Ziyi Zhang

Memoirs of a Geisha

Which director would you like to work with that you haven’t before? “I really loved the movie ‘Monster’s Ball.’ I like tragedies and dark, intense movies. So if I have a chance to work with Marc Forster, that would be great.”

How do actors balance commerce vs. art? “I prefer smaller movies. I’ve been extremely lucky to work with great directors like Rob, Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar Wai. They bring the best out of you because they know what they want.”

Up next: “I’m filming a Chinese movie called ‘The Banquet.’ It’s loosely based on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet,’ and it’s even more complex. I play a young empress.”

When Ziyi Zhang saw “Memoirs of a Geisha” for the first time recently, she says she unexpectedly became geisha Sayuri again, watching her life story unfold — from servant waif to a kimono-sporting vision of grace and beauty, through personal upheavals and unrequited love.

But there was one difference. “On screen I couldn’t cry out, but that day, I finally cried for her,” says Zhang. “It was hard to control the emotion.”

That’s because for the actress, Sayuri was a study in bottled-up feelings unable to be released.

“You had to be very controlled,” says Zhang of the role’s challenges. “Sayuri is a person who doesn’t want to make other people feel sad, only to keep the sadness herself. She had a very tough childhood, lots of obstacles. It was the first time I played the whole journey of a person, from when she was very young to when she was mature, and I had a very special experience.”

The Beijing-born actress, who has captivated audiences worldwide with commanding and, literally, soaring performances in the gravity-defying martial-arts epics “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” didn’t speak English until two years ago.

Though she shows little trouble with it now, the prospect of acting a lead role in another tongue — not to mention with Japanese accent — was daunting.

“A long time ago, a friend in the film business in China told me it was impossible to act in a second language, to get deep into character. But after finishing filming, I have to say that’s not true.”

As for the controversy over pan-Asian casting, with Chinese actresses Zhang, Gong Li and Malaysian-born Michelle Yeoh playing Japanese women, Zhang offers: “When Rob (Marshall) cast me, I tried to learn as much as I could about geisha culture. As a professional actor, it’s my job to play any character convincingly. I just hope my performance reflects all my effort to those who would compare.”

The risks even carried over to Sayuri’s riveting coming-out solo performance, which the dance student in Zhang eagerly awaited until discovering the footwear involved. “I walked into the rehearsal room and saw these 12-inch platform shoes, and I was like, ‘You have got to be kidding.’ ”

So which was more demanding: martial-arts flying or her “Geisha” dance? “The shoes were harder,” Zhang says, laughing.

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