It's hard to know, just from talking with Bai Ling, which of her roles have been leads and which have been walk-ons -- she seems to view all of her activities as equally relevant chapters in the Story of Bai. An eye-witness to the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989, she departed for NYU film school in 1991 and began to land roles. Fifteen years later, she's a fixture on party circuits, an unabashed lover of American pop culture -- the trashier the better -- and, at 35, an actress with serious credentials. She recently played the female lead in The Beautiful Country and Face, both dramas about Asian-American identity, and was praised by the New York Times for showing "tremendous range" in the latter. Next up is a starring role in Shanghai Baby, adapted from the controversial 2001 novel about sexuality in modern China.
In between the big roles, there's a portfolio of pop-ons. You probably remember the eyeball-collecting villainess in The Crow, and the interpreter who delivers Chairman Mao's icy retorts in Oliver Stone's Nixon: "You're as evil as I am ....". She was also the begoggled ninja in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and has a quick comedic turn as a peep-show stripper in David Mamet's Edmond, released Friday. And yet another one is forth-coming, this time as an abstruse oracle called Serpentine in Richard Kelly's sophomore sprawl, Southland Tales.
Appropriately, the film Bai is best-known for is one she wasn't even in: Ling's posing with a large, phallic lightsaber in the June 2005 Playboy may have caused George Lucas to snip her role as Senator Breemu out of the wholesome-as-a-Happy Meal Star Wars: Episode III. Her comments at the time indicated that belief; Lucas denied it. When Cinematical recently spoke with Bai, in Manhattan to do press for Edmond, she was feeling diplomatic.
It's been a year since all of the buzz about Star Wars: Episode III and your spread in Playboy. Lucas always maintained the decision to cut your part happened much earlier. Looking back on it now, are you still upset?
BL: Well, I'm not. I'm very happy that I had the experience. Star Wars and Playboy are the biggest American icons. There's nothing for me to complain about. I feel very lucky to have been a part of it, and to have made the film and experienced it. When a film is completed, it has its own life. It's like a child, after you give birth. It also made me learn something. When you don't get what you want, it just makes you accept real life. You have to accept the storms and the rainy days and the things in life that you sometimes don't want to face. You have to respect the director's decision. I think George Lucas made the decision based on what, artistically, he thinks was right for the film. So, I have no complaints and I feel grateful that he cast me in the movie. Also, I'm in the DVD. He told me I'd be in the DVD, but I was hoping I'd not be in the DVD, because it's better to keep it a mystery. [laughs]
You've got a few things completed right now; what are you focusing your time on next? I heard a rumor that you might get involved in the upcoming Star Wars TV series.
BL: I would like to, but I don't know yet. In the meantime, I'm probably going to do a reality show for VH1. We're going to try to do something that's a new way of doing reality shows. Nobody would ever think of where we're taking it. It will probably be very intimate, and will capture the many colors of who I am, by the camera and reality. It will be very spontaneous and I think it will be good. It's a challenge, and I'm a little concerned, but probably I'm going to do it. Also, I just got a leading role for a film called Shanghai Baby. It's the best-selling contemporary Chinese book, by a young Chinese writer, writing about life in modern-day Shanghai. I play a writer who is very modern, but also lost and torn. She has multiple lovers; a western lover and a Chinese lover. It's the fast-paced, exciting flavor of modern life in Shanghai.
Have you seen the first cut of Southland Tales yet? If so, what did you think of it?
BL: I saw it at Cannes. I think Richard is a very special, unique and gifted director. I really think it's very good, and I think it will be a hit. He's re-editing a bit, but even though it was two hours and forty minutes long, I enjoyed every minute of it. I think his way is a new way of making films. [Serpentine] is very sensual, very sexy, and very funny in a modern way. She plays an essential, key role in the film. It's a very mystical and beautiful role, and I enjoyed it so much. You don't really know her, but she's there all the time.
You also have a small role in Edmond, opening this weekend. In the screening I saw of the film, the audience really laughed loudly at the scene where you, as the peep-show dancer, end up arguing with Bill Macy's character over $10. What was it like working with Macy?
BL: The first time I met him was at the director Stuart [Gordon's] house and we had a very simple talk. He's very observant and was trying to get a feel for who I am and get to know me. And when we started rehearsal it was basically like the characters' dynamic in the film, where we tangle with each other. It was really fun, because the scene is funny and very simple, in a way. It's about making a deal, but it's also just about a man and a woman trying to have some fun and sex. I'm having a good time with him in ... [the peep-show booth], and he's enjoying it, but trying to pay less money!
When we were shooting, the director asked us not to change anything. We weren't allowed to change anything, and my character always repeats herself, so it was kind of funny -- you have your own freedom in how you repeat it. It was really fun working with Bill. That's one of the reasons I decided to do it -- he's one of my favorite actors. He's very truthful, very funny and very convincing. There are many colors in his acting, Bill. I wanted to personally get a feel of how he works as an actor He did it so well, and it's really, really funny.
Were you familiar with David Mamet's writing before you got involved, or was this an introduction to his work for you?
BL: This film introduced me to him. I didn't know the play or his writing at all, since I came from China. We had a screening in L.A. the other day. Stuart was there, and everyone is a big fan of his work. I'm glad they cast me. To be in this movie with legendary American actors who are big fans of Mamet's play, I feel very fortunate and very happy to be a part of it. It's a great experience. I'm looking forward to people seeing Edmond. It's a very edgy, very dangerous, very good film.
I heard that you're in the midst of a big personal writing project that may or may not be an autobiography. What can you tell me about it?
BL: I don't know what you would call it -- it's just a book. I would say it's about how my mind works, and about some experiences I want to capture and tell in the story, from the angle I want to tell. I don't know if it will be a novel or a fantasy or autobiography. It's all of them. It's about my experiences in Tibet. I was 14 when I went there for three years. I've got 320 pages now, and it's very exciting. I feel a great joy doing it. When you're an actor, you feel like you're a tool for the director. When you're a writer, the sky is yours. It's so great.
One of my favorite roles of yours is a very small one, when you play the interpreter for Chairman Mao in Oliver Stone's Nixon. It's very well played. Was it a fun experience working on that film?
BL: Yeah, Oliver Stone basically was the first Hollywood director I ever auditioned for. I'm glad he cast me as the interpreter in Nixon, but to be honest with you, at that time I didn't speak English. For someone who doesn't speak English to play an interpreter for two top leaders of countries was a funny thing. I couldn't pronounce "millions of people," and he said "Bai, you have to practice or else I'm going to use someone else's voice." And I said "No, this is the only thing I have!" I guess I feel like it's a gift to meet those talented artists like George Lucas and Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Richard Kelly. Even if it's a small role, it's a gift to be working that closely with them. To know how they work, and to get to know them a little bit.