Tony Leung, The Unforgettable Cowboy Leading Man of Asian Cinema Shows His True Grit to a Legendary Director and Fellow Frontiersman
By Wong Kar Wai
DATE: Wednesday, May 25th, 2005
Location: Orphee restaurant in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Our original plan was to meet at 11 p.m. But Tony changed our meeting to a 9 p.m. He goes to bed early these days, as he gets up very early in the morning to work out. This is the Tony Leung I know: Once he is not shooting a film, he will be preparing for his next role. – Wong Kar Wai
Wong Kar Wai: Did you develop these routines when you were younger?
Tony Leung: I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s We were not a rich family. There were limited things we could do. So aside from going to the movies, I worked out a lot. We played badminton or rode bicycles in the streets.
WKW: I wonder if you notice that all the sports activities you like to do – like jogging or riding the bicylce – are individual sports. I mean, I never heard about you playing a sport like soccer.
TL: I used to get very tense in situations involving groups. It’s the same with basketball.
WKW: So you prefer to do individual activities. Then why did you take up acting? It is a field where you are forced to deal with many people. It’s a team activity.
TL: It’s different. When I act, I am not myself anymore; I become someone else. I can channel my emotions. That’s why I am so relaxed with acting.
WKW: We have also heard childhood tales of you and Stephen Chow, who directed Kung Fu Hustle, shooting Super-8 movies, and the two of you playing Bruce Lee characters—
TL: It wasn’t me who liked acting at the time. It was Stephen. He really enjoyed acting.
WKW: (laughs) But I heard you would always play the leading man, and he would play the villian.
TL: It was the opposite. I was the villian, and he was the leading man.
WKW: Stephen told a different story. He said he had to be the villian because you owned the Super-8 camera. He head to play the villian and die on every occasion.
TL: I believe this has to be—
WKW: Studied and re-examined?
TL: Yeah. It was his camera, and he had all the film. He wanted to shoot the film.
WKW: Both of you started your respective careers at TVB, the major TV station in Hong Kong, where they ran training programs for actors. Was it very competitve to be one of the students?
TL: The television medium blossomed in the ’70s. Many of our most renowned filmmakers, like Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, and Johnnie To, began their careers there. To work in television was a very attractive career choice for many young people. Chow Yun-Fat, Stephen, and I all graduated from the TVB’s traninig courses. I never thought I’d become a professional actor. Stephen tempted me. He told me about the TVB classes. (Phone rings. WKW turns off his Blackberry) I remember there was something like 6,000 applicants, and only 60 got it. It was a one-year program. Very competitive. At the end I think only 30 of us graduated.
WKW: You soon become of the most popular young idols in Hong Kong. People raved about you as the most promising young actor, and you worked with great directors like John Woo and Hou Hsiao-hsien and with co-stars like Chow Yun-Fat. I recently read your filmography and found out that you have starred in over 60 films. For a Hong Kong actor, you have been rather unproductive and lazy! I remember you were shooting three or four movies at the time when we worked together on Days of Being Wild <1991>!
TL: No, I was only doing Johnnie To’s Royal Scoundrel <1991>. I remember I had to come to your set in the Walled City in Kowloon each day after Johnnie’s shoot. I was so exhausted.
WKW: As far as I remember, you were shooting three films at the same time: our film, Royal Scoundrel, and A Chinese Ghost Story III <1991>. At a certain point we had to change our shooting schedule because you had to shave your hair off for your part in A Chinese Ghost Story III.
TL: No, I don’t think so.
WKW: Yes, you were wearing a wig for the shooting of Royal Scoundrel.
TL: Now. How could I have played in your movie if I wore a wig?
WKW: That’s why we had to change our shooting schedule and move on to shoot another sequence with the rest of the cast.
TL: No, I was doing A Chinese Ghost Story III much later.
WKW: Then why all of a sudden did you start wearing a wig for Johnnie’s film in the middle of the shoot?
TL: Not possible…maybe you’re right. But I do remember that I had been very tired during that period. I used to come to your set hoping that you would take your time with your camera, your lights, and all of the other actors so that I could have some rest.
WKW: It was more than rest, you were actually sleeping. (both laugh)
TL: I remember you guys shot me sleeping. This was actually very good for me in playing that part. It really put me at ease.
