Celebrating 20 years of a stellar career, Zhang Ziyi returns to Cannes as Chopard’s “Godmother” to present two important awards. She talks to Charlene Co about earning respect, and the importance of recognising and supporting young talent

We’ve been given 30 minutes, not a second more, to interview the celebrated Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi and shoot at least three good portraits. And she’s running late. “Never mind. At [the] Cannes [Film Festival] nothing is ever on time. It must be the all-night partying. No one can get up early,” says a fellow journalist, herself seemingly a little hung over as she reclines on a couch at the Chopard Rooftop, an exclusive lounge for the luxury jeweller’s VIP guests on the 7th floor of Hôtel Martinez.

Then Ziyi arrives, preceded by the booming voice of her long-time manager, Ling Lucas. Wearing a flattering floral Louis Vuitton dress with a wide belt, her hair parted in the middle in two simple braids, she sits down before several trays of jewellery. Like a child opening a box of candy, her eyes widen and she lets out a giggle.

She appears to be oblivious to the tense atmosphere created in the room by her manager, who is painfully aware of the short time available to do three interviews and shoots before Ziyi is due on the red carpet for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.

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“We want her to read the questions from this card and then look to the camera to answer them,” I overhear a member of a French television crew tell Ziyi’s manager. “Are you sure? That’s just weird, but I’ll ask her,” the manager says.

Ziyi soon stands up, having chosen jewellery to wear, and says, “Let’s do it.” She takes the card and goes to the corner to rehearse, repeating specific English words she’s not sure how to pronounce. “Am I saying it right? Please let me know,” she says. “I want to make sure I get this right.” Then, as they film, she giggles nervously at mispronunciations and asks several times to redo her lines, then confidently gets them right.

After the French interview she changes into a stunning black ensemble. The braids are gone and her hair is down, brushed back just enough to expose a gorgeous pair of emerald earrings by Chopard. I’m stunned by the transformation. “Let’s do this,” she says. She looks to the camera and knows exactly what to do. Suddenly I’m no longer worried we won’t have enough time to get the shots we need.

As we finally sit for our interview, I can’t decide whether I’m more taken with her delicate features and porcelain-like skin or her piercing gaze. I think to myself, “Nothing escapes this one, that’s for sure, and how on earth can she be 40?”

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I embrace hard work. I’m not afraid of it.
Zhang Ziyi

It’s hard to believe it’s 19 years since Ziyi starred with Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat in Ang Lee’s martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—the movie that catapulted her to international stardom and brought her to Cannes for the first time. Though for me personally, it was her earlier role in 1999’s The Road Home, her first movie, that is her most memorable. And it is a favourite of Ziyi’s, too: “That movie kept me in that age—a young 18-year-old on the big screen. You can never repeat that, so that’s very special to me.”

I surmise that the nostalgia we’re both feeling is helped along by the fact she is marking 20 years in the film industry—a career that may seem magical to many but came at the cost of a lot of effort. “I embrace hard work. I’m not afraid of it,” says Ziyi. “Back when I was starting, yes, I felt that I was cool, young and fun, but I took my work very seriously. Being a star is easy, but being a respected actor is not. It’s something you have to constantly work on. I believe in patience—do things step by step and don’t take shortcuts.”

With those words, I understand why Chopard co-president and artistic director Caroline Scheufele chose the Beijing-born actress to be the brand’s “Godmother” this year, the luminary to present the 19th annual Chopard Trophy to an emerging young actor and actress in recognition of their talent. (The previous evening, Ziyi had presented the trophies to British actress Florence Pugh and French actor François Civil, who joined a distinguished roster of previous recipients that includes Diane Kruger, Marion Cotillard and James McAvoy.)

“I was that young, new talent 20 years ago,” says Ziyi, “and I know how important it is to have support at this very early stage in your career. Sometimes, even if we work hard on our own, we need a bit of help.”

Before I know it, her manager says it’s time to wrap up our chat. I do so—and ask if I can take a picture. No, I’m told, she needs to be somewhere else. But Ziyi grabs my phone and says, “Let’s do it,” a line I’m starting to believe is her personal mantra. We do a quick selfie, say our goodbyes and she’s whisked off by her entourage. After all, Leonardo and Brad can’t be kept waiting. 

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