For an epic that details the early era of silent films, Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” makes a lot of noise.
Golden showers rain over buffets of cocaine as the sounds of trumpeting (both the jazz and elephant kind) set the stage for the Oscar-winning director’s latest buzzworthy film. Chazelle takes us all the way back to the 1920s to explore the depraved and hedonistic culture surrounding the early American film industry that has since come to be known around the world as Hollywood.
The film features an ensemble cast led by Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Diego Calva, along with Jovan Adepo, Jean Smart and Li Jun Li, each portraying fictionalized characters that represent the industry’s most recognizable faces at the time.
The role of Lady Fay Zhu, based on the real-life Hollywood icon from the era Anna May Wong, was one that Li couldn’t dare pass up. The actor makes a striking appearance in the film, captivating viewers with her opening performance to a song titled “My Girl’s P*ssy.”
“All I saw were the names Anna May Wong and Damien Chazelle in one email, and I think I reread that email a few times, just to make sure I had it right. And then I just laser focused,” Li said to NextShark over a video call.
That was before Chazelle switched the character into Lady Fay, a fictionalized version of Wong, a week after Li was cast – a point that Li says provided some relief in the pressure of taking on the role.
“So of course, initially, I was a little bit sad, because to be given the opportunity to portray someone so iconic was long overdue, in my opinion. But there was a sense of relief, because I did feel like there was immense pressure to get it accurately. I didn’t know if being in a huge ensemble piece, we could do her justice at the same time. So with that said, we still found that it was beneficial because it gave us more creative freedom,” she says.
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The story they ended up telling was “a pretty close adaptation of who she was,” says Li, who quickly dove into research on Wong to secure the role.
“Anna May Wong acted and danced in her films,” Li notes, citing Chazelle’s point that actors of the era took on multiple professions. Likewise, with Lady Fay, “she’s a title card writer who is extremely clever and witty, and she also performed on the side.”
Hollywood’s dark history – one of systemic abuse that blatantly allowed, if not encouraged, discrimination towards actors of color – was also touched on in the film, as Li points out the way her character was “very much marginalized her entire career.”
The same goes for Wong: “Anna May Wong was someone who was always playing a villain who was killed in every film; she was not allowed to play the female lead because it was illegal for interracial kissing on screen. And she was famously rejected from playing the Chinese female lead and the girl because the male lead was Caucasian,” Li says.
Asian American communities have long been demanding Hollywood for representation, and accusations of whitewashing characters or limiting Asian actors to stereotypical roles are not a thing of the past. In terms of how the industry has evolved since its origins, Li says the primary difference she was able to sense while stepping into Lady Fay’s shoes was through strength in numbers.
“There are more of us, and we can confide in each other, and we can work together to make a lot of noise together for inclusivity and representation. Whereas Anna May Wong or Lady Fay was by herself 100 years ago — they were just on their own and they had to hold their own.”
“I think there’s been a lot of progress in this conversation,” Li continues. “Unfortunately, not starting 100 years ago, but I feel like the most change has been made in the last five years… It was maybe the last five years, maybe a little longer, maybe six or seven, where people are actually more conscious about hiring everyone, but then you also don’t want it to swing too hard in a way that people are constantly casting because they’re trying to check off the diversity box either because you want people to be cast accordingly. For roles that they’re right for, not necessarily because this one show needed one Asian to fill the diversity box.”
Li’s optimism towards these changes, however, appears to contrast her very own mother’s initial outward reaction to Li’s latest performance.
The actor previously revealed the way her parents, like many of those in immigrant families, had initially hoped for Li to pursue the more conventional career paths in medicine or law before coming to terms with her acting.
“You know, she’s never told me to my face what she felt about [the movie]. Because when I asked her, she’s like, ‘It’s OK,” Li says, laughing at the way it’s “the best I’ll ever get out of my mom.”
“But one of my best friends saw this screening with her, and she looked over and she did see my mom’s smile. So I think I’m in the clear.”
Grace Kim is a New York-based Entertainment Contributor for NextShark
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