MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA - Q&A with ZIYI ZHANG, MICHELLE YEOH, KEN WATANABE and director ROB MARSHALL
Movie Interview by Ania Kalinowska
Rob, there are superficial similarities between this and your first feature film [CHICAGO], but on the other hand there are huge expectations here. You're tackling a very popular book, and also it's your second feature. Can you explain how daunting it was?
ROB MARSHALL: It was scary...what makes it easier is when you have brilliant actors, which makes it more exciting. I was immediately drawn to this because it is so visual, and I was looking for something after Chicago that was different. Somebody recently said to me, "Yes but you still did a movie about rival women in show business!" I guess that's true - I don't know what's wrong with me! But the truth is it was the differences that excited me, because the canvas is so rich, so beautiful and fascinating. I've spent two years on this and it still fascinates me because it's really a hidden culture that people know little about. That's why Arthur Golden's work was so embraced, because people wanted to learn what it's all about. The first line of our movie is, "A story like mine should never be told," and that's really the truth. So it's immediately seductive.
Michelle, Ziyi and Ken, was it a book you knew, and were you surprised that it was written by a man?
MICHELLE YEOH: I read the book a long time ago when it first came out, when it was a major hit in Asia. It was a book that you can't put down, because Arthur Golden was so descriptive and so visual. When you read it you know it would make an incredible movie because it's got all the elements of the place and culture and time - you wanted to know these mysterious characters, to see and feel it because possibly, you can't today. Then when I found out Rob Marshall was doing it I got to my knees and prayed, please, let the phone call come! This movie is highly anticipated I think particularly for us as Asians. It's a very rare opportunity whereby a movie of such scope and an entire cast of Asians can show you what we can do. And thank God for Rob...he was a task master!
ZIYI ZHANG: I read it about five years ago. I love the story, it's so special. I never thought one day I'd be in this story or be this character. When I first heard that I got the role I was happily surprised but at the same time I felt tremendous pressure because I knew Rob was going to make this in English, which was the biggest obstacle because it's my second language - I just learnt it two years ago.
KEN WATANABE: Yes, eight years ago every artist read it...even [producer] Steven Spielberg! I heard of the project but had read the book long ago. And Steven did not know me then - yet! I was impressed that it was by an American writer, in English, and even wondered whether it was a true story. Two years ago I met Rob during the filming of THE LAST SAMURAI, and he explained to me with great imagination that I should be The Chairman. I said, what! Every female loves him! My goodness! I can't do that! But I trusted him.
Ken, this is a different role to other (especially Hollywood) ones you've played. How difficult or different was it to do this very female story?
KEN WATANABE: I was curious. In THE LAST SAMURAI I was a very strong man, and then the next one, a warrior, so here there was a lot of pressure. Although this is tough work, it is also interesting work for an actor. I liked working with Rob; he's a different type of director.
Do you have any resistance to the idea of Chinese women playing [Japanese] Geisha?
ZIYI ZHANG: We have different nationalities here, but no matter what cultural background, we all had to learn and train hard to become committed Geisha. You have to learn even if you're Japanese, which is why our training was so intense. It's also an international movie, not just a Japanese movie.
MICHELLE YEOH: This is Rob Marshall's vision and celebration of a culture and he is the one who cast each one of us. I remember the first day when all of us got together for the first time; it was a pan-Asian cast. And he said, "You are all here because I believe in each one of you." And that's all we needed to hear. In Asia, we have played Koreans, Japanese, and we constantly do that. So we do not question this, we accept it, like you do not question when you play a German or an American or visa versa.
What about you, Rob, did these kind of questions go through your mind when you were casting? Considering the possibility of offending someone?
ROB MARSHALL: I have a simple philosophy about casting: you cast the best person for the role. The hope that you have is that an actor claims their role. Every actor in this movie did that - there were no question marks at all. It's sort of a tradition in film making that an Egyptian-born Omar Sharif can play a Russian in Doctor Zhivago, or an American-born Renée Zellweger can play Bridget Jones, Nicole Kidman and Jude Law can be Americans in COLD MOUNTAIN. To me it's all about their acting. The demands for these roles were extraordinary and I couldn't have cast this movie twice. These are the best actors in the world for these roles, period.
