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Ziyi Zhang Talks About Starring in "Memoirs of a Geisha"

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Ziyi Zhang stars in Memoirs of a Geisha

Ziyi Zhang stars as Sayuri in "Memoirs of a Geisha"

© Columbia Pictures
Ziyi Zhang on the Biggest Challenge of Starring in “Memoirs of a Geisha:” “I think, for me, the biggest obstacle is the language because English is my second language. When I got the news that I got this role, I wasn’t sure I could do that because a long time ago, some friend from the film business who is Chinese told me that it’s impossible to act in a second language because the language would be a barrier. You just can not get into your character deeply. I trust this person. It makes sense. After filming this movie, I have to say that’s not true. Really, I could get into Sayuri’s mind. What the person said to me made me really push the work extra hard and I think I should thank him if my efforts show in my performance.”

The Physical Challenges of Tackling the Role of Sayuri: “[Director Rob Marshall] made some very intensive training for us. Before we started shooting, almost two months, every day we had to learn how to walk, how to bow, all the small, subtle gestures. To become a convincing geisha, we had to spend time to learn. Also, we had a very intensive dialect class.”

Ziyi Zhang on Dancing in 12 Inch Heels: “When I first walked into the rehearsal room I saw the 12-inch platform shoes and I said to myself, ‘Oh, that must be a prop.’ John (DeLuca) our choreographer told me, ‘Ziyi, you have to dance in them.’ I said, ‘No! You’ve got to be kidding.’ He said, ‘Yes. That’s our goal. You have to dance in them.’

I didn’t have any choice. I had to listen to him. I tried every day. I had to practice six hours a day for almost two months to learn that dance. But I’m very happy I did that because that dance, for me, wasn’t that easy. It’s not just a dance, but it required a very high degree of acting as well. So, for me, it’s a big challenge.

It’s funny. When we really started shooting, I realized I had to dance in a darkened theater. I said, ‘Oh my God. I prepared everything but I wasn’t prepared for dancing in the dark.’ After spinning a few times on the stage I totally lost my balance and that was quite dangerous. I could have fallen off the stage. Fortunately nothing happened, but that was pretty scary. I didn’t tell Rob. If I told him, he would probably add some lights for me.”

Ziyi Zhang’s Take on the World of Geishas: “I didn’t know geishas before I made this film. We did a lot of research and I think geishas are artists. I think they are very strong women and very independent. Of course they live in a very special world and have a very strict code of conduct. If they love somebody, they had to hide their true feelings. It’s really hard. I think, if it were me, I couldn’t do that. I’d just tell the person [laughs]. I couldn’t wait for 10 years! They are very brave. I don’t think they are like servants. They are very well respected in Japan.”

Ziyi Zhang Describes Sayuri: “I think, at the end, she became the greatest geisha in the Hanamachi but I think because she had a very difficult childhood. She was psychologically and physically abused by the people who took her and she had a very tough start. But because of The Chairman, who showed her kindness, from that very small act of kindness, she found strength to survive and, for the rest of her life, she became very determined. She tried to find that same kindness again.

In the film I had many chances to cry aloud but, for who she is, she always held back. She didn’t like to show people her sadness. That’s what Japanese are. They don’t like to show people their happiness or sadness so, for Sayuri, like that scene when the Baron undressed her and she was so helpless, I think because of who she is, she’s very strong inside. She doesn’t want to beg. She doesn’t want to show the Baron her tears. When we shot that scene, I talked to Rob about that and I thought, ‘Which way is more touching? Which way will the audience be more moved or sympathetic?’ I just feel like that whole night I was just shaking. I couldn’t stop shaking but I didn’t want my tears to come out. I just felt maybe I could move the Baron. That’s why he left. Otherwise, he could do something else…more.”

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