[FILM] Interview with Maggie Cheung
- One on One with Maggie Cheung
Celebrating the special artistry of Maggie Cheung as part of the
Cinevisionary Tribute at the 28th Asian American International Film
festival, Asian CineVision and The Film Society of Lincoln Center
sponsored a special evening with the renowned actress. Awarded Best
Actress for her work in Olivier Assayas's Clean at the 2004 Cannes
Film Festival, Maggie Cheung has appeared in over 80 films and has
worked with directors such as Jackie Chan, Wong Kar Wai, Johnny To,
Ann Hui, Stanley Kwan, and Olivier Assayas. Clips of some of her
most memorable performances were screened during this discussion
with Film Society's Kent Jones. Asia Society presents video
highlights and text excerpts from this interview. Watch and meet the
artist and woman behind these incredible works.
Asian CineVision / Eugene Kuo
KJ: Now, you said that you weren't trained as an actress. I am sure
almost everyone in the audience probably knows a lot of details
about your career, but how did you start and how did you get
interested in acting?
MC: How I got started and how I got interested in acting are two
different things and many years apart. Actually I started modeling
in `82 and I was "the new kid in town" because I just came back from
England and suddenly was quite popular in that world. I was a new
face at the young tender age of 17. So I was getting a lot of
commercials to do and by the end of the year I had done too many. I
was overly exposed on TV. I would have three commercials on the TV
coming back to back, doing different products, and I could see that
my career as a model was ending already after one year. So it was
either I go back to England to carry on my studies or do something
else like find a job.
At that time my modeling agency gave me forms for the next Miss Hong
Kong beauty pageant and they said that I had a great chance and they
could sponsor me. So I spoke to my mom and it was a one shot thing.
Either it is going to work or I am going to go back because I wasn't
going to hang around in Hong Kong to model. I just felt it was time
to move on. So I entered the pageant and was first runner up and
right after that a film director called me, Wong Jing, to be in his
film. And I said, "Yeah sure." Then I did three or four years
working like that, not really caring what I was doing. It was a lot
of fun - a good excuse not go to University yet and a good excuse to
hang out. I was earning money all of sudden. I just carried on and
made more and more films and I didn't know how to say "no" to people
and didn't know what I wanted as an actress. I didn't see myself as
an actress, so I just did it. It went up to As Tears Go By, Wong Kar
Wai's first film, and that is where I thought "acting is kind of
fun." Wong Kar Wai was asking something from me that I didn't think
I could do and I didn't think anyone would ask that of me.
KJ: What was that?
MC: I remember there was an emotional scene where I was saying good-
bye to Andy Lau at a bus stop. We had to retake that scene the next
day because I was not very good. I thought I had been good because I
had been crying and crying, but Wong Kar Wai said, "It is not about
that. It is not about how many tears drop out of your eyes or how
emotional you are." I said, "No? But you ask me to cry and I am
crying, why am I doing it wrong?" He said, "But when you cry you
should try to hold back. Nobody cries just like that. The minute you
feel the sting in your eyes your first reaction should be `I don't
want to cry,' and to hold it back." These are layers of acting and
at that point I was beginning to be in touch with it. Because acting
is acting, but when you are playing a part that is human, we have
many dimensions and layers that are not that straightforward.
KJ: It is not just about reviewing emotions moving in a straight
MC: Yes, whereas at that time I thought it was. When I was playing
in Jackie Chan films, he said, "Be in pain because I just kick you
down the stairs." So I would be literally in pain. It's not just
that. You are sad, you are in pain, and you're frustrated. There are
many things when someone kicks you down the stairs. You are not just
KJ: Except with Jackie Chan, right? How many movies did you make
with Jackie Chan?
MC: Five. Three Police Stories and there is one called Double Dragon
and Project A2.
KJ: You had a lot of fun.
MC: We did. Fun, yes because also I was not demanding anything of
myself so I was much more relaxed and more ready to have fun. It was
what it was all about for me.
