Having 40 million followers on social media and starring in a Hollywood blockbuster would be enough for most people to rest on their laurels. Not for Li Bingbing.
Regarded as one of China’s most famous actresses, the 45-year-old’s determination to learn English as a second language helped her to land Hollywood action hero roles in “Resident Evil: Retribution” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”
What she does away from acting is arguably more noteworthy. She regards her “meaningful” off-screen achievements as an environmental activist just as highly as her on-screen roles.
For nine years, Li has been a goodwill ambassador for the United Nation’s Environment Programme (UNEP).
The actress credits her long-standing passion for environmental activism for gaining attention from the highest global stage any activist could wish for.
“I’d already done a lot of environmental protection things so I think they paid attention to me. And then they invited me to be the goodwill ambassador for UNEP. And that’s what I really want to be,” Li told CNBC’s Tania Bryer.
Speaking at a UN climate summit in 2014 gave her the confidence to feel “so strong willed” — akin to what she describes as being similar to “a soldier.”
“I am not Li Bingbing standing there, I think. I am a person who has a sound. I want to say something to let the world, all the excellences and the kings and the presidents know our sound, our voice.”
She remains the only Chinese ambassador for the UN’s environment program to this day — something she admits is “a burden” with “so much pressure and a lot of responsibility.”
The actress-turned-activist can claim to be a part of a major victory in 2015 when China promised to ban ivory.
A trip to Kenya opened her eyes, she said, to the “horrible” impact that the demand for ivory, especially from her homeland, has on the African elephant.
“They just chop the elephant’s face off and they didn’t even care [if] the elephant’s pregnant or [if] it’s still a baby. It was just a massacre,” she said.
“So when I came back from Kenya, I initiated a ‘say no to ivory’ campaign. I tried to find some media to help us to promote this information. But not a lot of media pay attention to you,” said Li.
Aghast with the lack of media attention on the ivory trade, she turned to her 40 million followers on popular Chinese social media site Weibo.
The Beijing-based actress has learned that the large following she has amassed can be harnessed for a greater cause. Li generated enough traction for the UN to describe her “Say No to Ivory” campaign as having the biggest impact of any other project that year.
She remains confident that ivory will fall out of favor largely due to changing tastes and awareness from young people on the impact illegal ivory can have on the environment.
“As my generation, I didn’t see a lot of ivory trade. We didn’t even use those things,” she said.
“And I think nowadays, they, the young people don’t like the ivory. So who likes ivory?”
China’s thirst for ivory has long created demand for elephant tusks which led to a surge in poaching African elephants.
All trade in ivory-made products has been illegal in China since the ban came into force in January this year.
Chinese state media Xinhua described the run-up to the ban as “one of the largest ever public awareness campaigns” with support from other celebrities such as Chinese basketball player Yao Ming.
Closer to home, Li has a hard time convincing her parents on the merits of activism.
“Doing environmental protection, it’s not that easy,” she said. “You know sometimes when my parents, they use the towel, or in the hotel or in their room, I always ask them to save. Don’t waste. If you can use a small towel, don’t use the big towel.”
Li Bingbing never imagined that she would find her way into Hollywood, let alone become an actress. She describes her childhood as “very, very poor,” but filled with happiness. Li’s parents earned up to 200 yuan ($15) a month when she was born.
“We don’t have that much money, but we’re happy. We love each other,” she said.
Li’s recollection about her childhood in Wuchang, a small town in northeast China, made clear that a simple start in life laid the foundations for her current fame and fortune.
“I am really thankful for my parents … They gave me values when I was very little.”
She repeats a phrase her parents had taught her on more than one occasion that epitomizes the way she intends to live: “Money isn’t the measure of man.”
The film star’s perspective is shaped by a moment that occurred before the first time she left home. Li’s dad told her that he had no money to buy a leaving gift. Instead, he gave her six phrases as a parting gift: self-esteem, self-respect, love yourself, be strong, be independent and be confident.
Li outgrew her hometown, a place she remembers as having no university and no student population. Enrolled to study in Shanghai, Li was intent on becoming a teacher — until she was offered a spot at Shanghai’s Theatre Academy after being spotted performing.
“When I got the letter of acceptance from the school, we’re happy. We’re screaming. We’re just so excited,” she said.
“After we saw the price of the school — it needed 4,000 yuan a year — our whole family went silent. Because my father only earned 300 a month and I earned 260. And my mom just had a big heart surgery.”
A dramatic intervention from her father pushed Li on the path to acting school.
“I remember my father was just in the kitchen scrubbing the pot and the bowls. I think he overheard me and my mom talking … He just throws the pot and the brush. He said, ‘Dammit. Others’ kids can’t even get into the college. When my one does, I’ll sell all the things that I have to make sure my kids can go to school.’”
In her first month studying in acting school, Li raked in 800 yuan in a single day from shooting a commercial in the Shanghai subway.
“After that, I never asked for any money from my home, my family.”
A long way from home, Li was earning enough to pay the college fees for her sister.
Li is undoubtedly an established icon of China’s $62 billion film industry. Her journey to the top started after she transitioned from television into film in the late 1990s. She won best actress award at the Singapore International Film Festival in 1999 for her role in “Seventeen Years,” a film that earned a number of accolades including the Director’s Award at the Venice Film Festival.
“I never thought I would work with Hollywood,” she said.
But she did just that in 2008 starring in “The Forbidden Kingdom,” alongside Jackie Chan and Jet Li, a film she describes as having “really beat me a lot.” Balancing the pressure of speaking a new language and acting action scenes took a toll.
And then she took a risk. Li decided to pause her career just as she started to make her breakthrough beyond Beijing and Shanghai.
“So after that movie, it’s actually the peak of my career. And I just stopped everything for a year and a half. And I just went to an English school, studied there for a year and a half. From [learning] ‘a,b,c,d,’ ‘what’s your name?’ ‘my name is Bingbing,’ ‘how are you?’”
She credits her parents for influencing her decision to take a break and study English. Far from it being a pastime, learning English as a second language was a necessity to further her career.
“So if I keep working, I bet I can make more money. And maybe become more famous.”
Taking a year-and-a-half away from acting had opened new doors for Li. Her concentration on acting had even moved “Transformers” director Michael Bay to tears.
“He told me ‘Bingbing, I am so happy to have you as my actress.’ I was so moved. That’s the best comment for me (from) a director I think.”
The actress is “thankful” to Bay for solidifying her success abroad, but admits that starting the fourth installment of “Transformers” did not go so smoothly.
With some understanding of English under her belt, the actress was able to confront Bay for not giving her a script that was satisfactory enough.
“But at the beginning, when I first have read the script, I was not very satisfied with the role. And I just directly asked him: ‘It’s not the promise you gave me. It’s completely different.’”
Confronting a boss in an unfamiliar second language could be a daunting prospect for some. Li reaped the rewards of expressing her doubts and Bay reworked the script to her liking. Hardwork is Li’s defining motto.
“Every time when I want to quit, or want to give it up, I just tell myself ‘try harder, persistence. Work hard.’” said Li.
“As an actress and a celebrity, you might have power. So now I can do what my parents raised me to do — to change the world.”
Design and code: Tim Shepherd and Bryn Bache
Editors: Matt Clinch and Everett Rosenfeld
Presenter and Executive Producer, CNBC Meets: Tania Bryer
Executive Producer, CNBC Meets: Martin Conroy
Series Producer, CNBC Meets: Jen Northam
Associate Producer, CNBC Meets: Michelle Blackwell
Images: CNBC and Getty Images