Some day, everyone in the United States–particularly the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences–will recognize China’s Tony Leung as one of the greatest dramatic actors of our times. He was amazing in Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046, originated Leonardo DiCaprio’s role in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed in the original Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, and who can forget his romantic role opposite Maggie Cheung in Zhang Yimou’s masterful epic Hero?
With his latest movie, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, Leung is one step closer to Hollywood, although it’s another Chinese language period piece like the ones Leung has done so well in the past. Set in World War II Shanghai, Leung plays a Chinese politician collaborating with the invading Japanese, who has an affair with a pretty young woman (newcomer Tang Wei) who happens to be a mole for a group of young revolutionaries who plan to assassinate him.
It was thrilling that ComingSoon.net finally had a chance to meet and interview this amazing actor, especially to learn that he was such a pleasant and gracious person to talk to, and also that he spoke perfect English, which isn’t always the case with Chinese filmmakers and actors we interview.
ComingSoon.net: Is the book on which “Lust, Caution” based very well known in China?
Tony Leung: I think Eileen Chang is a very well known writer in the 20th Century. In that period of time, she’s very well known.
CS: When was it first published?
Leung: (To his manager) When was it published?
Leung’s Manager: The book was not published until 30 years after (WWII). I think in the ’70s or ’80s. Ang would have more accurate information, but she wrote it some time earlier and kept revising it and published it thirty years later. It’s only 28 pages.
CS: How was it received when it first came out? Was it controversial?
Leung’s Manager: It was not known to be one of her best known books, because she has many very famous books. This is something that was published as a short story within a longer book.
Leung: And the most interesting thing is she’s been writing this short story for ten years.
CS: So you’d read the story and were familiar with it?
Leung: Mmm. Ang gave me the book when we first met, so I read the book first before I read the script. I found the story very interesting, and I was very curious how and why she spent ten years writing the short story like this, only because it has a lot of space that you can create your own stories. What really attracted me was the character.
CS: Oddly, Ang’s last movie was also based on a short story. They must have developed your character a lot more for the screenplay.
Leung: Yeah, they wrote a lot more.
CS: What were some of the things you noticed that were different or better about your character in the script?
Leung: It’s more rich. I think in the script they add more context to the character. He added a lot about how before he moved to Shanghai, before he became chief of the secret agents, he was still human and after he moved to Shanghai, a lot more about the relationship between him and the girl and to his wife, too. That was not a lot in the short stories.
CS: When I talked to Tang Wei, I asked her about working with you, and she said that you were very generous about helping her since she’d never done a big movie like this. Can you talk about doing a movie with a first-time actress and whether your system was different because of it?
Leung: I think it’s much easier to work with someone who is not experienced, because she doesn’t have a specific style or way of acting, so it’s much easier to work with and more interesting, because they’re very unpredictable. (laughs) You never know how she’ll react, so it’s more interactive and it’s more fun. I think what I can help her out with is to just make her relax, and make her feel more comfortable, and she’s very talented. I think it’ll just come out subconsciously, but you have to make her really comfortable.
CS: I assume as an experienced actor, you can do multiple takes the exact same way, but being less experienced, does she do each take different?
Leung: Ang Lee is very demanding, so actually, we had to do many, many takes. Ang always asks you to make more variations, different takes, yes.
CS: When you saw the final movie, were you surprised about any of the decisions he made, since you never know what might end up in the movie?
Leung: But somehow you know.
CS: Tang Wei mentioned that when Ang filmed your love scenes, it was just the four of you
Leung: Ang, the DP and sometimes the camera assistant or the soundman.
CS: How was it going from having a big crew for all those epic scenes to something intimate like that? Had you ever done something like that before?
Leung: This is my first time. I think our love scenes were so intense so it makes us more relaxed to do it in a mini-group.
CS: Did you not even do that on the Wong Kar-wai movies like “2046” when you were working in smaller spaces?
Leung: Yeah, but not as small as this one.
CS: You are somewhat of a chameleon in your roles, in that it’s not always easy to tell it’s you. You definitely look very different in your role in this movie, so do you deliberately try to look different in your movies?
Leung: Yeah, I really made a lot of changes this time, because Ang really wanted me to be a different Tony Leung this time, so I changed a lot before the real shoot. I tried to change my body language, even my voice. I used a different voice, even my expression and it really helps me a lot. Ang taught me to walk like his father. He remembered the men from that period of time used to walk like this, especially the officers, and I studied the gestures from some documentary and also from books, psychologically. I read a lot of books about how the secret agents functioned at that time. I wasn’t familiar with the history, so I had to study a lot of books.
