Current gig: Playing the title role in Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the bestselling 1997 Arthur Golden novel
She's got a way with words
One of Zhang's mentors, director Zhang Zimou (House of Flying Daggers, Hero), warned her that it would be tough to delve into a role not spoken in her native tongue. So Zhang faced a dual challenge in playing Sayuri, a teenager who's groomed to become a prima geisha in Memoirs: She had to perfect her English for her first Hollywood lead and speak it in a Japanese accent. "I was not sure I could do it," says Zhang. Two years of intensive language lessons (which she continues to this day) helped her along. "What (he) said to me really pushed me to work extra hard," she says. "I think I should thank him – my performance will show my effort."
More on Your Favorite Stars
Zhang not only "had to learn how to walk, how to bow, all the subtle gestures" of a geisha, she says, but she also had to overcome one tall obstacle: wearing high platform shoes while doing it all, including performing dance routines.
"When I saw the shoes, I said to myself, 'Oh, that must be a prop,'" recalls Zhang, who from age 11 trained for six years in traditional Chinese dance. "Then our choreographer says, 'You have to dance in them.' I said, 'No, you've got to be kidding!' " Zhang practiced six hours a day for almost two months – and almost had a crash landing. "After a few times spinning around the stage, I just totally lost my balance," she says. "That was quite dangerous – I could have fallen off."
She's an action hero
She didn't set out to become an actress. "My only dream was to become a kindergarten teacher," like her mother, she says. (Her father is a government economist). But in her teens, she caught the acting bug and landed a spot in the China Central Drama College. Three years later, at only 20, she won the role of feisty fighter Jen Yu in the 2000 hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Since, she's wielded swords and high-kicked it in movies including Rush Hour 2 (her English-language debut alongside Jackie Chan), Hero and last year's House of Flying Daggers. "The physical part is much easier" than the dramatic acting she had to do in Memoirs, says Zhang. In fact, it was only recently that the actress let out all the emotion she pent up while playing the emotionally tortured Sayuri. "I couldn't stop, I was so embarrassed," says Zhang of attending a screening. "I felt like Sayuri was sitting there and watching her whole life. Finally I can cry for her."
She's a Beautiful girl
Director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour 2) calls the single star "the Audrey Hepburn of Asia." And she has twice been named to PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful People in the World list. But Zhang admits she can't even properly apply makeup: "I'm really, really bad. I can't draw my eyebrows because one is definitely higher than the other! I can only put on lipstick, that's all." But when it comes to her career, she knows exactly what she wants. "I'm Chinese – I'm very tough," she says.