American songstress Norah Jones makes her feature film debut – if you excuse a brief cameo in Two Weeks Notice – in My Blueberry Nights which opens in the UK this weekend (and opens in the US on April 4). It’s also the first English-language film from renowned Chinese auteur Wong Kar-Wai, a sweepingly romantic epic which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival. No pressure then. Jones tells RT why she has taken it all in her stride.
This is your first acting job, straight into a starring role. You’re surrounded by some of the most talented actors around at the moment — was that intimidating at all?
Norah Jones: No… I mean, I felt definitely they were more confident in what they do — they know what’s going on and I don’t, but they’re all really easy to work with and such nice, normal people, and they really made me feel comfortable. Also, they’re great actors, so I believed their characters — especially because I didn’t really know them. We got to know each other as we were shooting, but in the beginning I didn’t really know Natalie Portman, and I’m wasn’t really thinking “That’s Natalie.” I was thinking, “Wow, that’s an interesting character — what a weirdo!”
But before you got on set, did you feel the need to study?
NJ: I did, I felt the need to study acting, and I wanted to do a good job — I wasn’t taking it lightly, and I didn’t want to be laughed at if I could help it! I found a good acting teacher, and I asked [Wong Kar-Wai], “Can you tell me what to work on? Can you tell me something about the story, the character, anything?” He said, “No, and I don’t want you to take acting lessons — I think you should stop. It’s okay, you’ll be fine — you’re a natural.” And I’m saying, “How do you know that? You don’t know that! You’ve never seen me do anything!” He was so sure of himself though that I just believed him, so I stopped.
Were you afraid of becoming a name on the list of failed singer-turned-actors?
NJ: No, because I don’t think I’m doing the kind of film here… this is not Glitter, first of all. It’s not all about me, as a singer or whatever — it certainly doesn’t have the same kind of pressure attached to it for me.
Wong Kar-Wai has said that he built Elizabeth’s character from hearing your voice. Did he then try to change you to become the character, or was it all about fitting the character to you?
NJ: I think he definitely let me be myself, but certainly as far as my body language goes, the first two weeks of shooting he was constantly coming up to me going, “Norah, shoulders back — stand up straight!” So there were things about my body language that he needed to tune. It was kind of funny, because I’d never thought about that before.
And the rest is all you?
NJ: Yeah. He would even change things sometimes, if my reaction wasn’t honest — I’m kind of bad at faking things, so maybe in a typical film I wouldn’t be good at acting. It’s pretty obvious when I’m not genuine, and he knows that. He never wanted me to fake anything, which again was why having such great actors around was good — I could honestly react to their character, because I believed them.
So given that he cast you from your singing, do you see a connection between your songs and his films?
NJ: Somebody who saw the film said to me once, “I really liked the film, it was like a very sweet ballad.” And of course, I sing a lot of quiet ballad music, so there’s a similarity there. Chungking Express is not a ballad, that’s a different kind of movie, but certainly some of his movies are melancholy, and slow moving, and subtle. Likewise, I think the way I make music is with a lot of subtleties that people don’t always catch – but to me they’re there, and of course I make melancholy, quiet music. That’s the only relation I can think of. I think mood-wise it can be similar, but not everything — not when I sing country music, maybe!
Do you feel there’s anything in common between the way he filmed the women in this film and the women in his Hong Kong films? Do you think there’s a way he looks at women?
NJ: I do, but I’m not sure if I could put it into words… I think he admires women very much, and it’s a womanly thing. Whenever I was doing the stuff in New York with Jude Law, he would always make me more womanly, because I’m kind of a dude; I don’t really carry myself as a woman, you know? I’m not like that – some people are just like that. So he was constantly trying to get me to move a hair on my neck, and then tell me to wipe it away in the middle of a scene, stuff like that. He definitely tends towards the beauty of the feminine thing, I think.
This is Wong’s first English language film. Did you ever find any aspects of culture shock?
NJ: He said something quite recently which I felt but had never actually heard him say; he said he studied our country, our culture and grew up watching beautiful American cinema, but he’s never going to be an American director, because he just culturally can’t be. So this film was, in a way, a tribute to a lot of the American films, music and culture that he grew up watching. I think we all felt that that the movie and these characters represent his view of America, and it’s a very romantic view, but in a good way. You can go to Memphis, and people don’t wear diner costumes like me any more, you know? That’s a romantic view; it’s from another era. And a woman like Rachel Weisz‘s character probably doesn’t exist today — maybe 40 years ago, but she represents an idea, an impression.
Did you give advice on the soundtrack?
NJ: He asked for suggestions, he showed me pictures of the locations. So I suggested the Cat Power, and the Otis Redding, and especially because we were going to be in Memphis, I suggested this Cassandra Wilson cover of a Neil Young song, and he ended up using all of those in the film, which was cool — everything else, he picked. The Ry Cooder? that was all him.
My Blueberry Nights seems to have the heart of a road movie…
NJ: I think it was meant to be one. There’s not a lot of travelling in the end product, it was meant to be more of a road movie I think. It’s still about journeying to different places, but it’s more implied.
That must be something you relate to.
NJ: Well I travel quite a bit these days with touring yeah, but even as a kid my Mom and I took a lot of road trip vacations – it’s cheap, and gosh it’s a beautiful country to take a road trip in. We lived in Texas, and it takes forever to get anywhere because Texas is so big, but if you go west it’s gorgeous, and if you head east, you get into America’s South; a completely different culture, and equally gorgeous. So I did relate to it, yes.
The colour palate on this film feels a lot like Chungking Express…
NJ: Yeah, the café, I think was meant to feel a little bit like that. Or maybe not meant to, but it does for many people feel like that. We shot in a real café, but of course they dress it up they way they want.
Really? We would have sworn that was a meticulously designed studio set…
NJ: No, in fact nothing was done in a studio; it was all shot in real places. But William Chang – his partner who does all the set design and costuming – everything has to go by him. He’s basically the art director for everything. He’s a genius, and he chooses the most amazing colours and things. The scene where Natalie and I are in the bed, for example, there’s these wallpaper things on the wall. He had come in and completely wallpapered the whole room, but he didn’t just use wallpaper – he put a black square in every sequence of four white squares, and he went around the whole room! It’s very meticulous, but we did shoot it in real places which were half re-dressed.
And is it true your kissing scene took three days to shoot?
NJ: Yes — but not the ones you see. They were very quick, but we had another one which was similar — the same pose, actually, the same camera moves and everything. It took three days, because they were trying to figure it out, it was very technical. But then when we came back to it at the end, it was pretty quick.
Are you up for doing more movies in future?
NJ: I’d be open to it, but I wouldn’t want to do a ton of films. It would have to be something like this, that seemed like a cool experience, and something that I thought I was going to enjoy doing. But I’d love to do it again, and get better at it, see what I could do, but it’s very demanding on your time. It takes over your whole life, and I would only be able to do it if it was something I was really excited about.