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Maggie Cheung Unbeautifies for “Clean”

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By Andrea Meyer

IFC News

Close your eyes and picture Maggie Cheung. Are you envisioning the impeccable beauty of “In the Mood for Love,” lithe body tucked into an elegant cheongsam and emotions bottled up somewhere deep inside? The ruthless killer soaring above swaying yellow trees, sword poised, face placid, in “Hero”? Or perhaps “Irma Vep”‘s catlike Hong Kong star-slash-burglar in black leaping from one Parisian rooftop to the next? Time and again Cheung is flawlessly lovely, emotionally refined — even when vulnerable and jilted as in “Days of Being Wild” — the epitome of grace. Until now.

For “Clean” (in theaters April 28), the Hong Kong actress who has appeared in 80-some-odd films, paired up again with “Irma Vep” director Olivier Assayas — whom Cheung married and divorced since their last collaboration — to play a sallow, frizzy-haired ex-con with a drug habit and a penchant for disaster. And Cheung loved every minute of it. “It was great,” she says of the experience. “Of course it’s great to be beautiful in a movie… but if you don’t have a break, when you can just go in your jeans and no hair and makeup… I’m just wasting my life. You don’t need to prove you’re beautiful again and again and again. It’s like you have two films [where] you’re beautiful and then I would prefer to prove I can act.”

“Clean” gave Cheung that opportunity. She plays Emily, a strung-out emotional wreck who has nothing to live for except the son she dumped with her in-laws while living in a rock ‘n’ roll haze, desperately clinging to the dregs of her musician husband’s washed up career. When he dies of an overdose in a seedy motel room and Emily gets tossed into prison for possession, she is faced with an opportunity to try to kick the drugs, the methadone, the reckless refusal to lead a normal life, in order to become a woman suitable of raising the son her in-laws won’t let her touch unless she cleans up.

“The part is so much like me, except for the drug elements, so I really felt there’s not much designing to do,” Cheung says of the role that won her the prestigious award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. “It’s ironic because this is the film I was laziest on, but I got the biggest outcome from it… I wasn’t lazy on the set, but after I finished reading the script the first time, I decided I know what it is, I’m gonna put it away. I thought you have to be very spontaneous.”

Assayas’ directing style leant itself the freewheeling performance that Cheung craved. She says if Wong Kar-Wai, the director of such achingly gorgeous films as “In the Mood for Love” and “Days of Being Wild,” makes movies with the breathtaking precision of a Monet, painstakingly leading his actors through meticulous take after meticulous take (after meticulous take…), Assayas is more like Jackson Pollock, splattering actors and emotions liberally all over a bare canvas. “I was just doing whatever I wanted and the camera would move with me. I was totally free,” Cheung says. “Olivier would say to the cameraman, ‘I don’t want her to have any limits. I just want her to move and you follow her. Whatever she needs to do in this shot, we’ll catch it,’ whereas Kar-Wai’s set would be like, ‘Okay, three steps forward, turn around and then walk five more steps and your head faces left but your body more to the right and then that’s the perfect light where you say your first line.'”

While Cheung says her career would not be complete without both directors and their opposing styles, right now she hopes to get a crack at more films in the more realistic style of “Clean.” “You just build it all up inside and you go do it with no reservation, with nothing you have to care about except that emotion,” she said. “It’s just so nice for an actor who wants to really act. I think doing more realistic films, I get the real joy of being an actress.”

With help from Assayas and the rest of his talented cast, including a somber Nick Nolte as her father-in-law, Cheung has created the rare recovery film that is raw and never cloying. There is no 12-step circle for reluctant breakthroughs to take place, no seductive former friend trying to make her do lines, not even a wrenching scene of sweats and puking as the imprisoned junkie cold turkeys out her poison. “Olivier hates dramatic scenes,” she says. “Every time we’d see a Hollywood film and there was a calculated moment — oh,we all need to cry now — Olivier would sigh, roll his eyes, shaking and sighing and I’d be like, ‘It’s so sad.’ He really avoids all the cliché dramas in any of his films.”

Another unexpected perk of the movie is the attention Cheung has received for her singing. In the film, Emily has the opportunity to record a couple of songs, and Cheung did the singing herself. “Since then record companies have been approaching me and I’m on the verge of thinking, hmm, should I make an album or not?” While she has recorded one song before, with Tony Leung for the soundtrack of “In the Mood for Love,” she’s never thought of herself as a professional musician. “In Hong Kong, most actors do both,” she says. “All my fellow actors have had an album, at least one, except for me. It’s something people thought I would never do, so because of that, I might do it.”

If “Clean” has brought Cheung unexpected creative challenges and professional opportunities, the pleasure of starring in a Wong Kar-Wai film is something else entirely. “I enjoy watching ‘In the Mood for Love,’ but it’s not something you can do everyday,” she says, recalling the great director’s perfectionism. “‘Can you have your face angled this way because the light is coming through there and this shadow is great.’ I’m so glad to have ‘In the Mood for Love’ on my list until I’m 60 or 70, but if you say tomorrow, come to the set and do another 16 months of ‘In the Mood for Love,’ this is a big decision to make. It’s heavy everyday. You think, oh shit, I have a spot! Whereas in ‘Clean,’ it doesn’t matter. It’s like, ‘Add more [dark under-eye] circles! That’s what we want.”

“Clean” is now playing in New York.

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Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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Musical Instrument

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Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

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Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

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Colin the Chicken

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Dream Of The ’90s

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A-O River!

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Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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