Text by Martin Wong and Eric Nakamura|
Photogaphy by Vicki Berndt
AFTER ACTING IN 73 HONG KONG MOVIES IN A SPAN OF 13 YEARS, MAGGIE CHEUNG IS FINALLY ATTRACTING MAINSTREAM ATTENTION IN THE UNITED STATES FOR HER ROLE IN IRMA VEP.
Who would have thought that after playing a snake goddess (Green Snake), portraying a legendary Chinese silent film star (Actress), brandishing a sword (Dragon Inn), and donning a mask and cape (The Heroic Trio) -- basically working herself from beauty contest runner-up to an internationally awarded actor -- her breakthrough role would be playing Maggie Cheung? And who would have thought it would be in an independent film from France?
The irony doesn't bother Maggie. She'd rather be known for giving a sophisticated performance in an experimental film than be categorized by the American media as a damsel for Jackie Chan to rescue (It's happened five times) or a James Bond Girl (They called her for a tryout and she balked). She's reached a point professionally and philosophically where she doesn't care as much about gaining attention as she does about getting quality roles and working with good people.
Eric and I met the Hong Kong-born, England-raised, and Hong Kong-residing actor at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where she and director-pal Olivier Assayas were presenting Irma Vep. (Maggie's latest Hong Kong offering, Comrades, Almost a Love Story was also showing.) Refreshed from a two-year sabbatical from film, Maggie spent some time with us.
Giant Robot: What was it like to act in so many movies during the first 10 years of your career?
Maggie Cheung: I think it's made it harder to grow up until I was old enough to know, to stop myself from being in just that little world of mine. I think a year before the two-year rest, it was beginning to build up. I got frustrated about repeating my work, and felt that there was more to life than this.
GR: What did you do besides act?
MC: Not that much. I didn't have time to see my friends or family. I had no time to read or have peace in life. I was always on the set or running around. I was just busy all the time. I didn't even have time to really travel. To me, traveling is not just being in a place, but to really feel that place. That takes time and energy of mind. Like, "This is San Francisco. This is the way people live and the way people are." There's more to traveling than just seeing the Golden Gate Bridge.
GR: What are some of the things that have kept you going?
MC: I do more sports, like golf and tennis. I have an interest in photography. Just more time for me.
GR: Did people bother you during your time off?
MC: No. I was traveling a lot, so I wasn't in Hong Kong a lot of the time. And when you're not as high-profile, people don't pay as much attention to you and your private life. So I did manage to get some peace and quiet.
GR: Did that make you a better actress?
MC: I don't know. I'm still me, and I still have as much talent and creativity as I had before, but it makes me more relaxed as an actress. Instead of always trying to please or working too hard, giving more than is necessary if I had a scene when I'm supposed to be crying, I treat it as the real thing.
GR: Is your acting more natural now?
MC: I think so. I think I'm less conscious of the camera than I was before, less conscious especially when I'm speaking on-screen. When I used to have a whole page of lines to speak, I would get nervous and think, "Oh God, even if I remember them I couldn't express them the right way." But now I say the lines as a person would say them. Before, I would just try to get it all out and that's it. Now it's a more relaxed way, and that always comes out as more natural than when you're just speaking memorized lines.
GR: What was it like working with Leon Lai in Comrades?
MC: Well, I've had people say, "Oh my god, why are you working with him? He's an asshole, etc." But actually when I got on to the shoot with him, he was okay. He was a person who was willing to give as an artist. He wants to do something with his career, and not just take in the money and fame and that's it. He doesn't really have that much time for movies because he's so busy with singing. I enjoyed his company. He was very nice and gentlemanly with me. It's very unfortunate for him; I think he doesn't have that many close friends because he's always so busy and people always want to tease him in the wrong way. He found the friendship with me was quite rare because I would tell him the truth, like, "Oh God, that song sucks."
GR: Your character was like that in the movie, too.
MC: Yes, and that carried on off-screen, too. I was quite bossy to him. Really. I'm a little older than he is -- he's 30, I'm 32 -- and I felt like I could boss him around. But that's not the reason why I like him. It's because he's like a kid. He is very innocent in ways I was surprised to find. And surprisingly, he'd believe in what I'd tell him. He'd ask me for my opinion on his work or whatever. The character really followed off-screen. I'd shout at him sometimes. For fun, we'd do that.
GR: And in the movie you worked in McDonald's and in real life you modeled for them, too, right?
MC: How did you know that?
GR: You modeled all sorts of stuff before entering the Miss Hong Kong pageant, didn't you?
MC: Product-wise, yes. Fast-food chains, creams, shampoos, clothes...
GR: No more?
MC: If they'd hire me! Actually, just last month I did a commercial, but it's on a different basis now. They hire you for the name and who you are. Not like before when I had a fresh face.
GR: What do you think the advertiser wanted to people to identify with you?
