Zhang Ziyi

updated 09/06/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

After her breakthrough role in 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Beijing-born Zhang Ziyi declined most offers to act in the U.S. "The characters were always prostitutes or poor girls from Cambodia," says Zhang, 25. "I thought, 'Is that all a Chinese actress can do here?'"

Now she's preparing for one very plum part: On Aug. 19 she officially nabbed the lead role in Memoirs of a Geisha, the upcoming Steven Spielberg-produced adaptation of Arthur Golden's hit 1997 novel. "She has all the humor, elegance and vulnerability needed for a great love story," says Geisha producer Lucy Fisher. In China, of course, Zhang is already a superstar. U.S. audiences can catch her spirited performances (and martial-arts moves honed as a youth dance champion) in the epic Hero, opening this week, and in December's House of Flying Daggers. (Or see her villainess turn in 2001's Rush Hour 2.) Lately, the single Zhang has mastered English with help from her CD player. "I learned because I listened to Norah Jones and Keri Noble," she says. "I would read the English lyrics to their songs and figure out what they meant."

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