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November 2005
Memoirs of a Geisha: An Interview with Ziyi Zhang

Memoirs of a Geisha: An Interview with Ziyi Zhang

By Wilson Morales

From drama, to action, and now romance, Ziyi Zhang has tackled a number of different genres in recent years. To American audiences, she will be known as the girl from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", or the girl who kicked Chris Tucker's butt in "Rush Hour 2", but this Chinese actress has developed into a well accomplished thespian. Having seen her in "2046", I knew it was a matter of time before she was given a film to carry and it has finally come. Based on the best-selling book, Memoirs of a Geisha, Zhang plays an impoverished nine-year-old named Chiyo from a fishing village is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto's Gion district and subjected to cruel treatment from the owners and the head geisha Hatsumomo. Her stunning beauty attracts the vindictive jealousy of Hatsumomo, until she is rescued by and taken under the wing of Hatsumomo's bitter rival, Mameha. Under Mameha's mentorship, Chiyo becomes the geisha named Sayuri, trained in all the artistic and social skills a geisha must master in order to survive in her society. As a renowned geisha she enters a society of wealth, privilege, and political intrigue. As World War II looms Japan and the geisha's world are forever changed by the onslaught of history. At a recent press junket in New York City to promote the film, Zhang spoke to blackfilm.com amongst other outlets about her role and the challenges she faced in doing this film.

Ziyi: Good morning.

When we last interviewed you for 'Rush Hour', you didn't speak much English. It's much better now.

Ziyi: I've been learning English very hard. Actually, I'm doing a Chinese movie right now in Bejing and just every day I try to find five hours to study outside at the hotel. I just try to learn more.

What was the biggest challenge for you in this movie, playing a Japanese character or being a geisha?

Ziyi: I think, for me, the biggest obstacle is the language because English is my second language and when I got the news that I got this role, I wasn't sure I could do that because a long time ago, some friend from the film business who is Chinese, told me that it's impossible to act in a second language because the language would be a barrier. You just can not get into your character deeply. I trust this person. It makes sense. After filming this movie, I have to say that's not true. Really I could get into Sayuri's mind. What the person said to me made me really push the work extra hard and I think I should thank him if my efforts show in my performance.

Was it hard getting into the mind-set of the character? What were the challenges?

Ziyi: You have to really understand what you are saying. That's why I really think Rob did a great job. He made some very intensive training for us. Before we started shooting, almost two months, every day we had to learn how to walk, how to bow, all the small, subtle gestures. To become a convincing geisha, we had to spend time to learn. Also, we had a very intensive dialect class.

Is the movie romanticizing the slavery aspect of being a geisha? How do you see that?

Ziyi: I didn't know geishas before I made this film. We did a lot of research and I think geisha are artists. I think they are very strong women and very independent. Of course they live in a very special world and have a very strict code of conduct. If they love somebody, they had to hide their true feelings. It's really hard. I think, if it were me, I couldn't do that. I'd just tell the person [laughs]. I couldn't wait for ten years! They are very brave. I don't think they are like servants. They are very well respected in Japan.

How is this character different from the one you played in "House of Flying Daggers"? Is it similar? You were entertaining men and dancing in that one at the beginning.

Ziyi: In 'House of Flying Daggers' I was not like a hero. That was my character's job. She had to hide her real motives.

How do those women in China compare to geishas?

Ziyi: I think, in 'Daggers', the story was made up. But geishas are real.

How would you describe Sayuri?

Ziyi: I think, at the end, she became the greatest geisha in the Hanamachi but I think because she had a very difficult childhood, she was psychologically and physically abused by the people who took her and she had a very tough start. But, because of The Chairman, who showed her kindness, from that very small act of kindness, she found strength to survive and, for the rest of her life, she became very determined and she tried to find that same kindness again. In the film I had many chances to cry aloud but, for who she is, she always held back. She didn't like to show people her sadness. That's what Japanese are. They don't like to show people their happiness or sadness so, for Sayuri, like that scene when the Baron undressed her and she was so helpless, I think because of who she is, she's very strong inside. She doesn't want to beg. She doesn't want to show the Baron her tears. When we shot that scene, I talked to Rob about that and I think, 'which way is more touching? Which way will the audience be more moved or sympathetic?' I just feel like that whole night I was just shaking. I couldn't stop shaking but I didn't want my tears to come out. I just felt maybe I could move the Baron. That's why he left. Otherwise, he could do something elsemore.

Could you relate to the character of Sayuri?

Ziyi: Yeah. Last week I watched the movie in L.A. and, at the end, I cried. I just couldn't stop. I was so embarrassed. My agent, my manager, they are all there. I just had a runny nose and tears. I wasn't just like the audience. I felt like Sayuri sitting there watching her whole life. Finally, I could cry for her.

How was it working with Michelle Yeoh again? Were you two ready for another sword fight?