MC: I don't know. I don't have a clue how the public sees me. I just know that's me. I suppose the people who like me will have different reasons. Not everyone has the same reasons. Some will like me for the way I am in films, and some people like me for the way I am, and not for films at all. There are different reasons, or I hope there are.
GR: In Irma Vep, you play yourself. Did Olivier Assayas get your character right?
MC: No. But then again, I don't blame him because it's impossible to capture somebody just from having a brief encounter. I think I have a bit more than that, but I'm not totally different than that. Even now, he says to me, "If I had known you then when I was writing the script, it would have been a little bit different."
GR: People who see this movie are going to come away feeling like they know you.
MC: They're not wrong, because to some extent that is a part of me, but it's not all. It's how I'd be if I was that character.
GR: How much of yourself do you reveal on the screen?
MC: As much as I can in the short time I'm allowed to, but you really can't do it in ten minutes. And however natural I try to be, I'm conscious of the camera. I might do some stupid expressions in real life that I won't do on camera, even though the way I'm thinking is the way I'd do it. The way I use my language is very close to how it is now.
GR: Is Olivier at all like the director in the movie? He, too, saw you in Hong Kong movies and was inspired to write a screenplay around you.
MC: No, they're not alike. The character Renee is much more crazy than Olivier. Olivier is a good, creative filmmaker, but he is very rounded, very earthy. He knows what works and what doesn't. He faces reality, he knows not to waste people's energy and time if a movie isn't going to work.
GR: Was it weird to perform in English for the first time?
MC: It was much easier than I thought. It's not really my first mother language, but I'm okay with it. I can express myself well enough in English as well as Chinese. It wasn't strange or different or whatever. It just came really naturally.
MAGGIE THE MOD
GR: What movies did you watch when you were growing up?
MC: I watched things on TV. The first film I was influenced by was Quadrophenia when it came out.
GR: Were you a mod or a rocker?
MC: I was a mod, not a rocker.
GR: Aren't there a lot of scooters in Hong Kong?
MC: Not that many. Not that many cool ones.
GR: Did you have one?
MC: No, but I remember that time very well. That was about the second or third film I went to go and see. I remember it was an X film. I had to dress up to look 18, because I was 15. I put on high heels and make up. That film has really stayed with me. I'm not saying it's a good film or a bad film, but it's something I grew up with, and it's how London was in that trend. The mods, the rockers, the punks...
GR: Did you like music a lot when you were growing up?
MC: No, I liked Sting and I remember the main actress. Leslie Ashe was a famous model at the time; I liked her a lot. But I listened to what was on the Top 10. I followed the trends, but my favorite was Madness. I liked UB40. I loved the Specials. At the time I wore a lot of black and white, the checkers. That was the trend while I was at the right age to be following trends. You're just in light of what's going on in life.
GR: Are you the same person you were five years ago?
MC: Ultimately, I am the same person, but then I feel more knowledgeable. Not just in acting and culture, but knowledgeable as a person. My mind has grown broader. I'm not as narrow-minded and I'm able to accept other things, other ways of acting, other films -- stuff like Irma Vep. I think five years ago I would have been scared of doing it. But it came at the right time of my life, when I felt more adventurous about movies.
GR: Are you satisfied with what you've done? Is there a lot more that you'd like to do?
MC: At this point of my life, I'm playing it by ear. I really don't plan my life any more. I'm very much open to what comes my way. If nothing does, I'm not ambitious enough to take that step forward to find an agent in Hollywood to try my luck there. I really want things to come to me, and then I choose from there. But otherwise, I'm very comfortable even if I'm not involved in a project. I'm comfortable just with being here on this earth, doing my own thing. I think travel has to be a part of my life. I would not be happy staying put in one place, saying this is me and this is it. Going to different places can really inspire a person, and really fills me up with knowledge. It doesn't have to be anything intellectual, just the knowledge of people or ways of living. Even listening to a strange language is kind of fascinating to me.
GR: Did anyone recognize you?
MC: There were a few Hong Kong tourists, and they would recognize me. But if they recognized me, I'd deny it. We were checking into youth hostels and tiny, small hotels. They were very homey and it was a different feeling. I went with a friend, it was a good experience. Other trips, I will stay in a nice hotel and swim by the pool, too. I'm very fortunate that I can afford to do both. Afford meaning money-wise for the nice hotels, but afford meaning youth and strength so I can not mind hard work or the cheaper ones. The fun of it is putting it all together.
GR: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
MC: I have no idea. I think acting will always be a part of me. If I watch a film, even if I'm not it, I'd be looking at the acting. That's the first thing I look at. I can't help it, because it's something I've done for so long. And watching films will always be a part of my life. Not necessarily making them. Maybe I'll grow into a stage of married life or something. I don't know. I really cannot predict.
...read the rest of Maggie's interview in GR9!