Lim Kay Tong: How I overcame my cowardice to play Lee Kuan Yew
It is one of the most highly anticipated roles in local film history.
But when veteran actor Lim Kay Tong, 60, was offered the chance to play former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the upcoming movie 1965, his first reaction was: "No way".
He told The New Paper in a one-to-one interview yesterday: "It was an intuitive response. Lee Kuan Yew is our founding father and he has acted as a large figure in Singaporeans' lives. There was an intimidating factor."
But Lim changed his mind after he looked at the script.
"It was less daunting once I saw the role on paper. It's not a major role. It's not a biopic about him," he said.
"It is a role that helps to give a time-frame to the things that take place in the movie."
WIFE TOLD HIM TO DO IT
Lim revealed that his wife, food writer Sylvia Tan, also played a part in helping him decide if he should accept the role.
He said: "My wife told me to do it. I trust her instincts when it comes to such things. She's very encouraging about this.
"So I got rid of my cowardice and said 'Yes'."
Lim was speaking to local media at a press conference for 1965 at the Sheraton Towers Singapore Hotel.
Besides Lim, executive producer Daniel Yun, local director Randy Ang and other cast members such as Joanne Peh, Mike Kasem, Sezairi Sezali and James Seah were present.
On casting Lim, Mr Yun said: "Within a few minutes of meeting him, I knew that he was right for the role. He has to play Lee Kuan Yew in his 40s and in his 80s, and he is 60. He's of the right age."
Mr Lee is 91 this year. In 1965, he was 42.
Mr Yun added: "There is a certain aura about Kay Tong that he brings to the character. He also has a lot of experience to bear, and he is a very committed actor."
He said: "It was a casual conversation with Kay Tong and I noticed that his mannerisms started to change after we spoke to him about the role.
"He started getting into character subconsciously. After I met him, I wanted him for the role even more as he is really the right person for it."
The $2.8 million movie, which Mr Yun has been developing for nearly five years, is slated for release next year to celebrate 50 years of Singapore's independence.
Lim, who has been acting for four decades, is one of the most respected actors here.
He has worked on productions ranging from theatrical plays to BBC TV series over the years, but many Singaporean viewers remember him best for his portrayal of a stern, loving father in the popular TV series Growing Up (1996-2001).
When asked if he felt any pressure portraying Singapore's first Prime Minister, the stoic actor laughed softly and said: "Sure!"
He explained: "Lee Kuan Yew is a real-life person of momentousness and greatness, so it is challenging. It's really my goal as an actor to get the essence of the man.
"I've committed to it and I will draw on my past experiences and see how it goes."
Lim has been doing extensive research to prepare for the role, including reading Mr Lee's book, The Singapore Story (1998).
He is also looking at visual records of Mr Lee to get the "rhythm, pronunciation, way of speaking and inflection right".
Lim has not met Mr Lee in person before and would prefer not to do so, as he wants to "observe Mr Lee from a distance".
Despite comments from local media that he bears a slight resemblance to Mr Lee, Lim was quick to say: "I don't think I look like him."
Comparing himself to Mr Lee, Lim said: "He is a much cleverer man than I am.
"There are very few politicians I know who can improvise on speeches and speak off the cuff. I can't do that."
When asked what kind of feedback he hopes to get from Mr Lee after he watches the film, Lim made everyone laugh by saying: "From him, you can expect anything, you can't predict what he will say.
"Well, I am hoping he doesn't call me."
"It was an intuitive response. Lee Kuan Yew is our founding father and he has acted as a large figure in Singaporeans' lives. There was an intimidating factor."
- Actor Lim Kay Tong, on why he initially rejected the offer to play Singapore's former PM in local film 1965
S'POREANS HAPPY WITH CASTING
It seems like Singaporeans are pleased with the choice of local veteran actor Lim Kay Tong for the role of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
In an online poll conducted by The New Paper, 86 per cent of our readers felt that Lim is perfect for the part.
The casting announcement, which was made at 1965's press conference yesterday, got the Internet abuzz with excitement as netizens shared and talked about it widely online.
In a previous TNP report, this reporter also chose Lim as one of the three most suitable candidates to play Mr Lee in the movie.
TNP reader Veronica Richard Gilbert commented on Facebook: "There is a slight resemblance, take a closer look."
Online user Muhary Yusof wrote: "Yes, with his age and with his charm, I think you got it right... I liked it when he acted in Growing Up. "
Facebook user Maggie Sim added: "He looks a bit like Mr Lee and he has the depth in view of his long years of experience... Good choice! If he can beef up a bit to match Mr Lee's size and stature, I believe he can pull off the character well."
Other cast members weigh in
Other cast members in 1965 were also announced yesterday.
They give their take on Lim Kay Tong's role as Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Joanne Peh, 31, plays Zhou Jun, a frugal and feisty young woman running a coffee shop.
"I've never met Lim Kay Tong or Lee Kuan Yew in person.
"Kay Tong has this presence about him and I really respect him. I watched him on Growing Up and I felt like I was his daughter. I am also in awe of Lee Kuan Yew. He is someone you wouldn't miss if he walks into a room.
"It's not so much about whether Lim Kay Tong looks like Mr Lee - it's the kind of presence and aura that they have."
Mike Kasem, 41, plays Raj, a Middle-Eastern reporter who reports on events in Singapore in the 60s.
"It's a perfect fit. Who else could you cast? Who else can do justice to the role?
"Honestly, I think there's some resemblance there, too. I am excited for him and excited to see how it turns out."
Sezairi Sezali, 27, portrays Adi, a young police constable.
"I can't see anyone else portraying Lee Kuan Yew other than Lim Kay Tong. There is this synergy between the two of them."
James Seah, 24, plays a suave chick magnet who has eyes only for Zhou Jun.
"I think it's a good choice. I watched Lim Kay Tong in Growing Up when I was growing up. He's like a father to us and he has a certain charisma and aura about him."
ABOUT THE FILM
The $2.8 million production tells the touching story of immigrants and natives living in Singapore in the 1960s, leading up to independence in 1965.
Executive producer Daniel Yun said in an earlier interview with The New Paper that 1965 is neither a biopic of Mr Lee Kuan Yew nor a political film.
It is also not a docu-drama. It is a mainstream commercial movie with a fictional plot.
The movie has been in development for five years.
Mr Yun and the pre-production team went through 62 drafts of the script before he felt comfortable enough to begin filming.
Besides the cast members announced yesterday, China-born Qi Yuwu and Malaysian Deanna Yusoff will also appear in the film, playing a policeman and a single mother respectively.
Filming will take place from mid-November to January. The movie is scheduled for release next year.