In a celebrity culture where stars like Brad Pitt can effectively avoid doing press for his movies, there’s something profoundly exciting about getting the opportunity to interview a true international star like Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Not because there’s some velvet rope that journalists get access to since he’s not as well known in the U.S., but because performers on a certain level seldom seem to reveal their true selves, or maybe more accurately, are asked to reveal themselves. All of which is why speaking to Leung proved enormously informative, as the acclaimed performer and movie star revealed details not just about the state of the entertainment industry, but his craft and technique as an actor.
Indiewire sat down with Leung at the recent Los Angeles press day for “The Grandmaster,” which marks the actor’s seventh collaboration with director Wong Kar-wai. Leung plays the title character – the iconic martial artist Ip Man – and he spoke in detail about the way, as an actor, he combined the spiritual aspects of kung fu with elaborate fight choreography to create a hero whose conflicts transcended physicality. Additionally, Leung discussed his ongoing partnership with Kar-wai, and examined the mutual influence that Hong Kong and Hollywood have exerted over one another in the past several decades.
Coming into a film that combines martial arts storytelling and the backdrop of actual Chinese history, what was the first thing you looked at as you and Wong were figuring out the story you wanted to tell?
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I think the whole process started with a book Kar-wai showed me like two years before shooting. He gave me a book about Chinese martial arts in the New Republic period, because for us Chinese, that’s our culture. We used to read a lot of martial arts novels, books, and he said to me he wanted to do something like this. So I started reading that book, and it was amazing – I could picture all of the camera movement, the color and the tempo. And I said, “wow – this is very Wong Kar-wai!” And I started with that so I knew what we were going to do, and from that book, I had a better understanding about the martial arts circle in the New Republic period. Somehow they have some different traditions in that period of time, and it was fascinating. So I started with that, and then I moved on to craft the character, and then the training work and all of that stuff.
Ip Man is a character who has been interpreted so many times in so many different ways. How did you want your version of this character to differ from the others?
I think this time, with this character, I wanted to not just portray the look of a grandmaster, I wanted to know what’s in their mind. What is their state of mind when they’re doing a fight? What do they think? What kind of mind do they have? So I studied Bruce Lee, who is the only one who left us his intellectual [materials]. He studied philosophy in America, and he knew how to express what he learned in words. So he left us a lot of books about his knowledge of kung fu, and his understanding of kung fu – his vision of kung fu. Because Bruce Lee is the student of Ip Man, I thought, these two people might be connected – [Lee] might get a lot of inspiration from him.
But before the age of 47, I knew nothing about kung fu; even though I’m Chinese and I grew up with a lot of kung fu magazines, films, I knew nothing about kung fu. I only knew kung fu as just the fighting techniques, or maybe how it would promote health and good coordination. But that’s it. But other than a method of self-defense, it is a way to train your mind, very much like meditation, and it can be a way of life. There is a spiritual side of kung fu that you cannot learn by fact finding or instruction, and I realized that in the transformation of kung fu in these 4000 years of history, it was greatly influenced by Taoism, Zen and the I Ching, Chinese philosophy and ancient wisdom. And I was like, wow! So besides physically, there is a spiritual side of kung fu. So I tried to explore that, and that might be what’s in how I craft the state of mind of this grandmaster – I wanted to know what’s in their mind, what is their mental state during a fight. So I started training with the physical techniques first, and then after you master that, you go on training, but you start to train your mind – what no-mindedness means in Taoism. It doesn’t mean you shut out your thoughts and emotions, but it’s sort of like a mirror that receives but does not [reflect]. It grabbed me, and I knew the theory, but you can only understand through practice. The spiritual thing can last your whole life long to explore, so that’s when I spent from Day One until the end, I never stopped practicing. And that really helped me to figure out the state of their mind during a fight.
Especially in Kar-wai movies, as you can see in the action scenes, there’s a lot of stillness and close-ups – and if you know nothing about that, your eyes will look blank. Because this is not a drama scene, there is nothing emotional; they fight maybe in total calmness. But not just calmness, but there’s a lot of things in it, and we learned all of those mental things through practice – how not to oppose or dominate your opponent, but achieve harmony with him. How to do all of the moves without emotion. You have to practice, and you have to try to figure out how and understand how.
