Interview: Zhang Jingchu

Zhang Jingchu relishes playing strong or tormented women on the silver screen and brims with poise and confidence. But the Beijing-based actress, whose command of English has led to parts in international productions, tells us how sometimes she just needs to be alone...

Zhang Jingchu likes to struggle – with her characters and sometimes herself. The actress who has it all – she’s gifted, beautiful, elegant and gracious – would rather not work than play an unchallenging role, as she proved last year. We first shot Zhang for our cover in early 2010, after she had finished the harrowing Aftershock, Feng Xiaogang’s melodramatic epic about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. “I’ve played many dark roles, but this was too realistic for me,” she shared, noting how some of the extras had relatives who had perished that night, buried under the rubble.

Wrapping up two lighter outings – The Double Life and Flirting Scholar 2 – and Benny Chan’s over-the-top sci-fi action flick City Under Siege, Zhang retreated to New York, where she spent eight months alone, studying and absorbing the culture.

“You can get easily distracted in life,” she says now, chatting easily and confidently in the spacious bathroom of her suite at the Intercontinental Hong Kong as her makeup artist and hairstylist hover (making this particular artist look stunning for a photo shoot is not difficult). “I really wanted to spend time by myself; it’s the only way you can get truly close to yourself, to know yourself.” She even spent her 31st birthday last February, which happened to fall on the eve of Chinese New Year, in self-imposed isolation. “That was just my mood (in 2011),” she says with a shrug and a wry smile.

"I don't want to waste my time playing characters that aren't interesting or challenging. There's no point doing movies that just going to be so-so."

It had taken the introspective actress four years to realise her dream of a New York retreat. After shooting her small part in Rush Hour 3 in LA in 2007, she had stopped over in New York and “took in five musicals and three museums in four days”. She recalls: “I was exhausted but so happy with that trip that I vowed to return and spend time in the city.” Zhang has kept in touch with Rush Hour star Jackie Chan too, having dinner at his home during this fleeting visit to Hong Kong.

“I think people get lazy if they stay in a familiar environment; they lose interest,” says the Fujian native, relating that in more than 10 years of living in Beijing she had ignored great monuments like the Great Wall or the Forbidden City until a friend came for a recent visit. “It’s important to be more sensitive to our environment,” she declares. In the spring of 2012, Zhang returned to New York in a more sociable frame of mind, meeting old friends, having fun and “not being so hard on myself”.

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Panthere de Cartier necklace in platinum with diamonds, onyx and pearls, Panthere de Cartier bracelet in 18 carat white gold with diamonds and onyx, and Panthere de Cartier ring in platinum with diamonds and onyx. Off-the-shoulder lace cocktail dress from S. Nine

Taking off last year, dissociating herself from friends and family just as her film career was kicking into high gear, shows an admirable determination and strength of character. “I don’t want to waste my time playing characters that aren’t interesting or challenging,” she says simply. “There’s no point doing movies that are just going to be so-so.” Would she agree with our assessment of her own character? “I wouldn’t say that I’m such a strong person. I think I just love having my own freedom.”

Zhang’s radiant inner beauty and sincerity shine not only on the screen – when she is playing non-tormented souls – but also in person. Having attended this magazine’s 100 issues party the day before this shoot – she picked up our award for Most Radiant Cover Star – she is relaxed and her usual eloquent self during our five-hour shoot at the hotel, where she and the two assistants who accompanied her from Beijing, were happily ensconced.

Her fluency in English – after high school she studied directing at the Central Academy of Drama and English at the New Oriental Institute in Beijing – is an advantage in both her personal life (her love of travel, which she uses as an escape after an intense film role) and her career. Since Rush Hour 3, she has done two other international productions, John Rabe (2009), a German biopic about a businessman who saved Chinese lives during the Nanjing massacre in 1937-1938, and I Trust You, an Italian production shot in Rome, Hong Kong and Beijing which centres around illegal trafficking in food products and is scheduled for release next spring.

The latter, directed by veteran Italian actor turned politician Luca Barbareschi, was an eye-opener for the actress used to the spur-of-the-moment, can-do approach of many Hong Kong filmmakers. Arriving in Rome for her first shooting session, she was amazed by the professionalism and pre-planning of the Italian crew. “The PD was one of the best in Italy and it turned out that the costume designer had won three Academy Awards! They had done so much prep for me and my possible looks; it was very impressive.”


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