GRACE: RUSSELL WONG AND PAMELYN CHEE INTERVIEWS
Russell Wong and Pamelyn Chee, stars of HBO Asia’s horror drama mini-series Grace, sat down with F*** to talk the opportunities presented by Asian content in English, stereotyping in Hollywood, how actors sometimes “worry too much” and how Russell Wong is pretty much a cross between a human and an alien. Pamelyn Chee’s words, not ours!
Russell, you were very memorably drawn and quartered at the beginning of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Is there anything particularly painful, without giving too much away, that happens to anyone in Grace?
Wong: Yes. [Everyone laughs]
You were in Serangoon Road earlier, what drew you back to HBO Asia and to Singapore as well?
Wong: What drew me back is the Asian content in English. The production’s shot in English with Asian stories; that appealed to me, more authentic Asian stories.
Is the horror element new to you?
Wong: It is new, having not done any horror before this. There are a couple of horror films that I like, The Ring, there’s also American Horror Story with Jessica Lange.
Were you aware of just how popular horror movies are in Asia?
Wong: I am aware of it, more aware of it.
How will Grace meet the expectations of viewers who love horror?
Wong: I think Grace will meet a lot of the expectations, especially at the finish of the story because you’ve got to watch all four parts. The first two build it up at a slow pace, quiet with a lot of information, but it finishes a little stronger. Pamelyn’s character and mine go through a little bit more.
Pamelyn, we have some indication that your character is a femme fatale. What preparation did you undertake for the role and were there any reference points?
Chee: You mean, besides being myself? [Laughs] I think the clothes make you look like a femme fatale, the makeup does, the role does, the lines do and I don’t I feel like I have to do much work but just trust in the material and I think maybe, sometimes actors worry too much. They’re like “oh, I can’t do this, I can’t do that, this role is not for me,” but I think if you just trust in yourselves…Russell and I always have this conversation, right? It’s about trusting and being in the moment. It will be an authentic experience if you let it.
Russell, how would you compare working in Singapore with a Singaporean crew to working on a Hollywood film?
Wong: There are a lot of similarities, basically you’re making a film or a TV show. A lot of times, the difference is the budget, or maybe the personalities or whatever, but pretty much, you’re making a movie. Everyone was very professional, very efficient in their work.
Did you get to create some back-story for your character beyond what was in the script?
Wong: I came up with some of my own back-story, some dynamics in our relationship, added a few lines here or some adjustments there.
You play a guy whose mistake brings a curse upon his family. What is it about this character that you like?
Wong: That I like…even though he does…steps outside of his marriage, he’s staying truthful to himself, he knows what he did is wrong. His humanity, I like his humanity. He’s trying to make it right, or he wants to make it right, but things just spiral out of his control.
You described the series as being “Fatal Attraction meets The Shining”, which makes me really want to watch it. In The Shining, the hotel is very much a character. What was it like working on the set of the Egress Hotel in this series?
Wong: We shot a lot in the studio and we built a set that looks like part of the Egress Hotel. I think [director] Tony [Tilse] and the art department, they really achieved kind of a nice, creepy fourth floor…we were kind of limited in the budget with what we could do and I think they did a great job with what they had.
What was it like working with Tony?
Wong: It was good. He knows what he wants, he knows what he needs. Because he has experience, it makes it feel safe, he makes you feel comfortable. “Okay, you’re in good hands.” If he wants a certain shot or a certain emotion, he won’t hit you over the head with it but he’ll let you suggest it.
Were there any challenging scenes for you in this series?
Wong: In the beginning for me, it was just kind of finding the character. You come in and play with the other actors and actresses and you have your idea of where you want to come from with the character but when you actually get on set, we didn’t have time to rehearse, a little bit of time, then it’s usually trying to get to the relationships, what you hope it will be. The initial part was the challenging part, making a connection with the other actors and finding your character through your relationships with them.
Pamelyn, you’re playing the mistress and Constance Song is playing the wife. What was the dynamic like?
Chee: You mean besides the fact that I hate her? [Laughs] You know, we don’t actually meet in the show. So it’s always this big looming cloud at the back of my head that she’s married to him and he’s still married to this woman and that really drives me crazy! We’re friends off-camera, but we don’t ever meet as characters in the show.
