Like many screen stars, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who plays Mr. Chow, a gambler and inveterate ladies’ man in Wong Kar Wai’s complex and visually beautiful “2046,” embraced acting in response to a troubled childhood. During a recent Dallas interview, the Hong Kong native explained, “For me, when I was a kid–I come from a broken family, and I didn’t know how to explore my feelings, I didn’t want to explore my feelings in front of others, so I became very isolated. I didn’t talk too much and was very good at hiding my emotions. And somehow when I got into the training and I learned how to act, then I found a way to express my feelings in front of others without being shy, because you can hide behind someone and express your feelings–you can say, you can do whatever you want, but you won’t feel shy. And that’s the reason why I enjoy acting very much, that’s the reason I love acting. I don’t do it for fame or for money. That’s not important for me. But for myself it’s a kind of release that you have been suppressing for thirteen years in your childhood. I used to do the kinds of things very similar to what I did in ‘Chungking Express’ [his first film with Wong] when I was a kid. After school, after I would go home, I locked myself the first thing in the toilet, and I took down the mirror and I would talk to myself, because you have no one to talk to. You dare not talk to anyone, because at that time–I was born in the sixties–it was not that common for broken families to happen in traditional Chinese families. And so that was the reason I had very low self-esteem when I was a kid. I was very shy.”

Leung added that he found working with Wong, with whom he’s made several films including “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love” as well as “2046,” particularly rewarding. “He always tries to get rid of all my tendencies he doesn’t want to see on the set. He just wants the characters to be themselves, to be very natural. He used to do many takes on one scene until you are really exhausted and you don’t have any more energy. There’s a special bond between us. We’ve built up a lot of trust, because we have been working together for more than twelve years. And I know he can bring out the best in me. He…explores some quality inside me that sometimes I don’t even know…He always surprises me.” He recalled an incident that occurred during the making of “Love” that was especially revealing. “After a year of shooting,” Leung noted, “suddenly one day he said, ‘Actually you don’t love this woman. You want to approach her because you want to [take] revenge [on her]–you hate her.’ I didn’t see any of that after I saw the complete movie. It’s just like ‘An Affair to Remember.’ I didn’t see any revenge in it. But that’s the way he makes movies.”

Mention of the fact that this happened after a year of shooting on “Love” brought up the matter of Wong’s peculiar filmmaking methods. He can spend literally years on one picture, and doesn’t share a script with the actors. About “2046,” Leung said, “We started in 1999–so it took about five years. But we did it on and off. The reason why we took so long is that there are [so] many stars in the movie, and scheduling conflicts made…a big problem. And we encountered the SARS epidemic in between, and at that period of time no one’s willing to work–not only show biz, but no people on the streets, too, no people in the shopping arcade. And [there were] also some typical movie-making problems, like location-hunting, because we were shooting not only in Hong Kong, we shot it in different countries, so they used to build up the sets again in a different place. So it takes quite a long time. That’s why it took that long for this movie.” As to how he prepped for his role, he explained, “Actually I didn’t prepare. Wong Kar Wai is used to working without scripts. So we actually don’t have any idea at the very beginning of what the story is about. And he just gave me a little hint on the first day, so I can work with the character. The first day when I arrived on the set and he told me that he wanted me to portray the same character that I portrayed in ‘In the Mood for Love’ again, but he wants me to do it differently–he wants me to play it like a new man. I don’t know why–I haven’t asked, because I didn’t know what the story is about. And I said, ‘Okay. What do you want?’ And he said he wanted me to play a very dark, mean, Bukowski type of man, a cynical playboy. I said, interesting. But it’s very difficult for an actor to revisit the same character again and to bring something new [to it], because I was already… used to the original Mr. Chow, and I think I was already used to his body movements, his gestures, and even the voice. So it’s very difficult for me with the same face–everything the same–also in the sixties, the same name, same hair gel (I hate that gel very much), and the [same] costume. And I said, ‘Can I have a moustache?’ and he said, ‘No, better not, Tony.’ If you don’t have the moustache, with everything the same, and you can act differently, you [will] have a greater impact on the audience.’ I said, ‘I know, but I can’t. I need something to make myself believe that I’m somebody else, at least at the very beginning.’ So we argued on the first day, and at last he came to my [opinion]. And so I got the little moustache to work on. That really helped. But I still encountered a lot of difficulties on the first few months of shooting. When you’re acting, you’re not conscious about your body or your voice or your gestures. You just go back to the original Mr. Chow unconsciously. And fortunately Wong Kar Wai used to…remind me if anything went wrong. So it’s quite challenging for me as an actor–this is my first time doing a character twice. We only have the script for that day’s shooting, so actually we don’t have any idea about what it is. But Kar Wai [is] used to working like that, and I’ve been working with him for so many years, I trust him very much, and quite enjoy this kind of working style.” Nonetheless, he admitted that the five-year shoot on “2046” was difficult, especially since the start-and-stop schedule meant that he had to recapture the character each time he returned from a different project made during hiatus (he completed several other films during the half-decade). “[Finishing the film] for me is a kind of relief,” he said. “But I enjoyed the process very much. Every time I work with Kar Wai I enjoy it very much, [whether] it’s fun, or exhausting, or tiring going through all this frustration.”

The odd mode of filming and the perpetual lack of a finished script meant that Leung had little idea of how his performance had turned out before seeing the first cut of the film at Cannes–and that caused some embarrassment. “I was always focused on my part, to see how it was–was it good or not good–because I don’t know before I saw the movie,” he said. “So I needed to be very focused on my part. Somehow I missed a lot of things–like the story [and] the performances of the actresses. So I was quite lost at the press conferences every time [when] I was at Cannes. They’d ask me, ‘What do you think about the story?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry–I didn’t focus on the story–I focused on myself.’” Now, however, he can talk about the four gorgeous actresses he shares the screen with in the film. “They’re all so different–they’re very special. Gong Li, this is my first time working with her, and my impression about her is, she’s very professional. The kissing scene is the first scene we did, and it was quite an intense kiss, and I felt very comfortable working with her–she was the character. I don’t know her well, but when I was acting with her, I felt I knew her for a long time–a great actress. And Zhang Ziyi is very hardworking, very talented. I still remember on the first day she didn’t know how to walk on the high heels, and she was getting better and better after a few weeks. She picked up things really fast. And Faye Wong always claims she doesn’t know how to act. But what I think, is she’s a very astute actor–she never learned how to act, but you don’t need to learn how to act–she acts by her instincts and follows her heart, and she’s very good at expressing her emotions with her body. Her body language is really good, and she’s very natural. About Carina [Lau] I don’t want to say very much,” he added shyly, “because she’s my girlfriend.”

Leung noted two things he’d like to do before long–make a picture in the States and add producing to his resume. “I always wanted to do one [an American film], because I grew up with Hollywood movies,” he said. “When I was a kid, my mom and her brothers and sisters used to bring me to the cinemas to see movies, and I watched a lot of Hollywood movies. And as an actor I think it would be a very memorable experience for me, at least once in your lifetime doing one English-language movie. But I think I have to make sure that I’m working with the right material and the right crowd.” And he added: “I’ve been an actor for twenty-three years, and I really want to do something else. I think acting is very passive, and when you become a producer, you can have more control, and when you come up with an idea you can work it out with a scriptwriter, and you can design a style, and you can pick your own director. I think it would be more challenging. I don’t know what to do besides movies, so after being an actor, I think I can try something else besides acting.”

But his many admirers will be happy to know that Tony Leung doesn’t intend to abandon acting for producing–just do a bit of both.

“2046” is a Sony Classics Pictures release.