Interview: Aaron Kwok - Port of Call

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Sell-out shows and triple-platinum albums have become the norm for Hong Kong superstar Aaron Kwok. As he makes a 180-degree turn from glittering stage performer to a weathered old detective in his latest film, Port of Call, the A-lister tells Lisa Cam about motor racing and his desire to continue working with Asian talent. Photography by Calvin Sit. Creative direction by Jeroen Brulez. Wardrobe by Kent & Curwen. Shot at The Venetian Macao

 
Makeup: Terry Yu, Hair: Ian Wong, Wardrobe: Windowpane checked jacket, dotted casual shirt and enzyme wash jeans.

From a back-up dancer for TVB to being crowned one of four allegorical ‘Heavenly Kings’ in Hong Kong’s pop music scene before his 30th birthday, Aaron Kwok has been soaring in the upper echelons of Asia’s music and film industry. Twenty years later and on the cusp of turning 50, with a slew of blockbuster films and platinum albums – a career that most people can only dream of – Kwok stars in the closing film of the Hong Kong International Film Awards, Port of Call. In this redefining  role, he plays not a dashing detective, but rather an understated veteran officer whose outlook is against the grain of Kwok’s star-studded celebrity image. It’s not the first time an actor has sacrificed their good looks to shed themselves of their celebrity status, but having won two Golden Horse Awards for Best Actor in 2005 and 2006, and receiving the Moët AFA Outstanding Asian Actor Award just last month, has the mega star reached the apex of his career?

Hi Aaron! It’s been two years since we interviewed you for your film Conspirators. Tell us what’s been occupying your time since then?

I’ve been concentrating on my film career and my world tour – but mainly film. I’m really glad to have been involved with The Monk, as it was my first collaboration with Chen Kaige. I feel lucky because there’s a lot to learn from his direction and from spending time with him on set. I really learnt a lot from his talent. It was a memorable experience in my career. Then I filmed Port of Call and we’re still filming The Monkey King 2. I also had my first ever concert in London, and I was able to spend time with my fans and share my music with them. What I really regret in the last two years is that I haven’t had time to spare for my hobby – motor racing. I usually participate in charity races, but it’s half for charity and half for my own benefit.

Did you take advantage of any of the race tracks in Europe while you were there?
I have a car in a garage in Italy, but because of my schedule I  wasn’t able to join any of the events. So it’s just sitting there accumulating rent and dust. But my work takes priority. I always challenge myself to have new breakthroughs in everything I do. It’s a standard I set for myself and I impose the pressure on myself. I drive to decompress. The minute you’re behind the wheel, you clear your mind. There’s the perception that racing is dangerous but in actual fact it’s safer than driving on the road, so you can concentrate on pushing the performance of the car without having to worry about anything else. Like any other sport, you sweat while driving – maybe I like working up a sweat – but this is how I relax.


Wardrobe Striped casual jacket and bicycle jacquard shirts

You’re reaching a milestone birthday this year! You have spent most of your career in the entertainment industry, but if you were to sum up your career with one word what would it be?
You mean turning 50? One word I would use to describe my career is ‘charge!’ Fifty is the new 40. Age has a different meaning in this generation. I see a lot of people from the previous generation who are turning 60 but they’ve got the disposition and stamina of a 50-year-old – they also take care of themselves so well. I think it’s important to keep your psyche young and to exercise. I’m lucky I have the stage in my life. It forces me to include vigorous exercise in my regime all the time.

But you’ve been busy with your film career. Do you practice for the stage out of habit?

I have an exercise bike and treadmill at home that I have as a back-up if I’m really not scheduled for a concert or tour, but I’m currently practising for my upcoming concert in Malaysia.

Let’s talk about your film Port of Call. We talked to Philip Yung and he mentions that he casted you because you are one of the few actors in Hong Kong who could divorce themselves from their celebrity status and act with subtlety. What do you think about that?

