At a wooden table in the corner of a Le Pain Quotidien, the actress Bai Ling is telling me her life philosophy. "If you're embarrassed, you don't believe you're deserving," she says. "Be shameless."
Shame is nowhere to be seen at the Le Pain Quotidian in Marina del Rey, CA. Screenwriters sit on wooden tables against beige walls, discussing their business problems, while Ling drinks coffee with fat free milk. She wears a silver jacket, white tank top, and ripped jeans; a tiger tattoo peeks out from her lower back. "I like this [restaurant] because I like the French style of 'enjoy your breakfast,'" Ling says, apparently unaware that Le Pain Quotidian is a chain bakery located in a mall across the street from a DSW and a Men's Warehouse.
Even in Los Angeles County, an area where it's normal to be friends with celebrities' grandchildren, people stare at Ling. It's shocking she's still alive. Ling went from playing Richard Gere's romantic interest in the 1997 romantic thriller Red Corner to battling alcoholism on VH1's Celebrity Rehab in 2011. In one notorious episode, she hid from Dr. Drew on a roof. She later told him how Chinese generals raped her during her time in the army. It was after that trauma that Ling became a movie star in China, moved to America, and starred in The Crow, Oliver Stone's Nixon, and Spike Lee's She Hates Me.
"Geniuses are all crazy," Ling says. "I'm a genius in a way."
Ling was born in Chengdu, China. Her father worked as a music teacher. She describes herself as a shy child; when teachers called asking her questions, she remained silent. At one point, her teacher took her to an office. "You're rude," Ling remembers her teachers saying. "You don't say anything." They called Ling's father and mother to the school, and they apologized. Over time, Ling says, she discovered the source of her problem: she was the reincarnation of a tiger-cheetah hybrid.
"I'm adapted into human body, and I'm wild and crazy," Ling says. "I have no boundaries because I'm in nature a wild animal. In this society I don't know how to function as a human being."
She believes her past lives provide her with artistic talent. "I never learned my acting," Ling explains. "For me, the secret and the trick is that I'm brilliant because I don't act." As a teenager, she wanted to attend university, but the Chinese army wanted Ling. She says she auditioned to entertain the troops, and the army gave her the job as an entertainer in Nyingchi Prefecture, Tibet. The job required her to sing, dance, and train as a soldier. "In case a war happens, you have to know all the skills," Ling says. She remembers living with other soldiers. "Because there were only seven of us [girls] in the whole borders, we became so precious," Ling says. "Everybody knew our names; everybody secretly gave us gifts." Her and the other girls' stove relied on burning wood, and Ling remembers men visiting constantly to put new logs on the fire as an excuse to see the women.
I'm the first Asian woman on the cover of Playboy mag. I went from a communist country to Playboy.
At first, Ling loved their attention. "They jump to their feet when they see women," Ling says. "They're soldiers, and they never see women for three years or two years or one—that's the upside. You have all the men worship you." Then she learned the downside of being one of a few women among many men. While in the army, Ling got her first period. She thought she was dying. "I had no knowledge about what sex is and no knowledge what was good or bad," Ling says. "I used to think babies came out of your belly button." The men discouraged Ling from asking questions or expressing herself; they told her to drink instead. Ling remembers men walking around, ordering her to drink more.
"I drank so much in the army," Ling says. "It's like you have to."
Years later, on Celebrity Rehab, she told Dr. Drew that army generals got her drunk to sexually abuse her. One officer raped Ling, impregnating her, and Ling terminated the pregnancy. Ling declined to discuss the specifics of her sexual abuse and her abortion for this story, but says, "I survived because I don't think of the word survived. I say, 'This is the way it's supposed to be.'"
After serving in the military, Ling started performing in theatre. She needed to perform to deal with the trauma of her time working in the armed forces. "If I don't express myself, I have a ritual inside me," Ling explains. "I'm going to explode like a bomb. You have all the energy, all the passion, so I find acting as a tool because I'm so scared as Bai Ling. When I'm acting my mind tricks me." (Ling often speaks in second and third person.)
