A Woman We Love: Ziyi Zhang

January 01, 2006   |   Written by Reed Tucker

Call her Ziyi Zhang or Zhang Ziyi. Either way, she’s a Woman We Love.

Ziyi Zhang (or Zhang Ziyi, as she’s known in China) has just checked herself into a Beijing hospital. She is suffering from a mysterious respiratory ailment that she developed on the set of the Chinese film The Banquet. We feel for her .But for the doctors on duty, the shift just got a lot more interesting. The five-foot-five, twenty-six-year-old Zhang is among the most delicately beautiful women in the world, and roles in Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have made her a superstar in her country. Zhang grew up in Beijing, the daughter of an economist and a teacher, and was discovered by director Zhang Yimou at an audition for a shampoo commercial. This month., she stars in Memoirs of a Geisha, her first role in English – a language she only began learning a few years ago at the suggestion of director Ang Lee.

A Woman We Love

ESQ: What are you doing in the hospital? And you better not say bird flu.

ZZ: I feel sick for a couple of weeks. They think something wrong with – what’s that called? – windpipe. The conditions are very bad in China. There is much pollution inside the studio. We build a whole palace inside the studio and they use very bad…gas? [In the background, her translator says, “Fumes.”] Fumes!

ESQ: You live in Beijing in an apartment with your parents, right?

ZZ: Yes. When I was eleven, I went to boarding school. I left home to study on my own, so I didn’t spend that much time with my parents. So now I have chance to spend time with them.

ESQ: Do they have lots of rules?

ZZ: I have freedom. I’m big girl. They’re pretty – how you say? – relaxed. But they’re proud of me. My daddy always asks my autograph for his friends, his leaders.

ESQ: What was it like coming to America for the first time?

ZZ: That was 1999, I think. I was nineteen. I only had one idea: I wanted to go to the real McDonald’s.

ESQ: You and Yao Ming are supposedly the two most famous people in China. You should date.

ZZ: Nooo. He’s such a big boy.

ESQ: How is being famous in China different from in America?

ZZ: I think it’s much relaxed here. The paparazzi is not so crazy. I’m happy to be here and have no – how you say? – stalker.

ZZ: Do you find it strange that Chinese actors were cast to play Japanese women in Memoirs of a Geisha?

ZZ: I don’t feel strange, because that’s my job, to play different kind of people. It’s really hard for us to learn how to be a – what’s that word? I learn last night? Ah, yes. Convincing. Convincing geisha.

ESQ: You were recently invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

ZZ A big honor. I have chance to watch great movies.

ESQ: And some not so great.

ZZ: Yes. But I think I can raise my – how you say? [long burst of Mandarin to translator] – level.

ESQ: What’s the best Hollywood movie you’ve seen recently?

ZZ: I like Cinderella Man.

ESQ: Did you watch it in English or dubbed?

ZZ: I got it in Mandarin. We don’t have so many American movies showing in Beijing, in China. I think every year we only have ten American movies. Not that much. We have [rapid-fire Mandarin to translator, then slowly] censorship bureau. They have to give, uh, permission.

ESQ: The Chinese people and press didn’t really embrace you earlier in your career. Is that changing?

ZZ: Yeah, I think it’s much better now, because people understand I don’t just rely on my looks. Because when I get very famous very fast, at that time I was only like nineteen, and they just thought, She’s nothing, she’s just luck. Now I really don’t care, because I know that I just do my movies, and if I do great job, you will see it. It’s not easy to act.