June 01, 2006   |   Written by Ingrid Sischy
Ziyi: she’s spirited, she’s in demand, she’s starring in big American movies, and oh, yeah, she’s from China — talking to the woman who may just be the first Chinese actress to become a household name in America

Ingrid Sischy: Where would you say you are in your life at this moment?

Ziyi Zhang: It’s just beginning, hopefully.

IS: And a lot has happened. It seems like you’re in a good position to be the first Chinese actress to truly cross over to Hollywood–that’s if you want, of course.

ZZ: Because of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [2000] and Hero [2004] and Memoirs of a Geisha, a lot of people in the United States have become interested not only in me but in Chinese and Asian actors in general. Because of these movies, maybe there will be more opportunities for Asian actors.

IS: What I find so interesting is that this is happening at the same moment that America and Europe have begun to realize how much they need Asia. I can think of many influential people in fashion and art who feel that the way to extend their work in the 21st century is by understanding and expanding into both China and India. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I think Hollywood knows that its survival is dependent on a bigger worldview. So having said that, given how vast China is together with the incredible reputation you have there already, why is America a draw for you? At least I’m assuming it is. But is it?

ZZ: [laughs] Working in America was interesting because I got the opportunity to work on a film like Memoirs of a Geisha–I loved the script, the role, and the subject. I don’t really care where I make a movie or that in Hollywood they pay you in dollars or give you your own trailer.

IS: So for you what matters is the content?

ZZ: Yes. Otherwise I could have done a lot of Hollywood movies. After Crouching Tiger I got a lot of offers, but I turned them down because they were all victim roles–poor girls sold to America to be a wife or whatever. I know I have the ability to go deeper, to take on more original roles than that. That’s why I really appreciated Geisha, because it allowed us to show the world what kind of actors we are and what kind of characters we can play–not just action, kick-ass parts.

IS: Well, that leads to something I’m sure you were asked to comment on a lot last year, especially when Geisha came out–the decision by the director, Rob Marshall, to cast Chinese actresses in the geisha roles, even though the geisha is unique to Japanese culture. Was this simply about political correctness or something deeper?

ZZ: A director is only interested in casting someone he believes is appropriate for a role. For instance, my character had to go from age 15 to 35; she had to be able to dance, and she had to be able to act, so he needed someone who could do all that. I also think that regardless of whether someone is Japanese or Chinese or Korean, we all would have had to learn what it is to be a geisha, because almost nobody today knows what that means–not even the Japanese actors on the film.

IS: Besides, isn’t becoming someone else what acting is all about? Ultimately the protesting does come down to some kind of tyranny of political correctness, doesn’t it? It was like saying that black men could play Othello but not Romeo.

ZZ: Geisha was not meant to be a documentary. I remember seeing in the Chinese newspaper a piece that said we had only spent six weeks to learn everything and that that was not respectful toward the culture. It’s like saying that if you’re playing a mugger, you have to rob a certain number of people. To my mind, what this issue is all about, though, is the intense historical problems between China and Japan. The whole subject is a land mine. Maybe one of the reasons people made such a fuss about Geisha [which was officially banned in China but was a big hit in the underground-DVD business] was that they were looking for a way to vent their anger.

IS: For as many people who were stuck on the issue, I’m sure there were just as many who found it liberating, because it showed how we can all exchange roles and imagine what it is to be the other person. Let’s move on. I know you can’t go anywhere in China without being recognized. In America you seem to have a much more anonymous existence. Why?

ZZ: If you’ll excuse me for saying so, I think it’s because to many Americans, Asian girls all look the same, so people don’t really recognize me. And I think only certain kinds of people here are interested in seeing the types of movies I make.

IS: So you’re saying that the audience here in America is very stratified. What words would help me to understand China today?

ZZ: Changing. Multileveled, in the sense that rich people are very rich, and poor people still have it very hard. Satisfied. Reality. Exciting. Loyal to the government.

IS: In America some of us don’t like our government, and we say it.

ZZ: I think the Chinese do support theirs. Twenty years ago, under Deng Xiaopeng, our country was totally different. The standard of living wasn’t as great as it is now. People today are happy and excited but keep the old traditions and continue to work very hard. More Chinese are making money and can read, but they still try to live with their feet on the ground.

IS: I always imagine China as full of culture.

ZZ: Some cities are, particularly the big ones like Shanghai and Beijing. They’re changing so fast, and people are seeing a lot of new things now. It’s making people very perceptive, because they’re exposed to a lot. But inside they’re still very traditional.

IS: I know China is your home. But do you feel that experiencing American culture allows you to see China in a new way?

ZZ: I feel like I’m still very classic Chinese. Even though I’m around a lot of foreigners, I don’t think the way I view things has changed.

IS: But you could help change views. Now, didn’t you attend a school for dance when you were very young?

ZZ: Yes, when I was 11. It was a school where you study traditional Chinese dance.

IS: Did you want to go away to school?

ZZ: It wasn’t my choice. But by the time I was 14 or 15, I really wanted to leave because of all the catty fights and jealousies. I even tried to run away once.

IS: How far did you get?

