[10 April 2008]
It was the kind of offer that most Hollywood A-listers would jump at: a chance to work with Wong Kar-Wai, the critically acclaimed Hong Kong director of “In the Mood for Love” and “Chungking Express.” But the woman that Wong wanted wouldn’t call him back.
|JONES IS KEEPING UP WITH THEM Norah Jones isn’t the first to make the jump from chanteuse to actress. Here are a few of her predecessors: Jennifer Hudson: The 2004 “American Idol” contestant snagged both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her powerful performance as the hard-luck singer Effie White in the 2006 film version of the musical “Dreamgirls.” Joan Jett: From punk producer (The Germs) to power-rock hottie (The Runaways) to blockbuster hit-maker (“I Love Rock `n’ Roll”) to ... Michael J. Fox’s sister? Jett’s role as single mom and part-time rocker Patti Resnick, in 1987’s “Light of Day,” essentially marked the beginning and end of her film career. Bette Midler: The multitalented Miss M started out as a singer-songwriter, but she’s possibly better known as a versatile actress whose roles range from the comedic to the dramatic in movies such as “The Rose,” “Get Shorty” and “Beaches.” Marianne Faithfull: This 1960s scenester (and girlfriend of Mick Jagger) has had a long singing career, recording the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By” before they did and making a much-heralded comeback in the `80s with the album “Broken English.” She’s also a sometime actress: The 61-year-old recently had a cameo in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” and stars as a granny-turned-hooker in the new comedy-drama “Irina Palm.” Madonna: Over the decades, the pop superstar has tried—and tried—to establish herself as a serious actress. Her track record includes some hits (“Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Evita”), some misses (“Dick Tracy,” “Who’s That Girl?”) and some resounding disasters (“Shanghai Surprise,” “Swept Away”).|
“I didn’t even know who he was,” said Norah Jones, who, to be fair, is not a professional actor but a multiplatinum-selling singer of dreamy pop hits like “Don’t Know Why” and “Thinking About You.”
In the summer of 2005, after wrapping up a long tour, Jones said, “I was at home, kind of bored, not knowing what the heck I was going to do. And for at least a month, my manager had been telling me, `This guy Wong Kar-Wai’s been wanting to meet with you, and here’s a DVD box set of all his movies.’”
Finally, Jones watched Wong’s lush romance “In the Mood for Love,” and that got her to return his call—but she still didn’t know what he wanted.
“I thought maybe he wanted music,” she said.
Instead, Jones wound up making her screen debut in Wong’s first English-language film, “My Blueberry Nights.” And she doesn’t just pop up briefly as some torch singer in a nightclub—she’s the lead actress, backed by a supporting cast of Jude Law, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz. The film premiered at Cannes last year.
Sitting in a conference room in the midtown Manhattan offices of her record label, Blue Note, just two days before her 29th birthday, Jones didn’t seem overly impressed by her new achievement. Dressed casually in an unironed, surplus-green blazer and blue jeans, she described the movie as a nerve-racking but ultimately rewarding experience that gave her a chance to step out of her usual role as an adult-contemporary singer.
In “My Blueberry Nights,” Jones plays Elizabeth, a young New Yorker who takes a road trip across the American West. Along the way, she encounters other lost souls—a sassy poker player (Portman), an alcoholic cop (Strathairn), his estranged wife (Weisz)—while sending postcards to the admirer she left behind (Law). Elizabeth is more observer than participant, watching and learning as dramas unfold around her.
But Jones didn’t know any of that when she had lunch with Wong. “He’s got these dark sunglasses, he’s very mysterious, very tall, doesn’t say much,” Jones said of Wong. Adopting her best Hong Kong accent, she recalled their conversation: “He said, `Sooo, Noraaah ... do you want to act?”
A week later, she received another call: “`Sooo, Noraaah ... do you want to be in my movie?”“
Jones’ acting resume was limited to one high school play (“Victory on Mrs. Dandywine’s Island”), but Wong seemed intrigued by her inexperience. He forbade her from taking acting lessons and never rehearsed with her before shooting began. “He didn’t see me act at all until the first day on the set,” she said.
Why did Wong cast a complete novice as his leading lady? “I try not to analyze my instinct,” he wrote in an e-mail from Hong Kong. “In a way, why I chose is a mystery, even to me. Then on set, I try to rediscover the quality that first attracted me to each of my actors. When Norah first cried on camera, I said to myself, `Yes, this is why I cast her.’”
As Jones read the script, which often changed as shooting progressed, she tried to imbue her mostly passive character with a bit of inner strength. “I was hoping she wouldn’t seem too naive and weak,” she said. “I’m kind of like that, too, yet I’m very strong underneath it all. I’m not really as naive as I seem sometimes.”
You can almost see Jones settle into her role as the film unfolds. The first scenes she shot are the first scenes in the movie, when she dashes into a SoHo cafe (a real one on Grand Street called Palacinka) and meets Law. The disoriented, slightly terrified look on her face, Jones said, is mostly real. And she was thankful the script required her to sleep through a blueberry-flavored kiss from Law, who was once voted People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive.
“It made it a lot easier for me,” Jones said. “It was a lot of me laying there and him licking cream off my face, because that’s what they made him do. Which was weird for both of us.”
Jones has no other movie plans in the works—or any plans at all, she said. In a way, she’s returned to that lazy summer of 2005. “I’m looking forward to just staying in New York for a while,” she said. “I want to enjoy my house more. I want to get a dog.”