The daughter of action queen Cheng Pei Pei, Eugenia Yuan made it clear from the very beginning of her film career that she was to fly with her own wings. Once a rhythmic gymnast for the U.S. Olympic Team, her debut performance on the big screen, in Peter Chan’s Three: Going Home, got her both a nomination for Best Supporting Actress and a win for Best New Performer at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Since then her filmography has been both international and free of genre pigeonholing, and she has shown a remarkable versatility as a performer. Recently her turn as a venomous blind enchantress was one of the best things about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, and she was kind enough to answer our questions.
Despite your lineage – as the daughter of the legendary Cheng Pei Pei – and your background in Olympic gymnastics, you favored purely dramatic roles from the start of your career.
I was interested in choosing roles that allowed me to express all of the emotions I had built up inside. I had an outlet in playing dramatic roles, though I also had an amazing experience shooting the dark comedy Mail Order Wife, which is still to this date one of my favorite films. Having my mom as ‘The Queen of Martial Arts’, I knew I wanted to attempt to steer my career towards a different route. Her abilities and talent are so amazing and still to this day her career thrives, maybe even more so. I’m so proud of my mother and her career. I also know I’m a different person with my own life experiences and my own way of telling them. I’m grateful that she supports me fully. We have equal respect for each another especially knowing how difficult this business is.
3 Extremes II got you your first acclaim, with a HK Film Award for best new performer (as well as a nomination for best supporting actress). How was working with Peter Chan and Leon Lai?
Three Extremes, or Three: Going Home as it is called in Asia, was my other favorite experience. I had loved – and still to this day it’s my favorite Chinese movie – Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story. It starred Leon Lai with Maggie Cheung and Eric Tsang and was shot by Christopher Doyle who also shot Three. Basically I felt like I had won the lottery and was the luckiest person on earth. Peter is still my favorite director and I dream of the chance to get to work with him again. Everything of his makes me cry, touches my heart deeply, and somehow I can relate to it no matter the story. Leon Lai was so kind and generous considering I was new and basically had never done anything besides Charlotte Sometimes till then. He was kind and giving and I am so grateful for that. Eric Tsang is an amazing actor and human being. He brought lightness even when things were dark and emotionally challenging. I needn’t mention the genius of Christopher Doyle. He made the film – all of us – look gorgeous in such a sad, touching love story. I truly feel it’s still been hard to top that experience. And it was my first film there. I will always feel so lucky and grateful for that and Peter believing in me.
The following year you again earned acclaim with your performance in The Eye 2. Despite this warm welcome in Hong Kong you have always kept your career international.
I think the fact that I can work in different countries is a plus for me. Each film is different. It’s not dependent on whether it’s just shot in China or here. Sure, I love when I get to travel to cool places to shoot, but really all I’m doing is focusing on my shoot, my role, and I barely do anything outside of that. I’ve been fortunate enough to now have gotten to work in New Zealand, Australia, Romania, Asia, London. I hope that I get to work more in Europe. I love European films and I think they are open to using Asian actors playing just people not specifically an Asian story. I like that because we are all human and experience the same things in life, good, bad. We can all relate to the same stories for the most part. We all share the truth of wanting love. To love and to be loved.
You mentioned Mail Order Wife as one of your favorite film experiences. How was the experience of shooting and releasing a controversial mockumentary, and is comedy something you would want to do again?
That experience of shooting Mail Order Wife was as I said one of my most fun and favorite shoots ever. It was a small crew and everyone just laughed all day long. I had never gotten to do comedy and always wanted to do especially dark comedy. The directors, Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko are geniuses. Way ahead of their time. I will forever be grateful for them giving me those happy times that I still think about and honestly laugh out loud. Everything like the film festivals, the awards, all of it was great because we were such a happy group. And so many of my jobs afterwards were given to me because they had seen me in that movie. And of course I would love love love to do more comedy and dark comedies. Adam McKay is someone whose work is smart, intelligent, hilarious and he’s a great person on top of all of that. To work with him would be a dream.
What are your memories of shooting Memoirs of a Geisha?
My favorite memory of working on Memoirs of a Geisha is shooting with Gong Li, as she has been my idol growing up. She was so kind to me. So generous. It’s not always that you get that lucky. I still look up to her. She’s a presence. She need not speak. You can read a million stories and lifetimes on that face, in those eyes.
Revenge of the Green Dragons kind of bridged two sides of your career, as you worked with two major directors from two different film industries: Martin Scorsese and Andrew Lau. How was it?
Well I didn’t really get to work with Martin Scorsese but I did work with the awesome Andrew Lau who actually makes some of my favorite love stories. His action films are what he’s known for but I hope one day he gives me a role in his heart-wrenching love stories. I felt very respected by him. He had seen my work with Peter Chan as they are colleagues and it was weird and nice to get that sort of feeling like I was actually the leader Snakehead Mama of this clan of guys who were the gang members. All of them worked so hard and became true brothers and we all had a great time.
This month you appear as the Blind Enchantress in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny. Can you tell us about your character, and the experience of shooting the film?
Well my character is maybe a bit evil but perhaps a sad past and her life caused her to have to be this way. She’s blind yet “sees” things and tries to manipulate Hades Dai [Editor’s Note: the villain played by Jason Scott Lee] into doing what she wants him to do. I loved playing her, working with Master Yuen Woo Ping, working with the amazing people and crew of New Zealand. That was a great experience. I hope that I do my mom justice in this role, especially as it’s a sequel to the incredible original where she was so kick-ass as Jade Fox.
Looking back on your career so far, which role or film has been the most difficult, and which one are you proudest of?
I don’t think I’ve had my most difficult role yet. Every role has its challenges but I haven’t been broken apart yet. Maybe the closest was doing Three: Going Home. The director Peter Chan told press that he saw me die a bit more every day as I played that corpse and I didn’t even realize it. I was just alone and felt like I was in some middle place somewhere or underwater. Then that final scene was difficult because the Chinese was new to me in that they’re not ordinary words I use in daily talk. So I needed to know their meaning, that entire monologue, when I could take breaks with words, with breathing, with feeling everything I was saying. I cry still every time I see it or think about it. I had the best time on that movie and Mail Order Wife and am proudest of those two. So far.
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I shot an Australian TV series called Secret City opposite the incredible Jackie Weaver, Dan Wyllie and Anna Torv. It’s for FOXTEL, Matchbox pictures and the Australian Broadcasting Company and everyone was so very kind. The director Emma Freeman was so fun and funny and so on. I felt so lucky to get dressed in the fanciest, nicest outfits I’ve ever gotten to wear. Your wardrobe really helps create your character, the way you walk wearing those clothes, those shoes. That and your hair and make up. I loved playing my character Weng and I hope I get to work on more projects with them. I also am developing projects for myself with a few different producers. Projects written specifically for me because that’s the only way I’m going to get to play the roles I want. And I intend to make sure that happens.
Many thanks to Eugenia Yuan for taking the time to answer our questions.
You can follow her on Instagram here.