China’s first major superstar reveals how her most difficult projects always seem to have a fairy tale ending.
Vicki Zhao, China’s answer to the combined star power of Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow, shot to fame in her first major role in 1998 and hasn’t left the stratosphere since. Taste of Life caught up with the actress, singer, director, philanthropist, and mother to find out how two of her most trying roles — in front of the camera and behind it — made history, and why today she looks for art forms outside the entertainment business in France and Switzerland to feed her creative, entrepreneurial spirit.
In her second year at the Beijing Film Academy, Zhao was cast as the innocent but cheeky character “Little Swallow” in My Little Princess, a new TV drama series about palace life in the 18th-century Qing dynasty. But it wasn’t all fun and games.
Zhao recalls the brutal 18 to 20-hour days on set, shooting day and night, severely nauseated from over-exhaustion. But she never complained and says her naiveté was a valuable asset since she simply assumed that was the life of an actress.
But the hardship paid off when Zhao’s beautiful big eyes and playful spirit won the hearts of the nation, shooting her up to stardom unlike any actress before in China. In 1999, she was the youngest actress to receive the Golden Eagle Award (China’s Emmy) and My Little Princess became the most successful TV show in China’s history.
From her debut as Little Swallow to the mid 2000s, Zhao’s career in entertainment was a rollercoaster. First she became a pop star, selling millions of albums, then a string of films failed financially, and the press labelled her the “Bane of the Box Office.” But she didn’t give up and in 2006, bounced back, winning three prestigious awards for her role in A Time to Love.
A new perspective
By 2009, she needed a break from the bright lights and red carpets and returned to her alma mater, the Beijing Film Academy, for a master’s degree in directing. It was a time for her to focus on the joy of learning. However, she was soon taught that being behind the camera — and in front of a production — was no cakewalk either.
Though her confidence was shaky as a director, in typical larger-than-life Vicki Zhao fashion, she decided to make her senior thesis on a scale others wouldn’t even dream of. Her film, So Young, was based on the best-selling novel “To Our Youth that is Fading Away” and her own college experiences.
Zhao wanted the award-winning author Qiang Li to pen the screenplay, but he was known for art house dramas, and the financiers didn’t think he could write a blockbuster success. When the financiers ignored Zhao’s wish and handed her the shooting script, she chucked it in the trash without reading a single page. They agreed Li would write the script.
Before she started shooting, Zhao realized the budget that had been raised would be insufficient, but the financiers wouldn’t give another penny. She began shooting anyway. Sure enough, with the difficulty in finding authentic locations that looked like dorms from the ’90s, a budget that was supposed to stretch 60 days lasted only 20. With no way to stop now, Zhao bankrolled the rest herself.
The final act of her directing drama came during post-production, when she received harsh feedback for her rough cut. She stormed into the financiers’ office and demanded reimbursement for the money she’d spent, because she wouldn’t waste more of her own money on a film made their way. They agreed to reimburse her if the film reached a certain level at the box office: US$24.5 million, a hefty benchmark for a first time director. She said OK.
So Young was a huge hit at the box office and became one of the highest-grossing films in China’s cinema history, bringing in over US$115 million. In its opening weekend alone, Zhao became the first female director whose debut film grossed over 100 million yuan (US$16.1 million).
The film wasn’t just a financial success. Zhao solidified herself as a top-tier director, earning honours from the two most prestigious award ceremonies in China: “Best Director” at the Hundred Flowers Awards (China’s Golden Globes) and “Best Directorial Debut” at the Golden Rooster Awards.
Her next adventures
While Zhao’s craft as an actress, singer and director have permanently etched themselves into China’s pop culture history books, her love of other forms of craftsmanship took her to Europe for her next adventures. As a wine aficionado, she bought a French chateau in 2011 near Bordeaux. Then, last year, she visited Jaeger-LeCoultre in Switzerland to help design the personalized high jewelry 101 watch, whose diamonds, rubies and slender grace sparkle almost as much as the celebrity herself.
When asked what was next on her plate, she said more films. Considering she just finished acting in the action-comedy-drama Hollywood Adventures, which was the largest budget Chinese film to be shot in Southern California (US$30 million), it seems that achieving excellence and breaking more records is most likely what will be in store for this darling from the East.