Theatre led to Ling's breakthrough Chinese performance in On the Beach. She played a country girl who leaves her village, where she catches fish with her family for a living, to move to the big city. The new town brings her a lucrative job and the affection of many men. She enjoys sleeping with city boys, but has promised to marry her cousin back home in an arranged marriage. "In the village, marriage is you marry your relatives, which is not healthy, but she's promised to her cousin who she doesn't like," Ling explains. She recalls the film sparking controversy in China, but it led to more roles.
In the early 1990s, New York University invited Ling to the school as a guest. Ling obtained an American film agent while in town. She heard director Mary Katzke was looking for a lead for her new film Pen Pals, but the agent doubted Ling could score the role. "For some reason I came to LA," Ling says. "I just felt the opportunity here." She booked a room at the Shutters Hotel. "I loved that," Ling says. "Every day I opened my window and there was the ocean." Although Ling had never driven in her life, she rented a car. The day of the audition, Ling left her hotel early; it took her three hours to reach her destination. "When I told the director the story, I think I probably moved her," Ling says. "It's a surreal story." Ling scored the role.
The film led to more audition opportunities. Ling says agents encouraged her to change her name like previous Asian actresses who had moved to Los Angeles. Ling refused. "They already have Susan. They already have Sophia," she says. "I want them to accept me." At her audition for the 1994 thriller The Crow, Ling showed up dressed in her normal everyday clothes while other actresses wore over-the-top goth ensembles. Director Alex Proyas cast Ling. She says he told her, "They look like that, but you have the power inside."
Every day, for three months, Ling worked with Brandon Lee on the film's set. One day, Ling recalls, he told her, "I heard you're Chinese." Lee told Ling he was Chinese too; she didn't believe him. "He looks like a white boy," Ling says. "My father's Chinese," Lee said. "My father's a big movie star." Ling asked him his dad's name. His response: Bruce Lee. "Never heard of him," Ling says. A few days later, she spoke to a friend in North Carolina. She asked about Bruce Lee, and he told her his Chinese name. The next day, Ling approached Brandon. "Now I know who your father is," she recalls saying. "I don't speak English. I don't know what's Bruce Lee. I know Lee Jun-Fan." They became friends and started playing video games on set. They were the hottest Chinese stars in Hollywood—but then Lee died while filming a stunt on set.
Lee's death shocked Ling. Watching The Crow and meditating on her co-star's passing taught her the magic of film. "I felt like you see [Lee] with God, like he's so quiet watching all of us, like his flesh died but his soul is watching us," Ling says. "That's why movies are so magic: because no matter what happens to us, no matter how old, that moment we capture in film never changes—[it's] exactly the same. It's timeless, unlimited. It can freeze in time and space."
Although the film made little sense, The Crow became a cult hit. It opened at number one at the box office. Wearing a red scarf over her head and white face makeup while dodging bullets, Ling captivated The Crow's audiences. She showed immense presence. You were unsure if she was going to kiss someone in a grand romantic gesture or shoot them, and her look inspired teen girls, preceding the pinnacle of 1990s goth that included Hot Topic and Marilyn Manson.
"I'm a icon, actually, all over the world," Ling explains. "I don't own a TV. I don't watch TV. I don't know what's going on in the world. Therefore, I am authentic. I don't care what's the trend. If I'm going to wear this out tonight then that's my red carpet dress. Therefore, I become very unpredictable."
The film led to Ling's first A-list films: an appearance in Oliver Stone's Nixon and a leading role, playing Richard Gere's romantic interest in 1997's Red Corner. She still lacked Hollywood finesse. She felt nervous around press, and Gere taught her how to act like a leading lady and speak up when appearing on shows like Entertainment Tonight. "You're the boss," Ling says he told her. At the red carpet premiere, Ling continued to misunderstand Hollywood customs. When a photographer asked her what she was wearing, she failed to mention a designer. She just said, "I'm wearing a jacket."