Ziyi: [laughs]. We talked about that but, unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to fight. She only cut my leg using a knife [in a scene]. When I heard the news that Gong Li and Michelle were going to be in the movie, I was really, really happy because Michelle and I have known each other a long time since 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', she has been like a big sister to me. I was so nervous doing that movie because I had to much pressure on me. Ang Lee was very strict and I was totally intimidated by Ang Lee and Michelle was a big international movie star. I was too shy to talk to them. But, for this movie with Michelle the relationship was much more relaxed and she's very friendly. We had a great time.

How did you get started in movies?

Ziyi: I had a dancing background. When I was 11 years old, I went to the Bejing Dance Academy and I had six years training for traditional Chinese dance. When I was 17, I had to decide to continue the dance or go to another college and, for me, I just felt I couldn't see the future for myself because I have to say that, in my school, I wasn't a good dancer. [Smiles] In my movie, I'm kinda good [laughs]. In my school I was in the middle so I think I couldn't become a very good dancer so maybe I'd try to learn something else. Some friends said 'why don't you try to do to the Central Drama Academy. It's a very good acting school'.

In your dance in the film, you wear those very tall sandals. Was that the most difficult part of the dance?

Ziyi: Yes! When I first walked into the rehearsal room I saw the 12-inch platform shoes and I said to myself, 'oh, that must be a prop' and John (DeLuca) our choreographer, told me 'Ziyi, you have to dance in them' and I said, 'No! You've got to be kidding'. He said 'yes. That's our goal. You have to dance in them'. I didn't have any choice. I had to listen to him. I tried every day. I had to practice six hours a day for almost two months to learn that dance. But, I'm very happy I did that because that dance, for me, wasn't that easy. It's not just a dance but it required a very high degree of acting as well. So, for me, it's a big challenge. It's funny. When we really started shooting, I realized I had to dance in a darkened theater. I said, 'oh my God. I prepared everything but I wasn't prepared for dancing in the dark'. After spinning a few times on the stage I totally lost my balance and that was quite dangerous. I could have fallen off the stage. Fortunately, nothing happened but that was pretty scary. I didn't tell Rob. If I told him, he would probably add some lights for me.

After having done this film, do you want to do less action films now?

Ziyi: Oh, actually I'm quite happy with what I'm doing now. I like, for myself, tragedies, dramas. I like no action. For me, it's much easier physically but I think I still have the ability to do action movies. I don't mind doing both. If I have a good script for an action movie, I would love to do that.

How surprised are you by how successful you've become when you didn't set out to be an actress originally?

Ziyi: Yes, I think so. I've never felt that one day I could become an actress. My only dream was to become a kindergarten teacher. That's the only dream I had. When I was at the college, the second year, I was so lucky. Zhang Yimou discovered me and I did my first movie. The next year, I did 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and suddenly I just became an actress. A lot of people had an interest in me. After I finished my college I just started my career as an actress. I think I will be always grateful to those great directors who helped me before. I think today I have results because of those great directors. Working with them, I really reached my acting ability.

What do they think of you in China for doing American films? Are they proud or do they think you sold out?

Ziyi: Both. If they like me, they're happy for me. If they don't like me, they don't.

It's a very strange movie. Was it strange when you were making it?

Ziyi: Yes, very strange. I had a very sad scene one day. The Prince laughed at me and then I cried. It was so sad. I felt the sadness and said, 'can I see the playback?' and the director Suzuki said 'of course'. It was such a wide shot, I said 'where am I?' I couldn't find myself. I thought next time, I'm going to give him my emotions I'm going to ask 'is it a close-up'?

Will it ever be released here?

Ziyi: I don't think so. It's too small and too atypical.

Are you ever going to do a movie where you don't suffer?

Ziyi: I'm Chinese. I'm very tough. Working in Hollywood, we have weekends off. We have trailers. We have a lot of snacks. In China we worked six months every day non-stop.

But what about doing a non-suffering character?

Ziyi: I would love to try a princess. I like 'Roman Holiday'. I like Audrey Hepburn. She's so sweet and she's very elegant. I love that movie because I had thought if I could make the same story, I would love to change the ending. The end would be somehow they get together. Maybe she could do something different. She could run away with the guy.

So you're a romantic?

Ziyi: I am very romantic.

Is there's a little 'Gone With the Wind' Scarlett and Ashley in this movie with Sayuri and The Chairman?

Ziyi: I heard somebody say there is a connection. For myself, I think they are different.

What do you think audiences should take away from seeing this movie?

Ziyi: I think never give up if you love somebody or you want to do something, never give up. You have to have perseverance.

What are you working on now?

Ziyi: I'm working on a Chinese movie called 'The Banquet' loosely based on Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'.

Are you driven mad in the movie?

Ziyi: No, I'm the queen, the empress. I kill myself.


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