What was the hardest part of your Geisha training?
MICHELLE YEOH: We affectionately call it the Seven Rooms of Torture! There was the Music Room (where we learned to play the shamisen), the Dancing Room (which we really enjoyed), where we learned the Fan Dance and basically just learning how to walk in a kimono, which was an art form in itself! The layers and weight of the kimono and Rob's idea of the way they 'flutter' - how the back of our skirts move - and I swear if you didn't learn to walk it properly it was like dragging a dead cat! And you have to walk it with a piece of paper between your knees and a Saki bottle during training so you glide across.
I think the most precious room for us was working with Rob. He had his own special room where we talked about the characters and their depth, and how to deal with characters that we really don't know that much about, particularly for the Geishas where its stuff like: you deny love, you do not love, you may not marry, you do not have children. As women - as a human being - how do you deny love and live with that, and face that daily? Every time the mask and layers came on, we got bound tighter and tighter into that role of the Geisha.
Then of course there was the room that we enjoyed a lot - the Saki Room. Everything was like a ritual and it had its own place. For me each of the rooms was very daunting because I was Sayuri's mentor. I had to do it properly first. It was an enriching experience but also a scary one because in only six weeks we had to do something that Geishas spend their entire lives perfecting. It wasn't easy.
Ziyi, how was it for you? Especially that dance in those 8-inch platforms ...
ZIYI ZHANG: It wasn't easy to learn. Even though I had six years dance training it was the hardest thing to do. You have to get used to wearing those platform shoes! Even the first time Michelle saw them she thought they were handbags! I thought it would be impossible to dance in them, but after five hours a day and a few weeks I got it. I love the dance...the process was difficult, but a big challenge.
How do you relate the concept of the Geisha to a western audience?
ROB MARSHALL: It's very hard to equate what a Geisha is to a western audience. Nothing exists that's the same. They're artists, the word 'Geisha' means 'artist'. It's very different now than it was then. Obviously during the time of the film girls were sold into a Geisha house basically as slaves. Now they have that choice. When girls are 16, in high school, they decide whether they want to study traditional arts, and become a Geisha. It's like saying, I want to go to a school of ballet or be a model. Also they marry. They're performers now. Then it was different. It was your life. Michelle's character really exemplifies that, the fact that she has to lock her heart away and live with that.
The astonishing thing is in the 20s/30s and still today it's a women-run business. That's quite empowering, especially for that time. They make an enormous amount of money!
Michelle, you're working with one of our British directors at the moment (Danny Boyle). How is that going?
MICHELLE YEOH: Wonderful! I was just comparing it to last year this time we were...transported back in time to the 20s, wearing kimonos, in an amazing place in Japan. And now I am on a spaceship, in East London, we're eight astronauts - the most fabulous actors, Cillian Murphy, Cliff Curtis, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rose Byrne - and we are carrying this immense bomb in front of our spaceship, heading to the sun. Now I'm in space and before it was 3-4 hours of makeup, getting into costume... Danny is one of your finest; he actually reminds me a lot [of Rob]. He's a very macho man, very sensitive but in a manly way.
The 11-year old girl who plays the young Sayuri is remarkable! She is also a protégé of Ken's. Tell us more about her.
KEN WATANABE: I worked with her in Japan, she acted as my daughter. She's so funny and so cute, but also very smart and talented. She's always thinking.
ROB MARSHALL: It was the last part cast in the movie. It was very difficult to find because we knew that the whole movie really hinged on her because if you don't care about Sayuri from the beginning, then when Ziyi takes over the role it would have been an uphill battle for her. They share something very interesting, Ziyi and Suzuka [Ohgo]. They have this incredible love of life, a spirit that's hard to explain. There's a joy and a strength that's very important for Sayuri because it's what guides her through her life, it's that beautiful water in her eyes that keeps her moving forward against all obstacles.
Suzuka watched Ziyi a lot, and was obviously impressed by her. I think because she was in a movie with so many adults, I've never seen that kind of professionalism and dedication. She and Ziyi are both fearless and share that as a bond. Ken really was our saving grace and helped us find her.