Tony Leung is remarkably calm, cool and collected for a man who’s at the tail end of a multi-city whirlwind press tour. Wearing jeans and sneakers, he seems more like an easygoing, thoughtful college student than the 47-year old Asian megastar that he is.
Leung has an intensity on screen that’s both relatable and palpable. In Asia, he’s also known for both his dramatic and comedic chops. But his overseas popularity hinges on his brooding presence in films like Red Cliff, Infernal Affairs and Lust, Caution. He’s worked with legendary director Wong Kar Wai on masterly and dream-like explorations of love, romance and heartbreak, namely, Chungking Express, Happy Together, and the widely beloved In the Mood For Love. The two teamed up again for the director’s latest, The Grandmaster, a lushly filmed epic about Ip Man, the martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee. Leung plays Ip Man and Ziyi Zhang is Gong Er, the gorgeous, stubborn daughter of a martial arts master from northern China—and who’s she’s a pretty incredible fighter herself. Their chemistry is intense, but, ultimately, the film is a love letter to kung fu, packed mind-blowing fight scenes so gorgeously filmed, they become living paintings. It’s pure Wong Kar Wai.
SSN talked to Leung about training for the film, the most difficult scene of his career and working with Wong Kar Wai.
SSN: Ip Man’s story is an epic one, and it spans several decades of his life. How did you prepare to play him? Did you know much about kung fu going into the project?
TL: The whole project started with a book. It’s a martial arts novel written by one of our screenwriters. He said, “Take a look at this book, I want to make a movie about this.” I was a big fan of martial arts novels when I was a kid.
It was very Wong Kar Wai: I could picture all the colors and the camera movements. I got ideas from that book first, and then he showed me some books about the life of The Grandmaster.
Then he asked me to study Bruce Lee, and I watched all his movies, and he said he wanted me to merge all of Bruce Lee’s characters into Ip Man. I thought, “That’s interesting. How?” Then I started studying Bruce Lee because he left us a lot of books, and it really opened up my eyes. As a Chinese man, I knew nothing about Chinese kung fu.
SSN: Did anything that you learned surprise you?
TL: I just thought it was fighting techniques, but I learned from Bruce Lee that kung fu has a spiritual side. It’s a way to train your mind and a way of life. The training was similar to meditation, and it’s very spiritual. Then I had a general understanding, and I started training with a student of Ip Man.
SSN: At the screening of the film, Wong Kar Wai said that you trained for three years. What was that like? It sounds incredibly demanding.
TL: We planned to train for one year, but it was really difficult to start training at my age of 47. It was really demanding to train three hours a day. It’s not that difficult to manage the moves after a certain period of time, but to explore the spiritual side of kung fu is difficult. I really wanted to know what the state of mind of the kung fu master is when they fight. After a certain time, the spiritual side of kung fu just spontaneously grows inside of you.
SSN: He also said you broke your arm twice?
TL: Yes, I broke my arm during training and again on the first day of shooting. The difference between action scenes I’ve done before and this movie is that I’m not just portraying the look but also the state of mind.
SSN: There are so many incredible fight sequences in the film, as well as the emotional moments. What was the toughest scene for you to shoot?
TL: The opening scene: the fight in the rain. That was the most difficult scene of my acting career. We spent about 40 overnights on that scene. It was crazy. What you see in the movie doesn’t look so difficult, but every night, we have to do the master shot first. You have to fight like 15 people from one end of the street to the other, and we’re doing over 20 takes from every angle.
SSN: You did all of the fighting and all of your own stunts?
TL: Yes, I have to do all the stunts by myself. You don’t just have the real shoot, but you need to rehearse for the camera like 20 times and then do 27 times for the real take, and it was freezing cold.
SSN: You’ve said Wong Kar Wai is a perfectionist. What’s it like working with him? What kind of direction does he give you?
TL: He usually gives us a lot of space to experience our character and create our character. That’s the reason why in previous work he never gave us a screenplay. I know he has a screenplay and that he knows what he wants to do. He’ll only give very little hints at the beginning.
SSN: Do you like working that way, or would you rather have the whole script?
TL: Yes, it’s adventurous. You know you have a long journey to go, and there’s no rush so you can take the time. You have a chance to live in the character, and you don’t have to purposely resign anything. We don’t know the script, so we just have the scene we have to shoot that day. We just feel on set. I try not to be conscious, and that’s the reason I never watch playback. I trust the director very much. I just try to feel.
SSN: Are there any U.S. directors you would love to work with?
TL: The one I really admire is Christopher Nolan. After I watched Batman and Inception, I was like, “Wow.” There are a lot of American directors I admire like Martin Scorsese. The most recent one is Christopher Nolan. I think it would be a very special experience to work with him.
SSN: OK, final and most important question: Does Wong Kar Wai ever take his sunglasses off?
TL: [laughs] Yes, of course!