There's really no denying (and don't try; I won't listen) that actor Tony Leung, or Tony Leung Chiu Wai, is a legend to those of us who follow world cinema. And you'd have to be familiar with Hong Kong movies to know him because, unlike his popular counterparts (Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan--all of whom are more action oriented than Leung), he has never made a Western film.
Not that long ago, he even hired a North American agent to look into the possibility, but nothing quite panned out, probably because his focus of late has been drama, and I'm guessing Hollywood was thinking kung fu and/or gun play. Although, believe it or not, Leung had never learned kung fu until he started preparing for his latest work, the Wong Kar Wai-directed THE GRANDMASTER, the story of Ip Man, the wing chun-style martial arts master whose most popular student was Bruce Lee. The film isn't strictly an action film, but the way Kar Wai, cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, and fight choreographer/stunt coordinator Yuen Woo-ping present the martial arts sequences are utterly unique and visually breathtaking.
For many in the Western world, Leung first came to our attention thanks to director John Woo's explosive HARD BOILED (although the two worked together two years earlier in BULLET IN THE HEAD and most recently in the two-part epic RED CLIFF). Around the same time as BULLET, Leung first worked with his long-time creative partner Wong Kar Wai on DAYS OF BEING WILD, followed by CHUNGKING EXPRESS, ASHES OF TIME, HAPPY TOGETHER, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, and 2046. Including THE GRANDMASTER, the two have made seven films together.
Leung also starred in the first and third INFERNAL AFFAIRS films, which were later adapted by Martin Scorsese for THE DEPARTED; Zhang Yimou's HERO; and LUST, CAUTION from Ang Lee. Few actors from any part of the world have a filmography quite this impressive, and so when I got a chance recently to sit down with Leung, I'll admit to one of my very few cases of getting starstruck. He's a mild-mannered man who manages to unleash a wonderful sense of humor and finds himself getting excited when telling stories about working with certain filmmakers, especially Kar Wai. And just as a point of reference, this interview took place the morning after we did a fairly lengthy Q&A following a screening of THE GRANDMASTER; this helps explain his first comment to me. We have a lot of career to cover in 20 minutes, so please enjoy my talk with Tony Leung…
Capone: Hello again.
Tony Leung: What else do you want to know? [laughs]
Capone: I didn’t record last night, so I’ll ask you all the same questions. I started out last night saying that I was surprised that the story of Ip Man was a love story [Ziyi Zhang is his co-star], but that when you’re making a film with Wong Kar Wai, you have to expect that he would approach this material from an emotional perspective. What did you think of his approach to Ip Man’s life story as seem through this love story?
TL: You know, I had no idea about this until the last six months of shooting, because for the first year and a half, I only did the action scenes and I was just thinking “Oh my God, am I just doing action this time? Where’s my drama scenes?” Then I did drama with Ziyi. It’s strange, he used to be like that. He used to have some romantic things in his movies, so it’s not strange to me, but this time the relationship between me and Ziyi is very, very dramatic and nothing really happens. We just come across each other at certain periods and don't really have a chance to see each other again. This is Wong Kar Wai, and it actually reminds me a lot of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, but actually that is something different. These two people admire each other and are attracted to each other. They have the physical contact on the first fight.
Capone: All of their physical contact comes in fighting.
TL: Yeah, but I still find it fresh to me, although I think it has accents of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, that kind of relationship, but it’s different. As an actor, I think it’s different feelings, totally.
Capone: You talked a little bit about it last night what you discovered about martial arts in your training, and how you realized it was more than just a physical activity; it was a mental and spiritual thing. Can you talk a little bit about the process of that realization?
TL: I get all this information from Bruce Lee, because Bruce Lee is the only one who has left us a lot of books about his understanding, his knowledge of kung fu, his perspective and his vision of kung fu. It’s very inspiring. When I read his books, I found out that kung fu is not just physical training or a scientific method of combat, but also a way to train your mind. You have mind cultivation as well as a way of life, and it is very interesting.
But you cannot get the spiritual part if you don’t practice the basic moves first. I spent like four years nonstop trying to understand his theory and “What is all that about?” through training, and of course I learned the theories from him. But the spiritual side of kung fu cannot be learned by reading books, you have to actually practice it to have in your mind a proper way of how to control your mind. That is something like meditation. It’s a very interesting thing. It’s really amazing to me.
Capone: I think it really surprised people last night that you had never learned kung fu until you were preparing for this film.
TL: [laughs] No, no, no. I really spent a lot of time on it, like four-and-half years of nonstop practicing kung fu. At first, I thought it was very dull--when you are learning the basic moves, it is very dull. You have the routine thing everyday, but when you reach a certain maturity, then you’re not just trying to train your body, but you can start to train your mind after you can manage the other moves. That was interesting, and then the spiritual side of kung fu will grow spontaneously inside you.
Capone: You’ve also worked with some of the greatest directors, certainly in Hong Kong, but with Wong Kar Wai, you have these seven films that are very highly regarded, you’ve won awards for them. You mentioned last night that he doesn’t give you the script until right before you shoot. But other than that, what is he like as a director in terms of the interpersonal relationship you have with him, as a visual person, and as someone you have a short-hand communication with?
TL: I think the journey working with him is very adventurous. He gives you very little hints at the beginning and the whole team is like, “Come on, let’s explore yourself and experience.” It’s a different kind of experience in making movies. I never did that kind of style before, and it needs a lot of trust between each other, and I don’t know, I just enjoy him very much. Our relationship is very strange. We never talk. I’ve known him for like 20-something years, and we've seldom meet and we never talk. But I just understand what he wants, and if he gives me a book, I know how he feels, but I don’t know how to project it in an image, but he can do it.
The first time I met him, my impression about him was “He is very good at telling stories. He will make you want to work with him.” You’re just attracted to his way of telling stories, and that was my first impression. I was very impressed that day in his office. I can still remember the lighting and everything, and that’s the first time I worked with him. Actually something happened, and I could not work for him in that movie, but I have a shot at the end of DAYS OF BEING WILD, and when I saw that scene, I was like, “Wow, this is the one I want to work with.” So that started our collaboration and relationship until now. That long relationship is really built on trust. It’s really hard to find someone who has the same compassion, passion, and same looking for perfect. I think it’s hard, so I treasure it a lot. Actually, no matter what he wants to do, I’m in.
Capone: Do you think he holds back the script from the actors because letting them know what's going to happen right before you shoot is almost like life. You don’t know what’s coming. Do you think that’s what he’s going for?
TL: Yes, he wants it to be organic. He wants to give a bracket to everyone. He wants you to have more space to create your own character and to experience the character, because we used to do long shootings that would last for three or four years with almost every movie of his. So you would go through a lot of experiences with his character. The more you experience, the deeper the character. You get more depth in the character. Although he might not use all the scenes he shoots, it’s fun to experience a character like that. Who else can afford to do a movie like that? He spends a lot on real shooting and he spends for the rehearsals. Some of the actors don’t quite enjoy that, but to me, “Wow, this is fun and enjoyable. And I get a paycheck for that?!” Like you said, I feel like it’s like life, where you’re trying to experience your life, and I think this means a lot to me, not just in a movie, but in this four years time, I think the experience throughout this process will last for the rest of my life.
Capone: You certainly take it with you.
TL: Yeah. And I learn a lot from the process. I get a lot of inspiration. I was really inspired by the knowledge of kung fu, working with people, going through difficult times. Most of the time, it’s difficult times, dealing with problems, what kind of attitude you need to keep in your mind, how you deal with all this life you went through, how to work with the team, how to work with people, how to apply what you learned from kung fu to this four-year process in actual life. I think I should pay him back the paycheck. [laughs]
To me, I think it’s amazing, a real journey. I’ve never had these kinds of feelings before, but I will only achieve this when I have a chance to work like this. Working with Ang Lee, that’s a different kind of enjoyment. But you have everything very well prepared, you already reach a very high standard before shooting, and he wants you to “I need more.” But everything is so well prepared and so precise, so the way to develop the character and the way to enjoy the movie is so different. I don’t want to say which one is better; there is no better. I don’t judge. This can be a kind of enjoyment at this time.
