Tony Leung Ka-fai
Temporarily back from his (seemingly) permanent vacation to promote his latest film Cold War, the iconic Tony Leung Ka-fai sits down with us to reflect upon a long, glittering and thoroughly unintended career in movies. Interview by Edmund Lee; portrait by Calvin Sit.
One day in October, 1958, an eight-month-old baby lay in the darkness of the now-demolished Roxy Theatre in Causeway Bay, taking in the sights and sounds of the latest Hollywood blockbusters for the very first time of his life. In the years that followed, he sat under the dress circle, catching several movies every day, while his mother busily worked at the cinema from midday to evening. Little did this boy know that he would, over a 30-year career which has so far produced more than 130 appearances in films, become one of Hong Kong’s most recognisable screen icons.
That young boy is Tony Leung Ka-fai. Now 54, the actor’s lifelong passion for film is still driving through a slightly rambling telephone conversation about his early days at the Roxy. It’s a brief phone call, coming five hours after our hour-long interview and studio shoot earlier in the day, where we had chatted about his career, his stature and his upcoming cop and crime thriller, Cold War, in which he plays the Deputy Commissioner (Operations) of the Hong Kong Police Force opposite Aaron Kwok, who plays the Deputy Commissioner (Management). At the shoot, Leung had been in splendid spirits, joking and bantering with our crew – perhaps totally refreshed from the long holiday he’s taken since wrapping up Cold War last Christmas.
But it’s a different, more reflective Leung on the phone a few hours after our meeting – one who’s already tried to reach me twice earlier via his manager. Finally, via a different number, he gets in touch. “Hi, I’m Leung Ka-fai. Is this Edmund? Can we speak now?” In an introspective monologue, Leung explains how his filmic roots aren’t restricted to any particular movie or specific director – ‘although Li Han-hsiang made a significant impact on my career’. He doesn’t often get to talk to ‘film magazines’, he confesses, instead being bombarded by ‘the fashion ones or the so-called entertainment ones’ for which ‘the journalists ask 30 questions [on irrelevant topics] before reserving the last two questions for the movie [he’s promoting]’. Over the phone, there’s a real lingering sense that he wants to set the record straight.
Leung, who remarkably won three Best Actor awards in consecutive decades (for 1983’s Reign Behind a Curtain, 1992’s 92 The Legendary la Rose Noire and 2005’s Election), can claim all he wants that he has an eye on retirement; after our interview and the ensuing phone conversation, however, we reckon the Hong Kong audience will have the privilege of seeing him grace our silver screens for many more years to come – starting with the upcoming Cold War, which is where our interview begins…
Tony, when did you first hear about the project of Cold War?
I first got a call from the boss, Bill [Kong, the renowned film producer], who invited me to read the script. I asked him about the shooting schedule and, when he told me, I realised it’s in the middle of two projects [I was scheduled to star in]. Bill asked me not to reject him and to read the script first, which is exactly what I didn’t want to do – it’s a really painful experience to like a script while not being able to take part in the film. But Bill was very, very insistent, thinking this isn’t just a good script, but a production that has a genuinely Hong Kong quality to it – a rarity in the era of Hong Kong-China co-production. Seeing how sincere he was, I decided to read the script – and I knew immediately that I was in trouble. [Chuckles] It’s a terrible [situation].
Did most of your films start out this way?
Yes, most of them did. More than 80 percent started out like this; the rest of them didn’t. [Laughs]
So what was it about Cold War that most interested you?
First and foremost, I think its topic is very specific to this [city]. Hong Kong offers that special setting in Asia which can properly capture the essence of cop and crime dramas. If the same story was shot in Singapore or mainland China, it might not even be plausible.
What are your thoughts on working with Aaron Kwok?
I have never worked with Aaron before, although we’ve talked about it for years. Whenever we met in airports or other public functions, he and his manager would ask when we could work together on a movie. I would tell them: “I’ll wait till you finish your concerts and invest your profits on the new movie.” [Laughs] I was really happy when I knew that Aaron was starring [opposite me] in this film because we’ve fulfilled a dream of many, many years. From what I heard, he liked the story so much that he postponed his concerts to complete the shoot.
