“I remember gasping,” says Li Jun Li of the moment in December 2019 when she opened up an email about a new film that would be directed by Damien Chazelle, who was looking for an actress to play Anna May Wong. “I just kept reading it over and over again. And I said, ‘Okay, I need this. This is me. This is mine. I want it,’” Li says.
To Li and many others, Wong is an icon. Despite incredible hurdles as an Asian actor in the 1920s and ’30s, Wong became the first Chinese American movie star, appearing in films like 1929’s Piccadilly, 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon, and 1932’s Shanghai Express.
Li, who moved from Shanghai to Bogotá as a child, and then later New York, had previously starred in several TV series including ABC’s Quantico and Fox’s The Exorcist. And while she’d had small roles in a few films, the chance to play Wong in a big, bold studio movie, alongside stars Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, felt like an unmissable opportunity.
After Li landed the role (she put herself on tape and later flew to LA to meet with Chazelle for a 90-minute session), she dove deep into learning as much about Wong as she could. She used Wong’s biography, From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russell Gao Hodges, as a jumping-off point. But then Chazelle emailed her: The character would not be Anna May Wong, but would be inspired by her. She would be called Lady Fay Zhu.
“A part of me, obviously, was a little bit disappointed,” says Li, who often goes by the nickname LiLi. “But at the same time, I was really relieved because I felt like we can be more creatively free, and at the same time with a little less pressure when it comes to portraying someone so monumental.”
Regardless of her name, Li’s character is a scene-stealer in Babylon. She’s a confident, charismatic Hollywood actor who also writes title cards as a side hustle. We meet her in a stunning early scene in Babylon, amid a wild party that includes dancers, orgies, and even an elephant stomping about. Then, Lady Fay takes the stage, smoking a cigarette in a top hat and a tux. She sings a titillating song called “My Girl’s Pussy” while snaking her way through the crowd. “I just wanted her to make an impact,” says Li. “I don’t really have the right words to describe the steps I took to make her that. I think it’s really instinctual.”
Li trained for about a month before production began, working with choreographer Mandy Moore (who previously worked with Chazelle on La La Land). The original version of the musical number was much longer and quite complex, she says. “And it was just so beautifully done. I really hope that we get a director’s cut soon,” says Li, who was a dance major at the Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
After that tuxedo-clad number, Lady Fay appears in a series of standout looks, created by costume designer Mary Zophres. Li says they looked at a lot of traditional dresses in many different colors, aiming to find looks that would really allow her to pop onscreen. “She’s so resilient because of her background and her struggles, but at the same time, there’s just this carelessness about her that we wanted to achieve in the pink dress that she pretty much spends most of the film in,” she says. In every scene she’s in, Lady Fay carries herself with a confidence that makes it impossible to take your eyes off her. Adds Li, “I just wanted to make her presence known through her stillness.”