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Bai Ling is on a roll, with roles in the CGI fantasy-thriller "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and that little flick franchise called "Star Wars" which George Lucas directs periodically. APA speaks to the lovely actress.
Seven years ago, there weren't that many Asian women in Hollywood. This was way before Lucy Liu emerged as the fiercest third of Charlie's ass-kicking trio, and before Zhang Ziyi warmed her way into America's hearts with her playful yet voracious seductiveness--without even having to use a word of English. In 1997, there was Ming-Na Wen, there was Michelle Yeoh, and there was the most mysteriously exotic one of them all: Bai Ling.
Bai Ling made People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful" list. Such lists are of course ridiculously superficial, but at the time many adolescent Asian girls appreciated that one might be considered beautiful without looking like your typical Hollywood starlet.
Born in China, Bai Ling was entertaining troops for the People's Liberation Army at age 14, and was later reprimanded for her rebelliousness due to her casual use of tobacco and alcohol. Never one to be contained by rules, Bai Ling joined a theater group and became a young star in China. She then attended NYU's film school to train at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute.
She had roles in movies like The Crow and Nixon, but Red Corner was the film that garnered the most attention for Bai Ling. The movie starred Richard Gere as a man wrongly accused of murders in China, and Bai Ling played the lawyer who defends him. While the film won Bai Ling the Best Breakthrough Perfomer award from the National Board of Review (as well as the Freedom of Expression Award for Gere and director Jon Avnet), it also caused a lot of controversy and was banned in China and Korea for its ugly portrayal of human rights abuses in the Chinese legal system. What was a pivotal role in Ling's career also became a nightmare for the actress, who had movie contracts terminated and her passport revoked. In recent years, she's been able to return to her native country, make some movies there, and marvel at the changes that have occured in China since then.
Although these controversies have taught her to be careful with her words, Bai Ling remains a free spirit and an open book--whimsical, carefree, and flowing wherever the wind takes her. Her life has led her to roles in Anna and the King, She Hate Me, My Baby's Daddy, and most recently, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, co-starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, as well as Bertha Bay-Sa Pan's directorial debut, Face. She will also be in the must anticipated Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith, which is scheduled for a May 19, 2005 release. I guess we can start lining up now. Exciting stuff for such an enchanting soul. She's got spunk. She's unique. Equal part hard worker and social butterfly, she cannot be confined by any lines of convention or notions of normality. This is Bai Ling.† --Ada Tseng
Interview with Bai Ling
Interviewed by Ada Tseng
Additional research by Jennifer Chong
Transcribed by Meina Banh
APA: So we often start our interviews by having you introduce yourself to the APA audience -- what you do, where you came from etc...
Bai Ling: I came from the air. I came from the moon. I just landed. [She had just gotten off the plane.] Traveling, it's a constant in my life. Sometimes I feel like Iím naturally high because of this lifestyle. Sometimes I really feel like Iím the air or on the moon, and thatís that. Of course, I originally came from China. My name is Bai Ling, and Iím lucky enough to have a job in Hollywood. I have six movies coming out.
APA: One of them was Spike Lee's She Hate Me. How would you describe your character in this film?
BL: Sheís a designer, and sheís a lesbian. She enjoys life and is an admired woman living in New York City. We did a lot of research for the movie. I think sometimes Iím more fond of doing the research for the character because you learn so much. Sometimes shooting is really difficult because you wake up early and youíre always hurrying. And sometimes I donít know what Iím doing. Iím here and there. Sometimes the journey is very confusing, but Iím very fortunate for them to give it to me. Spike Lee always keeps a distance with actors. Heís not always joking around; a lot of directors joke around to get close to the actor. He has a different style. You never know what heís thinking, and youíre kind of nervous. When youíre nervous, youíre more devoted because you want to be good. Youíre more there. Instinctively, I felt like it was good for me. You donít know what how heís thinking or if youíre on the right path, but I learned later that whatever I do is probably fine, because if it was wrong, heíd tell me. So basically I have that freedom.