Cold War has gathered quite a few high-profile male actors together.
When I read the script, I felt it’s a very masculine movie. The film has gathered the most manly actors around; the only important supporting female role goes to Charlie Young. [Pauses] I was more often cast as weaker men in my previous films and I rarely had chances to play such a masculine role. Few directors would come to me to offer me such a masculine role.
I’m playing the Deputy Commissioner (Operations) of the Hong Kong Police Force. From his outlook to [his behaviour], he’s just like a soldier. And no matter how much time I spend looking at myself in the mirror, I simply can’t see a soldier in me. [Chuckles] I don’t know why but I’ve always wanted to be a soldier since I was young. I wanted to join the law enforcement units. So, after reading the script, knowing my character and hearing about the cast, I said yes to the film.
How do you usually prepare for your roles?
Let’s not make it sound very professional. I’m very much following a natural [approach to acting]. I very rarely do anything to get into a character. If there’s a script, I’ll see how the character evolves with what happens, or how he stays the same throughout, or how he turns from a really successful person to a really pathetic person. [I think about] how to follow the story and develop the character. I’ll think it over once when I read the script and, usually when I put on make-up and costume for the character, I’ll already have a good idea about it. The rest will very naturally come together when I talk to the director or interact with the other actors on the set. I seldom do a lot of homework. I didn’t go to film school and I didn’t know how to create a character in this or that way. All I can do is do it in the most natural way. Whatever I’ve managed to think through, I put that out there.
I take it that you’ve nothing to do with method acting?
Not at all. I have absolutely nothing to do with that. I don’t know about that stuff. [Laughs] I don’t know about [the legendary Russian theatre actor Constantin] Stanislavski.
You’ve featured in a great variety of roles in your career. Do you sometimes sit back and think about why you’ve been cast in each of those films?
I don’t, but I’m very happy [to be cast]. [They may have chosen me] because I don’t spend much. I don’t have many friends in show business – you could say that I have very few friends [laughs] – and I’m not a young idol either, so there’s no reason for [the film companies] to make me a star. [Laughs] It’s not like the old days, when a young talent was given three years or so of opportunities by the big studios to achieve this and that. That’s why I’m so happy: I get to know what people think about me, that they think I’m capable of playing such a role.
Are there instances when you disagree with the casting?
There are those too. There were films for which I asked the directors whether they could resist making my characters so camp. They’d be like: “No way – your campness makes you a box office attraction!” [Laughs] That sort of thing. In the end, the story and the characters are decided by the director. You may disagree but, as an actor, I think you have to first listen to the director before developing the character with your own ideas.
In general, how would you describe yourself as an actor?
I’ve always called myself ‘Amoeba’… until my team thought up a much cooler title for me: ‘Chameleon’. [Laughs] I’ve now accepted this new title. I’m no longer an amoeba.
Which are the favourite films of your own?
Which are my favourites? Of course it’s those which made me famous and rich. [Laughs] The ones which were box office hits and popular with the audiences – the ones in which they thought I was really cool. [Laughs] But I seldom come across those characters.
Are there any films that you’re especially proud of?
There are good ones and bad ones [that I’m proud of].
You’re even proud of the bad ones?
I’m proud of the fact that I survived [in showbiz] after making those really bad ones. [Laughs] I’m so proud that I’m still around! [Laughs] In the end this is a personal experience of my own – even though it’s a failure, nobody can take it away from me. I’m [content] to be able to keep working in [a field] I like after all those failures.
Do you recall how you realised this is the career for you?
