When Michelle Yeoh thinks back to the preproduction phase of Memoirs of a Geisha, she starts laughing. ''We had seven rooms of torture!'' She's referring to director Rob Marshall's series of rehearsal spaces-cum-classrooms near the California set in which she and costars Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li trained to become geishas, the ultrarefined Japanese entertainers who were once as revered as movie stars. It's where the actresses learned how to pour tea, hold a fan, speak, move, and dance. ''Our coaches would tie ropes,'' Yeoh explains, pointing to her knees and imitating a geisha's gentle pitter-patter. ''Because you have to be gl-iiiii-ding along [to make] the kimono flutter in the back. Then we walked with a little notepad [between our knees], and then with a sake bottle on [our heads].'' And on and on, every day for six weeks.
It was arduous, Marshall knew, but fundamental. An $80 million adaptation of Arthur Golden's best-selling Cinderella-in-a-kimono novel about a servant girl's rise to geisha greatness, the project had been in development for six years before Marshall came on board in 2003 (he replaced original director Steven Spielberg, now a producer). The Chicago vet was convinced that to re-create Golden's vivid world of pre- and post-WWII Japan successfully, every detail mattered.
Besides, his leads could take it. He had, after all, hired Zhang as the geisha in training, Sayuri; Yeoh as her teacher, Mameha; and Gong as her devious rival, Hatsumomo. They are actresses who, while not marquee names here, are among Asia's most respected. His decision to cast Chinese actresses (Yeoh, though from Malaysia, is ethnically Chinese) as such quintessentially Japanese characters ruffled a few feathers here and abroad especially given the complicated history between China and Japan. However, the controversy is ''a nonissue,'' says Marshall. ''They're the best ones for the roles. That's how it works.''
Yeoh and Zhang have been friends since chasing each other across rooftops in 2000's hit Chinese martial-arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But it took a Hollywood movie to bring the three heavyweights together. ''In Chinese, we would say this is a stroke of good faith,'' says Gong. Over a few days in November, EW met with the three women to discuss their careers, their lives, and how it felt to disappear under the endless layers of a kimono.
When Ziyi Zhang landed the role of Sayuri last year, all she could think about was what her mentor, director Zhang Yimou (Hero), had said to her years before. ''He told me it's impossible to make a movie in a second language because there's no way to get into the character deeply,'' the Beijing-born actress explains. ''And I really listened to him. [When I got the role,] my English wasn't so good. I thought, Oh God! How can I do this?''
Add to that the challenge of portraying a character from a beloved book and the stress of a year-long, worldwide casting process, and you begin to understand the load thrust upon 26-year-old Zhang's delicate shoulders. There was also the matter of mastering a lifetime of geisha etiquette in just six weeks. ''Oh God, the shamisen,'' Zhang groans, referring to the banjolike instrument that became her bête noire. ''One day I had class, I almost fell asleep because the song is rrrrangh! rrrrangh! rrrrangh!'' she bellows, imitating the string sound and bobbing her head sleepily. ''I had so much tension I can't let [Rob] have any regrets [about] picking me. But sometimes,'' she says in her accented, but steady, English, the result of two years of intensive lessons, ''I think pressure is good. And I really have to thank Zhang Yimou, because what he said pushed me to work extra hard.''