APA: So youíve actually been lucky enough to work with some pretty impressive directors, is that one of the things you look at when you decide what projects you want to do?
BL: Iím a person that doesnít have that many goals or plans. I feel like Iím the wind and I blow through life; itís whatever comes to me. I very much respect nature. Whatever happens to me, Iím happy and I embrace it. I like not knowin. Iím very fortunate. Itís like a miracle in life: things happen that you donít know, but somehow it works out. Itís a wonderful, wonderful gift. All these wonderful directors are really different. I donít know really much [about them] because I come from China. The first time with Richard Gere [in Red Corner], I was more impressed with the role than with Richard Gere because I didnít grow up here. I really donít follow [Hollywood] that much, so it gave me a lot of truth there. Iím not really going for anything else except for how I feel, and what Iím supposed to do for the role.
APA: Yeah, you seem like youíre very free spirited and comfortable with your sexuality.
BL: Yeah, well my name is Bai Ling. That means white spirit, and I really feel like sometimes Iím not existing. Sometimes I feel like Iím air, wind, and fire. Those elements. I often feel like I have this spirit living inside of me, always dressing in like short mini skirts. Through life, through work, and through interviews, I learn so much about me, because there are questions that I donít know how to answer, but then I start to discover myself. So there are 8 spirits, mischievous ones, sad ones, handsome ones, wise ones, and crazy ones. I was in Asia and people asked me about being considered sex symbol. I donít know if thatís good or not, because where I come from, sex isnít something youíre allowed to talk about. But I find that itís true, thereís a little girl in me who always dresses up and wants to go to parties. Every time I when I come sheíll say, "Letís go out!" Sometimes Iíll tell her and say, "No, no, no, that skirt is a little too short." Sheíll say, "No, no, Iím all covered." Itís fun to party. So thatís generally the spirit that Iím living life by, because whatever comes to me, I just go by the instinct.
APA: Do you find that sexuality can be empowering?
BL: Well Iím very private in person. Iím very sensitive and shy with men individually. But when Iím talking, maybe thereís this other channel or this other side and other way of working in my mind, and I convert and become carefree. But some people tell me, "Donít trust the journalist." You know? You canít tell them things like theyíre your friends. I always treat them like theyíre my friends, and I donít know why. Sometimes it gets me into trouble.
For example, Red Corner dealt with problems in China., so I should have been more careful, but somehow itís just my nature [to be open]. Like I see these beautiful girls sitting here. How can I treat this like an interview? Theyíre like my friends. Iím very open. I donít know about sexuality, but I feel like Iím just free. Itís like, if anyone falls in love, a man or woman or anything, it makes me feel that way. Itís a gift. I donít really judge what should be or what shouldnít be. Iím very much against that, because in China we had all the rules. As a child you have your grandparents, your parents, your teachers who said, "Donít do this." Everything is a "donít." So Iíve written so many apology letters in my life. I was in the army. I was in the Tibet army for three years when I was 14. So everything I do is wrong, and Iím always writing apology letters. Therefore, Iím very much against those rules in society for some reason. I think they limit you. Of course, without rules it would be chaotic, but you never know, there is rhythm in nature; itís organized. Like the four seasons, you donít have to guard them. It just naturally happens.
APA: Youíre talking about China and growing up during the Cultural Revolution, and youíre actually writing a book about it, right? Can you talk about that?
BL: Yes, Iím writing a book. The book is actually my own story. When I was in Tibet for three years when I was 14, I felt like it was really fascinating. I just started writing [the book] for myself. I had no purpose to publish it or make it for others. It was just for myself because it was one of the most precious experiences in my life. Therer was a beautiful spirit there, and yet it was in a very strictly controlled army, the Chinese British Army, so it was a huge contrast, like day and night. But I was 14, and I didnít know anything. Everything is basically formatted there. You learned to make decisions yourself. So there are a lot of fascinating stories that I didnít understand.
