Ziyi looked noticeably relaxed and dressed in a black one-piece in heels. The interviewee and her chatted informally about Ziyi’s married brother and her baby niece before the interview proper starts. Conducted in Mandarin, Ziyi’s native tongue.
A: Actually I’m not so concerned if the production is Hollywood or China-based. I don’t think that’s important at all. Something must be there to attract you and give you a confidence and impulse to tackle a role.
Q: Your schedule…lately you’ve announced you were shooting The Horsemen.
A: It’s finished…
A: …Yes, the shooting ended around the Lunar new year, in Canada. Next I might be shooting… another English-language film, with Jang Dong Gun – the debut of a Korean director…
Q: A Hollywood film?
A: Yes, a Hollywood film, with the producers and production company behind The Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’ll be a boy-girl Western, set in the 60s – a cowboy romance. With some adventures too. It’ll be interesting.
Q: At Cannes this year at the Q&A sessions I hear you speak English. You were fantastic.
A: (Laughs) Far from that – I’m still nervous…But I think you must keep practicing a language you learn. I’m getting much more comfortable and fluent with it now, though.
Q: Did you take time off to learn the language, in the US, last year?
A: Not really. Less than one month into shooting, I ended up enrolling on a three-month class. It’s really hard work to put in prior to the shoots.
Q: Where exactly? New York?
A: Yes, at the Julliard School. And with a speech coach. It’s interesting, you get to sit at lectures every day. At Central China Drama Academy where I graduate, it’s a very traditional, professional teaching style. I ran over to see how the American lectures are taught. They’re very interesting.
Q: Does it differ from us much?
A: Very much similar…They practice lines like we do: those with the consonants N and L. Then you must keep repeating them, like: “Now, Now, Now–!” You get up at six for a morning session, where you aspirate the N-L consonants at the windows…
Q: Too basic for you, isn’t it?
A: Yes, but I watch them do it, out of curiosity, they’re not part of my curriculum. I’m really there to see for myself how they do things in America. To see the difference from China. It’s interesting to know the Americans are still doing these consonant practices in their third year!…But on the whole, the US and China approaches are intrinsically the same.
Q: I saw your media interview. You were taking classes and the metro there? You must be glad to know you could travel around on a public train!
A: Yes, it’s rather free out there…
Q: Didn’t anyone recognize you?
A: Yes, but it’s OK…something funny happened while I was there: I was walking my dog in NY City one day…it crapped and I was picking its defecate up to the bin, when a stranger came over…a foreigner…and asked me if I was her. It was embarrassing but very funny. To be looking for a rubbish bin with crap in your hands when this happened…
Q: Do you feel more at ease and relaxed there?
A: Actually, I love going back to Beijing. It’s my home, where I schooled and where my friends are. I can speak my Beijing dialect there too…and the paparazzi aren’t as bad. When someone tells you apart at the supermarket, it’s kind of neighborly. I like to be able to shop for dishwashing detergents or toiletries…
Q: You mean, as of now?
A: Yes, as of now…I still do measurements of the carpet myself…These are domestic pleasures you can’t forsake. They’re important.
Q: How would you define a world-influencing Chinese? [She was chosen as one of 10 most Influential Chinese in the World in 2006].
A: You should an elite in your field and very positive in your influence. Or a role model. There’re many great people out there. I don’t see myself as exceptional person, but I lived in a good era and participated in many good productions. As for world influence – it’s too big an ambition.
Q: How has your influence affect yourself? Because you do affect people around here.
A: Let me use a script I saw lately as an example, which gave me a part as an interpreter at the Immigration Department. It’s an interesting movie, a little like Crash or Babel, a vignette-collage that interlinks people of races and cultural backgrounds together. But I read it and had to turn it down immediately. I like the role, but I can’t accept the message he was getting across. Not as a Chinese.
Q: Were there…racist undertones in it?
A: Yes…like it says the Chinese government silences dissidents who must flee abroad. I don’t do roles like this, it violates my principle. As a Chinese, I don’t think it depicts the China I know and I can’t, for a movie, do something which demeans our national dignity. I can’t do it. Now, on reflection, when you know more people are keeping tabs on you with your minor successes, you’d consider each decision you take more carefully, naturally.
Q: Is Memoirs of a Geisha different?
A: Memoirs is different, it doesn’t defame our ethnicity or country. Whether you’re reading the script or the book, it’s just a simple, great love story. And it teaches us to be unyielding before adversities. I don’t see anything wrong in these values at all.