CS: Was this the most research and preparation you’ve ever had to do for a role?
Leung: Yes, yes. You have to do as much detail as you can to bring more depth to the character, so actually, after I saw all the real characters in life, I tried to figure out how Mr. Yee grew up, and where he was born, and how he got into military school, so I made him very detailed.
CS: The romance in “In the Mood for Love” is never consummated on-screen, while this one we see the sex in full detail. Can you talk about the differences between your character in the two movies?
Leung: Oh, they’re so different. The characters are so different, and it made it very difficult to play Mr. Yee, because I tried very hard to get out of that character, Mr. Chow from “In the Mood for Love,” especially when I was working for this movie. Any time I wear that kind of costume with that hair, it reminds me of that character. It’s two different kinds of characters. I think this one is more masculine, darker. It’s very different.
CS: Did the period costume help get you into the character?
Leung: I think the costume didn’t help me much this time. I think the make-up really helps. It made me look more pale, so that makes me–at least when I saw myself in the mirror–think, “This is Mr. Yee.” Without the make-up and the other stuff, it’s really difficult.
CS: Difficult in what way?
Leung: Somehow, I was in that character (Mr. Chow) for eight years, and it was also a period movie, especially after you put on those costumes and have very similar sets. It’s very easy for me to jump back to that character. I remember one night when I was doing the scene where I walk Tang Wei back to her apartment. When I did the walking scene, I said, “I just cannot do it. I cannot find the right rhythm to walk. I just walk like Mr. Chow.” He had this sound coming from his high heels, and that hair gel, and you just feel like you’re walking in Mr. Chow’s rhythm.
CS: You’re also doing the “Red Cliff” movie with John Woo and that’s a period piece like “Hero,” so are you able to use some of the martial arts you learned for “Hero”?
Leung: It’s a very different thing. In “Red Cliff”, it’s a real war happening in those times. It’s very different.
CS: How was it working with John Woo again after so much time?
Leung: I worked with him twice, and he’s still very energetic. (smiles) I think this is his dream, “Red Cliff,” he always wanted to do this, but he never had the chance, and he told me he always wanted to do this. I think this is his 31st movie made in China, so I think it means a lot to him.
CS: There’s been a resurgence in period pieces in the last few years. Do you think that the success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is what’s allowed so many Asian directors, both Chinese and Japanese, to make these types of epics?
Leung: No, I think every Chinese director wants to do some historical epic, and you can only do it in China, because you can’t find that kind of landscape (anywhere else).
CS: Did you see “The Departed,” Martin Scorsese’s remake of “Infernal Affairs”?
Leung: Yes, yes, of course I saw it.
CS: What did you think about the changes they made to it?
Leung: I’m a big fan of Martin Scorsese, so I think it’s very Scorsese and it’s really hard to compare, because we have different culture and backgrounds. He’s doing it in his own style and very different from ours, which is more stylish, and he’s very solid on the script, also on the background of the character. I think he did a great job.
CS: And what did you think about Leo’s portrayal of your character?
Leung: I think he portrayed it in a very different way. I don’t mind very much because I like DiCaprio.
CS: They also built-up his back story a bit.
Leung: Right, right.
CS: You’re one of China’s top dramatic actors, you and Chow Yun-Fat. Where do you see yourself in the future? Do you see yourself doing Hollywood movies and has it been deliberate that you haven’t done anything here?
Leung: No, I think I really interested in working with people from different countries. I did a little like I worked with Tran Anh Hung on a Vietnamese movie and I worked with Hou Hsiao-hsien or even Zhang Yimou. To me, that’s foreign language, because I don’t speak Mandarin. Actually, I would love to work in Hollywood, too. I think once in my lifetime, it would be a very good experience for me, but I haven’t found the right script. I should find the right script or the right man in order to do that.
CS: Did you have a lot of people approaching you for their movies after “In the Mood for Love” and “Hero” or “Infernal Affairs,” all of which were fairly high profile?
Leung: Yeah, I have some offers, but I’m not interested in the role they showed me, so not at the moment.
CS: There aren’t that many strong Chinese characters in Hollywood movies either.
Leung: Right, not much so
CS: Would you ever consider doing an independent movie, even if it’s something like playing someone’s father?
Leung: Yeah, I would love to, in the near future.
CS: We’ve mainly seen you playing a romantic lead, but never a father or a family man with kids. Is it hard in China to get away from the things people are used to you doing?
Leung: Of course. Once you’re an icon of something, it’s hard for you to change.
CS: That must be why Hollywood is always so intriguing to Asian actors, because there you can do something completely different, for better or worse.
Lust, Caution opens in New York on Friday and in other cities on October 5.