WKW: That was a good time.
TL: Yes. But it was also difficult to be in the Walled City, which used to be full of opium dens. It was a place full of untouchables. I remember no one actually shot any footage there before because it was dangerous – it was kind of a sin city. We all thought it was a crazy idea to shoot there. It was dirty, full of rats, and not a place you would want to spend more than an afternoon in. Our set was a small space, and it felt like a prison. I remember water dripping. I wondered if it was raining or the sewage.
WKW: I made changes to our set to fit in your character; I reduced the ceiling by half. The character you played grew up in such a space and become larger than the space. I thought that helped you to create a very unique body movement. The original idea of Days of Being Wild was quite ambitious. It was a story about the first generation after WWII in Hong Kong. It was supposed to be a two-part film, with the first part set in 1960 and the second in 1966. Your character was supposed to appear only in part two. But because of our schedule we had to shoot both parts at the same time. We had filmed many of your scenes that were going to be in the second part. I was so fond of your performance in one particular scene that was so powerful that I decided to keep it as the last scene of part one. It is the most intriguing ending of all my films.
TL: I remember that scene vividly. I, too, was stunned by my performance. I never expected I could be that good. It took me some time to figure out how to work with you. I somehow found my way in that particular scene. I was preparing to leave my room. You gave me a bunch of props to play with: poker cards, change, a comb, a handkerchief, cigarettes, and a lighter. And the assignmnet was to put all these things in my pocket and go out. Oh, and you also gave me a nail clipper.
WKW: I was fascinated to see how you would play the part. You were brilliant. At that moment I knew I had to work with you: I have to give you all the external elements of the character. Many actors work in the Stanislavsky school, staring with a motive and working inside out, while some actors work from outside in. For me, that was a clue to how to work with you.
TL: Yes, I was trained in the Stanislavsky school. Many of my teachers at TVB were from China. Their method was like that. But I chose to do the reverse. I was so sad when we knew we had to give up “Days of Being Wild, Part 2″ because of the market then. I felts something incomplete in my career. I’ve been trying to have the chance to play a gambler again, and 12 years later, it happened in 2046. I tried to imagine these two characters as one onscreen. The last scene in Days of Being Wild and my first scene in 2046 can be glued together as if they are happening at the same night. But in life, there is a 12-year difference.
WKW: Has the character Chow Mo Wen entered in your real life?
TL: Absolutely. I found myself buried in the character. I need some time to tune myself out.
WKW: What would be your choice if you were really Chow Mo Wen? There is no ending to our movie. If you were to tell the story, how would you envision the ending?
TL: Chow would be repeating it again and again.
WKW: Why? I always wonder why so many people tell me their father resembles Chow Mo Wen. Did you ever meet your dad?
TL: Yes, I did. I remember my dad vividly. In a way I was playing my dad in the film. My father was a captain in a nightclub. That was why I had a chance to visit nightclubs in the ’60s. We would go there and watch the performances. And I was served rum Coke. I remember my mother was dressed in the same way as Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love <2000>. She’d put on a cheongsam and high heels to go to the office. But unlike Maggie, who had to spend six hours daily to set her hair, my mother just wrapped a piece of cloth around her hair before bed. In the morning she’d get up and go to the office. I was probably 5 or 6 years old then.
WKW: Do resemble your dad?
TL: I think so.
WKW: I don’t mean your look but your character.
TL: I think so, too. In the Mood for Love and 2046 showed two facets of his personality.
WKW: Which one do you identify with more?
TL: That’s not for me to decide.
WKW: (long pause) Okay. If I am a student, what is the key to acting?
TL: (pause) Be true to yourself.
WKW: Why is it not the opposite? As an actor, do you purport to be truthful or the opposite? Do you tell yourself there is a wall in front of you or a thousand soldiers standing nearby? Do you need to convince yourself for the part?
TL: No, not really. I’d start for instance by picking up this knife or opening a few pages of a book. I’d begin by focusing on something small, like pouring wine into a glass. I’d focuse on the action. Some people place their emphasis on the camera or the director. I just focus on eating the celery on the table or pouring the wine. I very easily forget what I just did.
WKW: Talking about your TV training, you spend days and nights working. What was your record at the TV station?
