Shanghai: Chinese Star Zhao Tao Talks Jury Duty, Strong Female Characters and Working With Jia Zhangke

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Zhao Tao

The 'Ash Is Purest White' actress reveals the lengths she goes to in creating backstories for all the characters she plays.

Despite a career that spans 20 years Zhao Tao has starred in only 10 films, but the Chinese actress has established herself as one of the country's most loved and critically acclaimed stars with her less-is-more approach.

Zhao first appeared in Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke’s Platform (2000) as an actress fully formed, despite the fact that she had never before performed in front of cameras. But the now-42-year-old says there has been struggle as she has discovered and then explored the impact her roles have had — on Chinese society as well as on herself.

There have been awards, too — including a David di Donatello for her role in the Italian feature Shun Li and the Poet (2011), a first for an Asian actress — and widespread acclaim for the depth of character she reveals in films like Jia’s Palme d’Or-nominated Ash Is Purest White (2018).

In China, Zhao's career has been intertwined with that of Jia, the actress first becoming the director's muse on several well-received films and then later, in 2012, his wife and producing partner.

A cultural power couple, cameras follow Zhao and Jia's every move, so it was some relief, she says, to take on jury duty at this year's Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) and feel like a “normal” audience member again. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Zhao on the sidelines of the festival to talk about her career and her most memorable character, just how much work she puts into the development of the characters she plays, and working so closely with her husband. 

How do you prepare for being on a jury at a film festival?

When I see these movies I see them through the eyes of a normal audience. I try to feel their impact and their passion. I also have some artist criteria. I want to see some freshness, something new. First the language, and then the style. Secondly, after I see the movie I see the characters. I can see through them the society, the changes through the eras, and a new perspective. That’s what I expect from the films. I do not expect to see a perfect film as we always have regrets after films. Nothing can be perfect. But I want to see this new world. As an actress I am also looking at the performances.

International audiences are witnessing how Chinese directors are developing new styles, new ways of telling their stories. Is there a feeling the film industry here is heading in new directions?

Since last year we have had over 1,000 films produced. So there are very diverse styles and topics, like history, films about society and contemporary issues and problems. You can find all of these in films. I feel Chinese cinema is getting better and better. There are a lot of options come from out.

You’re currently producing Jia Zhangke’s documentary So Close My Land. What is it that interests you about this topic?

I’m acting as the liaison, the coordinator, as we have many famous scholars, writers and authors for this film. It’s about this literary festival in Shanxi province, and we invite many scholars to this village so they can have direct communication with the villagers and with readers. We are focussing on three famous writers — Jia Pingwa, Liang Hong and Yu Hua — who lived in the '50s, '60s and '70s. We are showing through their perspectives the changes happening in China over these past decades. We are thrilled. Literature is something that is neglected — it is not seen as important by many people. I am excited to see Jia is using his talents to showcase these people, and to tell their stories.

Are you exploring any roles for yourself at the moment?

I am very much looking for a role like Qiao in Ash Is Purest White. You have to spend a long time waiting for a good role to play.

What interested you most about that role, and what in particular draw you toward the characters you play?

I’m interested in characters that you do not see very often. For me the story is important and the character is important, but what is more important is that you can see aspects of the time this character lived in, through their development. I have to find resonance with them, and their journey. With Qiao, I was thinking how do you play someone from their 20s, their 40s, but also show the changes that happened also through those decades. How do her changes reflect the changes go on around her?

How much of that character — or any character you play — is written and how much is developed on-set?

After I read the script I write my own story about the character’s life. Like at what age did she enter kindergarten, when was her first romance, what happened to her in her 30s, and when she gets old? Then I add in the details of what happens to her in the script. That way she becomes real to me, with a full life. I imaged Qiao to be very powerful, aggressive, dominating. But I then I saw what was more interesting were her inner feelings as a woman.

After investing so much into a character is it easy to shed that person you have become for purpose of the film?

My behavior doesn’t change, but they have an important impact on my mind and on my spirit. I learn a lot from them. Qiao grows from being a very simple, naive person to someone who is a very powerful woman. I admire her perseverance in the film. I am also very committed to thinking about what kind of films I should make. What kind of film can leave some kind of treasure for people afterward. So with her we are both very persistent — her to her world and me to the world of film.

Does your working relationship with the director ever spill into your life away from film?

Jia doesn’t have very clear boundaries between work and family life, but I do. When I am at home I don’t talk about work. If we fight at the workplace I just want to have peace at home. That’s what I treasure as a woman. He has his own way of working and I will always give him my full support. As an actress I may have some differences of opinion and I will share my ideas with him. We will talk and we will communicate. I will give him all my support no matter what decisions he makes.

Do you think you have helped make the female characters in his films stronger over the years?

A little, but I think I have grown over the years and I have acted in a lot of his films since Platform. I have gone through a lot of changes. In my 20s, I tried very hard to play the role. In my 40s I am trying very hard to live the roles I play. So I am changing. Maybe my change is having an impact on his female roles. They are intertwined. There is a mutual impact on the characters, I think.

Reports suggest elements of the film The Eight Hundred were deemed sensitive and withdraw from the SIFF lineup on opening night. How do you deal with sensitive or social issues in your films?

In China now there are fast changes happening every day. There are social issues, conflicts, problems. When people in the film industry make decisions like which characters or which topics they choose, I believe their starting point is their love for their people and their country. I think that is the right direction. In terms of the details, maybe there might be some details that are not so suitable to choose. It’s just like when you hand your homework to your teacher, your teacher will give you some feedback and you need to correct some mistakes or errors. I think that is the same thing. Our common goal is to make the work better. An almost ideal, or perfect work.