Q: A lot of home audiences take issue with the love story and the onscreen passion – I’m sure you know…
A: Yes, it’s been [nearly two] years now, and I don’t like to say too much on this, because clear-sighted audiences will know that to have three Chinese actresses as leads in a major, A-grade international film project – that’s something to be proud of.
The Japanese were angry because no Japanese actresses were chosen as leads. They lament ethnic Japanese can’t compete in the international market.
When you think about it…it’s pointless to squabble…there are much more important and meaningful things to do.
(On internet attacks)
We [meaning interviewer, a TV host] are both at the forefronts of the news, public figures. You know, like I do, we needn’t have to be bothered by these. These attacks may originate from the web or the tabloids, but you won’t know from who exactly, and his or her cultural background. He may be a drunk or a healthy man of the street – you’ll never know. I think it absurd to be troubled…someone asked me this time round if I bared my back for a photo shoot. I just laughed it off…I think I’m a happy person still, my attitude in these matters relatively collected and healthy…I don’t get involved, or get along pretending who I’m not.
Q: I have a series of questions – a psychological questionnaire, really – for you. Relax – they’re just very simple queries.
What sort of ability do you crave most?
A: Ability do I crave most?
Q: Like acting abilities, which you have…or say, to be a good wife. Any childhood reverie, like as Supergirl?
A: (laughs) I don’t really indulge in dreams as a kid, like to fly or leap in a bounce. I know they are impossible. (Thinks for half a minute)
Q: We’ll come back to that…could you be hiding something? Hmm.
A: Gimme a minute!
(Some time passes after a commercial break)
A: Got it… I think it must be…the ability to repay others.
Q: Repay others? You mean, with gratitude?
A: That’s right.
Q: Repay who, to be exact?
A: I’m not thinking of one person in particular. And there are just so many to repay and thank – my teachers who mentor me, the directors, my parents, friends who gave me so much love.
I think the society is getting too complex, everyone’s impatient and wants more. Take babies for instance. Even an infant would grab things they want – they wouldn’t give it up. It’s in our nature. Even in prayers we’re asking for this or that. Shouldn’t humans learn to give more than to take? I don’t know if we’re asking too much.
Q: Could it be because you already had so much, that you brood on this?
A: Maybe it’s because…I’ve gradually grown up and matured. I don’t know…feelings affect me a lot as a person. When you see a movie or something you like, you will think and come to an epiphany… and burst in tears. Every day if you look at things in a [thankful] mould, you’ll learn more. If we are sensitive and willing to use our hearts. [Zhang is an ambassador for the Special Olympic Games]
(On Respecting others)
We should bear a respect for everyone you meet. I often wonder if I weren’t the person I am, would people treat me the same way as they do now? I think about this.
I might joke with a waiter at just about any restaurant…I don’t think we must distinguish between people – it’s just that God, or fate, made something happen to you, or someone else, in this life and the next. For what I’ve achieved, I feel there are just too many people I must thank. These feelings are buried innermost in my heart. If I get the chance to [repay, I would]…I don’t know…these things affect a person’s view of life…
Q: Do you have an abiding life maxim?
A: Life maxim? (Thinks) Maybe this: A person should never be arrogant, but one must have some degree of pride.
Q: I like this. We hear this often as kids.
A: It’s meaningful and applicable to everyone, I think.
Q: Who would you say you admire most amongst persons alive today?
A: To be frank, when a person gets admired and looked up to for all he’s achieved, the reasons are somewhat universal.
But more than anyone, I respect people who may be minor players in life. They may be unimportant to the rest, but may go after some dream of their own. Maybe for the whole of their lives. This [steadfastness] moves me a lot.
Q: What’s your ideal lifestyle?
A: One of freedom.
Q: How do you wield off your troubles?
A: I talk to people.
Q: With -?
A: You could talk to your lover or your close friends about your troubles; but you can’t let your family know some things, like the grievances you suffer. You wouldn’t want to pass them on to your parents.
Q: What’s your greatest grievance?
A: Not that I want any! (Laughs)
Q: Or what aggrieves you most.
Q: (sympathetically) Did anyone deceive you?
A: Not in a relationship…I feel…(she looks a little sad) We are back on this topic again…Because I stand on the tip of a tsunami wave, metaphorically, you wouldn’t know…you wouldn’t know what would happen if I don’t toughen myself…And if you are not confident enough, or keep your feet firmly on the ground, you fall to unexpected adversities. You can’t control some things…maybe your love life and career, like who you choose to love, or your friends or kin, you can, but mostly we are passive receivers. You must be strong and learn to protect yourself.
