Memoirs of a Geisha star Ziyi Zhang faced hard work
NEW YORK—Sometimes actors get to play roles that are so close to themselves that they just have to show up and read their lines. Sometimes it's a little more difficult than that.
Ziyi Zhang, who worked on her martial arts and acrobatic skills for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, had to take on several challenges to play the part of Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha, which opens in Vancouver on Friday (December 16). The Beijing-born actor had to become a Japanese geisha, a profession that requires several skill sets. In a room at a New York hotel, she says that director Rob Marshall brought in the cast two months before shooting began and told them that they would need the time if they were going to be convincing.
"He gave us really intensive training," she says. "We had to learn how to walk, how to bow, and we needed to know all the small, subtle gestures to become convincing geishas. I didn't know anything about geishas before this film. We did a lot of research to portray these artists. I discovered that they are very strong women and very independent. Of course, they live in a special world and they have a strict code of conduct. If they love someone, they have to hide their true feelings. We had to communicate all those things with very little expression."
In the film, Zhang's character is sold to a geisha house as a young girl but is considered to be too emotional to be a good geisha. It's only after she is taken under the wing of a legendary geisha that she begins to find the self-discipline she needs. However, she also comes to realize that although there is adulation, there are also sacrifices, including giving up the only man she has ever loved.
One of the key scenes in the film has Sayuri dancing in 12-inch platform shoes. The scene is supposed to show that Sayuri has a talent that few can match. Zhang says that although she had spent most of her life dancing and had conquered martial arts, she was not prepared to move around in shoes that were a full foot off the floor.
"When I walked into the rehearsal room, I saw the 12-inch platform shoes and I thought 'That must be a prop.' When I was told that I had to dance in them, I thought they were kidding. But I didn't have any choice. I just tried everything. I practised six hours a day for weeks and it wasn't easy, because it was not just the dance that had to be done but you had to act at the same time. Then when we started shooting I realized I had to dance in a darkened theatre and I was not prepared to dance in the dark. There were a few times when I was spinning on the stage. I lost my balance, and that was dangerous because I could have fallen off the stage. It was very scary."
Although the dancing might have frightened Zhang, she admits she was even more intimidated by the task of speaking English throughout the film. She spoke Chinese in her other films, including the American action movie Rush Hour 2, and she says that she had been told speaking a second language was difficult but acting in it was impossible.
"When I got the news I had the role, I wasn't sure that I could do it. A long time ago, a friend from the film business, who is Chinese, told me that it is impossible to act in a second language because the language is too much of a barrier. He told me you just cannot get the character across, and I trusted this person and thought it made a lot of sense. After seeing this movie, I have to say this isn't true. I could get into Sayuri's mind and find the language more easily. However, I should probably thank this person because I feel that my extra effort paid off."
The international fame that Zhang won for Crouching Tiger was not seen as the result of hard work in her native land. She says that instead of support there was jealousy. "When I became famous when I was 19, people thought I was just lucky. They don't know that you do your best and you give it all your effort. But I think that slowly people will understand that it is not luck but it is because I have worked with good directors and I work hard. You show your ability and the next director sees you and sees you have some talent and will give you a chance to do something new, and then things just keep going from there."