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Memoirs of a Geisha - Ziyi Zhang interview

Zhang Ziyi in Memoirs of a Geisha

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Q. Did you know the book before you became involved in the film?
A. I read this book five years ago. I heard from many of my friends and they just loved the book and they said, “You have to read this book.” I love this story, it’s so special. I never thought, one day, I could be in this story and with these characters.
For me, the first time I heard I got this role I was happily surprised but at the same time I felt tremendous pressure because I knew Rob was going to make the movie in English. That was my biggest obstacle because English is my second language and I only learned it two years ago.
I knew they went through a very long casting process and at the end Rob picked me. I just felt I had to live up to their expectations and I had to give my best effort because you can’t let them have any regrets.

Q. Were there any negative reactions to the idea of Chinese women playing Geisha?
A. I think, for us, in this group we have a few girls from China and another few from Japan. I think the most important thing, regardless of background, is that you have to learn and train hard to become a convincing Geisha. They work so hard that you have to learn even if you’re Japanese. Also, for me, I think this is a very international movie. It’s not a Japanese movie. We had very intensive training and we had to learn every detail of Geisha life over six weeks.

Q. In terms of Geisha training, what was the hardest part? We hear there were several rooms?
A: That dance wasn’t easy to learn. Even though I had six years’ dance background it was still the hardest thing to do. You have to get used to wearing those platform shoes. The first time Michelle saw those shoes she thought they were handbags! When our choreographer told me I’d have to dance in them I thought it’d be impossible. After five hours a day and a few weeks I could just about get it. I love the dance because it involved a good amount of acting as well so I know the process was really difficult but, for me, I think it’s a big challenge.

Q. How restrictive was it fighting with Gong Li in a kimono and the scene with The Baron?
A: It was really hard. The scene where The Baron undresses me was really hard. I don’t think, for those characters, the Kimono is really conscious. The characters have very difficult lives and because of the difficulty she becomes very strong. She doesn’t want to show people her weaknesses and she had a lot of perseverance. Sometimes I felt you cannot let all your emotions out, you have to learn how to control yourself. It’s really hard for me to explain it, every single thing you see on the screen you can see her true feelings. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know how to act it – that’s enough for me!

Q. You’ve built your career in the past on martial arts films and now you’re playing Geisha, which training was the hardest?
A. [Laughs] Being a Geisha is much harder.