Six years after her debut in Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home (1999), Ziyi Zhang has made an international name for herself thanks to her high-flying, sword-wielding performances in films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002), and House of Flying Daggers. Collectively these films helped to raise the worldwide prominence of the martial-arts genre, not to mention the actress’s own profile. But as Zhang’s dramatic, scene-stealing turn in Wong Kar Wai’s recent 2046 suggests, or as her much-anticipated performance in the forthcoming Memoirs of a Geisha seems likely to confirm, the actress has more in her arsenal than just physical grace and lightning quick moves. Here she goes head-to-head with someone who knows a thing or two about delivering an emotional wallop onscreen–actress Natalie Portman.

Natalie Portman: I understand you’re learning English.

Ziyi Zhang: Yeah, I go to school for five hours a day. When I was in college in China we learned English, but it was just what the kids learn–we didn’t really know how to speak.

NP: Do you have a favorite word?

ZZ: The swear words! [both laugh] Today in class I said something like, “What the hell?!” and the teacher said, “Oh, you’re really getting into it!” And we have this class called … e-e-idim?

NP: Oh, idioms!

ZZ: Yeah, idioms–I love to learn those, but it’s hard to figure them out.

NP: Do you have a favorite idiom?

ZZ: “Drive me on the wall” [both laugh]–learning English is driving me on the wall!

NP: That’s great. So tell me, if I were to go to China, where should I go?

ZZ: You have to go to Beijing. There are so many good things to see, like the Imperial Palace, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace where the famous empress lived. China is developing and changing very fast–I can go home to Beijing after being gone for two months and not know the roads anymore.

NP: How has life changed there?

ZZ: I think the big political picture is better than it was 10 years ago. Also, people have more money, so they can see movies or buy things.

NP: I read that most people in China watch movies at home more than in the theater.

ZZ: I think people are getting more used to going to movie theaters, but the big market in China is TV. People love to stay home–they’re couch tomatoes.

NP: Couch potatoes! [both laugh] And you’ve never done TV there?

ZZ: No. I don’t know why. I enjoy TV. But I only do one movie a year. There are not many good scripts, and I just try to pick the right one and do challenging things I’ve never done before.

NP: What kind of projects do you prefer?

ZZ: I love tragedy–I love drama and serious stories. I don’t like action so much, even though I’ve done a lot. [laughs]

NP: When I was in school I took a class with Cornel West, who’s this amazing African-American Studies professor, and he would say that in America there’s this sort of racism against Asians where they say, “Oh, you know, they all look alike.” He believed the reason is that Americans don’t take enough time to look. Yet that’s actually proved beneficial because you can play someone who’s Japanese, as you do in Memoirs of a Geisha.

ZZ: But I know the difference, and because I do I have to get the details from the different cultures right. Regardless of whether you’re Chinese or Japanese or whatever, when you’re playing Japanese, especially a geisha, because they have so many rules in that world and it’s so mysterious, you have to learn the proper etiquette, like exactly how to sit.

NP: So, what did you do to prepare?

ZZ: We had very intense training for two months, and we rehearsed every single scene before we started shooting. I have a solo dance performance in the movie, so I had to learn a special dance called the “Winter Dance.” It’s like a little theater within the theater. It’s quite dramatic. I had to dance in like 12-inch platform shoes. The first time I saw the shoes I thought maybe they were a prop. And then they told me, “You have to dance in them.” I said, “No way!” [Portman laughs] But I got used to it.

NP: I understand you started studying dance when you were 11. What kinds of dance did you study?

ZZ: Folk dances. [In China] we have 56 different minorities, and each group has its own dances, music, and instruments, so I studied those.

NP: And why did you choose dance?

ZZ: I don’t know. [both laugh] I was young, my teacher took me to the dance school, and I passed the exam. I didn’t know what that meant, but I remember my parents were ecstatic and had a big party and invited my teacher. I didn’t know it meant I would become a professional dancer–all I knew was I couldn’t live with my parents anymore because it was a boarding school. It helped me become very independent, and to learn discipline because of all the physical training. So now when I’m working and feel tired, I can still keep going.

NP: You’ve obviously worked hard your whole life. How do you relax?

ZZ: I love to go to see movies. I love to stay home and just clean my room. [Portman giggles]

NP: Can you walk down the street when you’re home without being mobbed?

ZZ: I still love to go to the supermarket with my mom, but I’ve had to tell her, “Please, when we go out don’t shout my name.” [Portman laughs] But mothers are used to shouting your name, so then I say to her, “Maybe you can call me ‘Little Dragon,’ or ‘Little Flower.'” [both laugh]

NP: Has your fame affected your family?

