When I met Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, I wouldn’t have known he was tired if I’d not been told beforehand. Just arrived that day in Melbourne, where I was the last stop in an epic series of interviews, he had done the same thing the day before in Sydney. He had also been mobbed at the Sydney preview of In the Mood For Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) that he introduced. There was no sign of this fatigue and stress in his face, which was calm and intelligent with kind brown eyes that made even the last journalist in his two-day ordeal feel welcome.
And it’s not as if Leung is so new to the business of cinema that such promotional obligations would have any kind of buzz left. America’s People magazine may have voted him one of the sexiest human beings around last year but, like other Asian actors the West is just catching on to, the 38 year-old actor has been around for years. In excellent English and a thoughtful, relaxed mood, Leung reflected on his career, which includes films such as Bullet in the Head (John Woo, 1990) and Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994).
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Trish Maunder: In the Mood For Love is the fifth film you have done with Wong Kar-wai, not including 2046, which was being shot simultaneously. Wong is notorious for having chaotic sets and shooting schedules; why have you been willing to cope with this so many times?
Tony Leung: The first thing is it’s quite challenging working that way. For an experienced actor like me who’s been working as an actor for 18 years and, actually, I’m still trying to improve my acting, my target is to act like non-professionals. His way of making movies helps me to break through that because we cannot prepare anything because we don’t have any script and we know only a little hint about the character at the very beginning. So you can do what ever you want, there’s no boundaries and you can use your brain to act because there’s nothing, no guide line, nothing. So you have to act by instinct, you have to use your heart to feel the environment, so it’s good for me.
TM: What was that hint about the character? Just how much were you given to prepare with?
TL: The only thing I know from the very beginning is my name and occupation, and it’s a love story with Maggie (Cheung), and that’s all. That’s why we take that long to finish.
TM: But some of Wong’s films have been made at express pace, such as Chungking Express.
TL: My part is only 12 days. Sometimes he can do it really fast, but sometimes, you know…
TM: How did you develop your character in In the Mood For Love?
TL: I wanted to do something different from my previous work, I wanted to do as minimal as I could this time round without any facial expression and not much dialogue. I tried to project a character like that with very minimal expression, but I found it quite difficult at the very beginning. It’s quite hard, it’s quite painful, that you can not release your emotions. I couldn’t find a reason why this character wants to get close to Maggie’s role. At first this character is normal working class, a very decent and gentle person, he keeps everything inside, very good at hiding his emotions, so there’s no facial expression, you cannot see any emotion on his face. In the middle of the movie I thought I could make it more complicated. One day I spoke to Kar-wai and said: “Can I play a bad guy?” The reason why I want to get close to this woman is I want to make a revenge on her, try to manipulate this woman. So it ends up I feel quite sorry for what I did to this woman. So at least I have something to get hold of to make this character more complicated, not just a victim of the adultery.
TM: Wong has said that In the Mood For Love is something of a companion piece to Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, 1991). You and Maggie Cheung were in both films, so does it feel that way for you?
TL: I only appeared in the last scene, so it seems like it’s not related. I think because Kar-wai has a great compassion for the ’60s and both movies take place in the ’60s in Hong Kong, so some people might feel that it’s a sequel of the first movie, but I don’t think there’s any relationship between these two movies.
TM: The evocation of Hong Kong in the ’60s in In the Mood For Love is powerful, with nostalgic cues such as Maggie’s cheongsams and the music of the period. Were you in Hong Kong in the ’60s? Did the film capture the authentic mood of the time and place?
TL: Actually, I was born in Hong Kong in 1962 so at that time I was still a kid, but I still have a lot of memories of my childhood. So I can still remember how my mother dressed, and the relationship between neighbours is so close: we knew each other very well, we never closed our doors, we always knew everybody in the building and we used to hang out together. We don’t have that kind of relationship nowadays, I don’t even know the name of my neighbour; we never talk.
TM: But you are a major celebrity in Hong Kong, so your experience would be very different to that of most people. Have things become so impersonal for everyone?
TL: Everything has changed, people are more wealthy and they will protect themselves. People have become more isolated than before. At that time in the ’60s most people are working class people, most of them are very poor and can’t afford an apartment so they have to share everything with other people, not only the apartment but also their privacy.
TM: You still do commercial films, like Tokyo Raiders (Jingle Ma, 2000), which was the highest-grossing film in Hong Kong last year. Do you enjoy making popular films like that, or would you rather spend more time making serious cinema.
TL: As an actor I love to work on different projects, not only the art-house movies but also some mainstream movies.