I agree with him! [Chuckles] The reason I’ve been directing my career towards film is because I felt I was becoming complacent with my music and I like to challenge myself. Film is an art that imitates life. I feel myself develop as a person through my characters. When I immerse myself in a role I have an increased empathy with another person and, to do my job well, I have to let go of a large part of myself – the fact that I’m a performer, a celebrity. A character in a film is a person and to find that person I have to let go of Aaron Kwok.



You’ve played a police officer several times in the past, notably in Divergence. What did you see that was unique about this role?
I really have played a lot of cops. As an actor, apart from absorbing the script, I feel the character is really important. It is part of my process to create an image of what the character looks like in my mind. During my meeting with the team, the director and art director will also give me pointers about what the manifestation of the character will look like. When Philip invited me to join the project, he knew we were going to bring a character to life and not create a new image for Aaron Kwok. I’ve been a performer on stage for many years, so the audience will inevitably have a picture in their minds of who Aaron Kwok is, and when even I didn’t recognise myself in this role, then I knew it was a breakthrough. I’m sure the audience will feel the same way and see me in a new light. The script is very important in a film but I wouldn’t underestimate the power of matching a character to an actor. In Port of Call I play a veteran officer in his 50s. They had to paint my hair grey every day and for the first time ever in my life I had to grow a full beard.

Was it so out of character that people didn’t recognise you?
Yes it was! We were in the wet markets and there were people who were genuinely surprised and said things like ‘what? This guy’s Aaron Kwok? No way!’

A lot of fans grew to love seeing you in romantic comedies. Would you consider doing another role like that in the future or do you prefer the grittier stuff now?
Definitely! But as actors we’re quite passive in what we do, in a sense that you can only accept what jobs are being offered to you. Coincidentally, the projects I’ve been offered are quite dialled down in regards to the romance factor. I do want to take on romantic roles in the future and I can actually say I have an upcoming project that is a love story.

You’ve recently received the IFPI award for highest grossing album sales, the Moët AFA Asian Outstanding Actor award and many other accolades for your acting and music. What do you think is left to achieve personally?
I feel there are always new heights to achieve.


Wardrobe: Silk blouson, floral print shirt and enzyme wash trousers

Will you consider Hollywood...
Road? Let’s go to a nice restaurant there instead.

Do you have any advice for Hong Kong actors trying to establish their careers overseas?

I think we should turn our perspective inward as we have a very large market in China. There are a lot of Hollywood and overseas movie makers who are seeking opportunities to work with Chinese movie makers. This is a sign that we have a robust film industry in China. As a Chinese national, I don’t feel I have to leave Asia in order to expand my career. There are a lot of excellent directors in Hong Kong and China who I haven’t had the pleasure to work for yet, and there are still many talented people I’m looking forward to co-operating with down the line.

Is there a chance we would ever see you on the other side of the camera, in movie production?

I have been thinking about taking on directing in the future but I’m still enjoying immersing myself into a character. It’s not easy to focus on a role and, to do it well, there’s a lot of preparation to get into the right state of mind. Directing is the next big step.

What kind of movies would you like to direct?

Romantic comedy with action and dramatic elements.

Some people worry that Hong Kong’s film industry is declining. How do you feel about that?

There are cycles in all industries. This is why I have to support Hong Kong and Chinese filmmakers and actors. I hope I can lend a hand to new directors, like Philip Yung. I hope that my fans and people who like to watch my performances will get to know Philip and his talent and the new actors involved in the project. I’ve been a new actor myself and, apart from your own hard work, a lot depends on luck as well. I hope to help contribute – however little – to an aspiring actor’s journey to success. One thing that is certain is there will always be new talent in the industry and our hope is in the new wave of filmmakers.

Port of Call Special screening takes place at Hong Kong Arts Centre on April 19 at 2.30pm.
For more information see hkiff.org.hk. Public screening TBA.

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