TL: I once worked seven days and seven nights. It was because we were rushing to finish one TV series to start another one. The first production team would be asked to finish three weeks of work in 10 days so that I could go to another shooting. So I ended up working days and nights wih little sleep.
WKW: Did your family or your mother ever express their wish about what you’d do had you not become an actor?
TL: Never. I don’t know if they like what I do now or what I did before. I don’t know if they are proud of what I do or not.
WKW: What is your relationship with your mother? I can see you are very close to her.
TL: We love and care about each other. But we would never say these words to each other. We are the kind of people who do not know how to express our feelings to each other. My mother was against my going into TVB.
WKW: When did she change her mind?
TL: Soon after I told her that I had to do it.
WKW: Is your family important to you?
TL: I grew up in a bickering family, and I used to only recall my parents bickering. In those days, family meant a lot of shouting and fighting. Family now means security. I actually spend a lot of time at home as I don’t go out much.
WKW: What is the most important place in your home? Is it your living room, your study, or your bedroom?
WKW: What kind of requirements do you have for your bedroom?
TL: A very comfortable bed. It has to be large.
WKW: Why don’t you like to go out? Do you like to travel?
TL: I am not an adventurous person. I don’t like to take risks. I am the kind of person who likes to be secure. If I go out, I make all my plans beforehand.
WKW: Well, this is the opposite of our working process.
TL: Yes, that’s why I’m always so scared.
WKW: You never appeared to be scared. In fact, you looked quite relaxed. Of all the actors I know, you have the most patience.
TL: Well, I am someone with a lot patience. When I worked on John Woo’s Bullet in the Head <1990>, I had to do the looping for the scene in which I killed Jacky Cheung’s character. I did it 50 to 60 times. Even John came up to me to say it was okay with him. But I felt there was something wrong in the middle of this three-minute sequence that i wanted to redo. But when I’ve worked with you, I’ve realized that you have much more patience than me.
WKW: You’ve said acting is something that requires a lot of energy. I have noticed your evolution in that respect. Let’s go back to Hard Boiled <1992>. You looked very different then and had a different sort of energy. How did you prepare for the part? I remember you were having neck problems.
TL: John Woo gave me a lot of freedom to create the part. All he told me was the story, and I was given free rein. When I focused on was the look of my character. I knew I had to create a look for my character with short-cropped hair and tough-guy manners. This role had to be different from all the scholarly and weakling types that I had played before. So, I used to do all my own stunts for both TV and movies. When we were shooting for television, we always worked in a hurry. Because I was young, I never thought much of getting injured. I would go straight from my chiropractor to the shoot. I paid no attention to my neck problem until one morning I got up and could not turn my head. Suddenly, I realized how important our necks were. They control all movements. When we were shooting the ending of Hard Boiled, I did a lot of physical action with Chow Yun-Fat. In one take, I got kicked by the villian and landed on a cardboard nearby, and I injured my neck again. From then on, I’d sit by myself on the set holding my head. I didn’t want other people to know I was hurt because I didn’t want to affect the production.
WKW: What was it like to work with Hou Hsiao-hsien? I presume his way of working was very different from John Woo. A City of Sadness <1989> was your first film with him. Your character, who is mute in the film, wasn’t a mute in the beginning.
TL: Yes. Becuase at the time I didn’t speak Mandarin, so Hsiao-hsien decided to change my part into a mute. The film was about contemporary Taiwan. There was no action in the film, but I had to read a lot of books on Taiwanese history. Hsiao-hsien sent me the books, and I spent most of my time reading in the hotel. I enjoyed the experience very much.
WKW: How about Tran Anh Hung?
TL: It was a pleasure working with Tran Anh Hung on Cyclo <1995>. He also gave me a lot of freedom. After he’d finished with The Scent of the Green Papaya <1995>, he thought I would be appropriate to play the poet in this story about the mafia in Vietnam. Tran Anh Hung came to Hong Kong a few times to talk with me. We met and I found his story fascinating, so I accepted the part. For my part I had to learn both Vietnamese and French: The French version was for the French censors because Cyclo was a French production. A Vietnamese lady who spoke both Vietnamese and French came to teach me every day in Hong Kong for three months. But when I got on the set, I still did not understand any Vietnamese or French besides my lines.
