting the role and he said it was very difficult to portray a character in a language other than your mother tongue.
ZZ: Director Zhang said it would probably be extremely hard. I don’t know why, but it just etched in my mind that it would be next to impossible to portray a character in a second language.
Host: But you took the leap of faith despite the looming challenge, didn’t you?
ZZ: I had a chat with the director, Rob Marshall, of Memoirs of a Geisha. I admitted to him I could not speak English and had just started learning it. He really warmed my heart when he said : Ziyi, you just do your best to learn English and don’t worry about anything else. At that moment I felt myself suddenly some pounds lighter. I met him in New York for dinner, where I spoke all the English words I knew, about 50 of them I guess, then I just kept eating when I was left English-less.
Host: Repeated those words many times, I assume.
ZZ: There was nothing I could do except tell him the food was really good. But I was honest with him. I told him I couldn’t speak English but was willing to learn. And I would let him know when I ran into any problem.
Narrator: After Memoirs of a Geisha was released worldwide, Ziyi’s acting skills won recognition from many critics around the world. On December 13, 2005, the organizers of the 63rd Golden Globe Awards announced the nominees. Zhang Ziyi was nominated for the best actress in a leading role in a drama movie for her performance in Memoirs. However, she saw the Golden Globe go to someone else at the award ceremony held on January 17, this year.
Host: You were nominated for a Golden Globe but didn’t win, and you didn’t get nominated for an Oscar. Were you disappointed?
ZZ: No. I thought, as a foreigner, I made a movie with your language and won recognition from your critics. That was enough for me to give myself a thumbs up already.
Host: What was the biggest gain you made through making Memoirs of a Geisha?
ZZ: I proved it was not impossible to portray a character in a second language.
Host: You felt you can do it.
Host: Do you think you have thus found yourself a place in Hollywood now?
ZZ: I don’t really care. Even if everybody says I’m now established in Hollywood and many people now recognize me, I still don’t see it a big deal.
Host: So, entering Hollywood is not part of your current plan?
ZZ: No. I’m very easy to be pleased. Just give me a good role in a good movie. I don’t care if it is shot in Hollywood, India or Malaysia for that matter. I don’t see any difference there. The catch for me is to be able to live my character’s life. That’s greatest happiness I can have (as an actor).
Host: Have you thought of settling there (Hollywood)?
ZZ: Not yet.
Host: Not even in the future?
ZZ: I like Beijing best.
Host: A Beijing girl.
ZZ: Right. I think nothing compares to staying in Beijing. That’s why I am reluctant to leave as it is time again to go somewhere else.
Narrator: It has been eight years since she appeared in The Road Home, Zhang Ziyi has won kudos from the judges at Cannes, Oscars, Golden Globes and other major international award committees. She has grown from an inexperienced college student to one of the most watched movie actresses of Chinese descent.
Host: Many people would say you have been exceptionally lucky. It seems as if you are not walking or running forward on your own, but actually pushed forward by many people, some of them big shots in the business who line up to give you a lift.
ZZ: I don’t see it that way. How much effort I have made for the characters I portrayed? I’m probably the only one who know best, maybe those around me at work, too. Movie audiences are not likely to find that out in my films. I’m very grateful to all those who helped me throughout these years, as you mentioned just now, so many great people who helped me. But I believe I wouldn’t have made it this far without giving 100% myself.
Host: Any plan for your future?
ZZ: No long-term plan at the moment, because I don’t know when I can really take it easy. Have a home of my own, get married and have children. I don’t know when that will come. Maybe someday in the distant future. But right now I think my life is quite enjoyable as it is, especially when I’m making a movie. I just want to make good movies.
Host: I was talking about your career.
ZZ: Oh! So I was fantasizing.
Host: Really no plan at all?
ZZ: No. After all, I have no idea what movie I will make next. I’m taking one step at a time.
Host: OK. Thank you very much.
ZZ: Not at all. Thank you.
Translated by Jiminthemiddle for HelloZiyi.us