At 42, China's Gong Li is hauntingly beautiful, and the epitome of elegance. Often seen in Hollywood movies as something of a bad girl, the actress is back in her native China in Curse of the Golden Flower, in which she plays an ill Empress in 10th Century China during the later Tang Dynasty, Born in Shenyang, she grew up in Jinan, the daughter of an economics professor, Li loved music from childhood, and dreamed of a singing career.
After failing to gain entrance to China's top music school in 1985, she applied for and was admitted to the Central Drama Academy in Beijing, from which she graduated in 1989. While still a student, the now budding actress was cast as the female lead in Hong go liany (1987) (aka "Red Sorghum"), the initial directing effort by Yimou Zhang.
Now developed as China's best-known actress in the West, she was named Best Actress at the 49th Venice International Film Festival for her role in 1992's The Story of Qiu Ju, and continued to make a series of successful films with Yimou Zhang, a collaboration that apparently ended with the break-up of their personal relationship in 1995 and Gong's subsequent marriage to a tobacco company executive.
Recently seen in disappointing Hollywood films Miami Vice and Memoirs of a Geisha, the beautiful actress will next be seen in the much anticipated Hannibal Rising. In this exclusive interview, Gong Li spoke to Paul Fischer.
Question: How important is it for you to return to your Chinese roots in doing a movie like Curse of the Golden Flower?
Gong Li: Well there's nothing sort of extraordinarily special about this one. As an actress I go everywhere and being an actress is a kind of international kind of work and it takes place anywhere. I could have to go anywhere to make a film.
Question: What was the attraction of this particular character for you?
Gong Li: Well I like the complexity of this character, especially the fact that she has this kind of sickness that can't be cured, at least not through medicine as she's taking it, which is not really helping the problem. So I had to think about this and find a way to perform this, to express this aspect of the role without making it seem exaggerated or unbelievable. So I spent a lot of time, especially with the director, to find various ways to make this work.
Question: And what were the challenges of trying to do that, of keeping this sort of authentic or real?
Gong Li: The whole story takes place in the matter of 48 hours of story time, so as a result the whole thing is very, very highly concentrated and intense. And of course she's taking this medicine all along which of course is just intensifying the whole effect on her and putting her in this kind of strange state. So I had to find a way to really focus, concentrate every moment, and to give that kind of performance ,you really have to be fully charged every time. There are really no scenes or shots in which the character has this sort of open space to relax.
Question: So what do you do to maintain that degree of concentration, what do you draw on for that?
Gong Li: Basically we developed a habit, a way of working because of course the character and the scenes that she's in are very heavy so I needed a little bit of time. So the director would call quiet on the set and everybody had to stop, and I would sort of have to walk around a little bit and really focus my energy and kind of wait to get this blood and the energy to rush up to my head. Then when I was ready I just sort of raised my hand and the director would say, okay, now we can start. So everybody was very cooperative and very professional and really helped maintain this kind of atmosphere, so I could really get into the right mood at the right time.
Question: Are roles for women in the Chinese film industry getting better? Are they more interesting than roles in Hollywood?
Gong Li: Yeah, this is an interesting problem. Certainly here in Hollywood films it's usually the male characters that are more important, and the real similar kind of problem may be in China also. And of course in some of our earlier films the cast may have been smaller, and in fact sometime there was a central female character through which all sorts of different kinds of problems and the whole conflict was expressed, but nowadays for various reasons, including practical things having to do with box office appeal, people are moving toward this kind of ensemble cast so you can perhaps go get a pop star and be in the cast as well. So certainly, in general there's still this problem of male characters and male actors having a little bit more importance.
Question: Are you concerned that Hollywood seems to see you for some strange reason as a bad girl?
Gong Li: No, I'm actually quite happy about that.
Question: Are you?
Gong Li: Well I mean it's just a movie, right? People watch the movie and they see that that's the character that I play.
Question: So you're not really bad in real life then?
Gong Li: [Laughter]. Sometimes.
Question: Hollywood actresses seem to have a very unfortunate life span, in that they reach a certain age and then the roles become harder and it's all about what they look like and the external. You seem to have overcome that and you seem to get the better roles the older you become and there's an agelessness about you. Why do you think you're succeeding where others have failed, or are failing?
Gong Li: I'm not sure exactly why, but like you just said, the more I play the sort of 'badder' I get, so there's room for development. [Laughter]. As an actor or actress it's important to think about it in a big picture and not get too worried about that kind of problem, because you have to realize that at each stage of your career there are different options for different kinds of characters that you might play, and so it's best not to try to get locked into one or the other. So you have to realize that there's room for change, so it's best not to get too obsessive about that kind of thing.
Question: So what kinds of roles are you looking for at this point?
Gong Li: [Laughter]. Villains and bad girls. [Laughter]. I like characters where there's room for development, something that's complex, rich - especially for example if I play 'the bad girl', on the outside she seems very cold and serious and even mean or vicious but then you realize that there's something else inside, so by the end of the film the audience might find that they're feeling some kind of sympathy as it turns into perhaps a sympathetic character. So this kind of achievement is very important to me, to have something to express and develop over the course of the film.
Question: When you're working in an American movie and you have to work in English, what are the challenges of not allowing the, I guess, phonetical interpretation of a script to get in the way of your performance - if that makes any sense.
Gong Li: Well, for me the overall goal is to get into the world of the character, and from this point of view you can see that the dialogue is just one part of the thing. It's part of what helps you get into the role of the character and really enter that character's world. Now of course if I'm doing a film, say, in English there may be points where the intonation or pronunciation needs a little bit of adjustment and there are people to help me out with that. But really, again, if I'm doing a film in English it's a matter of the dialogue really helping me, as part of the whole package it helps me to get into the character.
Question: Are you learning English?
Gong Li: Yeah, I'm learning a little bit.
Question: And so is there a timetable for you to be able to say: I would like to be fluent within a certain period of time?
Gong Li: This is hard to say. I'm still learning and maybe I'm not really that gifted with languages, so it'll take a little time. I still have to go one word at a time.
Question: Now do you play a bad girl in the Hannibal movie as well?
Gong Li: Well she's a very mysterious character who likes to manipulate and control a lot of things, so she has a very strong influence on the young Hannibal. But by the end you realize that there's a reason for why she's doing the things that she does.
Question: Is she like you?
Gong Li: Not at all. Not at all. I'm quite honest. I don't manipulate... [Laughter]. And I'm not mysterious at all.
Question: [Laughter]. What's happening next, do you know yet?
Gong Li: I haven't decided for sure yet. I'm looking at some scripts now. Hopefully I can start working on the next one maybe in the middle of next year.
Question: Here or in Asia?
Gong Li: Mm... probably here.
Question: Oh. Another bad girl role?
Gong Li: Good girl. [Laughter].
Question: I like the bad girl.
Gong Li: You don't like the good girls.
Question: Of course not. I'm a man. All men like bad girls.
Gong Li: [Laughter].