Vanity Fair

Star of China

October 2007   |   Written by Evgenia Peretz
A handful of Chinese actresses – Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Bai Ling – have come this close to capturing of hard-to-please American audiences. Ziyi Zhang, who stars in two movies – The Horsemen, a thriller with Dennis Quaid, out in December, and Mei Lanfang, a biopic about China’s most famous opera singer – may well close the deal. Likely, you remember this former ballerina’s dazzling martial-arts feats while flying through the air in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), or how she pretended to be blind in Zhang Yimou’ House of Flying Daggers (2004). Her role as a headstrong geisha in Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Currently in production, Mei Lanfang, in which she plays an opera singer who’s a male impersonator, is requiring the same kind of physical exactitude as playing a geisha – without the silly giggles and dainty pouring of tea. Under the tutelage of two peking Opera masters, she’s learning how to tilt her head, adjust her clothing, and own the stage like a confident member of opposite sex. “This kind of training usually starts at a very young age, and it lasts a lifetime” says Zhang. “Here, I am learning it in a few months.”

Once reluctant to learn English and having little use for Hollywood, Zhang, who lives in Beijing, now understands the appeal. For one thing, there are days off, and everyone is constantly doling out praise. As for Hollywood the town, she looks on it with healthy bemusement. “Everyone is running around every day, all day long, but you don’t know what they are doing. Good thing they never tire!”