Ziyi Zhang in <EM>Memoirs of a Geisha</EM> Ziyi Zhang in Memoirs of a Geisha

The cultural conundrums of bringing Arthur Golden's popular novel Memoirs of a Geisha to the big screen could make your head spin: The story of Japanese women carrying out an age-old tradition in the 1930s is written by an American, directed by an American, told in English, and stars Chinese and Malaysian actresses. But director Rob Marshall (Chicago) said his priority was to find the right people to tell the story of Sayuri regardless of nationality. That's why his long search for her portrayer took him to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Beijing native Ziyi Zhang.

"I had to find a great star who could carry a film — a great actor, a beauty, a great dancer, who could age from 15 to 35," Marshall explains. "It was a huge bill to fill.... I think someone like Ziyi comes along once in a generation."

The challenge of playing a Japanese icon of beauty was only one of many Zhang faced. "When I first heard I got this role, I was happily surprised, but at the same time I felt this tremendous pressure," she admits. "First, [it's in] English. Also, I knew that the book is very popular and people would want to compare the movie to the book. And they went through a very long casting process. At the end they picked me to act as Sayuri, and I just thought, 'Oh my god, I have to live up to their expectations!'"

Though she appeared in Rush Hour 2, this is Zhang's first role with substantial English dialogue. Before she even started, a friend in the industry warned her it was "impossible" to act in a second language because you can't deeply understand the character. That, however, only made her more determined to succeed. "What he said to me has always stuck in my mind and pushed me to work extra hard to get into my character," she says.

It may have helped that struggling along with Zhang was her idol, Chinese star Gong Li (Farewell My Concubine), who plays Sayuri's rival, Hatsumomo. "Since I was a teenager, I've watched Gong Li's movies and have loved her," raves Zhang, who may have gotten a closer encounter than she bargained for. "In one scene, [Gong Li] slaps me. Before we filmed it, she asked, 'Is it OK if I really slap you?' and I said, 'Yeah, make it real.' I didn't know she'd really listen to me! She whacked me so hard. After I got home and took off my makeup, I could still see the handprint."

At least one part of transforming herself into a geisha came to Zhang naturally: As a young girl, she trained to be a dancer. That background came in handy both in mimicking a geisha's stylized movements and in learning the film's memorable dance scene, which she performs in extremely high platform slippers. "The first time I saw those 12-inch shoes in the rehearsal room, I thought, 'Those are props!'" she laughs. "I couldn't even stand in them. When we were shooting the scene, Steven Spielberg [the movie's producer] was there. He said, 'That was great, but how did you get up on those shoes?' I said, 'If you tried for two months to rehearse that, you could get it, too!'"

Now that would be an interesting cultural exchange.