NEW YORK – Sitting in a Soho coffee shop, Norah Jones looked across the table at the elegant and mysterious Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, who sat quietly behind dark sunglasses that don’t come off, even indoors.
Jones didn’t even know who Wong was, but the hugely respected filmmaker had a question for the singer. Eventually, Wong posed his heavily accented query:
“So Norah, do you want to act?”
As is often the case for the 29-year-old musician – whose musical collaborators have ranged from Outkast to Herbie Hancock – Jones greeted the inquiry with a simple “Why not?”
“I thought, ‘If I say no, I might regret it,”‘ Jones said in a recent interview at a favourite hangout near her East Village apartment. “And if I say yes, I’ll have an experience. If I stink, whatever! I’m a musician – I’ve got a day job. What can I lose here?”
Two years later, the fruit of their unlikely pairing is appearing in theatres in limited release, expanding further in coming weeks. “My Blueberry Nights” is both Jones’ debut as an actor and Wong’s first English-language film.
For the naturally shy Jones, suddenly becoming a movie star (and acting alongside Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Rachel Weisz) is a step just as unexpected as her emergence as one of the most successful recording artists of the decade. (Her 2002 debut album, “Come Away With Me,” won eight Grammys and has sold more than 16 million copies.)
Jones is now sporting a short hairdo and a fresh tattoo on her right arm, her third, which she only briefly waves at, saying, it’s “personal.” She nevertheless oozes an unmistakable air of comfort with herself. Only a few years ago, she was reluctant to stroll out from behind the piano while performing.
Making the film, she says, “really helped that side of me. It helped my confidence, making music videos and doing this last tour. … I enjoyed it so much more. I was so much more confident. I see that side of me as something that hopefully will just get better with age and practice.”
Jones acknowledges taking a handful of acting lessons several years ago when a few filmmaker friends wanted to make “tiny” independent movies with her. But Wong told her not to take any lessons, to preserve her naturalism.
A certain naivety and innocence was suitable to the character: a waitress travelling aimlessly after a breakup. Jones says she still has no idea why Wong wanted her for the part.
“I listened to her music and then I decided to meet her,” says the director, who’s most renown for his acclaimed 2000 international hit, “In the Mood for Love.” “What really impressed me about her was her face, her voice and also her character.”
It’s easy to see commonalities between Jones and Wong. Though Wong is the far more stylized of the two, they both like to linger in the breezy interludes between moments. “My Blueberry Nights,” Wong says, is a film about distance – particularly that between Jones’ character and Jude Law’s.
Wong also is not your average director. Though he had to deal with American unions and production rules for the first time, he’s known for his open-ended, improvisational style in which plans change frequently. (One scene, which involved Jones and Law, took three 14-hour days and, reportedly, more than 150 kisses.)
“He makes films like a jazz musician,” says Jones, who didn’t see a script until just a few weeks before shooting. “I just had to blindly trust him.”
The resulting film, which opened the Cannes Film Festival last year in a version 20 minutes longer, was called dissatisfying by The New York Times. The Los Angeles Times and AP critic Christy Lemire were both unimpressed by Jones’ debut, labelling her “bland” and “outmatched,” respectively.
For Jones, though, critical kudos were never the goal.
“I’m not trying to break into the movie business,” she says. “I just wanted to have a cool experience.”
Jones is currently on hiatus, having last fall completed touring her third album, “Not Too Late.” She believes her next disc will be a new direction that, like “My Blueberry Nights,” will challenge her.
“It’s just time to branch out,” she says. “This movie showed me that it’s fun to be taken out of your comfort zone sometimes. I’m excited to try that with music.”
Meanwhile, she still plays occasional local concerts, often under band names like the Little Willies and El Madmo, for which she’s performed in disguise. Though Jones doesn’t believe such performances suggest a predilection toward acting, she’s still interested to continue work in movies.
“I really enjoyed pretending to be someone else,” says Jones. “It would be really interesting to see how good I could get at it with actual lessons and preparation. I love working this way, though – don’t get me wrong.”
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