ZZ: [laughs] As far as the garden. I just wanted to lie down by myself and look at the sky and feel freedom–the air, the stars, the moon. There was so much pressure, and I couldn’t stand it. I remember lying there crying, trying to hide in the grass even though it wasn’t so high. But someone noticed that the door was unlocked and called the teachers. I could hear them shouting my name, and they tried to find me. I didn’t know what would happen; I didn’t want to think about it. Then they called my home and asked my morn to come; when I heard her voice, it made me cry. I jumped up and yelled, “I’m here!” That’s the only thing I did that was very brave. The next day I thought, Oh, I’m a hero. [laughs]

IS: And then at a certain age you decided to apply to the drama school in Beijing, right?

ZZ: Yeah. I knew I didn’t have a future in dance. I wanted to do something else, and a friend suggested I try the drama school because a lot of great actors had come out of it.

IS: Did you have to audition?

ZZ: Yes. It had a written part and an acting part. It took one whole week because there were so many different things to do.

IS: And this was competing with hundreds of other applicants?

ZZ: Yeah, they accept eight girls each year.

IS: How did you react when you got in?

ZZ: I was laughing and just really, really happy. I think my parents were very nervous, though, because my family is not in this business. When I decided to leave the dancing school, they told me I had to continue my studies because I was only 16. The first year, I couldn’t get used to rehearsing because there were always so many people around, plus you had to do things like be a monkey or an old lady or a beggar. I was so shy I’d cry during class.

IS: So how many films did you make before Crouching Tiger, the movie that made you famous?

ZZ: It was only my second project, which is why they say it happened so fast for me. The Chinese couldn’t understand why overnight I was suddenly famous in America, too. Crouching Tiger didn’t do well in China–before we released the movie in theaters there, a pirate version came out on DVD; plus, this kind of big Chinese movie that’s so popular in America is not so appreciated in China. A Chinese person is like, “So what? It’s just action.”

IS: It was received as a new thing in the U.S. But there’s also a whole emotional component to the film. Were you shocked by the sudden fame? Was it difficult to handle?

ZZ: At that moment I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. Now I watch how my movies do at the box office and what people are saying about them. Back then I knew nothing, because I had no English and had no ability to communicate.

IS: So they just dragged you around the world from one premiere to the next?

ZZ: Yeah. I began to understand that people loved the movie; I just didn’t know how big it was going to become. And then I ended up walking the red carpet at the Academy Awards.

IS: What did you think of that?

ZZ: Oh, my God! Julia Roberts! Tom Hanks! [laughs] I walked by all of my idols. That was my first impression of the Oscars, and I still think of them that way.

IS: Did they speak to you?

ZZ: Yes. Tom Hanks said something like, “You’re the girl from Crouching Tiger–I love that movie. You did a great job.” [laughs]

IS: I know you’ve done three films with Zhang Yimou. Have you had a lot of close relationships with your directors?

ZZ: I think so. I’ve been lucky these last few years working with Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, Wong Kar Wai. I keep them as my friends because they each helped me so much. If any of those people ever needed me to help them out, I’d be there like that. [Zhang snaps her fingers] Sometimes if I’m having a difficult time making a decision, I’ll go to Zhang Yimou, who I consider my best friend and who is a great director and someone I always trust.

IS: There’s a story they tell about you in connection with Steven Spielberg–

ZZ: I met him, like, five years ago–for no project in particular. I didn’t know any English at the time, so my agent told me to say, “Hire me, please.” So I did, and he said, “Oh, my God, who taught you that?” It was really funny.

IS: Now there’s a line at your door. Does it feel like there’s a wide-open horizon before you in America?

ZZ: I’m pessimistic, actually, because I just don’t think there are that many opportunities for us Asian actors.

IS: America, though, is supposed to be a melting pot of different cultures, and people have begun to realize that our cultural products must reflect that reality.

ZZ: Oh, I hope so. But look how long it took from The Last Emperor [1987] to Memoirs of a Geisha.

IS: Have you shot a lot in Hong Kong?

ZZ: No. Mostly in Beijing. I did spend two months in Hong Kong making 2046. I was so scared of Wong Kar Wai because he always wears dark sunglasses, and I didn’t know him at all, and the whole group spoke Cantonese, whereas I speak Mandarin. Every time I went to the set, I’d drink a bottle of sake. I’d make myself tipsy.

IS: Well, it was a good decision, because you’re unforgettable in the movie.

ZZ: A lot of scenes were improvised, and we didn’t have a script or lines. You just had to be in character. It was hard and totally awkward. I tried to be relaxed, so one day I decided to wear sunglasses, too. I thought, Oh, they can’t see my eyes, so I won’t be nervous anymore.

IS: And since Geisha?

ZZ: I shot a Chinese historical drama called The Banquet.

IS: Was this with a well-known director?

ZZ: Yes, a very famous one, known for comedy. But this was the first time he did a big project with a big budget and an old-period setting. It’s quite exciting.

IS: And when you’re not working?

ZZ: I try to spend time in Beijing with my family.

IS: So here’s my last question: If you close your eyes and picture where you feel happiest and most relaxed, where would it be?

ZZ: On an airplane going anywhere for a long trip–no phones, only myself, and if I stop thinking, everything is very quiet and peaceful.