“When I read the script, that was one of the first times my jaw dropped,” says Li Jun Li—the Shanghainese American actor who also goes by her nickname LiLi. “Lady Fay sings it with a faux-Chinese accent, because she is feeding into the fetishization of ‘Orientalism’ that was so big at the time. It’s one of her many different personas.”
The room is quiet and the lights are dimmed, as Lady Fay Zhu emerges from behind the bandstand in a top hat and tuxedo à la Marlene Dietrich by way of Anna May Wong. Once she has everyone’s attention, she breaks into a song called “My Girl’s Pussy” (an actual song from the time, set to a new melody and arrangement for the film by composer Justin Hurwitz).
From Damien Chazelle, Babylon is an original epic set in 1920s Los Angeles led by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Diego Calva. The ensemble cast includes Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, and Li Jun Li. A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, it traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
Li Jun Li: I was born in Shanghai, moved to South America, and then moved back to Colombia for two years, as Spanish is my second language. And then I moved to New York about two and a half years later. I learned English and my parents, like any other Chinese parents, sent me to classical Chinese dance school on the weekends. I learned from there that I was really in love with performance, but I was also painfully shy so I didn't really know how to balance the two.
I just knew that I really found it exhilarating to be onstage and to entertain. I hated school but I was a good student, and that kind of led me into not wanting to follow the liberal arts route. I went to the performing arts high school in New York, and I got in for both dance and art. My dad is an artist, and I ended up choosing dance. I loved it so much that we started doing annual musicals in high school. And that was kind of my gateway into acting because I just fell in love with it, and I continue to pursue it even after graduating.
LJL: Well, um, I was attracted to it purely because it was a Damien Chazelle project. I've been a fan of his ever since I saw Whiplash. And the Lady Fay role was originally presented as Anna May Wong. Of course, any Asian American actress should jump at every opportunity to portray someone so monumental and iconic in the history of Hollywood being the first Asian American actress in the industry. And so I wanted to play her at whatever cost. It was important to me. Damien said it's actually a fictional version of Anna May Wong and inspired by her, and I just wanted to play her. Are we similar? I'd say sure, but maybe not at the scale of discrimination and pain and struggles that she had gone through 100 years ago. These days, we have a larger Asian community. We can confide in each other when times get rough, and we can work together and fight for representation and inclusivity. Back then she was on her own and she had to stand up for herself. But you know, I also have had my own experiences of discrimination and bullying that I could draw from and magnify that and my performance.
LJL: I think the struggle is similar to what Lady Fay or Anna May Wong had to do. I think my childhood was very lonely. I felt like when I was in South America, I was the only Asian kid and probably not just the school, but the entire city. And I was very much made fun of everywhere I walked. Being so isolated all the time and being an outcast for so long my entire childhood, I feel like it forced me to hold my ground and just pummel through everything that was difficult. And I think it shaped who I am today. I know how to hold my own and I know when to walk away when things are not worth my time.
LJL: I would say to not be so afraid of what other people might think. I cared too much and I think it restricted me from you know, doing what I love. I think I could have started doing what I love a lot earlier had I not let those obstacles stand in my way.
Babylon was released in United States theaters on December 23, 2022.