Bai Ling


Bai Ling talks in metaphor, explains why it’s necessary to occasionally eat maggots and makes sense of when ‘not thinking’ is the best approach to things. Prepare yourself for a ride.

by Chris Neumer

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Prior to my interview with actress Bai Ling, I ask one of her publicists how things are going with Ling. It’s a leading question to be sure: what I’m really asking about are the irregularities of Ling’s day. If she’s mad at something that somebody said on Howard Stern’s show, it’d be nice to know so that I wouldn’t bring up the topic of morning radio in our interview.

Before my first interview with writer/director Richard Kelly, I was specifically told not to mention the production house that put Donnie Darko onto DVD during our conversation. Kelly had had some extremely harsh words earlier about them and his publicist was attempting to minimize the damage as best she could. In Kelly’s case, I did as I was bid, but he still managed to work his tirades into our talk.

Ling’s publicist shrugs at my question and tells me that everything was going smoothly; there is nothing I need to worry about. After no more than two minutes, I realize quickly that there is one thing that I definitely could have benefited from knowing in advance of my chat with Ling: she speaks in veiled metaphors.

“For me, acting–I’m not acting,” Ling says. “You call it acting, but literally whatever role I do, I’m actually living life. I’m not doing anything. I’m not preparing anything. I read the script. It’s not Bai Ling’s journey. It’s like I have a secret love affair with my character, and sometimes she challenges me, gets inside of me or leads me or helps me. It’s her journey, but I’m giving the heart and soul to it. We have this silent dance to find the harmony between us.”

I am staring at her with a perplexed look on my face, half wondering how this has anything to do with my question about her getting into character and half picturing her dancing with herself in a strange Dali-esque ballroom setting. I’m following what she’s saying (sort of), but have no clue where she’s going with it. Frankly, I’m not sure she does either because, midway through her near soliloquy on acting, Ling stops and says, “You’ll probably be surprised about what I am talking about because it’s different from most [other actors].”

I nod in agreement and Ling is off again, her words falling deeper into allegory as she proceeds. “I love the camera, I think it’s the most honest thing. It doesn’t judge or have any preconceived notions. It’s just flat, like a mural. If you give it the truth, it shows up on screen. You can also watch the truth and it makes things more powerful. If you lie, it shows up as a lie. It’s a miracle. Life is an emotional journey like a wild river. There are no rules. It’s random. I like to make that observation through my character, no matter what happens, and it brings great joy. If you asked me how I did it, like you just did, I don’t know. Literally, I have no clue. My mind is empty. I am empty there and I don’t know what’s going to happen. The earth will speak to me, or the set will, but something will help me.”

Ling pauses briefly to reload, while I use the silence to attempt to make sense of her last words. My ears are getting accustomed to her unique form of dialogue and I realize that I’m starting to understand what she is talking about.

Ling has just stated that, unlike most method actors, she doesn’t rehearse much or do anything at all to get into her character; she simply shows up on set and behaves as though she is her character.

“Exactly!” Ling exclaims when I repeat a somewhat muddled version of my thoughts to her. This approach to acting, while unique, has also caused some additional drama for Ling. “One time, and I don’t want to forget this, [my character] was eating with a young boy,” Ling says, describing a scene in her new movie, The Beautiful Country. “I looked at myself as an older woman taking care of him. There were [maggots] in the rice and I thought, ‘I’ll play mom, I’m going to show him how to eat these and put [one] in my mouth.’” Ling scrunches up her nose and shakes her head at the recollection. “So,” she sighs, “I put the worm into my mouth. I was chewing it, just hoping that the director would say ‘cut’ and I wouldn’t have to swallow it.” Ling smiles and finishes the story by stating, “I was chewing it and he didn’t say ‘cut’.”

“So you see,” she says, returning the conversation to her very in-the-now style of acting, “In that moment, I was there with him. Those are the challenges. It’s gross, but how else can you do it?”

The question seems, on the outset, to be rhetorical. This doesn’t stop Ling from ebulliently attempting to answer it anyway. “I’m just open,” she smiles. “I’m always excited for the next day. I think that when you are free and you let life take you, good things happen. All of this is beyond my wildest expectations. I feel like ‘Wow! This is such a gift because why would this be a dream?’”

As Ling continues talking about what a sobering experience it is to watch herself on screen and in dailies, and talks more about her freedom and rivers and joy, I see her as a delightful poetess working her way through life, enjoying it as she goes.

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