Jing Tian: The Great Wall’s Commander Lin Mae on Zhang Yimou's Fantasy Epic

– by Edward Douglas

East will meet West in movie theaters this weekend as Legendary and Universal Pictures open The Great Wall nationwide this Friday.

This will be the first major Hollywood movie directed by China’s top director, Zhang Yimou, whose Opening Ceremonies for the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 helped make him a lot more known to Western audiences.  Of course, fans of world cinema have probably already seen Jet Li’s Hero and some of director Zhang’s previous films, many of which China had put up as their Oscar selections.

The collaboration between China and Hollywood allowed Zhang to cast a lot of Chinese actors including the up and coming Chinese star Jing Tian, who plays Commander Lin Mae, the leader of the Chinese Army’s “Crane Corps,” who are stationed at the Great Wall of China to fight off demons, known as Tao Tei. (The Crane Corps use long cables to “bungee-jump” from the ramparts to stab at the demons below.)

Oh, yeah. The Great Wall also stars Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones) as two Westerners travelling China’s Silk Road who are taken to the Wall where the Chinese army have been fighting the Tao Tei, but they’d rather find and steal the mythic “Black Powder” that can be traded for great wealth. Tian’s brave Commander (and later, General!) Lin convinces Damon’s character to stay and help fight when they realize his archery skills may come in handy.

Legendary Pictures clearly doubled down on Ms. Tian after seeing what she can do opposite Damon in The Great Wall, by giving her roles in next month’s Kong: Skull Island as well as the upcoming Pacific Rim: Uprising, scheduled for 2018.

Sadly, we weren’t able to meet Ms. Tian in person for the following Q & A, but she graciously answered some of our questions via email.

LRM: How did you first hear about this movie and what was your first meeting with Director Zhang like? What did you have to do for your audition?

Jing Tian: I first heard about the role through my management team and was unbelievably excited about the opportunity to play Lin Mae.  I found both the character and story incredibly compelling.  Also, working with Zhang Yimou may have been the best part of it all.  He served as a teacher and director to me, and because of that, I was able to learn so much from him.  We happen to be from the same province in China and share a lot of the same customs, which helped me feel at ease.  The audition itself involved some script reading while embodying Lin Mae’s strength and courage.

LRM: As part of the Crane Corps, Commander Mae Lyn gets involved with the "bungee jumping" style of fighting, so how much of that did you do on set? Did your background in dancing help with this?

Jing Tian: The scenes where I had to take leaps off the wall were one of the most challenging parts of the film.  Director Zhang Yimou was very particular about how he wanted the jumps to look, as it needed to be the right mix of gracefulness and power.  I think my dance background helped a lot with this.  The movements we did while moving through the air were very similar to dancing, which allowed me to feel a lot more comfortable performing the stunts.  

LRM: Commander Lin is an amazing, strong woman, which we don’t normally get to see in these big epics. Was a lot of that in the original script or something you wanted to make sure to bring to the character?  I can see her being a great inspiration for young women and girls.

Jing Tian: I think most of it was in the original script, but it was also my focus in playing the role.  Women typically play the damsel in distress role in these films, which makes Lin Mae so unique.  I found it so refreshing that in a movie full of strong male heroes, one of the most determined and powerful characters is a woman.  As a general, she's a great inspiration to women by showing that there is nothing that we can't do. 

LRM: The film looks amazing, mainly due to the location, so how much of it was actually built vs. green screen and what are you looking at when standing atop the wall with Matt Damon? Green screen?

Jing Tian: The sets that were built for the film were fantastic.  They actually made multiple replicas of the Great Wall in various sizes in order to create the different shots Zhang Yi Mou wanted.  

LRM: Since Director Zhang is a bit of a legend in China, what was it like working with him vs. other directors you’ve worked with?

Jing Tian: I've had the opportunity to work with incredible directors, but director Zhang Yimou is an absolute legend.  The rest of the world hasn't been exposed to a lot of his films, although the 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony helped more people know about his work, but he is one of the biggest directors in China.  It was such an honor to be able to work with him and I am grateful that that he wanted me to be a part of his film.  I would say the biggest difference between him and other directors that I've worked with is his attention to detail.  He's a master of visual artist and he puts so much focus into every shot. 

LRM: What was it like working with some of the Western actors like Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal?

Jing Tian: They were all so professional and amazing to work with.  It was such a tremendous learning experience for me, because they exposed me to different approaches when it comes to acting and how things are done in Hollywood compared to China.  All three of them are just wonderful people and we had so much fun together on set.  It was especially great working with Matt.  I’ve always admired his work and I found his dedication very inspiring.  

LRM: You’re actually doing more with Legendary Pictures, both the upcoming Kong and the Pacific Rim sequel. Do they feel more like American/Hollywood movies vs. doing “The Great Wall”?

Jing Tian: Yes, I think that's fair to say.  The Great Wall was a co-production between Hollywood and China and a huge portion of the cast and crew were Chinese, and since The Great Wall takes place in China, it has a Chinese feel overall.  Kong and Pacific Rim both have more of the classic Hollywood blockbuster feel, but all three films do share some similarities.

LRM: Could any of these characters make their way into the comics? How do you feel about playing a character that crosses media like that?

Jing Tian: I'm not sure if my characters in The Great Wall or Kong: Skull Island would necessarily make it into the comics, but it might be possible with my character in Pacific Rim.  I think it would be really neat to play a character that appears in different mediums.  In fact, I would be interested in reading how my character would be portrayed.    

LRM: Do you get to "drive" one of the Jaegers in "Pacific Rim"? What else can you say about your character?

Jing Tian: I don't want to give anything anyway about the movie!  But what I can tell you is that I really love this role because it allows me to play (another) strong, female character.

LRM: How do you choose which projects to do and which characters to play?

Jing Tian: I think what’s most important is to choose roles that not only interest me but will also challenge me as an actress.  I'm not focused on doing just Hollywood or Chinese projects, or even just films.  I feel my career is still evolving and I want to pursue projects that will continue to help me grow as an actress. 

The Great Wall opens on Friday, February 17 with previews tonight!

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