How did you build the conflict between those two characters?
Chee: I think it’s not really hard if the person you love the most is married to somebody else! Imagine that! Mine, always! [Laughs]
To come back to the Fatal Attraction comparison, is there anything like the bunny boiling scene in Grace?
Chee: Bunny boiling? There’s things that are worse than the bunny boiling. We don’t boil animals [laughs].
There are supernatural elements and Asian traditions explored in the show. Are you familiar with these traditions?
Wong: I’m from the US, so obviously not as familiar as Pamelyn, but coming to Hong Kong years ago I was introduced to the traditions and festivals, things like that, and you hear stories about the ancestors, superstitions.
What are your personal beliefs with regards to the supernatural?
Wong: My impression is that there are spirits, different realms. We’re all in transition, we’re vibrational beings, we go to a different vibration, maybe some spirits are attached to the earth, some of them had tragic deaths and they want to hang on, to what end, I don’t know. But I definitely believe that are spirits that are happy and that are not happy and you can’t take it likely because there is energy, vibration.
After Grace, are you interested in doing further work in the horror genre?
Wong: I’m interested in good writing. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, if the writing is good, the material is good, I’m all in! I’d love to be a part of it, good writing is basically where it’s at and the horror genre’s fun, it’s interesting, what you can do visually, with the camera and with makeup.
Would you like to play supernatural beings, be it vampires, ghosts, witches or demons in future projects?
Wong: That’ll be interesting, yeah.
Chee: [to Wong] You’d make a good witch, I think!
Wong: Warlock. I’d like to be [a creature that’s] between an alien and a human or something.
Chee: A bit like yourself! [All laugh]
Wong: Thank you Pamelyn [laughs].
Besides the horror genre, I would think the action genre is one that crosses boundaries very well. Do you think there’s the potential for a home-grown action series on the level of Grace?
Wong: Yeah, I mean action and horror do travel and Asian horror is unique and also this is in English. With those elements, this is a great vehicle for HBO and for all of us to showcase Asian stories that can be told internationally. Because of the genre, it’s easier for people to digest and be entertained.
During the press conference, you said that you would want to do less martial arts-heavy roles now. Is it something that you would still do if there’s a good story?
Wong: A good story, I would do it. When I started out as an actor, I was afraid of being stereotyped into just that, but fortunately when I was younger I was pretty athletic and I could handle the action but not like a world-class martial artist, a lot of the [other] guys are really good. I wanted to focus on just being an actor. But as far as well-written material, if it were something like Taken…
You could be an Asian Liam Neeson.
Wong: [Laughs] That’s funny, Tony [Tilse] said the same thing!
What was the vibe like on the set? We heard that there were almost no outtakes, so was it a very intense vibe or did you guys get to chill out? How was it like in-between filming?
Wong: I loved the vibe on the set, it was just chill. I wouldn’t say it was intense, but it was focused.
Chee: Very focused, yeah.
Wong: Everyone was very focused on what they wanted to do, pretty enthusiastic, working with HBO on an original thing, it was a great opportunity for all of us and everyone came to work ready to go.
Chee: I actually made an effort not to hang around his [on-screen] family, the only person that I would talk to was Russell so I had only friend throughout the entire production [laughs].
So that was a little “method”.
Chee: Yeah. I think it helps both for them and for me.
You worked together on Serangoon Road. How was the experience making Grace compared to that of making Serangoon Road?
Wong: For me, I was coming in as kind of a guest star but the set was pretty focused and relaxed. For Grace, I was the lead male so I felt very welcome and kind of taken care of in that regard so I was very comfortable. Not much difference, really, but I guess it make work easy and was something to look forward to.
Chee: I think Grace is much edgier, don’t you think? The material and the style and the way Tony handled it, we’re not trapped by the whole “1960s Singapore” [setting] and the historical element of that genre. It was very liberating being on Grace, I have to say, it was a completely different experience.
This probably applies more to the writers and to Tony [Tilse], but was there some research you had to do into the traditions and customs to get into character?
Wong: Not for me.
Chee: I thought that the research writers at HBO did a wonderful job with the Asian customs in general because sometimes I feel like that gets lost in a western production. They put on what they think an Asian person should [act like]…but I think they made a very conscious effort to keep it very authentic.
