I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I did not know exactly why I was to meet the actress Bai Ling at Playboy Enterprise headquarters to conduct our interview for this issue. Although somewhat less embarrassed to say that neither did I know she was in the final Star Wars installment, which opened in May amid shameless commercial promotion. I knew only that Bai Ling was in a small, quiet film called The Beautiful Country, which had just had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and that this was, in part, the reason I wanted to interview her for The Independent.
I very quickly learned the reason we were at Playboy—Bai Ling had recently shot the cover for the magazine’s June issue, and was, it appeared, happily obliging the part of Playboy covergirl with a shorter than short miniskirt and a loose-fitting jacket that scarcely covered her slight, bare chest underneath. She donned shiny, knee-length white boots, glittery eye shadow, and a neon lavender wig. Her diminutive face broadened with a wide smile as we shook hands, and she could not have been more gracious from beginning to end of our interview.
Since her appearance in the controversial 1997 film Red Corner, starring Richard Gere, Bai Ling has landed roles in a diverse collection of mainstream and independent fare—from Bertha Bay-Sa Pan’s Face (2002) to Spike Lee’s She Hate Me (2004) to Kerry Conran’s flashy digital, green-screen send-up, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004).
In The Beautiful Country, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Hans Petter Moland, Ling plays a character named Ling—Terrence Malick, a producer on the film, created the part for her—a fellow refugee in the Malaysian jail where the film’s protagonist, Binh (played with soft and endearing angst by Damien Nguyen), ends up on his way to America, where he hopes to find his father.
Rebecca Carroll: The Beautiful Country is so gorgeously shot. It’s a very quiet and gentle film, although I was struck by the boldness of your character, Ling. She has some sharp edges, too. How did you feel about her?
Bai Ling: Actually that character, and basically the entire film was a gift to me. When I first came to the states, Terrence Malick cast me for a play that was adapted from a Japanese movie, which never ended up happening. I remember first time I auditioned, I just learned English then—and Terrence Malick took me to another room and said: “Bai Ling, whatever you do, you’re just so truthful, we have to believe you.” And then he said, “Do not ever watch TV.” I remember that’s what he told me. I say OK. So we became friends, and later he said, “I’m writing something. I may have something for you.” It was The Beautiful Country—he wrote a role for me, a character called Ling. So I feel like it’s all a gift. Sometimes I feel like he’s the passenger sent from God or nature.
RC: How was it that you were in the states?
BL: I was invited by NYU Film School because I had already done some feature films in China—like leading roles. I was kind of getting bored because I could get all the leading roles I wanted there, but I wanted to see the world. And I always wanted to learn English. Actually, when I came to this country I was not necessarily sure I was going to be an actress because it’s so difficult, and I didn’t even know English. I basically just jumped in.
RC: Did you know who Terrence Malick was?
BL: No. I had no clue. I had seen Days of Heaven and Badlands, but I had no idea how important he was. When we met, he was like, “Stay away from Hollywood!” He is a man who believes in art and is a very gentle, simple human being.
RC: Tell me about your experience working in both mainstream and independent films in America—do you have a preference?
BL: I appreciate both, because a Hollywood film for me is like a fantasy world—as an actress or a filmmaker, you have to experience that kind of fantasy and the long history of that dream world. Sometimes [when I’m on a studio film] I feel like a princess. What I like about independent films is that they basically keep you down to earth, because you know that a lot of people have devoted their life to this one film, not for money but for the art itself.
RC: So you don’t think you have to do one or the other. Will you always do both do you think?
BL: I think not only both, but films in between independent and blockbuster. I’ve been lucky enough to do dramas and fiction and comedy—all kinds of things. I just finished a Hong Kong movie, my first one, called Dumplings. We worked so hard, I don’t sleep for three days—we shoot in hot, hot, and hard conditions. But you know something I learned [is that] when you give freely you receive so much, so many gifts. Like that movie, just alone, won me four most important Asian acting awards. It’s already out in Asia, and will be released by Lion’s Gate here.
RC: You mentioned the history of the genre and the fantasy world it creates. That history, and our relationship with movies and movie stars in America are very specific to this country. What does it feel like to step into this world and become a young, hot star sort of overnight?
