Fighting for a chance to play a `Geisha'

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NEW YORK — NEW YORK-- --The deceptively willowy Chinese acting star Ziyi Zhang, at age 26, has already been a heartbreaker for all sorts of movie-lovers. Arthouse habitues adore her emotionally unsettling work for director Wong-kar Wai (most recently, 2005's 2046). Martial-arts devotees discovered her in fighting trim in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and got to see her at peak poignancy in the glorious House of Flying Daggers (2004). Even Jackie Chan or Chris Tucker fans had the chance to sample her charm in Rush Hour 2 (2001).

During Rush Hour 2's shooting, Chan served as her interpreter, translating her director's and co-stars' English. When Rob Marshall's movie of Arthur Golden's best-selling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, loomed on the horizon, she knew she'd have to learn the language - and speak it with a Japanese, not Chinese, accent.

She has progressed quickly. Promoting the movie in Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria ( the same hotel her character Sayuri retires to in the 1950s) she's willing to converse one on one, without handlers or interpreters.

Zhang proves more moving in person than she is in the movie: Her voice quivers with the determination to pick the right word to express an exact meaning. And what she says has a refreshing purity.

She's still girlish enough to remark that she read the book "quite a long time ago: five years ago. It was so fascinating, the whole geisha's world and all the details." In China, as in the United States, readers felt invited into a lost and hidden world. "I was so surprised. How come the American who wrote this book had such details about a Japanese subculture?"

It still feels "incredible" to her that she ended up playing the heroine, Sayuri, who gets sold into servitude at a Kyoto geisha house.

"I remember when I had lunch with Rob at the Sony building I couldn't speak English very well. I really appreciate Rob's trust." Landing this dream part meant a lot of pleasure and "a lot of pressure." She felt Marshall and his collaborators had pinned "all their attentions, all their hopes" on her. She "didn't want to give them any regrets" - or their producing partners any ammo to use against them in case she failed.

"I felt they would just fight if I didn't do a good job." But she soon realized she had to toss off the external tensions and "get into the character and just learn all the skills to become a convincing geisha. And keep working on my English."

Marshall's casting of three Chinese actresses - Zhang, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh - in the pivotal geisha roles roused controversy in both China and Japan. "There were some thoughts," Zhang acknowledges with a laugh. But she says performers from any background would kill for the role and do it justice. "Sayuri is so rich and complex. No matter who gets the chance would give Sayuri her best efforts."

One of the book's ruling metaphors is that Sayuri's character is like water - and her gray-blue eyes are water-like, too. The dark-eyed Zhang had to wear contacts. "That was terrible," she giggles. "It was the first time I wear lenses. My eyes couldn't get used to it. I felt completely dry and itchy. It drive me [to] climbing the wall."

She came up with her own ways to express Sayuri's subterranean power. "She had a tough life when she was young. She didn't know where to go. So I wanted her to be very settled and controlled. She's so kind - she doesn't want anyone to share the sadness. So I hold back the tears. She only wants to show people the gracious."

Zhang also sensed that suppressed emotion would be more powerful than tears. When Sayuri fears that a licentious aristocrat will rape her - he does strip her - "I thought I just cry so badly, when the Baron see it, maybe he would stop. I also thought maybe I won't cry: I hold my tears inside and my whole body and face start shaking. I think that would be doubly powerful. I talked to Rob, and he said `OK girl, just do it.'

"I was looking for trouble for myself, because it's much harder than just crying. But I'm glad. I feel it's more touching for the audience. Many scenes are like that: I hold back. For me it was a big risk. I never tried any character like that."

Despite her varied career and international success, Zhang considers Sayuri her "most emotional and draining" role, and the one that means the most to her. "When I was filming this movie I felt I lost myself every day inside this character. I hold back the tears in a scene, but when Rob finished I went into a corner and cried. I felt sad for her and cried for her every day. I cried for her. And I could talk to her - we could connect together, in my mind.

"After we finish the film, I feel, what am I going to do? I found it hard to find myself back. I didn't have that kind of experience before. I got into the character very deeply. I was surprised because she was Japanese and spoke in English - totally wrong for me. But you know," she laughs again, "you get into it."

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