Lust, Caution – Tony Leung interview
Written by: Jack Foley
Published in: indielondon.co.uk on 2007
LUST, Caution represents a major breakthrough in the already remarkable career of Asia’s favourite leading man, Tony Leung. The actor believes that working with Oscar winning director Ang Lee has helped him deliver a performance that may well shock as well as delight his army of fans.
Here, he discusses some of the reasons behind making the film, working with Ang Lee and what he thinks of his celebrity, of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and why he’s been working with John Woo…
Q: You just played a bad guy in Confession of Pain and you’re a bad guy in this. What’s going on?
A: I don’t think Mr Yee considers himself a bad guy. He’s not a simple bad guy but a very complicated and very dark character. I think it’s very interesting. For me because I seldom play this kind of character and that’s why I took the role, I think it’s very challenging. I had to play someone who is older than me and is very different from what I’ve done before.
Q: How did you approach playing him in the historical context?
A: I had to study a lot of reference books. Ang really helped me a lot, he gave me a lot of references, he was very well prepared and he gave me some books on history and some biographies of the real characters. One was a secret agent chief at that time, so I studied him. I pulled some characters together to create Mr Yee. Ang wanted me to be a different Tony Leung because audiences know me very well and are very familiar with what I’ve done before. So I had to change everything – the way I walk, my expressions, even my voice. And the most difficult thing is that I don’t speak Mandarin and I had this experience – of working in a language that I don’t understand – before and it’s really horrible.
Eighteen years ago, I played a mute in one film because I couldn’t speak Mandarin. There was another film where I had to speak Vietnamese. It’s horrible! [laughs] I have to memorise all the words because I don’t understand them. And so when Ang said we would be doing it in Mandarin I went: “Oh shit!” [laughs]. I said to him: “You cannot change a word..” Because my brain doesn’t function that way, it only functions in Cantonese so I have to spend three months memorising the lines. So Ang couldn’t change one word, because if he did I would not remember. It’s difficult, it’s tough but it’s also fun and enjoyable.
Q: You’ve said before that you really inhabit your characters and take them home with you. How was it living with the darkness of this character?
A: It was exhausting and very tough. Playing this kind of character is very tough. Sometimes you lose your appetite, you are always very down and unhappy. To carry this character around with you is tough.
Q: You’ve been in plenty of action thrillers and handled guns but the violence in this is more brutal and animalistic in a way…
A: Playing that is tough, I think.
Q: What did you think when you saw the film?
A: I thought it was great and that I did a great job in a great movie. I saw it in Venice. It wasn’t painful to watch. It’s different for the actors watching it than it is for an audience. The first time I saw it I tried to focus on myself to see how I did with that character. And the second time I saw it and I saw the whole movie and I think it’s a great movie.
Q: Do you think a part like this can influence your career?
A: I’ve already gained a lot. Through making this movie I’ve already learned a lot from Ang, he’s very inspiring and I had a great time. I think he just raised me to another level in terms of acting.
Q: Ang said that the sex scenes were harrowing to film for him. What was it like for you?
A: I think doing love scenes is never easy without a strong emotional background. I think the love scenes in this movie are very powerful and they’re not trying to simply show the bodies of the actors but trying to reflect the inner feelings of the character so it’s easier in that way.
Q: How much preparation did he give you for them?
A: I was quite curious because he always mentioned that there were ‘love scenes.’ It was: “How come you always emphasise these love scenes?” Because I do a lot of movies where there are love scenes. I said: “OK, that’s fine for me…” And then after three months when we had to do some rehearsals and he told me we were going to do the scenes in this way, I was “OK, let’s try…” And we did it. Ang and Tang Wei and myself spent a lot of time discussing how we would do it, what we were trying to do, what we were trying to express through the characters and they weren’t just love scenes for the sake of it. So that made things a lot easier.
Q: You were working with a very inexperienced actress in Tang Wei. Did you try and help her with those scenes?
A: I didn’t have time to help her; I was just trying to help myself [laughs]. But as an actor, this is not my first time doing love scenes so it’s not that difficult for me. I just tried to make her comfortable. I tried to tell her what I would do in a love scene and what I was trying to express and to make her feel comfortable and that’s all I could do.
