Chances are, Maggie Cheung could have passed you on the sidewalk and you wouldn't have rubbernecked. Given to wearing simple black attire and pulled-back hair, Cheung doesn't even immediately trigger visions of her graceful warrior turn in the international box-office blockbuster Hero or any of the dozens of kung-fu films she has starred in since taking on the role of Jackie Chan's girlfriend in 1985's Police Story. Her stark, everyday style is more akin to the look of Emily, her character in the new film Clean, for which she won the best-actress prize at Cannes.
Written and directed by Cheung's now-ex-husband, Olivier Assayas, Clean is a British/Canadian/French co-production that opens with the heroin overdose of Emily's rock-star-has-been husband in a seedy motel room in Hamilton. With Nick Nolte playing her well-meaning father-in-law, we follow Cheung's punky drug addict as she struggles with a tenuous relationship with her son, in London and Paris, and speaking English, French and Cantonese. (In person, her faint British accent mingles with a dash of Hong Kong diction.) Clean is a quiet, poignant turn for Cheung, the kind of work that recently inspired The New York Times to ask, "Why Isn't Maggie Cheung a Hollywood star?"
There are details in Clean, such as Emily's first meal after emerging from a prison term for drug possession, in which she voraciously devours a diner meal. It rang true as the action of a recovering addict. How did you find the mannerisms that would make Emily believable?
Olivier and I have friends who have had this problem. They are what they are. They're not the junkies you see in films. One day one of them will be spaced out and smelling slightly bad. Then a few days later, you see him shaved and smelling better and you know he hasn't taken it for a few days. I didn't do any more research for the part. I've seen it and the data is in there. I just had to find the file and open it.
Nick Nolte has been very open about his own history with addiction. Did he offer you any insight about drugs?
He did it in a very subtle way. He didn't say, "Oh I know what this is, let me tell you." It was never like that. But during a scene, he would suddenly say, "I know that. That's happened to me." And I would listen. It all helped. And he'd give me confidence. He'd tell me, "Maggie, that's good."
The audience has to wait until near the end of the film for what is perhaps Emily's biggest emotional outburst, which happens when her life seems to be back on track. Why the wait?
For me, it was, "At last, whoever is up there is finally giving me something good." It's her first realization that she can do it. All along she is trying and she thinks she can, but she never confirms it. She's never had any achievements in her life up to this point. It's almost like the end of Kill Bill when Uma Thurman was holding her teddy bear and crying "thank you, thank you."
Throughout the film, we're just not convinced she'll succeed. Was it emotionally intense for you to keep her on the edge like that?
Yes and that's the way it is for all junkies. Each day is a new day, a new struggle. And there's Emily's son, too. He gives her a reason to be strong. In the film, there is a shot of a letter she writes asking for help from [the musician and actor]Tricky. They wrote a dummy for the shoot. I said, "This is all fake. This isn't what Emily would say." I [wrote another]myself and Olivier was happy with it. There were little mistakes, and a "p.s. I found a job." It was a quick moment in the film. We don't really see it, but I wrote, "this child is important to me because it's my only link to sanity. Without this link I don't think I can go on."
How does a film like Clean fit into your career thus far?
Since Hero, the next movie was Clean. I used to do a lot, up to nine or 10 films a year. In 1994, I stopped for two years. Then I made three films back to back. Since then, I do one every two years. Because I do so little, they become more. People will remember them more because it's not every month that you see a film with the same actor -- it gets very boring. Nicole Kidman is so great as an actress, but I think she's doing too much. I'm bored with her [movie]posters. Up to Moulin Rouge, her choices were brilliant. Then there was Cold Mountain and they've all become one for me. I want to avoid that.
The Chinese people see you as one of their own. There was a pointed question at a press conference about Emily not being particularly Chinese. Olivier Assayas has said that he wanted to write a film for you in which you were not an archetypal Chinese woman in a Western film. Still, do you feel people look to you to represent them?
Cannes was a good example. When I went back to Hong Kong, you could feel everybody was proud that this Hong Kong local has done that. But I also felt their regret that Clean is not a Hong Kong film. And that struck me: "Wow, it makes a difference for you guys." For me it doesn't, because I'm just doing my job. Whether it's Hero or In the Mood for Love. I have no personal problem with doing a nude scene in a film; however I can't do it because it would go to my country, and the people are not going to accept that. I have to respect that. Even though we can say the European or North American market is bigger, no, for me, I want Hong Kong to be my main market. They want to own me and I want to own them. It's out of willingness.
Was it surreal for you to have Hero open in Canada right around the same time as Clean was appearing at the Toronto International Film Festival?
Since Cannes in May, I didn't control any of it. It just fell into place. It's my 15 minutes, as Andy Warhol would say. Also without these last few months [up to her birthday in September] turning 40 might have made me think I'm going toward the end of my career. But it's a great end to my 30s. It gives me nice hope for the future. I can go further in my 40s. Once you have that in mind you make different decisions. It gives me a lot of confidence to explore more of what I want to do. I need a break. Clean is perfect for the self-cleansing technique. Throw it all away and start again. And it worked. This kind of film is a risk. A lot of audiences will feel there's no story. In Asia, they'd find it boring. But we're not looking at the story; it's the approach of this person. These kinds of films don't work everywhere. I just have to choose. And once in a while, put a Hero in there.