“I have to give it to the background actors; they are the most uninhibited, most committed people. These parties felt so real, and I think people were genuinely having an amazing time on set,” she tells PEOPLE of the “wild” new film from Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land).
The star-studded Babylon is set in 1920s Los Angeles, right around the time Hollywood shifted from silent films to talkies, complete with lavish, extravagant party scenes. As Li puts it, the simulated partying was infectious, even as filming for the sequences went on several days.
“Every single day people partied like it was the first time they were attending this party. The energy was addictive and exhilarating. I loved being a part of it,” she says. “It was never messy. People were extremely professional. It was as if people were on drugs, but nobody was.”
Li, a trained dancer known for shows like Why Women Kill and Sex/Life, plays Lady Fay Zhu, a fictional Chinese-American actress inspired by real-life trailblazer Anna May Wong, who made history as the first Asian American lead in a U.S. television show. She’s introduced in the middle of a raucous party, dressed in a top hat and tux as she performs a raunchy number that holds the partygoers’ attention.
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“There’s definitely a lot of parallels with her life a hundred years ago and my life and how it is. Of course, you have Anna May Wong and the greats from nearly a hundred years ago paving the way for minorities. And here we are, a century later, we’re still fighting a fight,” says Li. “There’s still a little bit of obstacles that we have to overcome here and there.”
“When I first started over 10 years ago,” she continues, “there were barely any roles for me. There was a handful of Asian American actresses in the industry. Then, as of maybe five years ago, there was a lot of noise being made. Films as well as television shows are far more inclusive and diverse these days. There’s been a lot of movement. I am really excited to be a part of that throughout this entire progression.”
“First of all, I was very, very fortunate to be in the film with not just an amazing cast, but these people are some of the most down-to-earth, humble, professional and kind people,” she says. “I wasn’t nervous about who it was with — I was just nervous about not making it look terrible.”
Li says Pitt, 58, who stars as a silent-movie star named Jack Conrad and shares a unique friendship with Lady Fay Zhu, was a fun costar to work with.
“He’s very goofy and an absolute joy to work with,” she says. “He cracks jokes here and there, and we actually did a lot of improvisation in our scenes. Gosh, I really hope that we’ll get to see Damien’s director’s cut one day. He had to cut a lot.”
As for Robbie, she and Li — spoiler alert — had to pull off a steamy onscreen kiss made tricky by some prop snake venom and bite-wound makeup effects. (The moment comes after Robbie’s character Nellie LaRoy is bitten on the neck by a snake in a desert and Lady Fay Zhu saves her by sucking out the poison, before the two share a smooch.)
Li says that scene with the “lovely” Robbie, 32, was “challenging” and “really messy.”
“She had this prosthetic piece on her neck that was filled with honey. And because we’re in the desert, there was a lot of sand and dust in the air. And of course, with her fighting the snake and struggling with a snake, once I get to her, it’s already covered in sand.”
“A mixture of honey and sand,” she adds, “is not exactly the most sexy.”
Babylon is in theaters Friday.