KJ: You were not trained in stunts and martial arts. You have said
you haven't enjoyed it very much, is that right?
MC: I am scared of dying all the time. No, I didn't use to be scared
of it, but then I had this big serious accident on Police Story Part
2 and they had to cut my head open. I had 17 stitches on top of my
head. Since that accident I have always been scared of doing action
films. It was such a stupid accident and it shouldn't have happened.
But when I was lying in the hospital for a month, because it was so
sensitive the doctor didn't want any chance of any germs on to
there, they had to shave all my head in the front. So they said if I
ever got an allergy, my hair wouldn't grow back. So I said, "I am
not leaving the hospital. I am staying until it grows!" During that
time lying there doing nothing I thought, "God no one can really
help when you are hurt." When you are on set there are hundreds of
people helping you, but once an accident happens and you are there,
you are really alone. So since then I haven't been fond of action.
KJ: And yet you still do it.
MC: When I have to, yes.
KJ: Is it something you are physically not comfortable doing?
MC: I don't think I am that talented with it in the first place. I
am not like Michelle [Kwon]. She really has the rhythm and the dance
background. She is very light and quick in her reaction. I am kind
of slow, when I see a sword coming I think, "Which hand should I use
to defend!" I don't have the instincts to do it. For Michelle, it is
really like a dance sequence. The more it is not right, the more I
get scared. You have to be very relaxed and trust your instincts.
KJ: But do you find yourself trusting the director because it
usually turns out looking good?
MC: Because the stunts are really good. As long as you can do a few
things on your own, they can cheat the whole thing really well. You
have to do at least the beginning, the end, and the middle.
[Audience laughs] Otherwise I don't even need to go to set.
KJ: I wonder if that kind of work that you did actually contributed
somehow to what you learned as an actress?
MC: You mean the action side? Yes, I think it helps also with your
physical appearance, even if it is not an action film. Even with
walking, you are a bit more aware of your body. For me actually when
I get into a part, I very often use the physical side first. I work
on the body language before anything else. It is a strange way, but
once I have that it takes me there. Once I walk or move in her way
then it takes me into the character.
KJ: When you say you work on the body language, it is also a way of
gesturing and a way of comporting yourself in general?
MC: It's a bit of designing, but without a huge effort. It is the
idea. For instance, I imagine a character would be moving very
smooth, and once you have a start, the rest just comes.
KJ: In terms of something different like the clip that we saw before
from Actress, did you find that for yourself through the movies that
you watched or did you have to find it your own way?
MC: Actually this is where it started for me, the physical thing. I
remember Stanley said to me, "Watch her, watch her. I wouldn't say
she is the most beautiful woman or the best actress, but watch her
body language. She is amazing." So I started watching and I didn't
even know what body language was, and then I watched her and yes she
does have a presence, which is more than her beauty. I found myself
hypnotized by the way she moved more than what was on her face
because also these were silent films and you are really looking for
every sign of the body of what it is trying to tell. When it comes
from there, I've learned and developed my own thing and realized how
important that is in a film.
KJ: I would imagine it is especially important in Wong Kar Wai
films. It seems to be the way he works with the actress.
MC: It is something that he especially likes. He likes [pause]
beautiful women. He particularly likes to see how they move.
KJ: He seems to build mosaics out of movement and that is something
that is very important to him.
MC: For In the Mood for Love (2000), we shot for six months. We
didn't even know what we were shooting. He didn't either. It is the
scene where I am walking to get take away - that walk they did in
slow motion. That was the first slow motion we did. When we saw the
dailies he just said, "This is it, this is it." So he made me watch
it 50 times and then I said, "Okay, I know this is it, but what
more? This can't just be it!" [laughs] But that is how it developed.
We found the first thing in common to go for.
KJ: Do you like doing comedy?
MC: Yes, but then I haven't done them in so long that I am really
dying to do one. I don't think I have done one since having
this "improved mind" of acting. When I did my last comedy, more than
10 years ago, I had a different way of acting, a different
understanding. I think I was trying to be funny all the time and I
was not funny. So now I would love to do another one without trying
to be funny. Hopefully I will be funny. I want to give it one more
shot before I say I am not funny.
