'I Felt Like a Mouse and Ang Lee was a Lion'
Zhang Ziyi on acting, stardom and Richard Gere
At 20, Zhang Ziyi is already poised to become China’s top actress. The star of director Ang Lee’s new film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang steals the show from co-stars Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh. She speaks with Time Asia reporter Stephen Short about the pressures of filming and her determination to master English before a possible career move to Hollywood
TIME: You must have been pretty scared when you got picked to work alongside star actors Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh and the director Ang Lee?
Zhang: I was very scared. The director chose me although he didn’t really know me. At least with Yun-fat or Yeoh, he knew what the outcome would be. I felt pressure, a pressure not to disappoint the director. I felt like I was a mouse and Ang Lee was a lion. It was daunting.
TIME: In which scene do you do your best acting?
Zhang: It’s when I first meet Michelle Yeoh, when she comes to me to seek out the sword. Although I know the whole story because I stole the sword, I have to play innocent. I have to pretend I know nothing. I like that scene very much. The bamboo scene too is very unusual. I had to swing up and down, swirl, and remember to try and act at the same time. It was physically very demanding on me to act while fighting.
TIME: You’re perched on the mantelpiece of stardom, more so than [Chinese actress] Gong Li ever was at your age. What are your priorities?
Zhang: The first thing I have to do is learn English. If I can grasp command of the language, then perhaps I can think about the U.S. I think times are different now from Gong Li’s day. Chinese cinema has been rising for some time, has more exposure, and therefore my chances of becoming internationally known are better.
TIME: Are you feeling any marketing/media pressure right now?
Zhang: I don’t mind being called the ‘Little Gong Li.’ Westerners think we are similar. But I feel no pressure. Though I really have to learn English.
TIME: What do your parents do? Are they artistic?
Zhang: No. My father’s an economist and my mother’s a kindergarten teacher.
TIME: And what do they think of what you’re doing?
Zhang: They realize it’s a very good opportunity for me and I think they are comfortable with that.
TIME: When did you first come to know [Chinese director] Zhang Yimou?
Zhang: In 1997. He had to make a shampoo commercial and he sent an assistant director around Beijing’s acting and performing institutions for casting. We arranged a time to meet at 1 o’clock but I got the time confused and thought it was 3 o’clock. When I arrived I was two hours late and everyone had gone — I was worried. Then I phoned the assistant director and asked why no one had waited and he said, ‘God, lady, please, you’re two hours late.’ So I said, ‘O.K., forget about it.’ Then the assistant said, ‘No, maybe Zhang Yimou can see you another time.’ So I went for another casting session a few days later, which I thought was just going to be me and him, but when I got there the room was full of people. Yimou was very casual and frank.
TIME: I heard Zhang Yimou recommended you to Ang Lee for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
Zhang: Not really. I knew Ang Lee was making a movie in Beijing but at the time I did not feel a great urge to get involved. I knew very little about it. Then when I was at the Beijing Film Studio one day, some pictures were taken of me and they got sent to Ang. Later, I was asked to attend a casting.
TIME: How much did you get paid for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
Zhang: I think when you work with such well-known directors, that’s payment enough.
TIME: What’s next for you?
Zhang: Well, I just finished shooting Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain II for [Hong Kong] director Tsui Hark. It also stars Cecilia Cheung, Ekin Cheng, Sammo Hung et cetera.
TIME: Is it in Mandarin or Cantonese?
Zhang: It’s in Cantonese, and I was the only person speaking Mandarin. It was quite frustrating and painful to shoot as I couldn’t understand much of what the others were saying, and I just had to try and follow the sounds and ask what was going on.
TIME: And after that?
Zhang: In August I start shooting a film by a Korean director in which I’ll be the only Chinese actress. I play a princess living in the Ming dynasty, and I have to run away from turmoil and political war. I’ve heard the film won’t be released in Beijing. I think it’s a really special opportunity to make a non-Chinese film. I like Korean and Japanese movies and their production methods. They’re very exciting.
TIME: Which Western actors do you admire?
Zhang: When I was very small, I remember watching Richard Gere in the film Sommersby. I like him a lot.
TIME: I know you went to see Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Did you enjoy it?
Zhang: Very much. It was spectacular. I cried and cried. There was a Westerner sitting next to me and he was crying too. It was strange to be in that situation.
TIME: Did you see Red Corner with one of your counterparts Bai Ling, because that film was banned in China, wasn’t it?
Zhang: Yes it was. I have seen it though on video.
TIME: How do you rate [Canto-pop diva] Faye Wong?
Zhang: I like her. I have all her albums.
TIME: Any other Hong Kong stars?
Zhang: Leslie Cheung. I love Leslie Cheung. I met him once in Beijing at an MTV dinner. We went out for dinner once but we didn’t talk much about moviemaking. I’d love to make a film with him though.
TIME: I’ll tell him that. Did you ever have his poster on your bedroom wall in Beijing?
Zhang: No, but I have his CDs et cetera I first heard him on an album which I think is called Rich in Love, or something like that. He sings with not just his voice, but with passion and from his heart. I had to ask my classmates whose voice it was and they told me it was Leslie Cheung. Then I started trying to see his movies.
TIME: Do you have any projects after the Korean movie?
Zhang: I think it’s a little too early to say at this point. Nothing is confirmed yet. Also, I’m very keen on making movies with great directors, so I don’t want to take scripts casually. I want them to be special.
TIME: Do you watch a lot of Hong Kong films?
Zhang: Hong Kong movies are a mix of commercial and arty films. A lot of it is not meaningful and valuable to me for that reason. I like movies like In The Mood For Love which have a small audience, but I couldn’t really follow it that closely. It was in Cantonese with French — but the acting was expressive and the whole impression of the film was elegant.
TIME: Could you live in Hong Kong?
Zhang: Forget it. I want to be with friends and I have no friends or relatives there.