A Hard Act to Follow
“Being true to oneself is the most precious thing, which is why I never hold back. When it’s time to cry, I cry, and when it’s time to smile, I smile”
Last year Zhang, whose credits include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2046 and Memoirs of a Geisha, spent months preparing for her role of Meng Xiaodong in the Chen Kaige-directed film Mei Lanfang.
“I took opera lessons in Beijing: she tells Style. “After my first lesson I felt dejected and downcast. My character is from a particular Peking opera school whice required her to wear shoes with extremely thick soles which made walking really difficult,”
But by drawing on past experiences, Zhang was able to cope. “This wasn’t a new experience for me. Memoirs of Geisha and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were difficult films. I panicked when I received the script for Memoirs of a Geisha because of the new vocabulary.
“It was the same this time. I suddenly realized I was facing the same situation and my only option was to forge ahead.”
Zhang is known for her poise and resilience, essential qualities for a working actress who also happens to be an outstanding beauty. “Occasionally I push myself too hard but l can only blame myself for that” she says. “It’s a kind of masochism. When I select a script, I always ask whether it frightens me or makes me anxious, If I feel any trepidation then I’m more likely to do it. We need challenges before we can know what we can accomplish. I’ve never set out to just have a good time – I never give myself an easy time.
Zhang’s schedule is made even more exhausting by the fact that she has to look her best when she performs or makes public appearances. “It’s natural that I’m tired, not just physically but mentally,” she says.
“Take for example my opera training in Beijing. I slept badly most nights. My mind was swimming with the operatic section and lines from the script.”
Before taking on the role in Mei Lanfang, Zhang faced one of her biggest challenges with the English-language movie, Horsemen, with Dennis Quaid.
“I was playing the role of a Chinese girl who was adopted by an American family, so my English had to be fluent,” she says, with a little shudder. “She was abused by the father; and when she reached her teens, she murdered her mother. She felt that taking away her father’s most prized possession was the only way to make him feel the same agony she had experienced for so many years. Basically, this character’s mind was very twisted and, therefore, my lines were extremely sober and serious. Every word she said was dark and forceful.
“During that time I had nightmares every night. In those three months I did nothing but practise daily with my dialect teacher. I also listened to my lines before going to bed – I almost had a nervous breakdown. I would dream of snakes or that I was falling into a well and things like that. I was under a tremendous amount of pressure. But I knew I had to keep practising.”
Zhang is serious about most things in life. Although she likes a good party, and is often seen out with friends such as Jackie Chan, the Hollywood star prefers to stay home and watch TV. “I like documentaries,” she says. “In China, right now, there are many events that are emotionally charged. We hear about relationships between mothers and daughters or stories about people who are strong in the face of adversity. These stories often move me to tears. As resilient as I am, I get teary. It doesn’t matter to me that some people would have something to say about it. I am not the type to hold back and put on a brave face. I just can’t do that because there is an emotional side to me and it’s hard to control.”
Zhang, who has made 17 major motion pictures. started preparing for her career when she was 11, when she entered the Beijing Dance Academy. At 15 she began studying at China’s prestigious Central Drama Academy. As her talents have developed she has become increasingly convinced that what a woman needs most is her independence.
“I feel that this is a social issue”, she says. “Take this ring on my finger. It was a present I gave myself on my 28th birthday but the media reported that this ring was given to me by my boyfriend. Why is it that when a woman has anything of value it’s assumed that a man gave it to her? I think it’s unfair to the women of today.
“Falling in love is something wonderful and the attachment of a love affair may be the most important part of life; but if one day, you are no longer in that relationship, have you lost your self dependencecy? Have you lost everything without this love? I hope I never become like that. I believe when a woman is independent that’s when she has power.”
Zhang recently took advantage of Hong Kong’s Quality Migrant Admission Scheme and now has the right of permanent residency in HKSAR. She has also, at the time of writing, been involved in a serious relationship with Vivi Nevo, an ex-flame of model Kate Moss. The couple have endured negative press about their difference in age – venture capitalist Nevo is 46 and Zhang is 28 – but that doesn’t bother her. She takes all publicity – good or bad – in her stride. “When I’m faced with difficulty, I firmly believe there’s a solution,” she says. “There’s no reason to be afraid. I guess my experiences have made me this way. I’ve never pretended to be anyone else, and similarly, it’s hard for someone to replicate me”
Zhang Ziyi on style
Q: What is your personal style?
A: I’ve been favouring one-piece dresses recently because they are easy to accessorise. I also like the feminine feel. I also like wide waist belts. Most of my clothes are western-style. I own a lot of sweaters because I don’t like chilly weather.
Q: What is your autumn/winter look?
A: I’m interested in unisex approach such as leather jackets. I might try wearing men’s wear, especially since I’ve always liked the designs for Dior Homme. Today’s fashion does not clearly differentiate between men’s wear and ladies’ wear which is great as I get a wider choice of styles and can freely mix and match. I like the feel of equestrian clothing; it’s bold and daring and gives a sense of strength.
Q: If a designer wants to use you as his muse which of your characteristics would you like him to draw upon?
A: I would like the designer to explore the intricacies of eastern culture. Despite the way the world has shrunk, I still feel that is so much divergence between east and west. I also like John Gailiano, Dior’s designer, he is a wonderfully eccentric individual. He is daring and confident – traits that add character to his designs.
Q: Your favourite gift?
A: A friend once confided in me that her husband only gave her one type of present, lingerie, and I thought that was so romantic.
Q: What are the things that touch you easily?
A: I think it’s beautiful to be able to lay bare one’s true emotions. Being true to oneself is the most precious thing, which is why I never hold back. When it’s time to cry, I cry, and when it’s time to smile, I smile.
Q: What are the qualities that you admire most about yourself?
A: I strive to be grateful and moderate. I admire ordinary people leading simple life. They might not have travelled beyond the borders of their own country of stepped into a grand hotel but, yet, their life is just as full, harmonious and interesting.