Tang Wei is one of the few young Chinese actresses who manage to be both popular and keep a low profile. She is a household name, largely thanks to her 2007 big screen debut in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution（《色戒》）. But while the Golden Lion-winning film brought the then 28-year-old fame, she did not bask in the glow.
The film's nude scenes and the political issues raised instead led her to fade away from the spotlight for a year. The Central Academy of Drama graduate visited London and honed her dramatic skills further. She took two courses on theater, auditioned for a number of plays and got a role in Shakespeare's Henry V.
On her return to China she acted in five films, but seldom promoted them. She has no micro blog or obvious Web presence, yet still her every move is watched. Video clips of her English speech at an awards ceremony in South Korea and her English interview promoting the 2011 martial arts movie Dragon in Cannes, were widely viewed online.
Passersby steal pictures of the star in bookstores, small restaurants and at the theater and post them on the Internet. While her fans praise her mystery and grace, the critics say she is just a product of successful "hunger marketing".
"Stars are like Barbies," the 34-year-old says, dressed casually in a white silk shirt and deep blue slim jeans, before complaining about the 10-cm high heels. "I still can't get used to them."
"People make up their perceptions of a star, just like they put makeup on a Barbie. The 'star' Tang Wei," she says with a smile, pointing to the ceiling, "is there. She has nothing to do with the real me."
She attributes her ability to master dialects and languages like Cantonese in Lust, Caution, and English in Late Autumn, to her "shamelessness". She insists her English used to embarrass her. At a press conference in New York for Lust, Caution years ago, she says she forgot the word for "building". People laughed, but she said the mistake only made her remember the word better.
She claims she is not smart, good at painting - which she learned from her painter father - or acting. And adds her rise through the acting ranks is just the result of working hard, in what she describes as a "dumb way".
In her latest film, Finding Mr. Right, she plays a Chinese woman who travels to Seattle to deliver her baby, whose father is the rich husband of some other woman. She filled a bag with rice and a ball of lead, and carried it around all day except when bathing or sleeping, to get an idea of what it was like to be a pregnant woman.
"I am not one of those gifted actors, so I try to live the character's life as best I can, hoping the physical practice brings mental change." For instance, when playing a farmer's wife in Peter Chan's Dragon, the eighth best movie of 2012 according to Time Magazine, she put mud under her nails for the role.
She is an avid learner. She improved her Cantonese when making Crossing the Hennessey, a small budget romance that takes place in Hong Kong's narrow streets and tiny restaurants; learned tai chi for her role in Speed Angels; and some Korean when making Late Autumn, in which her character falls in love with a Korean conman in Seattle. The latter film helped her become the first foreigner to win best actress at the PaekSang Arts Awards in South Korea.
She once said in an interview she is so curious she would willingly go to the South Pole some day and learn from the penguins.
Even so, her favorite place is still China, where she can speak Mandarin, take public transport and be among friends. She also likes looking for good, small, difficult-to-find eateries.
If discovered by a fan, she says, "I just change direction and keep on eating".