Toronto Star (February 2012)


Q: Was there anything about the past work of Zhang Yimou that interested you in taking part in The Flowers of War?

A: A movie’s a movie. It comes down to the script. I was familiar with some of his work — Jo Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. And it was Zhang Yimou who drew me into this one.

Q: What were some of the difficulties working in China with a Chinese cast and crew on a movie where everyone else is speaking Mandarin?

A: Nothing concerned me at all once I started working. I trusted Yimou completely. But I did give him a number of options at different points, because the film is meant to be from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl, and there were a number of possible interpretations. Rather than try to describe them in words, we opted just to do the takes, to shoot the options, and leave the final decisions till later.

I was concerned at first because the young actresses playing the choir girls were always crying on the set between takes. I thought they were exhausted or overwhelmed. I was very worried about them until finally one looked up and winked at me, and they all burst out laughing. They were such devoted young actresses — they worked on making their tears credible even off camera.

Q: Your character is a thoroughly reprehensible wretch who finds his humanity during the course of the events in the film. Was he enjoyable to play?

A: He was quite a different character on the page initially. The script was heavy on dialogue, and my character had a number of lengthy monologues. In the two or three weeks before we started shooting, Zhang Yimou and I worked through things, eliminating as much dialogue as we could, and setting up visual information that would enable the girls’ characters to understand what was going on without having to be told.

He’s an interesting character, raucous and chaotic, pursuing excess with a vengeance — the kind of character I’m usually uncomfortable to be around. As with most people who behave that way, he’s covering up something, and once I figured out what it was, I felt grounded.

Q: Do you think the positive reception of the film in China is an indicator of likely success in North America?

A: I try not to follow a film’s progress once I’ve finished with it. But I’ve had calls from China that must encourage Zhang Yimou.

If I can resist reading reviews, I will. Sometimes you can’t help it . . . but it’s not always a healthy activity. I try to limit my reading to reviewers who are smart and whose opinions I respect.

For me, it’s too close in time to look at it objectively. I know too much about it. I’ve also learned that I never see the movies I’m in twice in the same way. It depends on my mood. One day I’ll love it, the next day it does nothing for me.

Q: You were working on The Flowers of War from March through July last year . . . was there any overlap with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s new Batman blockbuster?

A: Not really. Yimou very graciously scheduled my scenes so that I could be out by the time shooting started on the third Batman movie, which is very important to me, beyond the content of this particular film. This has been a 21-month trilogy spanning seven years of my life. It means a lot to me.

Q: Is this the final episode in the Dark Knight trilogy?

A: I can’t speak for Chris, but that’s my understanding.

Q: What impresses you about that role?

A: It’s strange, because I was never a comic-book fan, but in my 20s I came across the (1987 Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli/Richmond Lewis) graphic novel Batman: Year One, and it was fascinating, unlike anything I’d seen before. That coincided with news that Chris was planning a new take on the character, something radically different.

Everything you do in movies is a leap of faith, and since I had to audition for the part, I decided to go in with a far more extreme interpretation of the character than those of other people who were reading for it.

That was the way I really wanted to play it, and I’d made up my mind that if they didn’t like it, I didn’t want to be in the film. I took a big chance and it paid off.

By Greg Quill.