Five Favorite Films With Bai Ling
The star of this week's Crank: High Voltage opens up about movies, her career, and her eccentric off-screen persona.
Let's talk about your acting. How do you view your career and your talents?
BL: I'm really a genius. I'm so talented. But the stage and the road of opportunities I have are not equal to my talent. Dumplings -- I won four awards. It's just magic. If you give me the stage, I'll make magic for you. Therefore, I hope directors and producers can see it. I just want to give the gift; I know I have it. They talk about winning the [Academy Award] -- I just need the vehicle. Not for winning, but to show you the brilliance that I can do. Like Sean Penn, my friend. All the brilliant actors say, "if I had the vehicle, I would be there." Just to show people the talent that you have. The award is to celebrate; they're not important to me, but of course it's important that because of that, people would give me more opportunities, a stage to shine your talent. That's what I want, not the awards.
We all have the special potential that only you have, nobody can do better. But you have to find that. There are people stuck their whole lives because they want to be movie stars, they want to make money and be famous. Money and fame are not the same as doing it to shine; those are the things people reward you with. If you hold on to [those things], you would be miserable.
You seem very fearless, in life and in your work.
BL: I really, really love what I do. I'm so daring; if a director asks me, Bai Ling, jump, I would jump. I'm not bulls***ing; I do everything for real. I do action myself. You see Crank 2; they hang me in a car, and you'll see the car crash. At the same time when the car almost hits my body, they lifted me up. If they screwed up, my head would be gone. I have a stunt double, but I do it myself. People don't know how hard I work. How much I give. I give everything. I was shooting Dumplings, and it was 100-something degrees, in a little apartment building with no air conditioning, and the meat was rotting... But I loved that character -- so daring, so bold, so sexy. She tested me, tortured me, teased me.
Is it hard to deal with the negativity inherent in the entertainment business? How do you deal, knowing that you put yourself out there for all to accept, or not accept?
BL: I'm very proud that I did everything by myself. Nobody supported me; I didn't rely on anybody, even my family. Sometimes I feel vulnerable, when people don't understand me and try to trash me instead of celebrate me. I did everything -- came from a foreign country, no money, no language, no nobody... and I made it, because purely I trusted. But sometimes I may get sad because people trash me and use harsh words, and wish for the worst. But I don't want to be afraid...I still feel like a light, innocent, pure spirit, because I think in your heart there's a candle light, and I have to protect that flame of fire, because it's so fragile. Wherever you talk to people, wherever the darkness comes to you, you always imagine this little flame of candle light that you have to protect. If you feel it's dark, then you move away. You don't fight, because that's when the light's going to die for sure. Whenever you feel the shadows you close your eyes, smile, and leave, and don't take it with you. But I'm a human being; those things hurt me, because I'm human and I have feelings. I can't take the negativity because it's a shadow on my soul; I'm here for a higher purpose. I have to protect myself. I just hope people see the beauty...
Years ago you went through a hard time when Chinese officials took offense to your participation in a film that criticized the government. How did you get through that time?
BL: Yeah, after Red Corner. But now it's all solved. I went through a hard time, and I learned that politics are so much more complicated than my comprehension. I don't like politics; I think most of the people are benefiting from the power. But also I learned there are consequences for my actions; I did Red Corner, I thought it was a brilliant woman that I was playing, but I got punished. So it's kind of ironic; you learn things about the world that you just have to accept, and overcome your sadness to understand the other part. To understand China, which I did -- I apologized, because that's my country and I have to go back. It was a hard, hard experience for me, but I'm glad I went through it, just to learn and experience life in a harsh way.
Talking about the roles you choose, you seem to go for consistently strong and sensual female characters, but has it been difficult to do this as an Asian in Hollywood?
BL: In Love Ranch, there had been no Asian roles. It's a true story about the first legal brothel in America, in Nevada. The role I got was written for a twenty-year-old white girl with big boobs, long hair, from Vegas. Her name is Samantha and she is the highest earning prostitute in that ranch. She's not Asian, she was white. I auditioned with Taylor Hackford; I got the role with this audition. I'm so excited to see the movie. Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci [co-star], I'm so happy to work with both of them, and Taylor Hackford -- I'm just really, really grateful that he gave me this role. He changed it. My character's so arrogant; so mysterious. Helen Mirren was so nice to me. By the end, [Taylor Hackford] gave me a postcard with a note that said, "Bai Ling, you have no clue what a fascinating Samantha you created."
Do you improvise very often? You've said you don't act, you just live your roles.
BL: I think most brilliant actors are very intelligent. Like Helen Mirren, for example: when she played the Queen, the choices she made. How subtle; how brilliant. It's about the intelligence behind the artist. You know the character. It's how much you understand life. I assume, I think, most actors are intelligent people.
You've worked with many notable directors, including Richard Kelly; I was at the infamous Cannes premiere when Southland Tales debuted, which you had a role in. How did you reflect back on that experience given the reaction critics had to the film?
BL: I don't judge people's films like that; I think a person's artistic journey is like a person's life journey. It's up and down, naturally. Natural growth is up and down. I think that the moment an artist goes through is the perfect moment that artist needs to go through, and for him in the moment, it's the masterpiece he can give. I don't really criticize or judge others; I find the beauty. For example, my own character is a brilliant character, and just for that I'm satisfied. And Justin Timberlake's character -- look how brilliant it is, what he created! I think this format is art, it's not perfection of things. Art is supposed to be moving; film is a moving image.
I think critics have format in their minds. Of course, they're brilliant and they know what is good or bad, they watch everything and they know every movie. You have comparison, you have knowledge. But I think sometimes you have to nourish an artist, it's their journey. You can't criticize Picasso's blue period -- that's what made him, that's his journey. It's like the four seasons; you can't say raining or snowing or too much sun is bad. If you think something is not an artist's best, you can nourish them. You can say, that's what I don't like, and I understand why.
You have also worked with Luc Besson. What do you remember of that experience?
BL: You know what I learned from him? That human beings' potential is unlimited. Because I learned French. I thought, how can I learn French, when I only had two weeks? I worked so hard; I worked until 12, and practiced my French until 2am.
You have a lot of projects coming up, and your career of late has included a lot of independent films. Is that all part of a deliberate career choice, or is there just a lack of roles available in studio films?
BL: I'm not planning or thinking too much. I think the roles just come my way. I had a lot of offers; like, last year I was working nonstop, from this set to that set. Sometimes I hadn't even finished the script and I go. I feel like I'm lucky to be working and that I'm made offers. For me, it is work but it's life; for example, one film takes me to Thailand, so I'll go because it's in Thailand. Another role I play because I like to play the role, and also because of the economy -- and last year there weren't a lot of films, and a lot of actors were not working, so I feel I'm lucky to be working.
You can find Bai Ling on her personal blog, and catch her next in Crank: High Voltage, which opens nationwide this Friday. Get the latest reviews and trailers here and check out more Five Favorite Films in our archive, including: