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Fast Talk: Bai Ling

Had you ever been to Vietnam before filming The Beautiful Country there?

I grew up in southern China, near Vietnam, but this was my first time over the border. We filmed there for two months, but also in Dallas and New York. The movie is a journey, like taking a train somewhere and watching the characters get on and off. Vietnam was a pleasure. The energy of Saigon—so chaotic and modern—is amazing.

Did you draw upon elements of your own life—your journey from East to West—for your role?

Not consciously. I never prepare as an actor, apart from reading the script. For me, that's not acting. When I act, I'm living the moment, and I like my emotions to surprise me. And through my travels, I've been exposed to real life and had many interesting encounters throughout the world—those memories come to me on set and help me understand the experiences of my characters.

In the film, America is not always so "beautiful." Has the United States lived up to your expectations?

America has been very generous to me—I'm always working. I'm far luckier in life than the character I play in the movie—and also more romantic. I would have made different decisions than her, but her struggle made me understand that reality can be harsh at times. I walked away from this film with a greater appreciation for my own life.

You have a significant fan base in China, what happens when you return for a visit?

Last time I was in Hong Kong, I was followed by the paparazzi. It was kind of scary and strange, but I appreciate it when fans recognize me. I've had such diverse transformations on screen that I'm surprised when someone connects me to the characters from my movies.

What's your favorite city?

I have such a love affair with Paris. I first visited the city in 2001 while shooting a French film with Luc Besson, and I return all the time. I love the Ritz and the Place Vendôme, and I always go to Buddha Bar and Luc's restaurant, Market, in the Eighth Arrondissement.

Have you ever switched your travel plans at the last minute and had a better time because of it?

Two years ago, I was invited to Johannesburg for the opening of a casino, but ended up going on safari instead. For two weeks, I would wake up at 4:30 each morning to chase nature. I felt a certain poetic kinship with the leopards. They disappear if they don't want you to find them, but they let me get pretty close.

What do you love most about traveling?

I like long airplane rides—with no phone calls or distractions. I just lie back and let my thoughts come. Sometimes, I'll even get a massage. I pack as little as I can and buy things when I arrive, except shoes. I bring different colors to match what I'm wearing. I opt for whatever's comfortable, but I do love my high-heeled Armani boots and anything by Jimmy Choo.

Do you have a favorite souvenir?

I'm not very attached to material things, but I do collect postcards wherever I go. Sometimes I'll give them to my friends and family on their birthdays or a special occasion. Each one is unique and representative of a specific city.

Where are you off to next?

I live out of hotel rooms—I'm on my way to D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, and then back to L.A. for another movie. I also spend a lot of time in Asia. When I'm in Bangkok, I stay at the Oriental. In the mornings, I'll take a long breakfast and gaze along the banks of the Chao Phraya. I visit China often, because my family is still there. I feel as if I was meant to live a gypsy's life.

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