Li Jun Li: The Babylon star on Hollywood icons and the frailty of fame

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“I’m really happy to be in a film that’s going to make cinematic history.” It’s a bold claim to make but, when it comes to Babylon, Li Jun Li might just be right. Firstly, there’s an A-list cast that reads like a who’s who of Hollywood’s hottest talent: Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Olivia Wilde, Diego Calva, Jean Smart. There’s enough star power in Babylon to light Wembley Stadium.

Then there’s the subject matter. Babylon tells a tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood – while also documenting the winners and losers of the film industry’s transition from the silent era to ‘talkies’. Think Great Gatsby meets The Wolf of Wall Street (minus, perhaps surprisingly, Leonardo DiCaprio).

Of course, where stories about Hollywood go, accolades tend to follow (see: La La Land, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Singin’ in the Rain). True to form, Babylon was nominated for five Golden Globes – including Best Motion Picture as well as nods for both Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt – with composer Justin Hurwitz taking home the gong for Best Score. Wins at both the BAFTAs and Oscars seem likely.

It tracks, then, that a young actress on the cusp of stardom, like Li Jun Li, should be thrilled to find herself in a movie boasting the golden triad of award nominations, rave reviews and a super-charged cast. Throw in the opportunity to work with Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and Jun Li admits to being laser-focused on winning a role.

li jun li babylon premiere

Li Jun Li at the LA premiere of Babylon. Image: Shutterstock/Featureflash

“It was so wild and so detailed that I kept going back because I wanted to make sure I was getting everything,” describes Jun Li of the three days it took her to initially grapple with the script. “Every time I went back and reread I would pick up something different. It’s nothing like I’ve ever read before. It’s incredible.”

Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu who, like all the characters in the film, is inspired by a real Hollywood icon. In this case, it’s Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American Hollywood star who overcame prejudice and racism to rise to fame in the 1920s and ‘30s. She also recently became the first ​​Asian-American to appear on US currency.

As an Asian-American herself (Jun Li was born in Shanghai and grew up in New York), the opportunity to portray such an icon proved both thrilling and daunting in equal measure. “[Anna May Wong] remains the premier Asian-American actress in Hollywood,” she explains. “She really is the original trailblazer who paved the way for all of us today. It was really important to me that I got to not only portray her but also to do it in a Damien Chazelle movie. He is the most visually clear director I’ve ever worked with. He’s meticulous and has such attention to detail on every scene.”

li jun li brad pitt babylon

Image: Scott Garfield

Leading Babylon’s huge ensemble cast are Hollywood megastars Margot Robbie (as vivacious outsider Nellie LaRoy – based on Clara Bow) and Brad Pitt (as Jack Conrad, inspired by silent era star John Gilbert). Jun Li describes working with them as watching a ‘masterclass in real time’ noting that, as well as being incredibly talented, both were also very grounded on set.

In one particularly memorable scene, Robbie’s LaRoy takes partygoers into the middle of the desert before fighting with, and ultimately being bitten, by a snake. It then falls to Lady Fay to suck the venom out.

“It wasn’t easy to do because it was so crazy an idea,” recalls Jun Li. “Margot had this prosthetic bite stuck to her neck and in it was a little pouch of honey mixed with water for the venom. We’re in the middle of the desert, we’re all covered in sand and by the time the snake came off, and I got into it, it was just really gritty and messy.”

li jun li babylon

Image: Scott Garfield

For many moviegoers, however, the lasting impression of Babylon is likely to be one of wild parties full of orgies, dancing and even an elephant. Jun Li describes filming these scenes as a ‘real party that lasted two weeks’.

“It was day after day after day of amazingly committed extras, or as Jean Smart describes them ‘completely uninhibited’ actors, partying 14 hours a day,” says Jun Li. “I think what’s beautiful about this film is that every actor, background or in the main cast, gave 1,000 per cent with every single take. Every time was like the last time we were going to do it.”

But while Babylon certainly celebrates the glitz and glamour of the Golden Age of Hollywood, it also highlights its dark and corrupt underbelly. Jun Li recalls a conversation with co-star Jovan Adepo, who plays Sidney Palmer (inspired by jazz musician Curtis Mosby), in which he compared the movie to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. While less conceptual than Nolan’s dream-logic film, Babylon’s portrayal of movie sets captures worlds within worlds, while also dealing with wider existential questions about reinvention, the effects of technology on society and how it feels to fade into obscurity.

When asked about these meta-themes, Jun Li quotes Anna May Wong: “Success is not a jewel that you can purchase and keep for your entire life. On the contrary, the brightest star can fall down at any time and fade away into dust.”

Read more: Tár’s Nina Hoss on Cate Blanchett and complex characters

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