‘Babylon’s’ Li Jun Li on Anna May Wong and Representation in Hollywood Then and Now

In “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s film about silent-era Hollywood stars who burned as brightly as they, sadly, did briefly, Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu, a singer, dancer, actor and sometime title card writer whose ability to make an entrance — even in the midst of the most decadent bacchanal you’ve ever seen — enables her to steal scenes from co-stars like Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Inspired by the real life and career of Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, Li worked closely with writer-director Chazelle to pay tribute to the Hollywood trailblazer while ensuring that she blazes a trail of her own; after watching her suck venom from the neck of Robbie’s unconscious Nellie LaRoy, you’ll never think of a snakebite the same way again.

Your character is inspired by the career and life of Anna May Wong. What about her life principally informed your performance?She was unable to play leading ladies simply because there were laws that prohibited interracial kissing on screen, and she was famously rejected for the role of the Asian female lead in “The Good Earth” because the male lead was Caucasian, and they gave the role to a Caucasian actress where they painted her makeup like yellowface. It was important that we were able not only to tell that pain, but hopefully, people who watched it were able to empathize.

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How much latitude did you have to inject your own ideas into bringing this character to life? Damien is so collaborative and so receptive of what you have to say. In the scene between Lady Fay and her parents, he wrote that scene in Mandarin, and we ended up performing it in Shanghainese because I’m Shanghainese and CiCi Lau, who played my mother, also happened to speak Shanghainese. We talked about behavior amongst Chinese culture, how my name should be written, how it translated into Chinese, everything.

There’s a point where Fay asks if Nellie is straight. Was there room to play with a bit more contemporary openness?Definitely. When she asks that question, “does Nellie swing both ways,” I think that’s a little bit more in the comfort of her own circle. However, I do think that she’s been through so much that she just doesn’t care — and she might as well go after what she wants. My choice to let her just fearlessly be who she was, was based on just how little she had to lose.

How difficult to master were your character’s dance performances? Mandy Moore, who choreographed “La La Land,” was so genius in how she came up with the moves. It was just so titillating. But the tango number between Margot and I, [Damien] actually extended because he wanted to capture Margot’s and my face rotating in circles as our attraction grows.

For the scene where Fay sucks venom out of Nellie’s neck, what was the venom made of? The venom was sitting inside a prosthetic that was attached to Margot’s neck, and it was made with honey and a little bit of water. But because she had battled that snake for so long, there was so much sand and grit. And so while the idea of it was really sweet — I’m kissing Margot Robbie, and there’s honey involved — it was really gritty at the same time. I felt bad that I had to suck out of that weird thing on her neck.

Are there lessons as a performer that you take away from the themes of a movie like “Babylon?” Yes, how far you’re willing to go and how much you’re willing to sacrifice for success and fame. I know for myself, I need to ride this wave and enjoy it and hope for the best and I just want to be in here in my career, and I do want to do the best work while I can.

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