KJ: I have always thought you were pretty funny. Would not Irma Vep
(1996) be a comedy?
MC: Yes, but it is more a black comedy. It is not the same kind of
comedy. Comedy for me is like Steven Chow. They are funny. I don't
know if they are popular here.
KJ: Yes, they are now, but probably not as much as they should be.
But Kung Fu Hustle is very popular.
MC: People are going to watch his older works. They are really
funny, really seriously!
KJ: Do you feel you have a nice rapport with Leon Lai? It seems like
it when you watch this film.
MC: Yes, we got on really well.
KJ: You had mentioned before that Irma Vep was another transition
movie for you. I was wondering what you meant.
MC: It was almost a restart, a stage two. During the two years break
that I had, I wasn't sure if I was going to act again, or whether I
would go on to do something else, move somewhere, get married, or
have kids. I didn't know what was going to happen. I just knew that
I did too much and I was repeating my work and I was fed up. I
didn't look forward to going to set. I felt it is time to maybe
stop. So I just did my own stuff for two years. I found a life and
found more friends. And then Olivier came along, and then Soong
Sisters and this one.
KJ: To speak about Irma Vep, what was it like playing someone who is
suppose to be you but isn't you in a way too? I would imagine that
would be a really interesting process to go through.
MC: It was, and also it was kind of a relief because I thought I
didn't have to do anything. Not in a lazy way this time, but more
that I don't have to pretend or design anything. I was quite happy
to think that someone will take me as I am. I also liked the idea of
being anonymous in France. Yes, it is great to be on set in Hong
Kong when you have 20 people serving you, dressing you. They can all
be working on you at the same time. One could be fixing your hair,
one's on make up, one's doing your buttons, one's fixing your shoes,
one's handing you tea and wiping your face. I just felt isolated
from the crew. People respected you a bit too much and I was kind of
lonely on set. I was not hanging out with the crew anymore, but
that's how it became. So that is why I liked going on the set for
Irma Vep when the French didn't have any idea who I was and they
chatted with me all the time and let me sit on the floor and eat my
lunch without offering me a chair. But all that was a breath of
fresh air. I liked it. I enjoyed being part of the crew more than
the actress and that made me enjoy being on a film set again. I
think also from then on I knew how I would handle myself on a film
set. I would make the distance less even if they were setting it. I
think some people will feel intimidated when they are with someone
famous so they try to keep their distance because of shyness. I know
I have to be the one to break the ice, to go and speak to them;
otherwise they would never come to me.
KJ: And that film is what did that for you. You said you didn't have
to design anything for it and yet it is not you, it is a character
Maggie Cheung. There must have been a certain design involved?
MC: No, Olivier really told me do whatever I wanted. So I didn't
have any pressure to deliver anything. It was really up to me. So I
really didn't think about what I was going to do. Actually that film
caught one magic moment and it is still one of the biggest magic
moments of my experience in films. It is that I managed to blush on
screen, and I think that is so hard to come by unless it is real. It
is one thing I still don't think a very good actor can do easily.
You can act shy and do all that it is to be shy in a role, but to
really see the red coming up is not easy. I think in Irma Vep I had
that one magic moment and I still remember it.
KJ: In the party scene?
MC: Yes, when Bulle says Nathalie is in love with me. I was just
laughing and then blushing. It was because Olivier said to do what
you want and I didn't have to think about what am I doing in the
next shot. This is why I got this magic moment. I think they're
KJ: The experience of shooting  must have been a great
adventure. To be finding the movie and character and the story with
the director as you're going must have been a really wonderful
adventure in your life and your career.
