Anthony Wong Chau-sang

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After accumulating over 400 movies on his CV, the often fiery and ever unpredictable Anthony Wong Chau-sang is all too ready to revisit his origins on the theatre stage. And he doesn’t mince words. Interview by Edmund Lee. Photography by Calvin Sit.

 
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Mr Wong.

Thank you for interviewing me.

You will soon be performing with Joey Leung in a Cantonese adaptation of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s two-handed thriller, Enigmatic Variations. What brings you back to the theatre this time?
It’s an opportunity… [or] fate… [or an] opportunity. I don’t really plan much for myself. Someone asks [me to take part], I have time and, after reading the script, I realise I’m interested too. Once in a while I need to refresh myself a bit. If you’ve worked as a movie actor for too long you’ll lose your acting skills. It’s just like the boxers: they need to train regularly; they need to go jogging and hit the gym.

In previous productions of the play, your character has been played by the likes of Alain Delon and Donald Sutherland…
[Mumbles] Alain Delon…

Delon was in the French production while Sutherland was in the Canadian one.
Could Alain Delon play this? [Pauses, seemingly immersed in his own thoughts] Alain Delon – not bad!

Do you know the reason they’re casting you in this role?
I don’t know. Maybe they think I’m a mean person. I don’t think about the motivation of others unless I think they’re taking me for a fool. There’s no need to think so much.

What are your thoughts on the play after getting to know it?
The play begins to get boring after the fifth ‘variation’. Very often, the playwright is seizing the chance to rant his [own frustrations]. When the play turns into a long monologue towards the end, he’s no longer writing a play – he’s writing about his own views on life, on himself, on love and on sex. It’s more like an essay than a script. I think we need to slightly…

Adjust it?
… adjust it.

I read a [Variety] review of the Canadian production, which described the dialogue as ‘glib turns of phrase’. Do you maybe find the lines a bit realistic?
Theatre is fundamentally not… Do you find the dialogue in Shakespeare [plays] realistic? It’s not. The issue is how you can make it sound natural. Even the very long lines [in Enigma Variations] are essential. [But] when some of the lines are stretched beyond the optimal length, they start to resemble the grumbling of the Victoria Park Uncles.

How would you describe your character?
He’s mean. He’s a hypocrite.

Does he resemble you in any way?
We’re both mean, [but] there are many sides to him that drastically differ from me. He’s a pitiable person; his arrogance is there to mask his sense of pity. Towards the end of the play you’ll see how pathetic he is. He can’t face up to himself and he’s too chaotic a person to take care of himself.

Speaking of being mean, you’re sometimes described as the ‘villain’ of our showbiz. How did it start?
How am I a villain? How villainous have I been? Do I beat people up? Do I bite them? [Laughs] What does it mean? Do I tear them into two halves? I haven’t done that. People are happy for there to be a villain in the business. [But] they have no idea why.

Perhaps you just have the looks.
Yeah, I’m a villain because I look like this. “That very handsome guy, who tricked me to bed and cheated all my money, is a good guy – because he’s handsome.” [Laughs]

Do you feel that you’re misunderstood?
Let me put it this way: if you really want this girl and you fail in the end, you badmouth her. [I’m] perpetually in an antagonistic position with the press, and so they label me [in a negative way].

Let’s come back to your film career. Do you still remember the time you first got interested in acting?
I recognised my interest one week into my training programme [at ATV].

So you didn’t know when you joined?
No, I didn’t really know what [I was doing].

You went back to study acting at HKAPA soon afterwards. Why did you do that?
I didn’t know how to act, so I went back to learn it.

Looking back, what did you learn from those years?
I learned how to act. Since I studied acting, of course I’ve learned how to act. It’d be remarkable if I learned how to repair a car. [Chuckles]

Did it help your movie career?
It’s pretty good.

Actors who participate in both often remark that the acting method for theatre is quite different from that for movies.
Acting is acting – how is it different? So they’re not acting in movies? The most basic job for an actor is to act. For those who find it different, perhaps they’re treating their acting career as a PR job. They’re doing it as a PR job.

Enigma Variations is being presented at the Lyric Theatre of APA. Do you have any special attachment to that venue?
Yes! I performed in Cyrano de Bergerac on that stage. It’s a play I like very much.

Were you fond of that venue when you were a student there?
Of course. It’s such a gorgeous theatre. Only the large-scale productions can be presented on that stage. [Pauses] The play [Enigma Variations] is actually not suitable for that venue – it’s more appropriate for [APA’s] Drama Theatre. The space is too huge [for a play] with only two actors and one house [as the set]. It’s not entirely right, to be honest. But in Hong Kong, if you wanted the right venue, you wouldn’t find the required timeslots and number of seats; you just couldn’t survive. There aren’t enough theatres in Hong Kong. I just don’t understand it: people always talk about developing the arts, and yet we don’t even have enough theatre venues to stage the performances.

