Actress Zhou Xun is having a moment

Hollywood has discovered a fresh Chinese face to bank on in the form of Zhou Xun

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2013, 6:56pm

A photo shoot for a calendar proved to be a career-making moment for Zhou Xun. The resulting picture was spotted by mainland director Xie Tieli, who saw big-screen potential in her distinctive looks and impish smile, and tracked her down.

It was an astute piece of talent spotting that led to the offer of a movie part, the first step on a professional path that has seen Zhou, 38, notch up about 30 feature films to date, starting with that 1991 debut Old Grave and leading to her recent Hollywood foray in the genre-hopping Cloud Atlas, also starring Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry and Susan Sarandon.

The film has catapulted Zhou above her two main rivals, Li Bingbing and Fan Bingbing, in the international name-recognition stakes, and ensures Zhang Ziyi has a potential rival as the Chinese actress of choice for high-profile Hollywood roles.

At the same time as Cloud Atlas - directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski of The Matrix fame, and German Tom Tykwer - started to create a major buzz, Zhou was achieving fame in the fashion world. Although far from a classical beauty and, by her own admission, not a slavish follower of fashion, Zhou was selected as a brand ambassador for Chanel, and photographed recently by design guru Karl Lagerfeld for the cover of Vogue China.

She is clearly relishing the chance to walk red carpets and hobnob with superstars. Only one aspect of the experience is proving a daunting task: succinctly explaining the plot, and purpose, of Cloud Atlas, which mixes action, drama and adventure, and hops, in a seemingly random fashion, between continents, centuries and characters.

Many viewers and critics have been baffled by the constant shifting of scenes and the chronological zigzags, while others have hailed it as a visionary work of genius. Zhou plays a man, a woman and a clone - tricky enough for any actor, let alone one working in a second language with Hollywood A-listers.

"It actually was not that difficult to get into character, as each one was human, and the make-up helped a lot. This meant that I could become someone else in no time," says Zhou, who performs impromptu skits to illustrate a point when she struggles for the appropriate English phrase.

"It's a movie about reincarnation, about the human struggle, or evolution, with the help of love and faith," Zhou says.

"When I first read the script, it was very difficult, I needed to find an anchor for the characters. I looked for connections because I believe in the [Buddhist tenet] where your soul continues in different lives and you will meet and re-meet people. I could relate to that. My character Yoona is a clone and she has some kind of awakening and self-consciousness. As I got into filming, it made me more reflective about my own character."

However, filming was not all hard work. "On the set it was great fun watching Hugh Grant and Tom Hanks. It became more personal than professional. Tom is warm and engaging, while Hugh was always playful and cracking English jokes that I could barely understand, but he really made me laugh," she says.

"I was very surprised that these big stars did not have people accompanying them. They came by themselves, with just a backpack, that's all."

Zhou's education in movies began at an early age through her film projectionist father, whose job also involved creating posters for the features playing in his cinema, in Quzhou, Zhejiang province, where Zhou was born in 1974. Zhou's favourites as a youngster were the vibrant Indian song-and-dance movies which were shown occasionally.

That was part of the reason the teenager set her heart on becoming a dancer, signing up for a three-year course at a state school in the lakeside city of Hangzhou.

The training helped instil performance confidence and physical stamina, qualities that proved useful in a film career that has included many significant, even seminal, works. Among her credits are The Emperor and the Assassin (1998), Suzhou River (2000), Beijing Bicycle (2001), Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002), and - one of her favourites - as taxi driver Li Mi in The Equation of Love and Death (2008).

While moving in showbiz circles, Zhou acquired a fashion-stylist boyfriend, who dispensed advice on which clothes looked best on her petite frame. Although they have since split up, the newly chic Zhou now mixes movies with fashion shoots, culminating in the recent assignment with Lagerfeld.

"She is a mix of a young Coco Chanel and Zizi Jeanmaire," says Lagerfeld; the latter is a French ballet dancer-cum-actress. "[Zhou] is multitalented and I like it; a singer, an actress. She is stylish, modern and has a strong personality."

Zhou has no imminent film commitments. When not engaged in film or fashion-related activities, she can be found at rock clubs - Yugong Yishan is a favourite - strolling around Beijing's imperial parks or dining in hotpot restaurants. "I think it is always a great relief when a film is finished and you don't want to do one again immediately," she says.

"When I was young I never prepared for roles, but later I realised how important it is. Right now I am reading a novel that might be adapted for a movie and noting the paragraphs that depict gestures that will stay in my mind if it is made.

"In future, I have to look for roles where I can progress. It is not whether it is an English film or a Chinese film, but studying English does give me more options."

Cloud Atlas opens on Thursday