Accidental actress; After years of dabbling, Gao Yuanyuan has taken the plunge and gone professional. She tells Michelle Chen Min why it took her so long
GAO YUANYUAN had already shot three films, four TV dramas and scores of advertisements before she decided to make a career of acting. And with Shanghai Dreams, her first feature as a professional, under her belt, she says she's loving it.
Gao was spotted in 1996 in a bookstore, and was invited to audition for an advertisement. It wasn't long before she was being offered more work than she could handle - in ads, TV dramas and even films. But she says she didn't take the work seriously for years.
"I didn't treat it as a career until 2002, when I worked on Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre," she says. "It changed my opinion of acting and helped me make up my mind to be an actress." The TV drama was the first time she'd worked with a Hong Kong production crew and proved to be a big challenge. "Before, acting was easy and comfortable," she says. But Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre forced her to re-evaluate her approach to acting. "I had to be devoted to adapt. Gradually, I found acting fun.
"A professional actress is very different from an amateur one. I feel more responsibility now and I've set certain requirements for myself to fulfil."
After Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, Gao shot more television dramas, but she knew she wanted to focus on film and learn more. Her chance came last year, when director Wang Xiaoshuai, with whom she'd worked on Beijing Bicycle (2000), got in touch.
"Xiaoshuai gave me a call in August and asked me to find a 19-year-old for his new film," says Gao. "So I recommended some girls. But a month later, he called again, asking me to be the leading actress.
"I didn't look at the script until we went into production because I was on vacation. But I wasn't worried because I believe in Xiaoshuai. He has a clear idea about me. He knows what fits me and what I'm fit for.
"Most of the time in this film, I acted the way I liked, according to my understanding of the character. The director didn't restrict me."
Shanghai Dreams is the story of 19-year-old Qinghong (Gao), who's at odds with her father, Wu Zemin (Yan Anlian). Qinghong's family are among the thousands forced into the countryside during the 1960s. With the resurgence of urban economies, her father wants to return to Shanghai - but Qinghong wants to stay where she is, with her friends and boyfriend, factory worker Honggen (Li Bin).
Gao says her character is depressed for long periods of the film - which put her in low spirits. "I'd been waiting a long time for this scene where Qinghong bursts out and has a quarrel with her father," she says. "I needed it to release my depressed feelings. But, when the time came, the director told me we had to cancel it."
Despite her disappointment, Gao says she now understands why Wang cut the scene. "She doesn't need to burst out - it's where her strength lies. The most powerful impact is that she sticks to what's inside her heart, even if it's wrong or hurts. She's not a character who will amuse audiences. If you treat it like entertainment, you won't find fun in it."
Beijing-born Gao has never had any formal training as an actress, but doesn't consider it to have been a disadvantage. "Even if I have the chance, I won't study acting. I can't see any need."
In all, Gao has now shot more than 50 ads, 11 TV dramas and four films, of which Beijing Bicycle (2000) won second prize (Silver Bear) at the 2001 Berlin film Festival and Shanghai Dreams (2005) took the Prix du Jury at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It also opened this year's India International Film Festival.
Gao says she'll be shooting a Hong Kong film at the end of this year, but doesn't plan on having a career in Hong Kong. "There are many excellent directors and actors on the mainland," she says. "Society is more tolerant and there's more room for films to develop. Directors such as Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke show the potential of the mainland market."