ZZ: Not big changes. Of course, they’re proud. I remember the first time I was on the cover of a magazine, my dad was so shocked he bought a hundred copies. I said, “What the hell are you going to do with all of the copies?” and he said, “Tomorrow, I’m going to give them out at my office.” But I’m from a very normal family. Their lives have changed in the sense that we can have the things we want, but they still go to work in the morning and take the bus. They’re from the old generation where they don’t waste. I really appreciate it because they influence me.

NP: Why did you make the choice to switch from dance to drama school?

ZZ: I realized I didn’t have much of a future in dancing, and I didn’t know if I liked it that much. It’s really hard, and there’s not that much of a market for dancers. My friend told me about this acting school and suggested I try that, so I did.

NP: You’ve worked with [director] Zhang Yimou three times now. What’s it like working with the same person that many times?

ZZ: I think we know each other better and better. It was very different on the first movie because I didn’t know how to act–I just gave my natural performance and followed his direction. If I wanted to cry, he had to tell me some sad story. But by our third movie I’d already made a few other films so I had a little bit more experience. He’s the one person who really knows how much I’ve grown up and advanced.

NP: I also read that Seijun Suzuki was 82 when he directed you in Princess Raccoon [which premiered this year at Cannes]. What was that like?

ZZ: With him I learned the word eccentric. I watched him shoot one scene in which a prince and princess die and everyone is so upset, but he didn’t shoot anyone crying, just a glass bowl filled with a liquid that was rippling. And I said, “Oh my God, that’s the tears.” And they used a black cloth to cover everyone–something like that is just so memorable. I don’t think anyone else would have the bravery to do that.

NP: And with Wong Kar Wai you did a lot of improvising, right?

ZZ: Yes. We didn’t have a script. I kind of enjoyed that because you don’t know what will happen, and you don’t need to prepare anything. But I love to do homework [both laugh], so working with him is a totally different experience. I wouldn’t feel like I was acting–it was just very natural. I didn’t prepare, and as I spoke the line the tear would just go down my face. I spent a long time getting used to that way of working, but slowly I got into it. Now I think I can use both ways to act, which is a really big step for me.

NP: I read that when you went in to meet director Rob Marshall for Memoirs of a Geisha, you just said, “Hire me, please.” [both laugh] Is that true?

ZZ: That was a long time ago. And it was with Steven Spielberg. At that time I only knew how to say simple things, so my agent taught me how to say, “Hire me, please!”

NP: It’s a good line! [both laugh]

ZZ: The first day we started shooting, Steven said to me, “I hired you, right?” And I said, “Yes, many years later!” [both laugh] And then he said, “But now you can speak more.” So that was funny.

NP: What was it like working in English?

ZZ: We had a dialect class, and we had to work with a coach every day to remember all the lines. That was really hard, because you had to memorize them and perform them naturally. My mentor once told me, “It’s unlikely someone can perform in a movie using a second language,” but I always believed in the impossible. After I finished memorizing the lines I said to him, “You are wrong.” I broke his rule. [both laugh]

NP: What is the next rule that you’re going to break?

ZZ: I don’t know–I should ask him to give me another one!

NP: What was it like working with Ang Lee?

ZZ: It was great. That was my first martial-arts movie. The way things turned out people think I’m a martial-arts movie star, but I’m not! [Portman laughs] I did Crouching Tiger by chance, and I didn’t know what martial arts meant. For two months I intensely studied how to use a sword. It was really hard. And he asked me to shout and do the action while I was hung from wires. At the beginning I was just, “I can’t do it,” and he started shouting at me, “Why can’t you?” Normally he’s so quiet and gentle, so then I said, “Okay, forget everything, I’ll just do it!” And then the strength came out, and I discovered more power. If I hadn’t done martial-arts movies I don’t know if I would have learned how to shoot scenes in which I’m angry.

NP: Do you ever shout in real life?

ZZ: After that I started to. [both laugh] For girls, it’s easier to play a housewife or a soft girl–it’s hard to portray a very strong personality, but it’s something you have to know, and I think that Ang Lee really helped me to do that. I will always be grateful to him for that, and not only because the movie brought me to the States and helped my career. During the six months we worked together, I only had one desire, which was that he would give me a hug. I waited and waited, and every single day when I finished work I promised myself I’d do better the next day so he’d hug me. Then the last day we had a wrap party, and everyone was so happy and so tired, and he told me I worked hard and did a great job. And then he hugged me and I started crying. I will always remember that hug.

NP: One last question: What do you think is the biggest misconception people in the U.S. have about China?

ZZ: [both laugh] That we look the same. Or they think a particular Chinese restaurant has such good food, and then I go and try it and say, “That’s not Chinese food–we have much better food than this!” [both laugh]