China's rising star

Jing Tian, female lead of fantasy epic The Great Wall, appears in two upcoming Hollywood blockbusters

Chinese actress Jing Tian attending a red-carpet event in Beijing last month for The Great Wall, in which she stars as the commander of an army troop.
Chinese actress Jing Tian attending a red-carpet event in Beijing last month for The Great Wall, in which she stars as the commander of an army troop.PHOTO: REUTERS
Chinese actress Jing Tian attending a red-carpet event in Beijing last month for The Great Wall, in which she stars as the commander of an army troop (above).
Chinese actress Jing Tian attending a red-carpet event in Beijing last month for The Great Wall, in which she stars as the commander of an army troop (above).PHOTO: UIP


Chinese actress Jing Tian is a star to watch.

The 28-year-old Xi'an native will be making frequent appearances on the silver screen in some of the biggest blockbusters to come.

She is the female lead in Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall. The mega Chinese-Hollywood co-production, which features A-listers Matt Damon and Andy Lau, is showing in cinemas here.

In March, she will appear in Kong: Skull Island, a reboot of the classic King Kong franchise which also stars Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson.

And next year will see her play a key role in Pacific Rim: Uprising, the sequel to 2013 monster movie Pacific Rim, whose cast includes Max Zhang and Star Wars' John Boyega.

It may look like the doe-eyed actress is set on conquering Hollywood, but she says she never planned for things to go this way.

"I never mapped out any kind of career path for myself. All I am looking for are different projects and different roles and it happens that several of my upcoming films are Hollywood movies. I am very grateful for the exposure.

"But for The Great Wall, the main reason for doing the film was just so I could work with Zhang Yimou," she says in Mandarin of the acclaimed Chinese director of films such as Red Sorghum (1987) and Hero (2002).

She is speaking to The Straits Times at a one-on-one interview in Beijing, where she is promoting The Great Wall.

The fantasy flick spins a new myth about the origins of the Great Wall of China - that it was built to keep out flesh-eating monsters known as taotie.

As the Chinese army fights to protect the wall from an imminent attack by the monsters, it also has to deal with the sudden arrival of two European mercenaries (played by Damon and Pedro Pascal).

In the film, Jing plays Lin Mei, the powerful commander of the Crane Troop, and she is fluent in both English and Mandarin in the dual-language film.

To prepare herself for the role, she spent close to a year living in the United States to learn English and also undertook extensive martial arts training.

The Beijing Dance Academy graduate is no stranger to physically intense roles. She starred in action films such as Special ID (2013) alongside Donnie Yen and Police Story 2013 with Jackie Chan.

Does she hope to be the next big action star?

The actress, who is single, dismisses the thought.

"I hope I don't get typecast as an action star because it's too tough," she says with a laugh.

"I had so much fun doing the stunts for The Great Wall, but sometimes, you just want to take a break from all of that. Directors, please offer me more dramatic roles in the future."

1 In The Great Wall, you are the only actress among a bevy of hot male stars from Asia and Hollywood. What was that like?

I felt so fortunate. Matt Damon and Andy Lau were so nice to me and they are both family men, so I felt a sense of warmth talking to them. Andy would show me pictures of his daughter, which was really sweet.

2 Director Zhang Yimou required the actress who accepts your role to spend a year training for it. Were you worried that the commitment would prevent you from getting offers for other roles in the meantime?

I didn't think too much. In my acting career, I have never had a chance to get into a role this thoroughly before, so I found it to be a valuable learning experience.

I think it's important to always give your best in everything you do. Otherwise, you might as well not do it at all.

3 Director Zhang is known to be exacting. How strict was he with you on set?

He was very strict. He is very precise about how he wants the scene to play out, whether it's an action sequence or the way the dialogue is, which pushed me to work harder. If I didn't feel I was ready for the day, I would not feel confident doing the scene in front of him, so I made sure to work really hard.

4 You are a Beijing Dance Academy graduate. Did your dance background help you with your gongfu training for the role?

Definitely, but the gongfu training was still very tough. I haven't danced in more than 10 years, so to go back to doing all those intense stretches and workouts wasn't easy. There is a stunt where I have to do a lot of flips in the air - that made me so dizzy.

5 You reportedly gained 9kg for the role. Why was that necessary?

The producers said I looked too petite to be a fierce commander of an army troop, so I had to gain some bulk to appear more convincing. The nice thing was that I could eat whatever I wanted. But after the training was over, it was really difficult for me to diet and lose the weight.

6 Internet trolls have made mean comments about how you snagged, in quick succession, major roles in blockbuster movies. How do you view this?

In the beginning, I was upset. My friends were worried for me and kept telling me to come out and say something to defend myself. But I've come to realise that's unnecessary.

The people who believe in you don't need to hear any explanations, while those who don't believe in you won't believe any of your explanations.

The only things I can control are to work hard and act well. Everything else that I cannot control, I will try not to think too much about.

7 What is more important to you - being a movie star or an actress?

Definitely being an actress. I enjoy performing and that's all I want to do.

I know that doing things such as promoting your movies and attending events to schmooze with other people are necessary for any performer and I'll do them because that's part of the job. But if I could, I would just perform and stay out of the limelight.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

Career-wise, I hope people can remember me for some of my roles. Personally, I hope people will remember me as someone with a sense of responsibility and purpose in every aspect of my life.

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

•The Great Wall is showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2017, with the headline 'China's rising star'. Subscribe