New York Daily News

Ziyi Zhang opens up about starring in ‘The Grandmaster’

August 18, 2013   |   Written by Ethan Sacks

The ‘Crouching Tiger’ Beijing beauty found herself in the dead of winter in the Northern Chinese city of Tieli, where director Wong Kar Wai filmed parts of the martial arts epic.

If Ziyi Zhang looks especially agitated during a climactic kung fu fight sequence set in a train station during a swirling blizzard in “The Grandmaster,” she wasn’t entirely acting.

The 34-year-old Beijing beauty found herself in the dead of winter in the Northern Chinese city of Tieli, where director Wong Kar Wai (“In the Mood for Love”) decided to exile his cast and crew to film parts of the visually stunning martial arts epic that opens Friday.

“He could have gone to any place he wanted, but he chose the coldest place possible, really,” Zhang told the News. “Every night, we have to work in minus -30 degrees and my hands and my feet were very numb.

“When you’re doing the action, I had to pretend I’m okay. But the truth is I wasn’t okay. After each take, I had to run back to this little space with a small heater, just shaking there.

“And from the corner of my eyes, I see director Wong Kar Wai sitting there comfortably, wearing three layers of down coat and a fleece scarf,” she adds, laughing.

Had Zhang accepted some of the scripts flowing out of Hollywood when she became an international sensation after 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” she might’ve found herself sitting in a warm trailer on the set of an American romantic comedy instead. But the dancer-turned-actress opted to retreat into superstardom in her native country.

“Not because I don’t want to do anything in America or Hollywood, I think only because the roles were not good enough,” says Zhang. “I don’t want to show people that I can only do action.

“For me, I want to do real characters. (The scripts were) not that bad, just not rich to my standard.”

Frostbite be damned, there’s no place she’d rather have spent almost three years working on a movie that may even eclipse “Crouching Tiger” and 2002’s “Hero” as the most ambitious martial arts movie ever produced.

The film follows the trajectory of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the real life Wing Chun master who would ultimately teach Bruce Lee, but it’s Zhang’s doomed Gong Er who steals the movie.

“Ziyi possesses the same iconic spirit and repertoire that Greta Garbo brought to classic Hollywood,” says the director. “This film would not have been the same without her.”

For an iconic spirit, Zhang is surprisingly low-key — maybe because of her decidedly un-showbiz background. Her dad is an accountant — who bought 100 copies of her first magazine cover to give to everyone he knew — and her mother is a teacher.

Ultimately, she says, she’d like to settle down, start a family and take a break from acting. But in the meantime, she says she hasn’t lost her passion for movies — even if her celebrity means she can no longer shop in a supermarket in Beijing for fear of being mobbed.

“In my normal life, I don’t even know how to put on eyebrows,” says the Maybelline cover girl. “My makeup artist says I know how to put on lipstick, but that’s the only thing I know how to do.”