At first… It’s not me who decided I wanted to be an actor. [Laughs] I actually didn’t know I was going to be a movie actor. When the director [Li Han-hsiang] asked me to join his film [the two-part historical epic The Burning of the Imperial Palace and Reign Behind a Curtain (1983), Leung’s big-screen debut], I thought he’s asking me to join the production team and be his personal assistant. We were close and I knew about his daily routine quite well. It started out like that. He let me read the script in Beijing [the film was shot on location at the Forbidden City] – which I thought was normal, being his assistant – but it’s really when he asked me to go and shave my head that I realised he was casting me as an actor [playing the Xianfeng Emperor]. Of course I knew he’s a big-time film director but when he asked if I could join him on the project, I honestly didn’t have the faintest idea that I was going to be an actor [for the film]. I didn’t speak Putonghua then and I had never made a film before that. When he told me it’d be a one-year shoot in Beijing, I was just like ‘wow, it’s very exciting!’, and that’s how I [got tricked into] boarding the ‘pirate ship’.
It must have been quite a surprise when you’re named best actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards [for Reign Behind a Curtain].
I hadn’t given it any thought. Of course it’s a big surprise but I hadn’t given it any thought. Even after getting the award, I still didn’t feel like it’s something of significance.
Did you think of yourself as an actor by that point?
Of course not.
Not even then?
Of course not. I’m a very sensible person. Apart from the moment they announced the award – when [it felt like] my head was being knocked by others – I was able to bring myself back to reality throughout the day: from when I woke up to the moment I got on stage and delivered my speech. So when I stepped on stage, I already knew that the award didn’t mean anything. Best actor what? Don’t be silly!
At the end of the day, are the best actor awards important to you?
They’re not. Awards are just… [Giggles] They’re not important. I’ve never paid much attention to them since day one. How should I put it? [Long pause] Let’s scratch that. Awards are very important. They are important encouragement. What I mean really is that the award statues are not important. [Laughs] The awards themselves are very important.
So where have you put your award statues?
[Laughs] They’re in a cupboard at a corner behind the staircase in my home.
I heard that you once had a chance to play Puyi in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987, the role eventually went to John Lone) after wrapping up Li Han-hsiang’s film of the same title (1986). Can you tell me more about that?
I just came back from the Mainland shoot of [Li’s] The Last Emperor, which tells of Puyi’s latter life. The copyright laws in China weren’t very developed then – so people could tell the former or latter life of Puyi however they liked – [although] I think Li had bought the rights to Puyi’s latter life. After that, Bertolucci came to Hong Kong to meet with the actors – and so we went. He told us he’s going to shoot The Last Emperor, to which I replied: “I’ve just done it.” And he said: “Yes, we know. We’ve watched it.” [Chuckles] And I was like: “But it’s not even released yet!” After that meeting, he needed to go back to Italy or the USA before coming back, so I waited for the next meet-up before [making a decision]. However, it’s in this period that Bertolucci began legal proceedings against Li over the copyright issue.
That’s why you subsequently dropped out of the picture.
That’s why… yeah, I wrote Bertolucci a letter to explain my decision. I told him that Li was my master; he’d shot The Last Emperor and I’d done my part. I didn’t find it very meaningful to play the character again. And since he had a legal case against [Li]… If Li lost and I came to work for him… I would feel that I couldn’t do that [to my master] based on the Chinese principles [of loyalty]. That’s why I turned it down.
In your decades in this business, do you feel misunderstood by the public or misrepresented by the media on anything?
I do. The media always comment that my wife isn’t pretty enough – I’m quite unhappy about that. What you’re doing is actually challenging my taste. When I say [my wife is] pretty and you say not… what’s wrong with you? Right? [Chuckles] I have no other problems [with the press].
In your impression, what’s the question that you’ve been most frequently asked?
In my impression… [Pauses] the most frequently asked questions are: “Why are we never seeing you these days?” “Have you retired?” Because I’m leading a relatively reclusive life – I’m a middle-aged recluse now – the public or the media don’t get to see me outside of the [filming] and promotion periods. I’m also not a target for the paparazzi. That’s why people think that I’ve vanished in-between the [releases of my] films.
How would you describe your relationship with the Hong Kong media?
It’s very superficial.
And what’s your relationship with your audience like?