WKW: How Zhang Yimou?
TL: Hero <2002> was the first time I had ever worked on a mainland Chinese production. It was great to work with such a good cast that included Maggie, Jet Li, Chen Daoming, and Zhang Ziyi. I was particularly excited to work with Yimou, a director whose work I have always admired. When I first heard the story, I thought of Kurosawa’s Rashomon <1950>. At that time, Yimou gave me a choice of playing the narrator, like Leslie Cheung did in Ashes of Time <1994>. In the end, I did what Yimou wanted and played Broken Sword, who is the lover of Flying Snow, played by Maggie. Because I have a baby face, I was quite concerned about my looks in this film because I was to play a martial arts hero. I did not want to look unconvincing. I spent a lot of time working with Emi Wada, who designed all the film’s costumes, on the look of my character, as the wardrobe was very important to play this heroic figure living in ancient China.
WKW: How was it shooting in the Gobi desert?
TL: We spent five hours a day going back and forth in a car from where we stayed to the location. It was amazing to be in that part of the Gobi desert, which is actually the Silk Road. The journey we took was amazing. I can imagine how people traveled in the ancient days from one place to another. The same journey would take three years to complete.
WKW: What about Infernal Affairs? I understand Martin Scorsese is making a new film, The Departed, based on that movie.
TL: We made Infernal Affairs at a time when the Hong Kong film industry was at its lowest. This film was the top-grossing box-office success that year and perhaps number two or three in our all-time box office. I was very happy to work with such an excellent cast. It was kind of a guys’ movie.
WKW: From a guys’ movie, let’s turn to some of the leading ladies you have worked with. In 2046, you acted against the best Chinese actresses of our time. Let’s start with Zhang Ziyi. What do you think about her?
TL: Ziyi works very hard. You could see her progess in the film. As a young woman who grew up in Beijing with no experience of dancehall girls in Hong Kong, she has a vivid imagination to create the part. I am amazed by her discipline.
WKW: How about Faye Wong, the Diva of Chinese music? She had only made five films so far. But out of these five films, on three of them she had worked with you.
TL: Yes. Faye is very talented. The way she acts is not to act. There is not calculation or pretense. She is just a natural. It is very Faye Wong.
WKW: And how about Maggie Cheung?
TL: Working with Maggie is very different, as she is like my alter ego. We started our careers at almost the same time and acted opposite each other in our first television series and on some other occasions – like on the Days of Being Wild sequel, which was never released, and on Ashes of Time. But we did not work opposite each other again until In the Mood for Love. Maggie is a truly formidable partner – one to waltz with. We do not spend a lot of time with each other, as we like to keep some mystery between us. When I see her, I discover something new about her.
WKW: So, the key for the two of you is the mystery between you?
TL: Yes. It helps. Otherwise it will become too predictable.
WKW: What about Carina Lau?
TL: Carina is the opposite of Maggie. We have been together for a long time. We know each other very well, but during our shooting we must pretend to be total strangers. It’s fun for a short while.
WKW: Is it challenging to play opposite actors like Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong, and Gong Li and be able to bring nuanced and different performances each time? In the film, we shot chapter by chapter, starting from Ziyi and ending with her. By the time we shot Gong Li’s chapter, I remember you had long wanted to work with Gong Li. I was very surprised by your performance in the scene in which you met Gong Li’s character underneath the staircase. In fact, that was the first scene you had filmed with Gong Li. I was moved. You brought a certain sincerity to your characer, which had not been seen until then.
TL: In a way, the scene was a role reversal. I became kind of like Zhang Ziyi’s character, expressing my real emotions. When Chow Mo Wen asked Gong Li’s Su Li Zhen to leave with him, he became very weak with nowhere to turn and could be easily rejected. For my character, Gong Li’s Su taught an important lesson to learn to deal with all other future women. Chow would never show his cards to anyone. He would say yes or no, and the other party provided the others.
WKW: Have you thought about what you’d do if you weren’t an actor? What would be your ambition?
TL: Nothingness. I would most likely to be engaged in nothingness. A state of nothingness and play!
WKW: If you must choose a profession, what would be your choice?
TL: (long pause) I’d still consider nothingess.
Source: “Interview” magazine, September 2005 edition