TIME talks to Hong Kong actor/singer boy Leslie Cheung.
By Stephen Short
Thursday, May. 3, 2001
Forever Leslie: Teasing his audiences with a seductive style that both flirts and forbids, durable Leslie Cheung actor, singer, pop idol Hong Kong's great phantom lover......
Leslie Cheung is Hong Kong's great male diva.
The flamboyant singer and actor talks candidly with TIME's Stephen Short about movies, fame and growing up. Edited excerpts:
TIME: You are sometimes called one-take Leslie, because directors get what they want immediately. Is that so?
Cheung: The longest scene I ever shot was with Wong Kar-wai in "Days of Being Wild." Maggie Cheung and I are having a conversation in bed about her cousin or something like that. Anyway, it took two days and 39 takes to shoot. Wong did not give us a clue as to what role he wanted us to play. Even when Maggie and I asked what was wrong with the previous 38 takes, he wouldn't tell us.
TIME: Have you ever turned down a project from Kar-wai?
Cheung: I'm usually Kar-wai's first pick. I'm his favorite. Even for "Chungking Express" he approached me first, before Tony Leung. But as you know I was so busy at that time. I was doing "Shanghai Grand." I was working with Peter Chan on "He's a Woman, She's a Man."
So Kar-wai calls me up and says, 'Leslie, I've got this great story. Would you like to try doing a film with Faye Wong?' At that time I had some reservations. I said to him, 'Kar-wai, can she really act?' I told him it would be delightful to work with him, but sadly not at that time, as I was too busy. So then he approached Tony Leung. He also asked me to do "Fallen Angels," for which Leon Lai got picked. Later Kar-wai called me up for "Happy Together." Andy Lau originally wanted to be in the movie, but I'm not sure what happened to that. I was doing "Viva Erotica" at the time. So I spoke with Kar-wai again and thought his offer was quite reasonable, though I took some convincing. We talked schedules, terms, deadlines... Kar-wai's a very clever guy. He knows how to handle things.
TIME: Everybody I talk to wants to work with you. Who do you want to work with?
Cheung: I'm hoping to work with (Chinese actress) Zhang Ziyi next year. I think (singer) Karen Mok and her would be brilliant in a film. I'll have to pull some strings. The movie would be similar to "Beaches," the Bette Midler film. Interesting. Don't you think so?
TIME: You could put Karen and Ziyi in a Nescafe commercial and I'd pay good money to watch it. You were a huge Canto star in the '80s. What's changed since?
Cheung: Things are getting much more conservative. And politically correct. I'm lucky that I can still survive and maintain my place at the top. A lot of it is to do with the media. A few years back they never put anything positive in the tabloids. Take Tony Leung, for example. He wins the Best Actor award at Cannes. Now that should be huge news in Hong Kong, but all you get is a small piece in the corner of the paper about his award, and the main focus is about actress Carina Lau and who she's having an affair with. The media cater to gossip.
TIME: You must get asked about "Happy Together" all the time?
Cheung: Yes, although now I'm used to it. It's like a daily routine. But if someone tries to ask me an intellectual question in Hong Kong then I get quite stumped. It really shouldn't be like this.
TIME: Did you enjoy school in England?
Cheung: I had to make a lot of readjustments. There were racial problems, discrimination. But it enabled me to see things. I could take a train to London, for example. So I didn't feel lonely. My first bit of homesickness didn't happen for three months. I used to write letters to my parents and family every week. I think that started to pull us closer. During weekends I used to go to Southend- on-Sea to see my relatives; they ran a restaurant there, and I'd be a bartender. I also started performing. I was only 13 years old, but I'd do amateur singing every weekend.
TIME: Do you like Hong Kong?
Cheung: Hong Kong is so extravagant... It's too expensive. I'm too soft for Hong Kong. I don't always count myself as 'one of them.' And I don't put my litter outside my house anymore because people try to find things and sell them or whatever. Even if I go to Causeway Bay, reporters follow me. They know my car registration number, so whether I'm at the Mandarin Oriental coffee shop or Propaganda (a hip gay club) I'm followed.
TIME: You're agony uncle to many Chinese actresses, aren't you?
Cheung: I love them all very much. Twenty years ago I was also a newcomer, so I love to groom girls, tell them the pros and cons (of the profession). I scolded Karen Mok for not performing well enough at her recent concerts. But did you see I gave her a kiss on stage. She thanked me as her uncle for giving her a first chance.