It’s a dark brooding night, sharp concrete and metal silhouettes dominate the background, armoured ‘sentinels’ drop from the sky. Blink opens a portal and teleports to warn the rest of the mutants. That’s the opening scene of X:Men: Days of Future Past. Fan Bingbing—sleek leather jumpsuit, purple streaked hair, and iridescent green eyes—made everyone stand up and notice the badass mutant.
When you think of ‘Fan Bingbing’, what immediately comes to mind are her luminescent complexion, slender jaw and piercing black eyes—doll-like. But in her past two decades and more that she has been in the film industry, she has proven that she is a lot more than just a pretty face. Her calculated defiance, steady gaze, all embedded in a face that could—all cliches thrown in—launch a thousand ships have launched quite a few movies. The 2014 Marvel movie, albeit her breakout Hollywood role was in no way her sole claim to fame, the Chinese superstar has about 50 films and 45 television series and a few hit singles to her credit. She has another Hollywood blockbuster due for a 2022 release The 355. Fan, who plays a Chinese intelligence agent, co-stars with Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penelope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Sebastian Stan and Edgar Ramírez.
Whether she was playing a disgruntled wife who plots to kill her husband in comic-thriller I am not Madame Bovary or the sovereign in television series Empress of China or a mutant who can open portals to different dimensions, she executes each role with conviction—and not surprisingly, has bagged many awards and unsolicited recognition.
Then there are her standout red-carpet appearances: a stunning yellow dragon-printed robe at 2010 Cannes Film Festival and a custom Louis Vuitton dress for the 2013 iteration. Spectacular as they were, that was also Fan standing her ground, amidst media attention and speculation.
Fan was born in 1981, in the eastern city of Qingdao, at a time when China was going through an economic liberalisation of the highest form. This, by her own admission, presented opportunities and gave her the boost of confidence that has held her in good stead throughout her career. Her most famous quote to the Chinese media—“I don’t need to marry into a wealthy family. I am my own wealthy family”—puts it in a nutshell.
True enough, Fan remains one of the highest paid stars in China and has repeatedly topped the Forbes China Celebrity List.
Fan’s birth may have been during fortuitous times, but she came from humble beginnings—nor was her family in any way influential in society. Whatever, she has achieved have been through her own grit and determination.
Filled with dreams of a career in showbiz and a whole load of passion for acting, Fan enrolled into the Shanghai Xie Jin Film and Television Arts College soon after graduating high school and then joined the Shanghai Theatre Academy. She landed her first acting role at the age of 16 in Chinese television drama My Fair Princess in the role of a maid. Albeit a humble debut, there was the promise of a successful career as the show itself proved to be very successful.
Her positive attitude and determination paid off as she started getting noticed, namely by Feng Xiaogang, one of China’s most successful commercial film maker. Six years after her launch, she made her mark in Cell Phone. Back when smartphones were just entering our lives, Bingbing, who played the mistress of a television presenter, was involved in a film that hinged on the role communication devices play in our lives—the latter’s careless use of technology exposes their affair. The widely popular movie was followed by a sequel Cell Phone 2 in 2019, which did a light-hearted and morbid take on technology.
Acting has absolutely been my dream. Since I was a child, I have always loved being on stage and performing
These films, hugely successful as they were, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her career. Regardless of whether her films did well, Bingbing stood out for her impressive performances and also became renowned for her work ethic. This included remaining stoic through the many downs she faced in her life and career.
It’s with similar gumption and a rather practiced precision that she responds to my questions—with neither denial nor a hint of bitterness about the challenges she has faced.
Have you always wanted to be in show business?
Acting has absolutely been my dream. Since I was a child, I have always loved being on stage and performing. I had talked to my parents about it early on and they were very supportive of me. They have been my biggest support and inspiration.
I have tried many different things in those early years and worked very hard. The road was long and difficult but so rewarding at the same time. I enjoyed it every step of the way. Each time I got a new role, no matter how big or small it was, I would be excited to experience another life story.
You have played a variety of roles, from comedy to romantic to action. How do you prepare yourself for each role?
