Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Babylon, a new movie that has just hit theatres worldwide. The release is a lavish, colourful depiction of Hollywood in the 1920s and follows a bunch of characters dreaming of fame, success and everything around it. The cast is star-studded, to say the least. Actors that are gracing our screen in the Damien Chazelle-directed Babylon include Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Tobey Maguire – and Li Jun Li, also known as LiLi. The actress was pretty much destined to become a movie star.
After moving from Shanghai to Bogota, then relocating and settling down in NYC, LiLi enrolled in Chinese Classical Dance Studies where she found her passion for being on stage. Studies at the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts and State University of New York at Purchase’s Acting Conservatory followed, all while she was slowly but surely making a name for herself in the acting scene. Fast forward, and she has starred in a vast variety of TV series and films, such as Sky Italia’s Devils or the Netflix Original Series Wu Assassins and Modern Persuasion, to name but a few. Or, if you are a fan of theatre, you may even remember her from the renowned hit productions South Pacific and Miss Saigon.
Now on our big screens, she is portraying Lady Fay Zhu – an intriguing character that is loosely based on Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star in Hollywood. Schön! has a candid conversation with the hugely gifted actress about all things Babylon, the challenges she faces being an Asian American actress, and how her studies in Chinese Classical Dance have contributed to her acting career.
Let’s jump straight in – Babylon has hit our cinemas now and you are playing Lady Fay Zhu in it. Can you tell me a little bit about your character and what she is all about?
Yes, Lady Fay was written by Damien Chazelle inspired by Anna May Wong, who was the first Asian-American actress in Hollywood, from I think 100 years ago. Basically, she was the only actress of Asian descent at the time. She suffered a lot of hardships and discrimination and struggles, but basically, the role was very much based on her. Almost to a parallel, because except Lady Fay being actually a title card writer, everything else is pretty much similar to the original inspiration. The movie itself is about the transition from silent films into the talkies, and it is the story of these six core characters and how they all navigate through the progression of cinema at that time.
That sounds incredibly interesting. I’m very excited to watch it myself! Considering the role is based on Anna May Wong, what kind of research did you do to prepare yourself for the role?
Basically, when the first email of this project was presented to me, the role was indeed Anna May Wong. I just thought I would be portraying Anna May Wong. I saw that opportunity and I saw the same email containing the name Damien Chazelle. I had to have it because I loved Damien Chazelle’s work and also for him to have a movie about Old Hollywood, let alone about one of the most important Asian American figures. I deep-dived into the research straight ahead and I watched a lot, if not all of the Anna May Wong films back then. I read her biography, which I was very lucky to have because there are not a lot of biographies out there of all the actors. After I flew to LA and I met with him for a 90-minute work session, it was the most thorough, most educational and satisfying, fulfilling meeting I could have had with someone I admire. I left that room and I said to myself that even if I don’t get this role, I’m at peace with it because I gave it my all. Then, a week later, I got it — he emailed me and said that the role was actually a fictional role named Lady Fay that was very much mostly based on Anna May Wong.
It sounds like it was all meant to be! How long did the casting process take overall?
I was one of the first ones to be cast. I initially sent one tape in December 2019 and then I sent him another tape with his notes in I think in January 2020. I flew to LA in February 2020, and I was cast. I thought that we would start production in March, but that was not the case because COVID hit and all of us waited 18 months before we got to do it. I put my life on hold for it.
Luckily it all worked out in the end, and now it’s finally here! What was your favourite scene to shoot in the film?
It’s her opening scene. It’s when she’s first introduced. My character does a musical performance and it’s not, you know, like a big razzle-dazzle musical performance as you would expect from La La Land. It’s very much just a little cabaret number. The reason why is because the song itself is incredible and you’ll see why when you see the film. Very naughty. Since I started out as a dancer and I also started singing before acting, it was very special for me to be able to tap into all of the three things that I had spent my life studying, especially because I started in musical theatre.
It’s amazing how things can fall into place and create a full-circle moment.
Yeah, it’s great because then you think, okay, I did not waste all of my time learning all these skills. It’s a nice little sweet, sweet completion of that circle.
So what was it like acting alongside the likes of Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie?
It was incredible. I think I’m very lucky because they’re both such, aside from their talent, kind and genuine people. They’re just so down to earth and humble and funny and fun to work with on set. They have not once made me feel uncomfortable or intimidated. Everyone’s incredibly professional, and then you have Brad, who’s a goofball. I’ve said this in other interviews, but you just cracked so many jokes on set. [laughs] So, yes, I’ve been very lucky it wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I initially thought it was going to be. I mean, there were definitely moments where I was kind of having an out-of-body experience happening. I’m glad it all worked out.
Your filmography is quite impressive already as well, from starring in Sex/Life for Netflix, Evil for CBS or Why Women Kill for CBS All Access, among many others, your journey so far has only gone uphill. Looking back now, what have you felt were the main challenges to getting to where you’re now in your career?
