Synopsis : A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, Babylon traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
Rating: R (Graphic Nudity|Drug Use|Bloody Violence|Pervasive
Language|Strong & Crude Sexual Content)
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Q: Director Damien Chazelle wrote the 180-page script. What’s your impression of the script when you read it for the first time — what elements stood out for you?
LJL: I was overwhelmed by it. It took me a long time to get through it because there were so many details and incredible scenes that I kept stopping and going back over and over again just to make sure I didn’t miss out on anything. Then, the second thought was how are we going to make this, and how are we going to make it fit into less than three hours.
Q: What we see of 1920s Hollywood, these days, has been somewhat sanitized by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd movies. But the reality was quite different from what we had imagined. How much did you dig into research about that time?
LJL: I mainly focused my research on the actress that my role was based on, Anna May Wong. I was very lucky that there was a really well-written biography on her. I also watched a lot of her films, both silent films and when [they] transitioned into talkies. So I didn’t know much about cinema back then, but through the research of Anna May Wong I became more informed of the surroundings.
Q: Anna May Wong was such a charismatic actress and she was one of the first Asian American actors to be in a major film. What was the element about her that you found fascinating, that you wanted to incorporate into your character?
LJL: Jovan [Adepo, as Sidney Palmer] and I were talking about being a person of color in the industry nowadays, and how, sometimes, when we feel that things don’t go the right way, we have each other to confide in. A hundred years ago, Anna May Wong was the first [Chinese] American actress in Hollywood and she had to do it all by herself. She didn’t have anyone to go to and often, throughout her entire career, was pigeonholed, discriminated against, fetishized — you name it. It was really heartbreaking for me to read. In her upbringing she was made fun of going to school, and she was always regarded as Chinese despite being American-born. I really loved her resilience and constant fight. She never backed down. Throughout half of her career, she knew she wasn’t going to grow any further so she picked up her things and moved to Europe, where she later flourished.
Q: There’s the scene with you and Margot Robbie, where her character, Nellie, is bitten by a rattlesnake and you chop off the snake’s head and spit out the venom. What was it like shooting that scene?
LJL: Most people are just completely shocked by it. I’m glad you find it funny. I was shocked by it when I first read it. It was very messy to do because we were in the middle of the desert and there was a lot of sand on her. There was a prosthetic with honey and water. It was really gross. I remember when I was in the makeup trailer and we were getting ready for it, somebody — I can’t remember who — said, “You know, a lot of mothers suck the snot out of their babies the same way.” I remembered to do that, and that you’ve got to do it for those who you’re trying to save. It was interesting. I’m sure I won’t ever get a chance to do something as crazy as that again.
Q: For most of Chazelle’s films, the music comes first. He sent the assembled script to composer Justin Horowitz, who wrote the music. Did they run the music while they were shooting the film?
LJL: Some music was ready to go on set. Like with my number, we always used the music. For a lot of party scenes, I’m not really sure why, whether it was ready or not, we used contemporary music as well. It really helped the party and got everyone’s energy up. I think we played “Prodigy” a lot, and it got everyone in the right mood. It was great.
Q: Your character Lady Fey Zhu made quite an appearance in the first sequence where your character sings the song. It’s very charismatic. How did Damien direct you in that scene?
LJL: The opening number was inspired by Marlene Dietrich in “Morocco.” There were weeks and weeks in rehearsals even before I started production where Mandy Moore — who also choreographed “La-La Land” — and I worked together. You don’t see the entire number in the movie because a lot of trimming had to be done in the final product, but there was a full song and dance to it. It was really nice for me because I started out as a dancer and then I sang. I started out in musical theater. So to be on that stage in front of fellow dancers and the actors as well, was a really nice circle that we closed. It felt really good to be back on the stage like when I first started.
Q: You had a dance scene with Margot Robbie which was very well choreographed. Can you talk about shooting that sequence?
LJL: I’m supposed to guide her just based on the choreography. She’s supposedly the one who doesn’t know how to dance as well. We also had another number [where] we had a lot of rehearsals and choreographic changes. It was really based on how Damien wanted to shoot it. He had these visions of how he wanted us framed. So even on the day, there were some changes that we had to make just to make it fit his vision.
Here’s the trailer of the film.