BL: I feel fortunate here. I think everyone in the world have their own mission, and own duty, and own gift that’s special about them. So I’m lucky to find my gift and give the most of who I am through my film—for people to feel, to learn, and to love through all my characters. I often find myself in a controversial place—like being on the cover of Playboy [June issue]. It’s beyond my wildest dreams. I’m from a Communist country. A Chinese girl comes to America and poses in Playboy? At first I say no, because in China everything related to sex is dirty. First time someone say to me, “Oh, you’re sexy,” I was so offended. Now I take it as a compliment. It’s beautiful to be sexy—it’s good.
RC: Did you feel that way in Spike Lee’s She Hate Me, in which you play a lesbian sex bomb. What was that experience like?
BL: Spike Lee is extremely sensitive, like he doesn’t tell us anything, but we know he’s watching. One time I had this idea I want to talk to him about. And I was afraid of talking to him, but I said, “Spike, I have some idea, can I share with you?” He said, “Shoot.” So I told him the idea and he said, “Do it.” I feel like he is the kind of filmmaker who is open to good artistic ideas.
RC: Your character in Beautiful Country is also highly sexed.
BL: After Playboy, I’m so much more comfortable. When we were first shooting the photo editor said, “We like your face, you’re sexy, beautiful, but we don’t know about your body, can we take a look?” I give a quick flash, and he said, “Oh you’re beautiful.” After two days, I’m running around naked.
RC: You live both in the States and China?
BL: I’m always traveling. I live in hotel rooms. This month I’m talking about Star Wars, I’m talking about Beautiful Country, and I’m talking about Playboy. And sometimes I say, “Where am I?”
RC: How does it feel different to promote a film like Star Wars and a film like Beautiful Country?
BL: Beautiful Country is so serious but beautiful—people like it when they see it, but it needs somebody to bring some attention to it, and I think I’m serving that purpose. I’m glad, because it’s art and I want people to see art. Sometimes in show business [and more mainstream fare], whether I like it or not, I’m sort of the one to play the sexy role [during promotional junkets]—that’s part of the job for me.
RC: So you approach acting as a job?
BL: No, I’m not acting. In all my films, I’m living in that moment, there’s no acting involved. For me, if I’m eating, I’m eating—it’s that simple. People don’t know how simple it is. If I say I love you, I say I love you, there’s nothing else involved. But you have to be truthful because the camera is like a mirror—it doesn’t judge you, but whatever you give to it is captured.
RC: But what if you don’t love the person whom you are telling you love—how do you suddenly love that person for a scene? Or you’re eating and you’re not hungry?
BL: I just feel I’m hungry and I need to eat whatever it is.
RC: That’s acting though.
BL: That’s not acting. That’s how you call it, but for me if I’m drinking the coffee, I’m literally drinking the coffee. I’m not trying anything—audiences can see when you’re trying.
RC: So is that instinct?
BL: You can’t analyze it. Real life is real. I think actors take care of the emotional journey of a character, and emotions are like a wild river—no boundaries, and suddenly, you’re sad, you’re happy, there’s a storm, the waters go up and down. It’s a joy to feel that surprise of vulnerability. When a director says, “Are you ready?” I say, “I’m ready.” I’m ready to be on set but I don’t tell him I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get there. I just go for it. I don’t think about it.
RC: Your character in Beautiful Country is very willful, she chases a dream—how does her experience relate to your own?
BL: It makes me realize what dreams are supposed to be and what dreams are real and where you find them. Maybe your dream is right next door to you or in your house with you and you don’t have to go anywhere to find it. But people don’t know, and so they take extra effort to find their dream.
RC: What is your dream?
BL: My dream is to appreciate every day—to smile and enjoy every day. For me life only exists in this moment. When I finish a film, that part of me is gone. And the future, I don’t know, it doesn’t belong to me. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t even have hope. I don’t have plan.
RC: You don’t have hope?
BL: I mean I don’t hope for anything. I want the surprise and the gift to unfold, and that excites me. We all just have to firmly stand on our own journey, trust it, and go for it. And in the meantime, don’t forget to enjoy the landscape. If there’s a motel, I come in. If people dance, I dance. If there’s beer, I drink beer. If I want to pee and there’s no bathroom, I pee on the pavement. It is the journey of life, and it all exists in the moment. I love the work I do. It connects me to the world—and lets me feel I give something real.