For me every role is important and unique. Each time I get a new role, no matter how big or small it is, I am excited to experience another life story. When preparing, I will ty to analyse and interpret the script and character. I really throw myself into each role. If I need to learn any technical skills, I will study and prepare in advance. The better I prepare before we start filming, the better the final product will be for the audience.
How was it when you started out in Hollywood?
Language was of course the biggest challenge and working through cultural differences was another. First of all, you need to mentally prepare yourself to face these challenges: you can’t back down. Those things that you need to learn, you work hard and you learn them, whether its language—I had an English tutor—or customs. Once you have studied to a certain point, you just communicate as much as possible, so everyone involved can understand each other better.
Being in the media eye 24/7 must have its challenges. What do you do to find a balance?
You could say it’s a kind of restriction. The public wants to know everything about celebrities’ daily lives, so we need to be kind of strict and restrain ourselves. You can look at it as pressure, but it is also a kind of motivation. As a public figure, people look up to us and see us as role models to guide them in the right direction. So, if you don’t think of it too much as a kind of pressure, but as the public really caring about you, it’s much easier to deal with.
You rarely show your vulnerable side to the public. Is there a support system you rely on?
Everyone has a fragile side and of course, I do too, but I don’t think that it’s necessary to show it to everyone. People aren’t going to feel sorry for you because of your vulnerability. Everyone just wants to see the final outcome; they want results. One thing that keeps me going are my ideals and beliefs. I am always trying to be the best of ‘me’ that I can be.
Then there is the encouragement from my family—they will always be my safe haven.
When I am exhausted, I look back at them and feel their warmth and encouragement surrounding me like a hug. They give me the strength and motivation to get through anything.
What has the pandemic era been for you? Have there been any learnings?
The pandemic has been unfortunate for everyone—its been an era of masks, and slowing down the world’s development. At first, I felt that we as humans were helpless, but it has also shown us the strength we have—when we come together in our beliefs, nothing can stop us. I’m sure we will defeat this virus in the end.
When I am exhausted, I look back at my family and feel their warmth and encouragement surrounding me like a hug. They give me the strength and motivation to get through anything
Tell us about your philanthropic pursuits.
In 2010, I founded the charity organisation Heart Ali. Over the years my team and I have travelled to Ali, Tibet, many times, to visit children suffering from congenital heart disease, and brought them to Beijing or Shanghai to get medical treatment. For many years we have been attempting to improve the medical care in the area as well. We have successfully treated over 340 children from Ali so far. I believe that as a public figure, I have a responsibility to give back to society, and I hope this effort encourages more people to join me in caring for those in need.
Who is the real Fan Bingbing off screen, off the red carpet and away from the public eye?
I am just a normal person. When I was young. I was actually very naughty, running around playing like a boy. I would even sneak out through the window to meet my friends or play hackysack and other games. I am sure my parents worried about me a lot.
Now, in my free time, I like watching TV dramas, discovering new restaurants and getting together with my friends and family. I play with my cats—the same as anybody else really.
How do you unwind?
Usually for me, relaxing means just lying in bed and chilling. Besides that, I will get a massage or go out and eat something delicious to release stress. Before going to bed, I usually pay a lot of attention to skin care. I’ll put on a face mask to relax my skin, and then scroll on my phone, and watch dramas or short videos, which will make me sleep better.
As someone who is known for her beauty, what does the words beauty and grace mean to you personally.
Every woman wants to be more beautiful, but I believe beauty is not only on the outside—it shows through every aspect of a person. Beauty is having ideals in life, determination and confidence. A pretty face may get you extra points, but real beauty comes from within.
This is what I wanted to show the world with my brand Fan Beauty Secret; that everyone is beautiful.
Grace, to me, is having both beauty and elegance—always strive do the right thing; be refined and well-educated; and have self-respect. Then you will embody grace from the inside out.
Editor-in-chief Norman Tan
Photographer Leslie Zhang
Fashion direction Desmond Lim
Stylist Coke Ho
Hair Yang Song
Make-up Zijun Hu
Art direction Adam/Fufu
Set designers Jiaozi and Beiyuan/Fufu
Producers, Emma and Kenan Blumon
The January/February ‘Grace’ issue of Vogue Singapore is available for sale online and in-store from 3 January 2022.