Sadly, being Asian American has in itself presented a lot of obstacles. I do have to say, though, I’m very lucky that I live in the years when Hollywood is making this kind of progression at this stage. I started over 10 years ago and there were barely any roles for me. When there was an opportunity for an Asian American actress to play someone who is not stereotypically good, you know, the brainy nerd or the exotic person, you just have to jump on it. I’m so glad that we’re finally making progress. At the same time, I think if we didn’t have that issue, I could have started off with a much bigger resume earlier.
I was literally just watching a video on TikTok about this very same topic. It’s great that there are finally changes happening when it comes to not putting Asian actors in a box. Over the past years, did you personally notice a shift where you’ve been invited to more castings that didn’t portray that sort of nerdy character?
Yes, 100% because in the beginning, I was only seen if an Asian character came about. Of course, the way they’re written is very much limited. They had their idea of what an Asian character was like. But as of maybe five to seven years ago, I feel like I’m being seen. Whether or not I end up getting it is a different story, but at least we’re making a little bit of a difference from a while back. But yeah, I mean, this year we had all the nominations. I’m just so ecstatic that you have Dolly De Leon from Triangle of Sadness, you have Michelle Yeo and Stephanie Hsu. And also Ke Huy Quan, from Everything Everywhere All At Once. I’m so happy for them, and I’m so emotional about it too because, at the Golden Globes, Michelle Yeo’s speech moved me to tears.
Everything Everywhere All At Once was such a great film with brilliant actors indeed, I’m so glad it got the recognition it deserved. Earlier you mentioned that you started your journey by studying Chinese classical dance. Dancing in general I imagine must require so much discipline, so I was wondering if those studies have prepared you well for your career in a way?
That’s a really good question. I always think that learning how to dance at a young age has taught me so much discipline. Not only just in the nature of being in a classroom where the structure of the art is so rigid but it’s also given me the body’s physical awareness as well, as sometimes I see people and their coordination. It sounds so mean, but I don’t think I would have had such good coordination without dance training. I think that helps so much in life. It also gives you great posture.
After having started in theatre productions like Miss Saigon and now starring in films and series, what do you find to be the main difference in terms of your acting approach between being on Broadway and being on set for a film? Do you have a different mindset when you approach one or the other?
Yes, to do theatre, and the creation of theatre, you have much more time to discover and find the best moments before you premiere the musical or the play. So you get to play and then also you have this spontaneity of a healthy audience, and the audience’s reaction every night and how that affects your performance. Basically, every day is almost a bit of a new organic opportunity for you to find something new. Then, obviously, the size of the physicality of your acting in theatre is very much different than on film. When I was in acting school, my constant note was that LiLi is too small for theatre. She is fitter for film and television and I have no problem with that because I love being on film and television because that is more my style of acting. However, I will take on a musical opportunity or a play as it is given to me and I can adjust. Broadway is tiring though if you do 8 shows a week! [laughs]
I bet. So what do you do to unwind after long days of filming and do you find it easy to relax?
Do I find it easy? Probably not, I’m like who is unable to unwind these days? [laughs] Everyone has anxiety. Everyone is depressed at some level. I cannot say that it’s easy for me. I just think about my performance. I will be able to analyze what could have been done. What should have been done? There are also times when I tell myself, it’s been done. We got to let it go. I can do that sometimes. I’m often asked about my secrets and how it’s to maintain mental health. But I don’t have any secrets. We’re kind of just riding the wave, just see where it takes us, right? One day at a time.
Haha, we can all relate! On to more fun things, I was wondering if there is a certain type of character that you haven’t yet portrayed, but would love to in the future?
I think I’ve got a little taste and snippets of it in the other characters that I’ve played, including this one in Babylon. I’d love to get into a Femme Fatale. I’ve played a little bit of a heroine, martial arts thing for a show I did for Netflix a few years ago. I’d like to dive into it deeper and just be able to maybe be like a Charlize Theron vibe.
That would be incredible, let’s manifest that, haha! I also just have to ask you as well – what is your favourite film?
My favourite film of all time? I think there are just far too many to just boil it down to one, but I always do say this one because we are talking about Babylon: In the Mood For Love by Wong Kar-Wai. It’s definitely one of the tops on my list. Shat made it even more exciting was when I was cast as Lady Fay, Damien emailed me his vision board and it was screen stills from the movie. Also, you’ll see in the film a little nod to that film as well.
Wow, what a beautiful coincidence! So what is next for you after Babylon?
I am doing a comedy TV series, I’m recurring on a TV series based on a true story. It’s by the showrunner of The Boys on Amazon. So it’s a nice little twist on a serial killer, so I’m excited to do something completely opposite of my character. I love keeping everything contrasting and different to keep myself on my toes. I’m looking forward to working on that project.
Babylon is out in theatres across the UK now.