Cecilia Cheung, 19, got her first big break as an unknown in Stephen Chow's King of Comedy in 1999. One year and four films later--including the newly released Twelve Nights--the fresh-faced actress is often described as Hong Kong's 'It-girl' and on April 16 she won Best Newcomer at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Cheung spoke candidly to TIME's Stephen Short one week before the awards and reveals how she shuns fame, rarely goes out, and has already moved house five times this year because of constant press harassment.
TIME: When you were 13, 14 or even 18, who did you most admire in the Hong Kong film industry? Who were your idols?
Cheung: Maggie Cheung and Karen Mok.
TIME: Why those two?
Cheung: They both have loads of character. Maggie's very pretty, but she doesn't act pretty and soft in all her acting parts. She's always herself, and very positive. Karen has such a strong character; her face, her look, her attitude. I just love her.
TIME: How did you get noticed to start with?
Cheung: I had a friend who worked in a hair salon and was working on a catwalk show. He asked for some help and during that show I was introduced to people. And that was how it started.
TIME: And what was your first job?
Cheung: A commercial on television for lemon tea.
TIME: Had you expected to be discovered?
Cheung: Not really, no. I'm not like that. I tend to stay at home. I don't have many friends and love my family. I try very hard to be normal. I don't like discos, parties, or the night time. If I do have free time, I don't go out. I stay in and listen to music and I don't think about fame.
TIME: Why did Stephen Chow cast you, an unknown, in King Of Comedy?
Cheung: I think he wanted a new face, some fresh talent.
TIME: You must have been flattered?
Cheung: To be honest, I had no feeling when I took the movie on. I had no idea whether I could act or not, no idea what to do on set, I had no experience of any kind. I just did what he and they asked me to do.
TIME: And do you think they were happy?
Cheung: Not always, no. I think Stephen thought I was hard work sometimes.
TIME: Did you learn lots from him?
Cheung: Not really. He just kept telling me to be myself. He didn't teach much. He's got very expressive eyes. I could just look at his eyes and know what he wanted.
TIME: Do you feel like a target all the time?
Cheung: Yes. It's very hard. Everyone looks at you.
TIME: Do you wake up at night screaming?
Cheung: I'm a very happy girl. Even though I have a lot of problems, I tend to wake up in the morning and start each day afresh. No matter how sad I was the day before, I'm always happy the next morning.
TIME: Will you still be in showbiz when you're 40?
Cheung: Until I'm 28 or 29 I think, and then I'll get married at 30. That's what a fortune teller told me.
TIME: What's your favorite movie, of the ones you've made, and why?
Cheung: Fly Me To Polaris, because it has a real heart.
TIME: Do you cry watching it? How many times have you watched it and cried?
Cheung: I can't stop. It's very sad. More than 10.
TIME: What's your favorite scene?
Cheung: I love the scene when the diary is being read to me by Ritchie Ren and I have to cry.
TIME: Did you fake it?
Cheung: No. I do it for real. I always want everything to be completely natural. I used to be able to cry easily but now it's harder. I'm under so much pressure. I've had so many difficult things to put up with.
TIME: Surely the pressure you're under makes it easier to cry and break down?
Cheung: I feel now as though I've had to face everything a person can. Nothing can make me feel sadder, or more hurt. When you get to that point, you lose certain feelings, and sometimes I find now I have almost no feeling. I've had to face everything.
TIME: How much threat do you feel from your father's triad activity? I've also read you've had rape threats and contracts put on your life.
Cheung: I don't feel too much of a threat. I accept what my father does. I knew from a young age he was involved with triads. I don't feel ashamed. I love him.
TIME: Do you have regular contact with him?
Cheung: We do now. But we had long periods apart. We're very close.
TIME: Have the Hong Kong press ruined your life?
Cheung: Yes. They've made it very difficult for me. But then they have to work, their companies demand it, so I have to ignore what they say. They always push you down, and if you push yourself down with them, you want to kill yourself. So I tend to laugh now when I see what magazines write. You can't care. If you do, you could never be happy. You would rather die. There is something every single day and you just never know what they're going to print
TIME: What's the most outrageous story you've seen about yourself?
Cheung: All of them. Every story isn't real. They write what they like and truth doesn't matter. I hate them. Everywhere you live they take pictures and tell everyone. I've moved five times this year already and have been living in a hotel in Causeway Bay for the last two weeks.
TIME: How quickly do they find you?
Cheung: One to two months.
TIME: How many people camp outside your house?
Cheung: About 10. There are usually three or four cars always outside my house. But they vary the people.
TIME: How soon would you have to move again?
Cheung: Very soon. I quite like moving.
Cheung: They can chase me but they won't get me.
TIME: Will you enjoy the Hong Kong film awards?
Cheung: Yes, but I don't expect to win. I'm going to sing a song during the performance.
TIME: Do you get nervous when you sing?
Cheung: Not at all. I stand on the stage and love it.
TIME: How did you end up in Australia?
Cheung: My auntie asked me to study there. I went to Queensland when I was 14 and Melbourne at 16. I loved it. It was very peaceful and comfortable. Not like Hong Kong.
TIME: Did you finish your studies?
Cheung: No. I came back to Hong Kong. I was missing my family too much.
TIME: Tell me about Twelve Nights. What sort of Cecilia Cheung will I see in this movie, which I haven't seen so far in the others?
Cheung: It was very hard to act. The girl in this movie is very different from me. The character I play in this movie is very lost, she doesn't know what she should do, what her future will be and above all what's important to her. In real life, I know what I have to do. I have my future set out for the next few years and my work will be stable I hope.
TIME: What was it like working with Aubrey Lam?
Cheung: She's so nice and very, very ... gentle. When I work with men it's always difficult. Stephen was very noisy, very demanding and men don't always understand women's minds very well. Aubrey knows exactly how women think and why they act the way they do. That was reassuring for me. I've not been used to that before. In the King of Comedy, there was one scene where I was knitting in a chair, and Stephen told me to throw a tantrum. It looked stupid, made me look stupid and I told him I would never behave that way. I don't think he understood that.
TIME: What's next?
Cheung: I'm going to Beijing for two months to film with Tsui Hark. It's the sequel to his 'Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain' and it's full of old-fashioned Chinese stuff.