It’s no surprise that Wong Kar Wai, the most musical of directors, turned to a Western pop star to take the leading role in his first English-language film. After all, such major Hong Kong music luminaries as Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Leon Lai and the late Leslie Cheung all took memorable parts in Wong’s Chinese features, while pop diva Faye Wong made her first starring appearance in his 1994 film “Chungking Express.”
But it came as something of a shock to Norah Jones when Wong approached her to star in “My Blueberry Nights.” With a shelf full of Grammy Awards (eight for her 2002 debut “Come Away With Me” alone) and U.S. album sales in excess of 15 million, the singer-pianist has no new musical worlds to conquer. But she had never appeared in anything other than a musicvideo.
“And I never got that down, quite, anyway,” Jones says with charming self-deprecation.
She admits she knew little about the director’s work when she first met Wong over lunch in New York.
“I thought maybe he wanted music,” she says. “And he asked if I wanted to act! At the time, I was finally taking some time off from touring, so I had a lot of free time. I knew his reputation as a director was very unconventional and very different, and I knew what his movies looked like, and it just seemed like a really good time to say yes and try something different with somebody I trusted.”
She continues, “And then I said, ‘Oh my God, what did I say yes to?’ ”
In “My Blueberry Nights,” Jones is the central character, a young woman working her way across the country in the wake of a romantic breakup. She works opposite a glittering cast of experienced actors, including Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz and Oscar nominees David Strathairn, Natalie Portman and Jude Law.
Jones says Wong told her to not take any acting lessons. “He wanted somebody who was very natural,” she explains. “I don’t think he minded that I was self-conscious.”
She initially found acting “terrifying,” but was quickly insulated on the set by the cast and crew.
“From the very first day, the crew looked at me and thought, “Omigosh, she’s my scared little sister, and we’re going to help her through this,'” she says. “All the actors I worked with were very wonderful to me and very encouraging and very sweet. And Kar Wai was, as well. I really felt like this family accepted me, and helped me along.”
In contrast to Wong’s legendarily protracted and arduous shoots for the Hong Kong pictures “Ashes of Time,” “In the Mood for Love” and “2046,” his American bow was lensed in just seven weeks, despite work on locations across the country.
But the director’s process was as improvisational as ever.
“It was a very basic script, and we only received it about a week before we started shooting,” Jones says. “Before that, we had a very, very loose treatment. The script changed quite a bit. Often we would come to work and not know what scenes we were doing … and then it would all change and we’d get new pages 15 minutes before we’d go out. But I liked that. Coming from playing music that’s loose and improvisational, I really enjoyed that part of it.”
Like the rest of the world, Jones hasn’t yet seen the completed “Nights.” She’s taking a break from touring in support of her current album “Not Too Late” to attend Cannes. She confesses to a slight case of opening-night jitters.
“I have no idea what to expect. I’m a little nervous. But, you know, whatever. What are you going to do? It’s going to be really exciting and really fun. Hopefully I won’t trip over my dress. I probably will, but that’ll be funny.”