the great wall

Jing Tian plays the leader of the elite Crane Corps in The Great Wall.

Jing Tian walked into the interview room at the Peninsular Hotel in Beijing, China with her “squad” – possibly her team of stylists, minders and managers – and immediately plonked herself on a chair. The way she sat was not at all lady-like: Legs apart, elbows on her knees and hands pointing downwards, with her back hunched over just a tad.

She looked like a woman who really means business. Talked like one, too.

She rattled off non-stop in Mandarin immediately after reporters finished asking questions about her involvement in The Great Wall, a film directed by Zhang Yimou. I asked her a question in English, and she answered, without skipping a beat, in perfect English.

“What do you like best about your character, the commander Mae Lin?”

“Girl power! She’s strong, very strong. But so are all the other warriors in the movie. What made me like this movie so much was that the women and men in the military are equally strong, equally important. There is no weaker sex in The Great Wall, everyone is just as strong, just as brave,” said Jing Tian, 28.

In The Great Wall, the Chinese actress plays the leader of the Crane Corps, an all-female group of aerial fighters trained to protect China. The corps is part of The Nameless Order, China’s elite military team that battle monsters called the “taotie” which attack the Wall every 60 years.

What’s unique about the Crane Corps is the way they fight – they jump off the Wall carrying weapons and stick them on any monster that tries to scale the wall. Thanks to Zhang, these death-defying leaps look like they were done by Cirque du Soleil veterans on screen.

Jing Tian revealed that many of the stunts were done by the actors themselves. Her training started many months before filming began and she admitted that it wasn’t particularly easy on her at first.

jing tian

Jing Tian in Special ID.

“I had to learn martial arts and how to use some of the weapons. From 1m to 4m, these props kept getting bigger throughout the training process. The actresses also had to learn how to work with cables as our characters need to hang from them in the movie. These cables were attached to something like a hula hoop; the hoop allowed us to spin and twist 360° in mid-air.

“Most of the time we would feel dizzy after our sessions; sometimes a few of us would throw up! It was pretty tough on us,” said Jing Tian, who didn’t even know for sure that she was going to get the role in The Great Wall when she agreed to go to the US for training.

“I met Zhang in Beijing three or four times, and he told me to audition. After that I asked my production team what was happening and they told me they wanted to send me to the US to train. I didn’t actually know the result of my audition but I felt that I should work hard no matter the outcome,” she revealed.

Apart from the training, Jing Tian was also told by producers that she was too thin – at 54kg – and not muscular enough to fit the role of an army commander. So, she had to attend workout sessions with a personal trainer and was fed … lots of meat.

“When I did my groceries, the coach would follow and make sure I buy protein powder and chicken breast. The drink was hard for me to swallow! I was not allowed to put salt on my food either but on the other hand, I could eat a lot more. I could take five plates of pork belly and have steamboat, and then in the morning I could have steak for breakfast!” said Jing Tian excitedly.

By the time she met up with Zhang again, she was already 64kg and the director finally said she looked tough enough for her role.

“I asked him if I could still fit into my costume,” Jing Tian said, chuckling.

Once filming was done, she reluctantly started to lose the weight she had gained. “I haven’t lost that much really, as you can see from my round face!” she said.

The Great Wall is currently playing in cinemas in Malaysia.