Q: What do you like best in an individual of an opposite sex?
A: (thinks seriously) He must be…
Q: Honest, again?
A: Honest, steadfast, faithful, for sure…(thinks seriously) I feel I don’t need not just simple professions of love. His love must be…generous and…open, all-abiding.
Q: Last question: If amongst all these you now have – youth, beauty, wealth, health, kinship and love – God could only let you have one left, which would it be?
A: Just one? Can I pick kinship and love? (they laugh)
Q: Two? Actually a close lover is like family too.
A: It should be kinship and love, I think. If you could die in the arms of someone who loves you, it’s a kind of happiness in itself.
Health is important, but every one must die some day.
Q: Interesting answer. I’ve crossed out a question intended in this questionnaire though. A bit cruel…It asks you your preferred way to die.
A: Like the way I’ve said before [laughs].
[On her love life]
A: It’s my greatest wish, like all girls…[to get married happily]. I don’t dream of nabbing Best Actress or walking the red carpet…these things mean nothing to me, but a happy family stays with you for life.
Q: You’ve said it’s hard for you to find a life partner. Why?
A: Because I don’t need one. I don’t need financial support, but a spiritual soul-mate. Through these years, I’ve earned enough to keep myself, my family and friends sufficiently happy. It’s the rapport and what I could learn from a man which attracts me.
Q: Have you met many suitors? Or are you too picky?
A: I don’t know…Life is strange…if you are me, you get to meet lots of people worldwide…out of millions, you choose one and live together and then you get a baby. It’s endlessly fascinating.
Q: Some friends keep asking me why you were so famous. Was it because Zhang Ziyi was, after all, just very lucky?
A: You’re right, many fellow actresses wondered if they could ever get the lucky breaks that I had, as in my debut with director Zhang Yimou, or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger. These films acquaint the world public to me at large. And I’ve wondered myself too. Were someone else to have these lucky breaks, wouldn’t they have made it too, like I did?
But I think you must still do your best. I performed my tasks conscientiously and superlatively enough. In other words, there’s no short-cuts, anywhere. Everyone see the glam, but they don’t see how much sacrifice you must make behind the scenes. I’ve come to realize successes don’t necessarily follow luck.
Q: Out of the three Chinese directors you’ve worked with – Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, now Feng Xiaogang – whose appraisal meant most to you?
A: I have very different feelings regarding each of the three. Let’s start off with Feng Xiaogang. I didn’t know Feng Xiaogang until we made The Banquet together. Now we’ve become good friends. He would tell me everything…even his misfortunes and all. I think it’s a wonderful thing, this sharing, because he’s treating you as a friend, sharing his joys and miseries alike. I like his character, his frankness, and I’d love to do another movie with him. Because of my help he competed in his first Film Festival, at Venice, and he felt indebted to me…I think there’s no need for gratitude at all. He always sees the best in me and believe in me, and that move me a lot.
Ang Lee will always be a friend. Because he make me to be who I am through Crouching Tiger, and more importantly, because I learn from him how to handle and overcome difficulties. We kept in touch a year after the movie was shot, he’d call and ask me to pick up prizes and give speeches on his behalf. I think he trusted me enough.
As for director Zhang Yimou, need one say more? We are simply “buddies”.
Q: What do you think Hollywood directors see in you?
A: I don’t know what, exactly, but I daresay it’s really tough out there. The logic is simple: just think, how many Hollywood actors do you need in China? Close to none. The converse is also true in Hollywood. They don’t need that many Asian faces out there. Our roles we get to play are very restricted.
Q: As an Asian – and Chinese – working in Hollywood, do directors there demand more from you, or are they more lenient?
A: I don’t think there’s a difference. It depends on what that one particular director wants from a movie. You don’t set your standard lower for, say, an Asian or Chinese actress. I see that as a disrespectful gesture. If you respect me, there shouldn’t be any lines drawn. I may have my personal difficulties, but that’s entirely my own problem.
Q: Last question. You’re still very young. With so much exposure and media pressure around, are you happy now?
A: Very. I’m doing something I enjoy, doing the parts I like, living a happy life. I have a warm family and someone to love – what more can you ask?
As for all those dishonesties we spoke about, let’s just be ourselves and remain truthful, and these things should not affect us.
Translated by KY Chong for HelloZiyi.us