THE Q &A: INTERVIEW TONY LEUNG
Hard boiled on screen, but charming in person
Written by: R.M. VAUGHAN
Published in: Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada) on October 5, 2007
Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung lives in two very different movie-star worlds.
Half of his long career is defined by signature tough guy performances in bloody Hong Kong crime films (the Infernal Affairs trilogy, Hard Boiled, War of the Underworld and Bullet in the Head, among many others), while he has spent the other half smouldering in everything from swirling historical fantasies such as Hero and Flowers of Shanghai to the art-house hits Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, 2046, and Ashes of Time (possibly one of the most opaque movies ever made).
Leung’s latest film, Ang Lee’s beautiful and controversial Lust, Caution, a Brian De Palma-like Second World War sex thriller based on historical records of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, casts Leung as the manipulative, murderous (and priapic!) Mr. Yee, a traitor/profiteer targeted by the Chinese resistance.
Before meeting Leung, I expected him to be as sullen and intimidating as his many characters. But he’s obviously one hell of an actor, because the real Tony Leung is affable and demure, prone to self-deprecation and slow giggles. A true gentleman, he even holds my microphone for me. Some gangster.
Q: Lust, Caution mixes opulence and brutality with equal measure. The film seems to be saying that war breeds heightened sensuality.
A: I think in some way, yes. This was true even in ancient times. It’s always been true.
Q: Mr. Yee lives in a state of constant anxiety. Was it difficult to maintain that tension?
A: I studied a lot of books about the real character of Mr. Yee. I understood how he worked, how traitors killed people, kidnapped people, how they lived. They feared being killed all the time, because they were traitors. They dared not even sleep in the same bed twice. Sometimes they slept in their closets! I caught his anxiety from books, but I don’t how come I have that kind of scary expression! Ha!
Q: Well, it works.
A: Yes, it just works. Ang said it was nice to capture that expression. I don’t know how I did it. But I had to study a lot because I am not familiar with that history.
Q: Why is the Chinese government angry about this film?
A: Are they angry?
Q: That’s what one hears.
A: I don’t know if they are angry, but everywhere there are different censorships in different countries. China is different from Hong Kong, even. In our cinema in Hong Kong, we have different categories for different ages, but in China they show movies to general audiences, so they need to have different censorship.
Q: This is definitely not a children’s film.
A: Oh, no! Ha! Of course, no!
Q: You are surrounded by fantastic actresses in this movie – some great divas of Asian cinema. Is that why your character often appears in the background? Were you trying to get out of the way?
A: Yes, yes. But I think it’s also because Mr. Yee is making all these women his mistresses. So the women, they fight it out on the mah-jong table. And, you know, being a man, you see this women’s fight and you just want to get away! Ha!
Q: Let’s talk about the sex scenes in Lust, Caution. They are very athletic – it almost looks like wrestling.
A: We went through many rehearsals beforehand.
Q: I’m not touching that one.
A: Doing these things is not easy. I am very shy, and Ang is very shy too. You know, in front of a girl, you have to try to make her relax, so you can both be not shy. But after the camera rolls, when you get into the character, that makes things more easy. But, being myself, really, I am very shy. It’s difficult, but I think those scenes are very important to the story. Without them, the movie and my character are incomplete.
Q: Lust, Caution is about conflicted people living in and running from danger, but your whole performance is in your face. You stand very still through most of the film.
A: Yes, a lot of close-ups! Ha! I have to do a lot of homework for this film, so that I can carry those emotions to the scenes. I had to set up Mr. Yee in my mind before each scene. I wanted him to have something in his eyes. I wanted his face to be very detailed, to look like perhaps he has just killed someone before he entered the room.
Q: You’ve been called “the Asian Clark Gable”, but I think you’re more like Gary Cooper – soft face, dark heart.
A: You mean Tony Leung me or Tony Leung on screen?
Q: You tell me.
A: Off screen, I am more fragile, like the characters I play in Wong Kar-wai’s movies. Mr. Yee is totally different from me, I can find nothing real in me to connect with him.
Q: And directors love to photograph your big, sad Cooper eyes.
A: Ha! Because they don’t want to give me any lines! I don’t have much to do otherwise!
Q: Will there be Infernal Affairs 4?
A: I don’t think so. No Infernal Affairs 4. I need more time these days to prepare for my roles, and more time to relax.
Born: June 27, 1962, in Hong Kong
Making his name
After first appearing in television comedies, Leung started working in film in the late 1980s, scoring leading roles in several of acclaimed director Wong Kar-wai’s films, as well as a role in John Woo’s Hard-Boiled in 1992.
Won the award for best actor at the 2000 Cannes International Film Festival for his role as a newspaper editor dealing with his wife’s adultery in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love.
Has been in a relationship with Hong Kong actress Carina Lau since 1989. They have co-starred in many films, starting with Replica in 1984 and recently in the 2004 sci-fi 2046. R.M.V.