Maggie Cheung learned about the art of acting the hard way. By making movies. At least that's what she told a room full of more than 200 of her fans recently in New York, at an event during the Asian American International Film Festival, co-hosted by the Asia Society and The Film Society of Lincoln Center.
"It took me the first 10 years of my career to learn what acting is, what filmmaking is," said the 40-year-old-actress who got her start as a model "to avoid going to university." The untrained actress, with the trademark sultry voice and disarming beauty, added, "The first 65 films I made were really my lessons."
The comments elicited gasps of disbelief and vigorous head shaking from the audience and it is easy to understand why. Cheung's latest film "Clean," directed by Olivier Assayas, in which she plays a recovering junkie, earned the international star the 2004 best actress award at Cannes and her most recent film, "2046" directed by Wong Kar Wai, which opened over the weekend, is one of the most anticipated auteur films to be released in 2005.
Yet the self-described "lazy actress" covers her eyes when watching some of her earlier, campier action films and marks "Center Stage" as the first of three turning points in her career. "Before this I would just do what a director told me. They would say, 'be sad' and I would pretend to be sad. They would say, 'be in pain' and I would pretend to be in pain. I didn't understand what it was all about."
But when preparing to play Ruan Ling-Yu, China's most famous silent era actress, Cheung began to unlock the mysteries of character development, admitting that it was the first time she was taken seriously as an actress.
Cheung was told by "Center Stage" director Stanley Kwan to watch Ruan's surviving films to nail the legendary actress' movements. "It was the first time I started to work on body language first," she said. And it was an important lesson that she continues to use to define the characters she plays today. Before learning lines or breaking down a script, Cheung said she always starts by "doing a bit of designing first."
During the filming of Peter Chan's "Comrades: Almost a Love Story" Cheung had her second pivotal experience. "It was the first time I had a magic moment," she said, referring to one of those rare moments captured on film when actors are so involved in the world they've created that nothing else exists. "I managed to blush on screen and that is one thing that's not easy to do," she said proudly.
Cheung's final lesson began rather painfully while working with Wong on "In the Mood for Love" which took 15 months to shoot, 12 months longer than anyone had anticipated. But it wasn't until shooting Assayas' "Clean" that she had her first chance to try out her new skills.
Working with Wong was amazing but frustrating, Cheung said. Unlike other directors with whom Cheung had worked, Wong expected his actors to bring their own ideas to the characters and provided remarkably little guidance. "It took me six months to open up and just give myself," said Cheung. "It was me holding back, I wanted him to tell me what I should do. I like to be led and I didn't want to make the first move." Eventually she did, finding her inspiration in a slow motion shot of herself walking across the street as Su Li-Zhen Chan, which Wong made her watch more than 50 times.
Completing the film was slow and sometimes overwhelming, with her filming of "2046" taking place simultaneously, but once the projects had wrapped and "Clean" began shooting, Cheung was certain she had reached a "new level of acting" that is an "accumulation of knowledge" from all 80 of her films. "Now I completely let go. I know that if I react properly and focus properly, it will come."
But Cheung, who still inspires young men to sigh wistfully with a flip of her hair, isn't finished learning yet. She wants to apply her newly gained technique to comedies and said that she's dying to do one. She hopes that her "new mind of acting" will finally let her be funny on screen without trying to be funny.
Determined and confident, she squared her shoulders and said, "I want one more shot before I say I'm not funny."