MC: It is now that it is over. It was 15 months and it was difficult
at the time and I had just got married and I was taken away from my
home for 15 months. Whereas when I packed to go it was suppose to be
three months, and then became five months, and then seven months. It
just added up all this time that I was away from Olivier. I also had
to deal with the part. The hair and makeup were a pain. It was five
hours everyday. I wouldn't say it was enjoyable, but now looking
back it was an amazing experience.
KJ: How different is it to be finding a character in this way, in an
organic experience like that? Aside from the time difference, how
does it compare to an experience like Actress or even Comrades where
you are approaching a character and in your words "designing it." It
must be vastly different mentally.
MC: Yes, and it also took so long. It is partially my fault as well.
After 6 months I didn't know what I was doing. Kar Wai just kept
shooting and he wanted to see what we could give him, and I was
holding back because I thought, "Well if you aren't going to give me
anything to do than I am not going to do anything," until he wore me
out that I didn't care about it anymore. I went on set and just did
it. That is when it all came, so in a way I should thank him for
giving me all that time. It took me six months to open up to him. I
was a little shy to just give when there is nothing on the paper.
You have to be quite confident to do that and I don't think I am
that confident on set. I am quite vulnerable sometimes and like to
be led. Once I found that direction then I can go on my own
imagination but in the beginning I didn't want to make the first
move. I didn't feel like I knew what I wanted to be. I wanted him to
give me something and I would build it with him. In the end, I
couldn't wait anymore and so I just did it. Otherwise it would have
lasted forever - him waiting for him and I waiting for him.
KJ: You would still be shooting.
MC: I would still be shooting, and 2046 would not have happened yet.
KJ: Did you feel prepared for that kind of experience from your
previous experiences with him [Wong Kar Wai]. I know As Tears Go By
was a different kind of movie, but with Days of Being Wild or Ashes
MC: I think he just got more and more like that with every single
film. For As Tears Go By we finished on time. We were just a few
days over. For Days of Being Wild we were three months over, and for
Ashes of Time we were six months over. And then he did an incredible
thing. He did Chung King Express (1994) in it about 3 weeks, without
me though! Fallen Angels (1995) was quite quick. It took thee
months, without me. Happy Together (1997) he took a while. And then
for In the Mood for Love we broke all the records - 15 months. 2046
from start to end was a long period, but he was not constantly on
that project. We did In the Mood for Love in between. 2046 started
before In the Mood for Love. Then In the Mood for Love started and
stopped and then he went to 2046 and then he finished In the Mood
for Love. The two films were kind of together. That is why 2046
ended up lasting for four years.
KJ: At the end of the process of In the Mood for Love, was it a
MC: You mean at the wrap? Yes, it was satisfying. It was also sad.
But we were also going to Cannes the next week. So it was a very
contradictory feeling. So you are sad for one minute and the next
you are thinking, "What am I going to wear?" We were dubbing and
then I was taking the flight that night to go to Cannes. And Kar Wai
was saying, "I am coming tomorrow," and he ended up taken a few more
days to come because he had to reedit, but it was a crazy moment.
Really crazy fun.
KJ: You were saying that the makeup and hair were really involved,
and the dresses too. I would imagine this really helped to find
MC: Physically yes. But then it was hard because it was mostly night
shoots, from 6am to 6pm. We would all go home and it would take me
about 2 hours to wash out the hairspray and knots. I would go to bed
by 10pm and then get up by 1am to start for hair and makeup to be
ready by 6am. It was like that constantly and it was not enjoyable
at the time, but then once I was in it all, I just had to look at
it and say, "Okay I know what to do now."
KJ: I know you have a great working relationship with Tony Leung,
but there must have been an incredible level of trust based on what
you see on the screen.
MC: Funnily enough everyone thinks we have worked together so many
times but I worked with him when I was 19 years old for a TV drama.
We were both working for television at the time, but since then I
had not worked with him again. We have been in the same films
together but not the same scene. So actually In the Mood for Love
was our first movie.
KJ: But am I correct is saying that there is a level of trust
between the two of you and there is a really interesting chemistry?
