It’s hard to believe Li Jun Li, a.k.a. LiLi, first auditioned for the role of Anna May Wong in 2019. “Director Damien Chazelle wrote about her, as he was inspired since she was considered Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star, and that’s how it was presented to me. When I got the email, I started researching and dove right in. It was my mission to be part of this project and to work with Damien, in addition to portraying someone so important in the history of Hollywood,” the star exclusively tells GRAZIA USA of Chazelle’s new movie Babylon, which hits theaters nationwide on Friday, December 23.
After LiLi read for the part, she met up with Chazelle months later where they discussed every scene. “I felt so satisfied after talking with him, which is very rare. As an actress, I often second guess myself after every audition or interview. But with this one, I felt like I did everything I could, and I was happy with my work. I left completely at peace — even if I didn’t end up getting it. I got the call one week later, and I blacked out when my team told me I got the part.”
The actress was also one of the first ones to be cast in the comedy-drama film, which is about the rise and fall of several ambitious dreamers in 1920s Hollywood. At the time, Margot Robbie had yet to join, as Emma Stone was still in the picture. “I was beside myself,” she says of landing the coveted role. “I was completely shocked and a bit emotional. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, filming kept getting pushed months and months. I think we waited a total of 18 months before we actually went into production.”
From there, some things changed: Chazelle told LiLi that her character’s name is Lady Fay Zhu, who is mostly based on Wong. “I still felt this great responsibility to be able to portray someone who was so important in this industry,” she notes. “We also had more creative freedom and we were able to tell the story the best we could. Lady Fay is a performer, singer and actress on the side, which was so fun. We got to explore different things. It was important to me that we told the story of her struggles, as she was the only Asian American actress in Hollywood at the time.”
Additionally, LiLi was among some of Hollywood’s A-listers, including Brad Pitt (who plays Jack Conrad), Robbie (Nellie LaRoy), Jean Smart (Elinor St. John) and Olivia Wilde (Ina Conrad). “Being part of this project was even better due to the entire cast and crew. There wasn’t a single bad fruit in the batch!” she quips. “Every single person was so kind, talented and everyone was so committed and collaborative. I was fortunate to work with Margot and Brad who are incredibly kind people.”
“Margot also has the most incredible work ethic. She works so hard, and I don’t know how she never gets tired! When we would come in, we’d talk about our weekends. I was like, ‘I pretty much was horizontal the whole time,’ while she said, ‘I did this and this, I enjoyed this.’ She always had so much energy!” she adds.
LiLi couldn’t help but gush over working with the Fight Club alum, 59. “The first time I blacked out was when I got the job, and the second time I blacked out while acting alongside Brad. “He’s so cool and super goofy. He makes you feel so comfortable. What I admire about him is that even though he’s done so much in his career, he is still curious and inspired and fascinated by everything that happens on set.”
The Exorcist alum also credits Chazelle for creating “a safe environment for all of us to work in, and I think that’s what allows us to really do our best work.”
Since LiLi started out as a dancer in her career, she was ecstatic to learn that she would be performing a musical number in the beginning of the film. “I utilized everything I had learned. I went to performing arts high school and was a dance major — and I sing, so I was able to revisit my musical theater background,” she shares.
Growing up, LiLi didn’t think she would pursue her dream of becoming an actress, as she was painfully shy. “I still socially awkward and nervous, but I am better now,” she confesses. “I definitely had people in my life that laid out breadcrumbs for me, which led to the right place. For some reason, I landed here, and I could not be more thankful because I don’t see myself doing anything else.”
Now that Babylon is added to LiLi’s resume, she feels like it’s rewarding since “all the years of hard work is finally coming to fruition,” she says, as the last decade hasn’t been easy for her to score roles.
“In the beginning, I would compare myself to others, which was detrimental in every aspect. But with more work under your belt, you gain confidence — and knowledge,” she says. “With more wisdom over the years, you learn when you go in, you recognize your work and also recognize what is not meant for you. It’s much easier to accept what is not meant for you.”
Now that LiLi has taken on the role of Lady Fay, she’s happy Anna May Wong is getting the recognition she deserves. “She’s finally getting commemorated — and she’s now on a quarter! Now kids will know exactly who she is, and she was the original trailblazer who paved the way. I feel like it’s amazing that the POC and Asian community is finally being included in the conversation. I hope that by me being in this, the Asian American community and the next generation will be less fearful and more motivated to pursue their dreams because they absolutely can!”
Next up, LiLi hopes to do more comedy because she loves to make people laugh. “It’s one of my favorite things, but I am not often given that opportunity,” she states. “I also would love to play more femme fatale roles. I try to keep myself on my toes, and I would like to continue to play all sorts of different roles moving forward.”
“I’m also very thankful that the industry has changed quite a lot. I’m thankful I’m living in it. With a little bit of nudging here and there, we can perfect it and cast people because they are right for the roles — not because we’re checking off any boxes,” she concludes. “I want to continue to do good work and keep my resume colorful.”
Babylon will hit theaters nationwide on Friday, December 23, with international releases starting on January 18, 2023.