After this whole year, I just have a little understanding, but at least I know their state of mind during a fight. So that helped me to do the close-ups during the fight – not just posing, but you know what’s in your mind. I think that really helped, and that made me feel the difference between the previous action movies I did before – they were only action, and nothing inside. I was just doing all of the moves. But this time, I think there is something more than the moves; I have the mental state too. This was more spiritual than before.
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How did that approach help you absorb the events of Ip Man’s life? Especially since they’re often handled elliptically in the film, they’re events that shaped his disposition, but they have to be contrasted with his study of that spiritual and emotional equilibrium.
When I’m trying to explore the spiritual side of kung fu through practice, I’m not just practicing kung fu – I’m trying to apply it to real life, how to apply this philosophy I learned in kung fu to deal with my actual life during these four years. How to deal with problems, how to work with others, what kind of attitude I should have. And because I know how difficult it was for this man to live life after he moved to Hong Kong, what I saw from the pictures [of him] was the dignity that was still in his eyes, and his calmness and his peaceful mind. I couldn’t understand how he could do that with such a difficult life, and I discussed that with Kar Wai. I said, “how can he do that? Maybe he’s optimistic.” But he’s not just optimistic. I think kung fu inspired his way of life, so through this four-year process, the philosophy I learned I tried to apply it to real life. I thought, maybe he dealt with life like that, and it really changed me – it really affected me too, not just the character. It affected me with how to deal with life with a different perspective. So this helped me portray the character.
How did the demands of this movie change the dynamic that you and Wong Kar-wai created from working together in the past?
Our relationship is very strange – I really don’t know how. We’ve known each other 20 years, but we seldom talk. We never discuss; we always try to surprise each other. But we’ve built up a kind of trust, and a kind of understanding. I don’t know how we connect. I think it’s very much like between the characters of Ip Man and Gong Er – we don’t need to talk. We just gesture and know what each other wants. So I don’t know how we get that dynamic, but we just have that kind of chemistry. To me we are not just partners, but kind of soul mates. In this 20 year time if you asked me if I knew him very well, I know him well, but this just puts us together for seven films. It’s strange. But he always thinks he understands me, and I always think I understand him – but we never talk.
How tough is it to find martial arts films that challenge you in the way this one does?
You have to spend a lot of time to prepare, but this is a very special experience for me. For other action movies I previously did, I didn’t need to spend that much time on them. With this film I tried to revisit Chinese heritage and tried to have a very good understanding of it, so I could try to be more authentic. And on the set, you know, we have different kinds of teachers – my teacher was there. And after a scene, after a shot is finished, we didn’t look at Yuen Woo-Ping or Wong Kar-wai, we looked at our teacher, because we needed them to approve whether it was correct or not. So this was much more difficult than ordinary action movies.
Hollywood has borrowed so much from Hong Kong cinema at this point. Where do you feel like Hong Kong cinema has been influenced by Hollywood?
I used to go to the movies every week when I was a kid, and I think at the time we started, it was Mandarin movies, and Hollywood movies were very popular in Hong Kong in the early days, the ‘60s and ‘70s. And Hollywood movies really influenced the Hong Kong movie industry. It made Hong Kong movies more entertaining and not traditional Chinese movies. That’s what makes Hong Kong movies so popular and they play a important part in Asian cinema.
So in the ‘80s, Hong Kong movies almost dominated the Asian market, and I think it’s greatly influenced by a lot of American movies. That changed the form of all of the movie production, because as you can see, no other countries, even Chinese movies, they don’t have such entertaining movies like Hong Kong movies. Our movies consist of everything – Chinese culture, traditional things, Western culture, action, entertainment. And I think that’s influenced by the Americans, a lot. Because I watched a lot of Hollywood movies when I was a kid, from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, until I started my career in television. And I am still inspired by a lot of American actors and directors from that period of time. So I think it’s interactive with each other.