Chinese Star Li Bingbing on Shooting 'The Meg' With Jason Statham, Beijing-Hollywood Collaboration

Li Bingbing - P 2018
Courtesy of Li Bingbing

The Chinese actress talks overcoming her fear of shooting in the ocean to star opposite Jason Statham in the upcoming Warner Bros. monster shark movie.

Chinese actress Li Bingbing has been one of China's biggest film stars for nearly a generation — and she's no longer a newcomer to Hollywood.

She aided Milla Jovovich in the battle against the undead in the Resident Evil franchise and played a sizable part in Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction, which earned $1.1 billion worldwide.

But her next release — a starring role opposite Jason Statham in Warner Bros.' giant shark movie The Meg — could prove her most memorable international breakthrough.

Born in remote northern China, Li studied at the Shanghai Theatre Academy and made her feature-film debut in 1999 in Zhang Yuan's period drama Seventeen Years, which won the best director award at the Venice Film Festival. In 2001, she starred in the mega-hit television series Young Justice Bao, which made her one of the most famous faces across China.

Li's role as The Meg's heroine is her meatiest to date in a big-budget, U.S.-backed movie. The Meg follows Statham's character Jonas Taylor after he escapes an attack by what he claims was a 70-foot prehistoric shark. After losing his credibility and nearly everything, Jonas must confront his fears to help save the passengers trapped in a sunken submersible — including his formidable ex-wife, played by Li. Directed by Jon Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping, National Treasure), The Meg opens worldwide in August.

Statham and Li swept into the Shanghai International Film Festival this week to do some early promotion in the world's second-largest movie market. Prior to her red carpet appearance, THR met Li at a suite in Shanghai's downtown Indigo Hotel to talk about the making of The Meg, the future of China-Hollywood collaborations and her thoughts on being one of China's very biggest stars for nearly two decades. 

What attracted you to your role in The Meg and why did you decide to take the part?

The first time they contacted me about Meg was in 2015, and I actually just said no without even thinking much. Because it's a shark movie, I knew there would be a lot of shooting in water, and I didn't want to do that. The Chinese, you know, we believe the cold is bad for health — we always drink hot water and prefer to eat hot things. So I said no, I didn't want to spend so much time in the tank or in the cold ocean. But then they kept contacting me and later asked me to reconsider.

It was just two weeks before they were starting shooting, but I decided to say yes. But now I knew with my whole heart that it was going to be very difficult for me, because I only had two weeks to learn my lines. I'm not a native English speaker and I need to spend a lot of time with an English script to feel prepared. So I was really strict and hard on myself. I spent every moment practicing, every day. Everyone else was sort of on vacation, playing golf and going to parties. But I was in my room practicing.

The only thing that helped me was that we shot in New Zealand. It's so green and beautiful there. Going for a walk or looking at all of that green made me relax and forget my troubles. Now, I feel really great about it all, because I feel like I really accomplished something. I had really good cooperation with our whole team — our director, Warner Bros. and my co-stars. Everyone is happy about the film.

What was it like collaborating with your co-star, Jason Statham?

He is such a warm and friendly guy. I was a little scared to meet him, because I thought he would be just like he is in his movies. (Does a winning impression of Jason Statham's characteristic scowl.) [Laughs] But during rehearsals he was so sweet, and he kept saying there was no way he could ever do any of this in Chinese. I told him that I would need to rehearse more than usual, since I'm not a native English-speaker and I was worried about making him impatient. But he was so sweet and supportive.

What types of roles are you most interested in pursuing at this stage in your career?

Well, good acting is really about showing a ton of emotions. You have to have these experiences and emotions in real life before you can actually act them out. I believe I have enough life experience now to perform deeper characters better. I want to be a character in an indie film. I don't know exactly, but I want to play someone with a dramatic story, even if she is not a perfect person, of if she has horrible flaws — someone interesting and intriguing. That's what I'm looking for now.

You're one of the few actors to have worked at the highest levels of both the Chinese film business and Hollywood. What are some of your impressions of the two film industries? What can they learn from each other?

The Hollywood film industry has a well-designed system, and its filmmaking processes are very organized and efficient. So it has a professional advantage from more experience. But now the Chinese market is developing super fast, and our box office just surpassed the U.S. market this past March. That means we have more opportunities for Chinese filmmakers. The Chinese film market is growing bigger each year, so I think we will work together with Hollywood to make even better films.

Meg is a great example of this. Also, the internet sector is growing really fast in China. I think it will change how we make movies over time. People in China can know information and experience foreign culture instantly today — so I bet in the future we're going to have a lot of movies we've never seen before, stories that have more Western and Eastern culture combined. 

You've always been considered something of a style icon. What fashion inspires you right now?

[Laughs] I don’t see myself as an icon of anything. For my personal style, I just like whatever is most comfortable, to be honest — a comfy t-shirt or a pair of yoga pants. I also like the combination of fashion and traditional culture. For example, I recently worked with the Imperial Palace in Beijing to create a handbag. I want to help more people understand traditional Chinese culture and help that carry into the future. We also helped unemployed women with that project by donating part of our profit to the Chinese Women Development Foundation.

What's it like being one of the most famous people in the world's most populous nation? What's the experience of extreme fame like in China?

Well, I think it's all about your choices. If you want to live like a normal person, you can. If you want to hide, you'll hide. But over the past 20 years, I've spent almost all of my time working. No life; just practice and work. I never go out to eat. So I don't know if that's my personality, or what. I always feel that I have something that's really important on my hands, and I have to finish it.

I have also been working on studying English very hard for a long time. I'm a really focused kind of person. But for these past 20 years, I think I also have to say sorry to myself. I didn't really pay attention to life. I put myself under so much pressure, and I'm always worrying about doing well at the next thing. In New Zealand, the beautiful nature there really helped me. Now I would like to continue working hard, but look around and enjoy everything a little more.