Also, when youíre 14, you look at things differently. Some people [might] think itís ugly, but for me I think itís beautiful. Itís just a different perspective. I feel like even when I was writing, the characters were taking on their own lives. I feel like the experience living there was enough to write this book. I feel like itís important for the book to have itís own life and have other people read it because itís fascinating. Itís beautiful. Well itís cool, itís beautiful, itís cold, itís warm, itís all colors. Also, Iím a little bit crazy, so there are different worlds tangled together. The real world, the imaginary world, the world above, the realistic world, the world in Tibet, the world in the army and how realistically the life is there everyday.
APA: Yeah, it sounds really interesting. As youíve been talking about, youíve been fearless in taking on controversial roles, which have probably lead to consequences that have been difficult. Looking back, are you proud of the choices you made? Would you have done it any other way?
BL: Iím very proud of the choices Iíve made, because at that time it was very important for me. For example, well I have to be careful when Iím talking about, sometimes I get carried away. Like Red Corner, I already have a little voice in my head telling me to be careful. For Red Corner, when I read the script, my English wasnít very good. Normally it takes me a long time to read it. Iíll take a little break, and then come back, but I just read it through one time, the whole script. I was really engaged with the character. I felt passionate. I felt like I could do the character because I knew her so well. I just knew her. It was just instinct. I feel like in Hollywood, Asians never really had a role like that. They look at us as a sexy girlfriend or something, like you just stand there as decoration. But this role was beautiful, she was smart, independent, intelligent. Also, subtly, I gave her a lot of female emotions throughout the whole character. So itís a really beautiful part. It was a lot of things that I could do.
But of course, sometimes I think Iím naive in that way. I had a meeting with [a man from] the government, and I said, "But the movie [wasn't even shown] in China." He said, "Bai Ling, youíre crazy. Ask your friend, who hasnít seen it? People really want to see it, especially because it has been banned." I said, "Well, it's been a long time." And, he said, "Even films 30 years, 100 years in the past, will still impact peopleís lives." So I didnít think about it that much.
APA: Does it affect the choices you make now?
BL: Of course, now I think back on it, I feel like it was a really, really, really difficult experience in my life. Because people like Richard Gere, or studio people behind the movie, they donít have to go back to China. My family is there, so I have to return. Iím also very connected to my grandmother, and sheís old. So how would I explain to her? I wouldnít want her to be worried. You know those things are very dear and emotional questions for me, and hard to deal with. So I went through many difficult times, crying in the middle of the night, I didnít know what to do. I was scared because if you go back, something might happen to you. But I donít know. So basically, I learned to live life in a positive way. Sometimes I feel like, what a precious experience to learn about life, in a very difficult way. I think in that way, and I really, really, really learned so much. As a human being, and as an actress, it just gives you so much depth and sensitivity of those feelings that you would normally otherwise not feel. I think of it that way, and Iím more aware of society, and that things really do have consequences. So maybe I have to be careful, think twice, and not be that little girl who goes partying while Iím working. So I just have to think a little bit more. Hopefully Iíll do that, because sometimes I still donít.
APA: So what other movies do you have coming up?
BL: A very exciting thing that Iím looking forward to seeing is Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. All the stars, like Jude Law, are going to be there. I think sometimes actors are overrated. Sometimes I think scientists are the ones who are the stars. This movie we shot it completely on blue screen. Itís called Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow by Paramount, and we have Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, and Angelina Jolie, so itís quite exciting. I want to see it. Itís a fantasy movie. Of course, I look completely different in that than in Spike Leeís movie or Beautiful Country. Then, in Beautiful Country, I worked with Terrance Manning. He's my friend, my most admired and respected director. Personally I got to know him, heís very sensitive and very pure and a very beautiful person. Iím lucky Iím doing science fiction and drama. And I have Face, which was in Sundance for the drama competition. I play a woman who has 20 years of age cross. On screen she was 17, and 20 years later, it was really fun. I donít like that character, but it was a character I played.
APA: Are you excited about your role on Star Wars?
