Bai Ling Interview

Bai Ling in The Beautiful Country

Bai Ling talks almost entirely in metaphor. No one will ever mention this to you, but she does. Chris Neumer attempts to make sense of this and gets into why it’s occasionally necessary to eat maggots and when ‘not thinking’ is the best approach to something.

by Chris Neumer

Extra Information

BAI LING: That recorder is so small, it’s like a telephone. (picks up recorder) Hello!

CHRIS NEUMER: Nope, just the backup recorder. The main one is coming out soon. Here’s a copy of the magazine. It’s something I started as well as that I write for.

BAI LING: Wow. (Looking at the cover) Hey, Tom Jane! We dated for a while.

CHRIS NEUMER: I have never met an actor who talked so knowledgably about the craft of acting as he.

BAI LING: Really?!

CHRIS NEUMER: We had this whole conversation about how you go about preparing for acting in front of handheld cameras versus cranes that was fascinating. I’d never even thought about that aspect of things and to have him discuss it in such detail was amazing to me.

BAI LING: [pointing at second recorder] Is that recorder working?

CHRIS NEUMER: No, that one’s not, but I come prepared. Here’s my third.

BAI LING: Wow.

CHRIS NEUMER: And here we go. You buckled up?

BAI LING: I’m ready.

CHRIS NEUMER: It must give you great pleasure to finally be able to talk about something other than Star Wars and Sky Captain.

BAI LING: I’m happy talking about this.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m saying. It seems like talking about Star Wars all the time no matter where you go would get tiring. Especially with the same questions being asked all the time.

BAI LING: (laughs)

CHRIS NEUMER: I enjoyed The Beautiful Country a lot more than I thought I would.

BAI LING: Yeah?

CHRIS NEUMER: I saw the beginning shot of Damien with the water buffalo and I thought, “Oh, man, this is going to be long and slow.”

BAI LING: You got scared, huh?

CHRIS NEUMER: Not scared, I was just afraid that it was going to be long and boring. Then it changed and it was just long. Long and good. I really appreciated your performance because it was so different than most. You were playing a character who was dead inside. It seemed as though you, as an actor, would normally try to play a character who was lively and energized, and this was the exact opposite of that. How did you go about getting into that mindset?

BAI LING: I don’t know. To be honest with you, every time the producers and directors would ask me, “Are you ready to be on set and shoot?” I’d say, “Yeah, but I’m only ready to get on set. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get there.” You’ll probably be surprised about what I’m talking about with acting because it’s different from most of them.

CHRIS NEUMER: Oh, I’ve read some of your interviews, I was looking forward to it.

BAI LING: For me, acting–I’m not acting. You call it acting, but, whatever role I do, I’m literally, 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. Sometimes my character challenges me, gets inside me or leads me or helps me.  It’s her journey, but I’m giving the heart and soul to it. And we’re having this silent dance to find the harmony between us, the character and me. So that’s what I’m doing, unconsciously. I love the camera, I think the camera is the most honest thing. It doesn’t judge or have any preconceived notions or anything, it’s just flat, like a mural. If you give the truth, it shows up on screen and you can watch the truth and it makes things more powerful. If you lie, it shows up as a lie. And also, most exciting for me, is that I get to experience that feeling, when that thing surprises me or you or the audience. A lot of actors or great talents are preparing when they do the research, that’s the best tool for them. They can only get what they’re thinking. But life, the emotional journey of the character is like a wild river, there are no rules. It’s like random. Like, [pointing at Chris Neumer] why do you put your finger here against your lips?

CHRIS NEUMER: I was thinking.

BAI LING: But you can do this too [crosses arms] or this [puts finger on ear], why do you do that? There’s an unconscious way of conducting yourself. It’s a miracle. I like to make that observation through it, whatever happens, it brings great joy. If you ask me how I did it, like you did, I don’t know. I literally have no clue.

CHRIS NEUMER: But what kinds of things do you think about to prepare yourself for getting out there and getting into the life of your character?

BAI LING: I don’t prepare, I don’t think of anything. My mind is literally empty. I just basically am empty there and open everything up.  You don’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t know what’s going to happen. When I’m there, the earth will speak to me or the set will speak to me or the character, whatever, the atmosphere; something will help me. I always trust instinct.

CHRIS NEUMER: So you don’t particularly like to rehearse.

BAI LING: I don’t like it, but I don’t mind if the director needs it. When I’m rehearsing it, it might be different than when I’m in front of the camera.

CHRIS NEUMER: Have you seen your performance in the film?

BAI LING: I saw it the final cut in Berlin a while ago.

CHRIS NEUMER: I was surprised how long ago this was shot. But were there any specific things, and feel free to cite other films you’ve been in, where you did something that you were happy that you did where you captured something special?

BAI LING: Actually with a lot of them. When watching myself… normally I don’t like to watch it for the first time because I just feel uncomfortable. But after that, when it comes a second time, I am completely like sober.  It’s like that part of life is gone. It’s not me. I am so objective. I feel like I have no prerogative for why did I do that.  If only the thing can be good, it comes from inside. You say that you’re thinking and your finger is doing something, but it’s not because you’re doing it–the fact that you’re thinking–it’s what happens with real human behavior. So for me it’s like, “Yeah.” There are some moments in the film that were cut out. They are beautiful moments, because they just happened. I am literally moved. I feel like, “Wow! This is such a gift because why would this be a dream?” I wouldn’t imagine that I would pray like that. That’s why I need a space like all of that is coming to me. If I am thinking one way, then your mindset nothing can come. You’re preset. So I’m as wild as everything that can happen and now we have a great freedom and you can, I don’t know… all the camera cuts, you can they have lots of freshness, lots of nuances. Some things come very naturally. I don’t even know it. Like once, I remember now that you were asking me, that little boy dies, that environment.  Actually that environment is not very helpful for me because everybody is sort of joking around.

CHRIS NEUMER: I was going to ask you about that?

BAI LING: Yeah, I am the only one basically, that is in that mood. Because okay, imagine if I have a special motivation, I’m okay with it and I like it. It’s the only way you can hold that innocent dream. I can talk to that little boy, not a man. That’s just my character. It’s a little secret. I can be open and completely honest with him. So when that scene is taken away it is taking part of my dream away. So, it’s like, I wouldn’t even think, but I’m thinking now. While I was there, I was just watching my life like a fountain going to a river. I would just like cry. I would just…I don’t know why, I would just feel sad. It would just come to me. But the film is not real. You know what happened, when I’m holding him, right. He’s supposed to be dead. Now he starts to cry.

CHRIS NEUMER: Damien?

BAI LING: No, the little boy. He says, “I’m okay. Don’t cry.” “She’s crying.” And he’s not crying because he was moved by me. He’s not supposed to be cry.  I don’t need that. No, no, it’s not helping me. No, listen to me, it’s not helping, and you know why? When he starts to cry we have to stop filming because he’s not supposed to cry.

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