Marrying The Director

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Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung is attending the Cannes Film Festival this month, as the star of director Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. The movie is one of 23 in competition for the prestigious Palme d'Or prize to be announced on May 21. TIME Asia's Stephen Short caught up with the actress during filming and presents excerpts from the interview:

TIME: How long is this film with Wong Kar-wai going to take to shoot?

Maggie Cheung: A month-and-a-half would be fine with me. It's been going on for too long already...about 6 months. I feel like I have this horrible virus inside of me that I can't get rid of, and that I need a really good doctor to tell me what I'm supposed to do. I mean, I have a life to get back to. I don't want to sound as though I'm not devoted to the film, because I am and I have been for two years. But I don't know how much more I can take before blowing my top.

TIME: But you're used to this aren't you? It's not the first time you and Kar-wai have worked together?

Cheung: Once you're on the set shooting with Kar-wai, he's a joy to work with, which is why I'd go through this nightmare again and again. I just want to make a film that means something, and it's like working with family again. If it doesn't happen to be my favorite film, that's O.K. I'm investing in him, because he's a very good friend of mine.

TIME: Do you even know what your role is in this movie?

Cheung: Right now I could be playing a witch, a prostitute, a gangster, a lover, a kung-fu fighter...I haven't a clue what I'm meant to be doing. This film was going to be set in Beijing, but they wanted a script and Kar-wai never really works with one, so that whole idea got shelved. It was originally a love story between a Hong Kong person and someone from mainland Chinese, who keep meeting at Tiananmen Square. Then we were thinking about Macau, but there were some difficulties with that.

TIME: So the story has completely changed?

Cheung: It's tough to say. War-Kai tells you what he wants from you--the same day he shoots the scenes, and it's hard. To be very honest, I find it tricky to go back to working this way, with no script, although, I've probably done 50 films with no script. It's just the last 10 or so that had scripts.

TIME: Is there any one film your proudest of? In which film did you do your best work?

Cheung: I have no regrets as an actress, even though I have been one for 15 years and don't think that all the films I've done are that good. Actress [directed by Stanley Kwan] is probably my favorite, and in a way, Comrades: Almost a Love Story [director Peter Chan]. I was so at ease during the shooting of both. Actually, in my last three films--Comrades, Irma Vep and Chinese Box--I was able to feel the part and perform. My husband [French director Olivier Assayas] comforts me with this film by saying, 'well there's no script, there's no preparation, so there's nothing to get nervous about.'

TIME: I know Memoirs of a Geisha has been postponed for a while. When did you first hear that Steven Spielberg was interested in you and when did you finally get to meet Spielberg?

Cheung: I was on holiday in Corsica. We were in a very quiet place, tucked away in the mountains, and one day the phone rang and my manager told me the news. I didn't want to abandon my holiday but in the end, the day I left Corsica to go back to Paris, I had half an hour to pack my bags in Paris, then fly to New York the same day. It was a very rushed trip but it was all the more exciting for being so spontaneous and unplanned. That was when it finally sunk in. I thought, 'My god, I'm going to New York to meet Spielberg? Wow!!'

TIME: Why is he casting a Hong Kong Chinese actress in a film about Japanese women?

Cheung: He had been casting for a while for Japanese actresses but he couldn't really find any that could speak English well enough. He then went to Japan on a big search and still couldn't find any. Then he started thinking about Chinese actresses or Asian actresses--I think he'd seen Chinese Box and Comrades. He flipped through my tapes and, after seeing them, said he wanted to meet me.

TIME: And you met with him?

Cheung: Yes. He was very down to earth; he doesn't seem like the most famous director in the world. And that helped a lot. He just wasn't very Hollywood. At the screening test I read from a script Spielberg had sent me. I did it in six or seven different ways and he would say, "that's good but try this or that or laugh or be funny". It took an hour and by the end of it I wasn't that optimistic, because I didn't feel I'd really given my best. Spielberg was polite and nice and encouraging but he didn't give me the part right there and then, so I felt that I was not going to get the part. A week later I got told that he liked what he saw.

TIME: Did you get drunk that night?

Cheung: I felt happy and relieved and a small sense of victory, but not in a celebratory way. I thought, 'now I need to look into my future.' I didn't get too excited because I had talked myself into believing I'd be alright if I didn't get it.

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