What Bai Ling Does

The actress Bai Ling was in town for three days to do a fashion shoot for Saks Fifth Avenue. She’s got a reputation as a party girl; people ask, “Exactly what does Bai Ling do ?” (For starters, she plays a lesbian fashion designer in Spike Lee’s new movie, She Hate Me , opening in July.) On June 18, she slept until noon, then met me outside the Waldorf Astoria.

“You know, all this business and working somehow, it gets too much,” she said as we walked up Park Avenue. Ms. Ling is 33, tiny and lithe, with sharp cheekbones. She was wearing a denim train conductor hat, a tummy-revealing tank top, no bra, jeans with zippers all over, a James Dean button near her privates and chunky black boots. “It makes you realize that that’s what everybody does in modern world,” she continued. “You’re busy and it never ends. But you have to take a break, stop and breathe the fresh air and forget about life. Working, you’re not really living. Your mind is taking over, your body is basically sleeping. So you’re half-paralyzed.”

The next day, Ms. Ling had to fly to Tulsa to appear at a comic-book convention to promote another movie she’s in, the computerized science-fiction film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow , starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law.

“I’m from the future, so slick, sexy and wearing mysterious outfits,” she said. “Fighting with Jude Law all the time. I kick his ass.

“It’s good to once in a while to consciously do this,” she said, gesturing at the city around her. “Like for example, right now I’m talking to you, but I’m walking and very relaxed, you know? I feel like, ‘Wow, New York City’s fantastic. Summer is beautiful.’ And the heat. You feel like you’re in nature. I like street life. I like to eat peanuts. I remember last winter, my hotel was near Times Square, and I would get peanuts still hot, because it’s cold. I was just on the street corner standing there eating and watching people. You come back to-basically you are an animal. You’re just standing there eating. You need food and you observe life. You don’t think, you don’t do nothing.”

Ms. Ling had been out the past few nights, getting drunk on champagne, hanging with Kid Rock at the nightclub Crobar, getting her picture taken with Puff Daddy showing up at Le Cirque.

“Some people come to me and I always appreciate them, they extend warmth and smile,” she said. “I dress sometimes sexy, and ‘Wow, you have the best body’-all the men of course say that.”

Do men hit on her a lot?

“I think so.”

She said life was “kind of an illusion” to her: “Because I always feel like there’s so many spirits in me. I have eight little girls in me. They are wearing miniskirts, they’re very cute, always dressed up. I am just a house for them to live. Yeah! One of the girls is a party girl. She’s like, ‘Let’s go party!’ I say, ‘No, no, no, I’m tired.’ She says, ‘Let’s go party!’ The party girl’s very stylish, weird. I say, ‘That skirt’s too short!’ She says, ‘No, it’s not-I have underwear, you don’t see nothing.'”

We entered Central Park. “I love animals,” she said. “I think in my previous life I was a wild animal, a cheetah, a leopard.”

She told me about going on an eight-day safari in South Africa, where she met a leopard.

“Her eyes were like reduced beauty of the universe,” she said. “I was staring at her for a long time. That moment basically between us, I feel like we understood in silence-if you talk about Zen Buddhism. Nothing else was there at that moment, and forever. I understood her.”

We sat down and watched the sea lions swimming.

“Wow!” she said. “Wow, big! You know, they are so free. Dancing. Wow, look at that. Oh, showoff! Wow. Wow, they’re cute, their feet very short. How do they distinguish male and female? Make me want to jump in or eat ice cream.”

Bai Ling, which means “white spirit,” grew up in Southwest China. She was extremely shy and refused to talk to teachers. “I think I became an actor because I was afraid,” she said. “I have a very rich world inside of me. In my previous life I was an animal, so now in my human form I don’t know how to behave.”

During the Cultural Revolution, her parents, both performance-art teachers, were sent away to work in the countryside and beaten; Ms. Ling was raised by her grandmother. When she was 14, she was forced to join the People’s Liberation Army’s “entertainment division”; she sang and danced for the Chinese Army in Tibet. After the army, she acted in seven films and, by age 18, was an established movie star in China. She moved to Los Angeles in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre, which she witnessed as a demonstrator. She barely spoke English. In 1991 she received a scholarship to N.Y.U.’s film school and soon found herself acting in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (she played the President’s interpreter) and Will Smith’s Wild Wild West . In the 1997 thriller Red Corner , she played a lawyer defending Richard Gere’s character. The movie was banned in China, and the Chinese government revoked her passport for a few years.

We watched a red panda.