BL: Yes, I have Star Wars next year, the very last Star Wars movie. Iím so excited. I told George Lucas on the shooting the first day, I was literally very excited, I said "George, Iím so excited for you. Iím so excited for myself." I told him, I feel like Iím the luckiest girl because Star Wars is like a legend, no matter what role I have in that movie. Itís fun for me from where I came from.
APA: Recently, you just shot your first Hong Kong film?
BL: Yeah, I just finished. The role was just wacky. Well not wacky, but the other characters I've done, [are ones] you can see in real life, but for this role, it was like you didnít know who she was, and you were trying to figure her out and no one knows. So that gave me a lot of freedom. Itís from the top artist from there, itís called The Three Extremes, and I was just having so much fun even though it was hot and I was jet lagged. It was difficult. But somehow, I feel like in life, you need to do those things. I feel like Iím very lucky to have those gifts. I get to be a model, an actress, and travel. To live in the Ritz Hotel. But I was barely there; I was on set suffering. When my friend got there, in 20 minutes, she fainted and she went to the hospital. She said, "Bai Ling, I have great admiration for you. 20 minutes, and I couldnít take it, and you were there sweating." They gave me this gold chain, and I was getting all red, itchy and struggling. Oh my god, it was difficult, and with the lack of sleep. But somehow I feel like still itís a gift, and I wonder, how can I give this gift to others? Just work hard, and do whatever I can do, to be that, and to return the love to the fans. I like to give them joy and smiles to them. Give back to them.
BL: You know, I got there, and the directorís girlfriend was passing by the editing room, and she heard someone speak perfect Mandarin. So she said, "Wow, how did she learn to speak Mandarin so well?" And I'm from mainland China. English is my second language, but in Hong Kong, they donít know that Iím from China. They think Iím from Hollywood because all the films they see are from here. China and Hong Kong are very different places, but theyíre starting to merge. Still the culture is very different. A lot of stars are from Hong Kong and people know them from Hollywood, and they ask me [about them], and I say, "I donít know [them]." Theyíll say, "How come you donít know?" Itís just very different. But Iím glad because right now in Asia itís so exciting. You see Beijing, you see Hong Kong. People are everywhere, and everything is so new. You just feel like youíre alive. There is a rhythm. There are rules, and there is a certain lifestyle.
But [in terms of ] Hong Kong movies, I feel like Iím Chinese, so Iíd like to do more of them. Iíd like to do some movies here and also there. In Hollywood, itís hard to have a good part. Like Iíve had Red Corner and Anna and the King and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Beautiful Country. Theyíre really good roles, but there arenít a lot of them.
APA: Asian actors often have to be strong and break down doors in Hollywood. Do you have an optimistic view in the direction that Hollywood is heading in terms of more opportunity for Asians?
BL: Absolutely, absolutely, I mean youíre here interested in interviewing me today, so that means that Iím working, and I came from mainland China and Asia. Itís difficult, but I completely accept it because itís an industry. Sometimes Hollywood is just making products, and people consume the product, thatís how Hollywood is here. Weíre still a minority here. If we didn't have the boundaries or ideas of race, the people would think differently. Weíre all sisters and brothers. So like color and those issues now, if we dealt with it much, much less, the world would be much more beautiful.
When I went back to China, it was exciting. The people see it, itís gradually changing. For me, Iím a very optimistic person, like I was saying about sunlight. I also like to follow natureís rhythm. In times or places, they have their own rhythm. So you cannot push it. So we must accept that as well. Wherever weíre born at this time, we just live it. Maybe next generation, there will be a lot more opportunities, but we just enjoy what we can. When you say youíre being strong and breaking all these rules or trying to do something, Iím not like that. Iím very easy and whatever comes to me. If I donít make movies, Iím okay too. Iíll write books. Iíll just sit here and watch the world go by. Iíll feel comfortable.
APA: Well thank you, weíll look forward to seeing you a lot on the big screen.
BL: Thank you.
Date Posted: 10/30/2004