TM: The films by Wong Kar-wai give you a lot of exposure in the West. Is that important to you or is it incidental to what you do?
TL: I think I want to share my movies with different people all over the world, so it’s a good thing for me.
TM: Are you interested in making an English-language film?
TL: Of course I want to but I haven’t found the right script or the right character yet.
TM: Other Hong Kong actors, like Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat, have transplanted their careers to Hollywood. Do you have any plans or wishes to move overseas?
TL: No. I have many more choices on the character I can play (in Hong Kong). The role for Asian actors and actresses is very restrictive in Hollywood movies. They already have a lot of great actors and actresses, I have no idea why they need to write scripts for Chinese actors. I will have more space in Asia and I know my culture very well. I know everybody might have his reason for going to Hollywood; you want to be more famous, you want to make more money. You might have your reason, but I can’t find a reason for myself to go to Hollywood.
I don’t think I need to establish any career there. I want to share my movies with all the people around the world, some things that belong to my culture, my country. So I haven’t found a reason, but if there’s a right script or right character or interesting director, of course if you say “Scorsese wants to do a movie with you”, then why not! It would be a very good experience for me as an actor, but not just sitting there waiting for chances to make some Hollywood movies. For myself, I love acting, because I do movies for movies’ sake. From the first day I don’t do it for fame or money. I enjoy the process of making movies and acting, but not for fame or money, that doesn’t mean anything to me.
TM: How did you first get into acting? Was it something you had always wanted to do?
TL: I never dreamed of being an actor, it was just by coincidence. I was a salesman selling home appliances before I became an actor. Suddenly one day I saw on TV they are looking for new talents and I said to myself: “Why not? I’m still young, I can try something else. They have a training class that will teach you how to act for a year, so why not give it a try?” So I get in to the training class and I find a way to express my own feelings and own emotions in front of others without feeling shy. It’s a kind of relief for me because actually I’m quite shy and I don’t know how to communicate with people.
I don’t know why, maybe because of my background, my father left me when I was a kid, so I stopped trying to communicate with people. I dared not talk about my family, I didn’t want to tell my classmates that I didn’t have a father. So I didn’t know what to do when I was a kid, so I just kept everything inside, very much like the character in In the Mood For Love, very good at hiding my emotions and I never cry in front of others. So it’s a little bit sad when you’re a kid, so when I grew up I still didn’t know how to communicate with people and I never cry in front of others. So when I became an actor I found a way to release all my emotions, it’s a kind of therapy. That’s why I enjoy acting so much, you can be somebody else, you can cry but nobody knows that’s your feelings. They will think “Oh, you’re doing that character very well”, but actually that’s my feelings, that’s my own emotions.
TM: How did you react to winning the best actor award at Cannes for your work in In the Mood For Love?
TL: After they told me that I’d won the best actor, I said “no, this is not a good time to fool me”. I almost got that prize when I was there in 1997 with the movie Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, 1997). Everybody thought that I would get that prize, and I thought that too, so when it was announced that Kar-wai got the best director, I was upset that time. I said I’ll come back again, so I went back in ’99 and ’98, and in 2000 with In the Mood For Love, so I don’t expect anything, I dare not expect anything, I didn’t want to be upset. So when they told me, “Hey, you won the best actor!”, I said “No, no way, I don’t believe that, unless I get that prize I won’t believe any rumours any more”.
TM: Another honour is that you are the actor-in-focus at the forthcoming Hong Kong International Film Festival. What does this retrospective program entail?
TL: They are showing 10 movies from my career. They show not only (my) Wong Kar-wai movies but some John Woo movies and some other movies done by other directors.
TM: What ambitions do you have for the future?
TL: I want to produce my own movie. I’ve been an actor for 18 years, I want to do something else. Being an actor is quite passive in some ways, I want to be more active in the near future. Maybe I will have some ideas so I can ask a script writer to write the script and I can do what ever I want, I can pick the right director to do it, I can decide what style I want the movie to be. So I think this is fun.
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Tony had an hour until he was to introduce the Melbourne premiere of In the Mood For Love, so our interview came to an end. He needed a nap. And after the introduction, where, incidentally, he was mobbed again despite the earnest precautions by the organisers, he had no time to put his feet up or party. Before flying back to work the next morning, he had scripts to read for the three projects he is currently involved in. He is still shooting Wong’s 2046, is about to start on the romantic comedy 1,001st Marriage Proposal with popular Hong Kong actress Sammi Cheng, and is learning Mandarin in order to take part in a Zhang Yimou martial arts film with Maggie Cheung.