Q: Ang said that he pushed the actors quite hard and that he almost drove you crazy…
A: At the very beginning, yes he did. He wanted me to act differently but he wouldn’t allow me to see playbacks because he didn’t want me to be conscious of what I did. But you have to see the playbacks to see whether the body language is right or not. But he wouldn’t let me see the playbacks and so that was quite tough at the beginning.
Q: And what did you think of this new style that he imposed on you?
A: I think it’s incredible and I think I had a breakthrough in my acting career. I did something that I had never done before and to me, at least, it was quite successful.
Q: Do you think that your fans will be shocked?
A: I’m quite curious about how they respond. I think they expect me to change, to give them something different in every movie. And this is very different to anything that I’ve done before
Q: You work very well with directors who are considered demanding, such as Ang Lee and Wong Kar Wai. Is that a certain work ethic or is it something to do with your character?
A: Maybe because I love acting so much that I have so much patience. And I am a very patient person.
Q: In the past you said you became addicted to acting because it gave you an emotional outlet that you sometimes didn’t have in your own life. Is that still the case?
A: I’m not quite sure now. Maybe, but I enjoy more and more in recent years, it’s more than just an outlet for my emotions. I really enjoy the process of making movies now. The only thing that really concerns me is working with great directors and actors, and that is fun and exciting.
Q: Do you enjoy the celebrity side of acting, being a star?
A: Not really. I don’t want to become more famous because I don’t have any privacy anymore and I hate that very much. Outside of work I just want to be an ordinary person, not to be recognised, not a monkey on the street when everybody is looking at you.
Q: So it is easier outside of Asia?
A: Not really because there are Chinese everywhere.
Q: How old were you when you started acting?
A: I was 19 years when I got into acting training classes at a TV station and then I found a way to express my feelings. My father left us when I was a kid and I just shut down all of my emotions. I wasn’t talkative; I didn’t know how to communicate with people. I tried to separate from people. I didn’t know how to tell people about my family, about my father because at that time it wasn’t common. So I felt very bad and so I tried to shut down all my emotions. And after I got into the classes I found a way of expressing myself through characters. I can cry behind a character, I can shout behind a character and it became a relief. And it’s fun.
Q: How old were you when your father left?
A: He left three times when I was between three and six. You just couldn’t tell – suddenly one day he would leave and then maybe he would come back after six months without telling you why. And then maybe he would disappear again after a year and it’s very difficult to take when you are four or five. You just don’t know how to handle it and nobody in the family wants to talk about it. My mother didn’t know how to tell us and she needed to work because we needed money to live.
Q: Did you still see him after he left?
A: No, I didn’t have the chance to see him anymore. He passed away a few years ago.
Q: Did he try and contact you when you became famous?
A: Yes, he did. But my mother didn’t want me to see him.
Q: Have you finished working on the new John Woo film, Red Cliff?
A: No, I had to sneak out from my work with John and I have to go back straight after this work. It’s very tough. It’s a war movie and there’s a lot of people every day and it takes a long time. We have a lot of costume to wear and it’s very hot. We have to wear like 20lbs of armour and it’s meant to be the wintertime, so it’s very hot. It’s tough [laughs]. I needed to work out every day, too.
Q: What did you think of The Departed? It’s a remake of your film, Infernal Affairs…
A: I saw it in Hong Kong and it was very Martin Scorsese. It’s very different and really hard to compare with the one that we did. Ours was a smaller budget and very Hong Kong style. I’m a Martin Scorsese fan but I love Infernal Affairs more than The Departed.
Q: Hollywood is remaking a lot of Asian films right now. What do you think of that trend?
A: I think moviemakers in every country are looking for ideas. It’s interactive. And sometimes we remake a lot of Hollywood films but we don’t buy the rights, we just try to imitate those films. [laughs]
Q: Do you have a lot of offers from Hollywood?
A: There have been offers but I haven’t found the right script yet because I don’t have any plans to establish my career there, I don’t want to be more famous. I enjoy making movies but I enjoy my private life too. As an actor, to do it once in my lifetime I think would be a good experience. But I’ll just leave it to fate. I had a chance to work with Ang because of fate. So I don’t mind if it happens but I don’t have any plans to work in the States.
Q: Do you hope that fate will bring you back with Wong Kar Wai again?
A: We will. Actually, we plan to do a kung fu movie five years ago but I felt quite bored with him [laughs]. We’d been working together for more than 10 years so that’s why we had to take a break. But we will reunite I think next year. We’re going to do a kung fu movie about Bruce Lee.