At the dawn of the new millennium, Ling's career seemed to only be getting better. She guest starred on the hit TV show Angel and continued to appear in roughly one or two movies a year.
One year at the MTV Movie Awards, she says, she spotted George Lucas in the green room. "I just couldn't [say hello]," Ling says. She walked into another room and sat in a booth. A lady then approached her. She praised Ling's work in Angel and asked if she could sit down. Ling said, "Sure." They drank for a bit, and then Lucas walked towards them—the woman was his daughter. "If you ever have any Chinese characters, they should use a calligraphy pen as a weapon," Ling says she told Lucas. Two weeks later, Ling received a call from LucasFilm asking if she'd like to join the cast of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
"Brilliant directors will embrace you if you're brilliant," Ling says.
She shot Sith. In May 2005, the same month the film hit theaters, Ling posed in Playboy. When the magazine approached Ling, she says she knew little about it; she considered it a publication for teens. A man explained to her that it was "a man's bible." "Wow!" Ling says. "Considering Hugh Hefner chose me, right? I don't have big boobs and all of that—[but he] chose me. There is something very sexy and primal about me as a woman. I should be proud, very grateful." Her cover said "STAR WARS COLLECTORS EDITION," but Lucas cut her from the film shortly before its release.
Fans have alleged that Lucas cut her because she posed nude while promoting the film. "Only he can answer that [accusation]," Ling says. "The truth is I did personally work with two of the 20th century icons: George Lucas and Hugh Hefner." The Playboy spread affected Ling's image, making her look more like a sexual mid-aughts socialite than an actress who had starred in Oliver Stone's Nixon. Ling rejected this depiction and believes people should have celebrated her decision to pose in Playboy.
"I'm the first Asian woman on the cover of Playboy mag," she says. "I went from a communist country to Playboy."
The next year, in 2006, Ling starred in one of her favorite movies, Southland Tales. Richard Kelly's musical follow-up to Donnie Darko, the film tells the story of an action film actor, a porn star, and a cop uncovering a massive conspiracy. Ling stars along side the Rock, Justin Timberlake, and Sarah Michelle Gellar. "My role on paper was nothing," Ling says. "I was wearing Cher's wig!" Kelly asked her to watch Madonna's "Vogue" music video, then he followed her with a camera and expanded her role in the final cut. "In the end my role becomes so important." After the movie premiered, she says Gellar said, "Bai Ling is a genius."
The second half of the aughts were the lowest point of Ling's career. She starred in little-seen films like 2009's Crank: High Voltage. She rejects the theory that her career troubles stem from Hollywood's lack of roles for Asian women and says minorities shouldn't expect Hollywood to give them more roles than white people. "The majority of consumers in America are white people," Ling says. "In China, if [a white man goes] there you have no work because they're [all] Chinese."
Ling acknowledges her partying as the biggest hindrance to her career. To cope with childhood traumas, she turned to alcohol, and she began struggling with alcoholism. She remembers being at a red carpet and her nipple falling out. "I didn't know my nipple was out," she says. "They said it was, like, an intentional thing, but I didn't know."
Between Playboy, the Star Wars debacle, and her erratic public appearances, her image deteriorated. She struggled to get the same caliber of film work. Her drinking increased. In 2011, she turned to Dr. Drew's Celebrity Rehab for help. Ling says the show was the first place she discussed many of her problems. Although she can't name how many years she's been sober, she says she's stayed sober since leaving the show.
Although she's supposed to star in an American movie called Coachella Massacre, Ling's career has already started to rebound abroad. She recently returned from China, where she filmed a TV series, and will return for the premiere of a new movie called The Lord of Shanghai. She plays the queen of Shanghai nightlife. "[It's the] equivalent to The Godfather in the US," Ling says. "It's a movie covering the changing history of China [in the 20th century]." In her downtime, Ling advocates for sobriety, appearing in PSAs. Her description of the cause of her drinking is very similar to the root of her acting talents.
"When I'm thinking, I'm an idiot," Ling says. "When I'm not thinking, I'm brilliant. That's Bai Ling."