MC: Sure, I think because we were kids when we met and we were
acting on a very different level and then we separately and went our
ways. We both developed our own skills and learned our own things a
long the way and to get together again after all these years was
wonderful because he was just how I imagined him to be. In a way we
haven't changed since all those years, but we have just gotten
better at what we are doing, at least I hope. At least a little bit
KJ: Before we go to the next clip, I wanted to go back to what you
were saying before about how you feel now at this moment that you
have arrived at a new level of understanding about acting. What is
that for you?
MC: To completely let go and not to be nervous anymore when you
hear, "Roll the camera!" It is very natural to have this feeling
when you hear that because you know that thing, what ever that may
be, will last forever. I never imagined we would be watching these
clips. Now we know film will last forever. It's going digital and it
is going to last. But 10 or 15 years ago the idea that film is going
to last forever was new and then at some point you realize that it
is going to last forever now with video tapes and everything. People
are going to watch these films after 50 years. I think I have always
had this nervous thing about when they roll the camera, but now I am
quite relaxed. I am completely the same before you roll and after
you roll. Before I was like, "Okay, let's do it." There was a lot
more going on in getting ready. But now I just know, "Okay, just go
into it and just get into it." Now I don't even think about when am
I going take a sip of water, when am I going to look that way, I
just know if I react properly and if I focus, it will come. I don't
need to plan it.
KJ: Did you feel that way while making Clean (2004)?
MC: Yes, definitely. It was the first try-out of this method for me.
This was a method that I wanted to try but I didn't know if I could
do it. Clean was the first chance because it was the right opponent.
Olivier can do that with me. Whereas with Zhang Yimou of Hero
(2002), maybe I was already trying but it didn't work with that
film. It is not what he is looking for and you can't force it. And
In the Mood for Love was not about that either. I haven't done so
many contemporary films.
KJ: So when you were making Clean you were feeling this new
technique of working? How did it feel in relation to this movie and
this character? You have never really played a character like this
MC: When I read the script that was the first feeling I had. It was
the only way to do it. We have all seen a thousand times people
playing a junkie and it is so hard not to go into that way to play a
junkie, of all that physical stuff. I think that is all we think of
when we think of a junkie. But in real life Olivier and I have a
couple of friends who have been through this experience and they are
nothing like that. WhenI read the script I knew I couldn't not do it
the normal way. So I said, "Okay, I am going to try this new way
that I have always wanted to do and haven't had the chance." So I
just put the script away and did not look at it again until I was on
the set. That was one year's time in between. That is quite unusual
because you know this project is coming up and you are going play
your part soon and maybe it is time to learn your lines, but I tried
not to learn anything about her. I wanted to react to Nick and
Béatrice and to other actors. I wanted to see what they were going
to give me and I was going to react as Emily and that's it and not
think about what Emily should be.
KJ: Did it feel right away that it was happening for you the way you
MC: Yes, because we did the film in sequence so it started out in
Canada and I was "the bitch," that hysterical woman. And then she
calmed down and tried to get clean. So it helped a lot that we were
doing it in sequence and to feel the whole thing building up and
what she has been going through and where it has taking her. It
really helps the character.
KJ: It is interesting because what you say about junkies in movies
is true. You keep seeing the same story of people lifting themselves
up and taking pride in themselves and that is part of her character
and yet at the same time at the end she is a different human being
but it is not because she has redeemed herself it is just that
MC: It is for real. In real life we can change in a year. Something
major happens to you and that can suddenly make you a different
person. Not differently completely but the way to see things or
react to things.
KJ: Yes, it as if she is different in the end but almost not knowing
quite how she got there.
KJ: Is there a project that is coming up?
MC: Yes or no, I don't know. I am interested in something but I
don't know if is happening so I am kind of waiting for something to
KJ: We are hoping it is a comedy.
MC: I hope it is a comedy. I am sure that will come if I say it
enough in front of journalists and if it is written enough then
maybe people well say, "Oh let's give her a comedy."
KJ: Spread the word folks. Maggie Cheung wants to do a comedy.