“He’s hiding,” she said. “Fat little boy. I want to hold him. Hold him in the water and go to sleep. I don’t have any plans. I can’t think about future. This moment, we enjoy here? Whatever happened yesterday, it’s gone. And the future’s not coming yet, so this is a moment that we enjoy. When we both wanted to jump in the water with the seals-that feeling we remember, that’s real.”

In 1998, People magazine chose her as one of the world’s “50 Most Beautiful People”; she dated singer Chris Isaak for a few years and is now seeing La Femme Nikita director Luc Besson. “I would say I like him the most,” she said.

“I don’t have many friends,” she said. “I’m very sensitive. In China, we have saying: ‘If you get close to the ink, you become black.’ If you’re close to a red color, too, you become red. So I stay away. You know I’m an actress working in Hollywood, but I don’t consider myself Hollywood. I feel like I’m a free spirit and just have a job there. I’m lucky, sometimes I go to party and have fun and dancing-that’s it. Sometimes the other spirits talk to me and say, ‘Don’t go to those parties. Why do you bother? They’re stupid, don’t go there.’ But it’s fun. When I’m drinking wine maybe in the party, the spirits observe me, get bored, and they get out of there-they can fly. They’re probably on top of a mountain drinking wine or watching movie, they’re in their own world, or in Tibet. So I am like split. I am there, but I’m not really there.”

She said MTV recently approached her to a do a reality show. What’s her life like in L.A.?

“I don’t live in L.A., I live in hotel rooms,” she said. “I have an apartment in Marina del Ray, but you can’t say I live there. People ask me, ‘Where’s your home?’ I say, ‘Wherever I go.’ Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, Germany, Paris. Thailand-already been there twice this year.”

The red panda was puttering around below us.

“I want to hold you!” she sang out. “So cute. They don’t bite, you know. Fat baby face. Beautiful. So clean! Oh, there’s monkeys, let’s go there!”

Eventually we got cold drinks and sat on a bench in the shade. I asked about her sex life.

“Shouldn’t those things be private?” she asked. “I’m wild. I party, I hang with people, strange people. I was in Bangkok and going out every night, it was crazy in a kind of twisted, unhealthy way. When you know it’s that way, it’s O.K.”

She said she went to some strip bars there with male friends, and she met a transsexual dancer.

“I think the men there are so much more attractive than girls there,” she said. “Because their bodies have wide shoulders and they want to be a woman, so they take care of themselves and present themselves in a sexual way. The girls, they don’t care that much. They’re not as attractive. So we’re dancing together-it was kind of fascinating to experience, intimately, with those people. Because you drink a little bit, you go kind of crazy.”

Were there orgies?

“I can’t tell you that! That’s too private. I’m wild, I can tell you, so any story you can imagine. I enjoy sex so much. Spontaneous, I like to do things spontaneous. I don’t like have certain rules or laws.”

Does she find President Bush attractive?

“I don’t want to say this, but I feel sometimes onscreen he’s like jumping around like a monkey,” she said. “Like we’re in a zoo. Jumping around, funny, a little bit like a cartoon character. But the first time he campaigned for President, I met him and he was quite charming. He has that charisma-people like him, aren’t threatened by him. So he has that quality of actor. I feel like I don’t have respect or hatred of him.

“I feel like it’s hard to govern countries,” she continued. “When you’re in that high a position, you easily become a target. I believe Bush has done some good things and he’s an idiot sometimes, like a monkey, but that’s a President. That’s America, in a way.”

A children’s puppet show was going on nearby. I asked Ms. Ling how she’d kept her innocence over the years.

“I always think there’s a candlelight in your heart,” she said. “I use that as a metaphor. The candlelight, the flame, is so small. Any little wind can blow that out; it’s very fragile. You have to protect that flame and make sure it’s always there or you lose yourself. You think of the flame and you’ll become much more cautious, much more gentle.”

We went to the children’s petting zoo and fed some goats. She hopped on a giant spider web made of rope, squealed and rolled around with some kids. She said her party-girl spirit was up in a tree overhead. “Her legs are crossed and she’s smoking a cigarette right now. She’s giving me the eye, talking about me. She enjoys life all the time.

“I think I’m a spirit,” she said. “I don’t think I’m living now, I’m dreaming. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even exist. Like right now, I feel like I’m talking to you, but there’s another being standing there watching me talk with you.”

As we exited the park, she said that her spirits were ahead of us. “One is hiding-oh my God. The mysterious one, she’s crazy. They all ignore me. They’re having fun. They’re pretending they’re not looking at us, but they are. You’d like to meet them?”

-George Gurley

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-Sparrow