Capone: Had you ever worked with the Yuen Woo-ping on fight choreography prior to this?
TL: No, never before.
Capone: Tell me about working with him, because he is probably, even to Americans, one of the most famous fight choreographers. And he also directs. I know was the action director on this movie with Keanu Reeves [MAN OF TAI CHI]. But can you talk about working with him?
TL: He is a very nice and very respected stunt choreographer in our industry. Everybody respects him.
Capone: Even Quentin Tarantino calls him “Master.”
TL: Right. It’s a different experience working with him. He is very easy to work with and does a lot of rehearsals. At the very beginning when I was working with him, I thought “Oh, everything is pretty simple. These aren’t fancy moves,” but when I saw the finished product, it was like “Oh, that was classic.”
TL: You don’t need to be too fancy, and I always admired his wire stunts, especially in CROUCHING TIGER when I was watching it with Ang Lee that night in Hong Kong, it was like “Wow, how can they do that?”
Capone: Woo-ping is directing the sequel now to CROUCHING TIGER.
TL: I heard that. It was fun, but we don’t have a chance to enjoy it, because everybody is getting very frustrated and crazy because of Kar Wai, who wants every time to do it again and again. You know the rain scene?
TL: Actually Woo-ping did it first, and Wong Kar Wai left it to us to finish it. So I was thinking, “Oh my god, he’s not coming then? Okay.” So he just wanted us to show the wing chun kicks in the rain, so I did it with Yuen Woo-ping and things were easier and that way we finished it over eight nights. Woo-ping said to me, “What else?” I said, “Nothing else, just kicks.” “So we are finished?” I said, “Yes!” Then after a week, Kar Wai told me “Tony, come, I want to show you some footage of this scene.” I said “Okay…” “Do you think a white hat would be better?” Because of the white hat, we had to do this scene again. This was just an excuse.
Capone: So you did the first one with no hat?
TL: A black hat.
Capone: Oh no.
TL: It wasn’t just the white hat. Anyway, he changed everything. Not just kicks, but a lot of fighting, very serious fighting, and then heavier rain. Even the mood shots, he takes like three or four overnights to finish.
Capone: I have to say, I have a very vivid memory of sitting in a very small theater in New York to watch a THE KILLER and HARD BOILED double-feature for the first time, and it changed my life. I had never seen anything like it; I didn’t know anything about John Woo. A lot of people consider HARD BOILED your breakthrough role. Aside from a lot of shooting and breaking glass, what do you remember about working with John on that film?
TL: A lot of explosions. [laughs]
Capone: I remember that too
TL: A lot of explosions and gun fighting. But John is a very nice person, very nice. He’s classic. What I remember with that movie is just action and explosions. I was really scared. I’ve worked with him many times, John Woo, and he’s a very nice person.
Capone: You do have a tendency to work with a lot of the same directors and actors. Is it more comfortable for you to have that?
TL: Yes. Because I’m a very… How do you say it… I don’t know how to socialize. Really, I’m never social. I’m really shy and I don’t know how to hang out with a lot of people. Every time I stand in front of a crowd, I’m very nervous.
Capone: You were so great last night.
TL: I’m getting better now. After my 51st birthday, I think I’ve progressed a lot, I’ve changed a lot. I’d do interviews like [he picks up some papers in front of him and shuffles them like his hands are trembling]. Because I’m used to not trying to express my feelings in front of others, so that makes me very nervous. I’m getting better now, because I just went through a mid-life crisis.
TL: Yeah, I prefer working with people that I know very well, because what I think it is is on the set, I just want to enjoy. I don’t want to have any burden. If I don’t know you, we still have to get to know each other well and try to tell you how I make movies. When I’m on a set, I just want to enjoy it. So if I work with somebody I know very well, I don’t have to talk, just like my relationship with Kar Wai. We never talk. We don’t need to discuss. He knows I will try my best. If he wants me to do something he wants, he will tell me with a sentence or one word or one direction, then I know I will take care of what I need to do in my position. I don’t do the whole PR thing on the set, no way man; we come to make movies.
Capone: Thank you so much; it was really wonderful to meet you.