Actor brings new look to the crew of 'Pirates'

The Baltimore Sun

Director Gore Verbinski asked Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-Fat to shave his head for his role as the powerful Singapore buccaneer Capt. Sao Feng in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

"He wanted to keep his hair for a while," Verbinski recalls. "But I said I think we should see this guy not having a head of hair. We have so many long-haired pirates."

The 52-year-old star of Ang Lee's Oscar-winning martial arts epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, agreed to go the bald pate route, but only if the filmmaker would shave him.

"I think as a director, he has a full vision of every single character in the movie," says Chow, a lanky charmer who is not above bussing a woman's hand.

"All the Western pirates have the long hair, so I think it's a very wise idea. Sao Feng is more stunning with tattoos and scars."

In the third installment in the enormously successful franchise based on the Disneyland ride, Will (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) and Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) travel to Singapore to get charts and a ship to take them to world's end to rescue Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).

With his Fu Manchu mustache, macho swagger and talon-like fingernails, Chow seems to be channeling Toshiro Mifune and Yul Brynner.

"He's a praying mantis," Verbinski says of Sao Feng. "You are not quite sure if you love him or if you can trust him. He takes us through the entire journey."

"He's not an ordinary bad guy," echoes Chow. "He's not one straight line. He has so many faces. You can say he's a bad guy, but on the other hand he's a bad guy with a conscience."

For Verbinski, Chow was his only choice for the role.

"He is such an iconic character. So we called him, and I just knew he would dive into the part. He completely committed himself to his character."

Chow, who gained international fame in the 1980s in John Woo's acclaimed thrillers Hard-Boiled, A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, brought a new and different vibe to the set.

He may be a superstar in Hong Kong, but he's happy being just one of the guys.

"If the grips were moving the dolly, he'd grab the dolly in his costume and move it," Verbinski says.

"It is like this socialistic filmmaking or something. He broke down all of those barriers [between the cast and the crew]. The crew loved him, just loved him. He came in late in the game but gave us a tremendous amount of energy."

"I am easy to everybody," Chow says, laughing. "I am not very poisoned. I am a very easy man to get along with."

Still, he is career savvy. Chow knows the extraordinary visibility Pirates will give him with American audiences - the films he previously made in English, such as The Replacement Killers and Anna and the King, were not hits.

"Maybe you have to wait 20 years or so for the lucky stars to shine on you," he says. "It is an actor's dream to push to the galaxy."

When he wasn't in front of the cameras, Chow would be on the set taking photographs.

"He has a great eye," Verbinski says. "He sent me a picture - it's me in the chair [shot] from behind. All you see is my hat and the tips of my fingers."

Chow's interest in photography began while on location in China for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

"I had never seen such beautiful scenery in China even though I am Chinese," he says. "I picked up my camera and took some pictures in color."

Upon his return to Hong Kong, he began researching landscape photographers and fell in love with the black-and-white images of Ansel Adams.

"I was stunned by his work, so I brought a view camera that is the big format. When I was on set, I would bring my tiny camera."

Chow got a lot of negative press recently after he bowed out of Woo's latest film, the epic Red Cliff, in April, stating he had received the script too late to prepare for his role.

The Hong Kong press said he was acting like a prima donna. Now, Chow has verbally committed to appear in the film in a cameo.

Chow is reluctant to talk about the controversy but noted, "When I make an appearance with John Woo in Beijing, it will be another story. When you see Chow Yun-Fat and John Woo walk together in Beijing, then it will be a true story."

Susan King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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