Do you feel extra pressure doing a medium-scale production in an outsized venue?
My pressure comes from the fact that [the production team] is starting the rehearsal so late. [The rehearsal was scheduled to start a few days after our interview, which took place on October 12, with the show opening in early December. The producer of the play was sitting only a few feet away from us throughout our interview.] This is not the working method I learned. I’m afraid I can’t handle [the way they’re working]. The working method I was accustomed to takes time. You don’t just learn the lines and go on stage immediately; you memorise your lines and spend a long time searching for your character. It’s scary if we just memorise the lines and go on stage.

Um, okay. Do you still get nervous on stage?
Of course I do.

Is acting on stage completely different from acting in movies?
This is very obvious. They’re two completely different matters: it’s like the difference between piloting a flight and piloting a ship.

How involved do you have to be in order to do a part well?
For us professionals, we don’t talk about getting involved. Those who need to are amateurs. A professional actor searches for his character and then plays it well. The dialogue should have entered your unconscious and you should be able to speak your lines in dreams. It takes a long time to do this. You can’t do it if you’re still recalling what your next line is. And don’t even start to search for your character when you have a tight schedule like [we do]. All your time is spent on the lines and the steps and there’s no time left to find your character. This is not theatre rehearsals; this is playacting by high school students.

Do you need a certain level of admiration for the director to do a really good acting job?
If I had to admire a director to do a good job, I might as well drop dead.

So how do you usually pick your roles?
There are many criteria. If the script is not right, it’s a no-go. If the script is right but there’s no money, it’s a no-go. If a director of the standing of Frederic Mao tells me it’s the right script, I’ll think about it. If it’s the right script but I have no time, it’s a no-go. If my body is weak and I’m sick, then it’s a no-go. [Laughs] How does a flower blossom to its maximum? Sunlight but no water! Dead. Water but no sunlight! Dead. Sunlight and water but no soil! Dead. There’s no such thing as a major factor in the world.

Are there any actors you especially admire?
[Long pause] There are many. Mickey Rourke has been doing well. [Pauses] Although it looks like there are many movies now, like all those superhero movies, which don’t require any acting. It’s just 3D and makeup. Not many people are acting today; those who do have mostly retired.

Do you have any advice for the emerging actors?
No. It’s none of my business. They’re neither my protégé nor my son. They can do whatever they want.

Do you take protégés?
I do. I’ve taught a lot of people. Many people call me sifu although some are just in name.

You’re involved in everything from movies to music and theatre, and I know that you’re also an avid reader. Do you feel like you’re much more cultured than some of your peers?
That’s how an actor should be. If you look overseas all the actors are like this.

What do you usually do when you’re not filming?
I read. You should ask about what I do when I’m not reading. “What do you do when you’re not reading?” I think.

You’re playing a Nobel laureate writer in Enigma Variations
[Interrupts] You want to talk about Mo Yan [the Chinese author who’s awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for literature a day before our interview]? I seem to remember having [bought] a book by him – I wonder which one it is?

Is it Red Sorghum Clan?
No way! Of course I’m not that uncool – choosing to read a book because it’s made into a movie [Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987)]! That’s only popular culture. I read a book by him but I don’t remember which one it is. [Goes over a list of Mo’s books when he’s given a phone] I’ve bought the novel Sandalwood Death but haven’t read it yet. [Gives up looking at the list] There are too many books that I haven’t read. I’ve been reading less literature in recent years. Some of what I read has been truly awful, like The Lord of the Rings. The only amazing thing about that book is how a crazy dude [JRR Tolkien] managed to create a [fantasy] world in his time – that guy is nuts, he must have some mental problems – but the book, overall, is thoroughly unattractive. I mean, if you come across a schizophrenic person who has created 18 personalities for himself, do you admire him or do you find him sick? The whole story is meaningless. There’s nothing to take away from it. If you call that literature… I don’t know. It’s neither entertaining nor inspiring.

So… what kind of books inspire you?
If you turn to those old-fashioned novels by Alexandre Dumas and Leo Tolstoy, you can see the complete worlds they’ve created. It’s a place you’ve never been to, complemented by a story with substance. It inspires living, no? It doesn’t rumble on about living. It transcends living.

Enigma Variations 極地情聖 is at APA’s Lyric Theatre, in Cantonese, Wed Dec 5-Sun Dec 23. Tickets: 3128 8288; hkticketing.com.

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