It’s also very superficial. [Chuckles] To be very honest, I’m aware of the viewers who really like me, because I do receive fan letters after my better performances. That’s my satisfaction.
From your perspective, what’s your status in our film industry nowadays?
[I’m] a semi-retired person. I’ve never thought that I had any status to speak of in the Hong Kong film industry. My only identity is an actor; I don’t think about my status – it doesn’t matter.
Have you seriously thought about retirement?
Yes! I’ve wanted to retire since a long time ago. [Laughs] I kept thinking that I should better quit when my daughter graduated from primary school. There are many aspects to consider: firstly, the status of being the children of celebrities or actors or movie stars will inevitably impact these children’s development. So I thought: it’d be best if I could stop [being an actor]; I wanted to keep the impact to a minimum. Secondly, I was making a lot of movies then, and it was such an exhausting time that I wanted to take a break. [Chuckles] You can never earn all the money in the world.
Are we talking about the early 1990s here? I remember that in Center Stage [Stanley Kwan’s 1992 docudrama on the 1930s Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, who committed suicide but turned into a screen legend], you pondered sorrowfully in an interview: “As an actor, should one disappear [from the public eye] when his career is at its brightest [in order to become a legend]?”
That was partly affected by the story of Ruan Lingyu; the film was about a star and everyone who appeared in that film was either a director or a producer or a star. There’s her famous [last words] ‘gossip is a fearful thing’, which resonated deeply in me. I also just came back from the shoot of The Lover (1992), which made me think quite a lot too. One month into the shoot [in Vietnam], we were forced [by Triads] to participate in a movie in the Philippines – it was an awful, awful experience. Another thing I saw during the making of The Lover was that Jane [March, Leung’s then-18-year-old co-star] was crying all day long. I went straight into the shoot of Center Stage after coming back from that experience. So, all in all, that year made me think that, if a person is lucky enough to be working in the entertainment business and gets to achieve a certain level of recognition, should he say goodbye when he’s still on top, so as to give the best impression to everyone, from the audience to the actor himself? That’s why I said so [in Center Stage].
So, today, how well recognised are you internationally?
People don’t recognise me – they just remember me.
Say… don’t you get recognised in France?
I do. “Ah! Tony Leung… [pauses] Chiu-Wai!” [Laughs] I say: “Yes, I am! Oui. Ça va?” There are some [people who still recognise me]: when I was in Berlin for Zhou Yu’s Train (2002), for example, I was surprised to be remembered by some of the journalists and audiences as ‘Ka-fai, Tony’.
When you look back, do you see phases in your film career?
Um… [Long pause] I don’t think so. Then again, people tend to notice the best and worst days of my 30 years in the business. For me, I think the first phase consists of my first three movies, when I didn’t really know what I was doing. After that, I made a decision to be in the movies. I wanted to be an actor and not a movie star. I didn’t want people to put clothes on me [for fashion shoots] every day; I wanted to do [whispers dramatically] ‘dramas’. That was one phase – what follows was a long and gradual process.
Do you agree that you’ve unintentionally become a movie star?
A lot of things I did were done unintentionally. [Laughs] I became a film actor thinking that I was on the production crew. Many things in my life happened that way; they were not pre-planned.
Several hours after this interview, I receive the phone call from Leung’s mobile, asking whether he can correct and expand on a couple of his answers. He is evidently struck by my reminder about what he said in Center Stage. “If I wanted to be a movie star, I really should have left the eyesight of my audience when I was at my most successful” – a repeat of his words in that movie, again drawing on the distinction between being an actor and a film legend. “I think of myself as an actor because I don’t want to quit – I didn’t want to concede this. By saying I’m an actor [and not a star], my time in the business becomes unlimited. As I mentioned [in the interview], I have no plans for myself. I’m just doing what I like and – be it right or wrong – it’s all about cinema. I call myself an actor because I want my career to be more long-lasting. After all, nobody will remember [who I am] 50 years from now. Nothing lasts forever.”
Cold War 寒戰 is scheduled to open in September.