Marrying The Director

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Actress Maggie Cheung on life, love and meeting Steven Spielberg

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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.

TIME: I loved Irma Vep, but it got very mixed reactions?
Yeah, the best cities were Paris, London and New York, which I can relate to, but all my friends here in Hong Kong, the ones who have seen the film, felt absolutely nothing at all. They said, there's no story, you're not acting and I told them that was half the point. Hong Kong people don't get to see enough European cinema.

TIME: Do you have a lot of French film friends now?
I made friends from Irma Vep, and also from Olivier and his friends. I wouldn't say friends, more acquaintances. Leo Carax, the director, is actually a friend of mine.

TIME: Will you end up staying in Paris or will Olivier move over here?
I don't think there's any use in trying to talk him into moving. If I said, 'it's either a divorce or living in Hong Kong,' I think he would come. But why force him into doing something I already know he'll be miserable doing. I am much less miserable in Paris than he would be in Hong Kong. I don't see him fitting into the culture. He wouldn't make a French film in Hong Kong, and he wouldn't have any interest in making a Chinese film. And there's no point making a film in French, in Hong Kong, in English. He loves his work in France too much.

TIME: Were you surprised to have such a strong reaction to Olivier?
Yes. For Olivier and me the joke still is, Oh wow, you're the first director I slept with! This is so much fun. It's a joke between us....and then before I know it, he's my husband.

TIME: Would you want to work with him again?
Mmm. I think anything's possible but I don't think we want to work with each other unless suddenly he had this strong desire to write something.

TIME: How about writing something for yourself?
I like the idea of writing and directing something. That would be my goal in life. But that would not be in the near future. I would have to write and direct at the same time because I don't think anyone could give me a script that I would want to direct.

TIME: Do you hate being called the Meryl Streep of Asia?
I take it as a compliment. I'm not insulted. But at the same time I don't agree. I don't think I'm as serious as she is in terms of how she looks at her career as an actress. I don't take my life as an actress that seriously. Maybe I'm wrong about her. I appreciate her existence because it gave me some hope watching films like Silkwood, Sophie's Choice--it really gave me hope that a foreign actress could go so far.

TIME: What about you going to France, marrying Olivier and films like Irma Vep. Does that influence Hong Kongers?
I don't know. To be honest, I really think a lot of Hong Kong actors/actresses aren't interested in European movies. They are far more interested in Spielberg than Irma Vep. If I had to choose now, it would still be a difficult choice.

TIME: I'd take Irma Vep. It's got a real stamp of originality about it. People will write about it for a long time.
And you can marry the director! But then, if it were a project in front of me now, it would have different attractions, and it would be a hard choice. I would have a better time on Irma Vep, but then, being materialistic, you think, 'well, the chance to work with Steven and all that would be the better option.'