Tony [Tilse] and Erika [North] were saying that Grace is set in a generic Asian city and not explicitly Singapore to try and make it accessible. What was that like knowing you could not overtly make reference to the city in which the story was set? Did it have a lot of bearing on playing the characters?
Wong: It didn’t have a lot of bearing on me, it could have been Hong Kong, originally we were talking about Hong Kong but spending time in Hong Kong, spending time in Singapore, obviously they have their similarities and their differences so given that, we focused more on the relationship of the family than the place per se, not a whole lot of emphasis placed on that.
What other projects can we look forward to from the both of you?
Chee: I’m doing a TV series for Channel 5 and also I’m doing Kelvin Tong’s film, so that’s what keeping me busy for the next month.
Wong: I’m meeting with a director in Beijing this week and there are a couple of projects I’m waiting to hear about back in the States.
What is the situation like in Hollywood with regards to stereotypes and the portrayal of Asians in media?
Wong: I think there’s some progress made in certain diverse casting and yet some kind of remain stereotypical. It honestly doesn’t excite me [chuckles]. I love the potential of where HBO can go or may go. I definitely love being a part of this because it’s unique in that it’s Asian content in English that’s done internationally. I just feel like it’s a good fit. I know they’re taking baby steps and that kind of thing.
What do you think it will take for American audiences to accept a TV series headlined by an Asian actor or actress, and do you think something like Grace would travel well to the States?
Wong: It could travel well to the States. What it will take is good writing, same as any film takes. Good writing, good performances, good scripts and good direction, just the whole production. And it doesn’t have to be a huge budget, the quality has to be there, the material has to be there. There are great stories here in Asia that need to be told that with a good writer, it will travel. This is a good story, you want to watch it, doesn’t matter where it’s from. A good story is a good story. We can execute this as well as anybody. The DPs (Directors of Photography), the sound, the lighting, everything. It’s good execution and content.
How do you think the mini-series format works for this story? Is four episodes enough?
Chee: If it’s bad material, four episodes is four episodes too many [laughs].
Wong: For my tastes, it’s a little slow, but for some people, they need to get all the information. I’m like “skip to it, skip to it!” But maybe people want to see all the details and Tony does that, all the details about this character and about that character, you pay attention to what’s happening here so there’s a build-up and it builds quite slowly but at the end there’s a strong finish.
Chee: But don’t you think it’s skewed because you are in the film so you know the story? [Laughs]
Wong: I’m not biased [laughs].
Chee: No you are, totally biased! [Laughs]
Wong: Yes I am. The whole time we shot this, I kept thinking to myself “this is going to be good!” It’s not just another job, I’m part of something that’s going to make some noise.
Chee: When was the last time you felt that?
Wong: Romeo Must Die.
The approach in this series seems to not be about the gore and the in-your-face horror elements but there’s the power of suggestion, atmospherics, nothing is scarier than what you can’t see. What was it like on the set and what are some of the techniques used to keep the tension at a slow burn?
Wong: I think that’s done with camera angles and what he’s shooting and how he’s shooting it, and the editing and the sound. There’s obviously a lot of parameters they have to work within, you can’t be too gory and there are different cultures, you don’t want to step on any toes, that kind of thing. There are a lot of parameters to work with and in doing that, it creates something that’s almost more disturbing, it messes with your mind a little bit which I think is great horror, like The Ring. Watching it, there’s cameras coming through the kitchen and you hear a sound and it’s like “this is disturbing!” [Laughs]. I think Tony was able to achieve some of that, it’s great.
It seems that the series has a contemporary Asian feel, but there’s been a strong tradition of domestic horror films in Hollywood, things like Poltergeist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen. Were those influences, whether consciously or subconsciously, on the family dynamics in Grace?
Chee: Definitely not. I think the sensibility is so different that to even borrow that would be wrong.
Are you also a very superstitious person?
Chee: Definitely very superstitious [laughs], like all Asian people, you guys must know!
Was there anyone in your family who told you “don’t do this because it’s a horror project”?
Chee: Yeah! But you know, I’m not the kind of person who listens to what everybody tells me [laughs].