Interview: Tony Leung Ka-fai

'I may not know to to choose my career, but I know how to choose my boss'

Of all the actors who emerged during Hong Kong cinema’s golden age from the early ’80s to mid-’90s, Tony Leung Ka-fai is the one whose star still shines brightest. The lead in some of Hong Kong’s most iconic films, Leung has done it all. He’s worked with the likes of Wong Kar-wai, Jean-Jacques Annaud and Johnnie To, and starred alongside everyone from Chow Yun-fat to Maggie Cheung.


Not that you’d know this if you met the 30-year industry veteran. Despite all the accolades, Leung’s feet remain firmly planted on the ground. Thoroughly humble and mild- mannered, Leung is once again on the interview circuit promoting his latest film, Cold War 2. The original was the highest-grossing Chinese-language film of 2012 and Leung’s turn as Deputy Commissioner Lee won him his most recent Best Actor award at the Hong Kong Film Awards.


The first Cold War ended on quite the cliffhanger. Where does the second begin?
Although it’s been three and a half years since the original, the story actually takes places just two months after what happened in Cold War. It picks up the story after Aaron Kwok has become Police Commissioner and his wife has been kidnapped, like at the end of the first movie.


Is there any reason why the sequel, set up so prominently in the first, has taken four years to arrive?
Actually, when the directors wrote Cold War, they didn’t make plans [for organising] a sequel. It took two and a half years for someone to say ‘we need to have Cold War 2’. Only then did they start to think about it. Although certain mysteries were left unresolved in Cold War, organising a shoot with many big-name actors is very difficult.


Did you have much knowledge of the police force before these movies?
Nope. Cold War allowed me a whole new point of view for seeing the Hong Kong Police Force. Before that, Hong Kong had a lot of police movies, but never one about high-ranking officers like this. I was like the audience, I’d never seen policemen in that setting. The production was so good, we even had real policemen on the set. When I walked into the meeting room [for a scene], I could really feel it. The look of them, their facial expressions – they didn’t have any! [Laughs] When I walked in for the first take and I saw real police officers sitting there, I really felt that I was their leader. It helped me a lot.


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Did you get any tips from them about acting like a policeman?

Oh, I’m a good actor. [Laughs] I’ll give you an example. Many years ago, in my first movie [Reign Behind the Curtain], I was an emperor of the Qing Dynasty. At that time I was very young, I was fresh. I had no experience of acting. But when I entered the Forbidden City with the director, when I put on the costume and I saw a thousand people there – all dressed up, walking to the Hall of Supreme Harmony – when I saw this, I became the emperor.


Your schedule is still quite intense. What do you do to relax?

I stay home. I like to stay home because I feel safe. I wouldn’t say I relax per se. I do housework. I also take care of the dogs. They’re all adopted from the SPCA [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals], all seven of them. I once had 15!


Do you ever think about retirement?
I’ve cut down a lot already! One time, when I was working to a busy schedule, I took a long rest. When I stayed at home with nothing to do, I felt so lonely. I’d rather be at a film set, even if just to visit... Nowadays, though I’ve cut down my work, I don’t think about retirement.


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Your mother worked in a cinema when you were young. Did that inspire you to get into acting?
My mother was the operator in a cinema. From when I was about eight months old until five or six, she had to take me to work. I was always placed in the cinema, at the top and at the back under the projector. And I cried! But I can truly say that I grew up in cinemas. I don’t know if it inspired me, but there must be something subconscious.


How did you get into movies professionally?
A director approached me. At the time, I was the editor of a magazine and I needed a cover girl. Someone introduced a director’s daughter to me. I went to the girl’s home, we did the interview and photoshoot. Then the dad returned and asked who I was. He invited me to stay for dinner and he said, 'I’m going to make a movie somewhere away. Do you want to come with me?' I asked where and he said China. 'For how long?' 'A year and a half.' At the time I thought he wanted me to be his assistant.


At what point did you realise he wanted you to be the lead actor?

The first week when we were in Beijing. He asked me to read the script, so I said yes, because I’ll have to know what’s going on to be his assistant, right? 'Tony, go shave your hair off' 'Ha!? How come?' Okay, I did it. I assumed it must have something to do with dirt or lice. 'Go to the wardrobe and have your measurements taken,' and that’s when I asked why would you need an assistant’s measurements. He said he wanted me to be the emperor. At that time, I was shocked. I said to the director, 'I don’t know how to act'. He said, 'That’s exactly what I want. You only need to follow my instructions'.


But it all turned out well.

I may not know how to choose my career but I know how to choose my boss. [Laughs] That’s a talent, too.


By Douglas Parkes

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