Issue 115 | Oct-Dec 2018

Taking on Tinseltown

Ms Janice Koh (Arts and Social Sciences ‘95)

Crazy Rich Asians actress Ms Janice Koh (Arts and Social Sciences ‘95) on her maiden experience on a Hollywood set and the pride and gratitude she feels to have been involved in this landmark box office hit.

The old saying ‘the rich just keep getting richer’ rings true for Hollywood romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians. Featuring an all-Asian cast — including a handful of Singaporean actors — the film has topped the North American box office for the third week in a row since its premiere, sweeping nearly US$111 million (approximately S$152 million) in earnings as of early September. Here in Singapore, where some of the scenes were set, the movie has been Number One for two straight weekends (at the time of writing) and has grossed $4.66 million and counting. 

NUS alumnus and theatre veteran Ms Janice Koh counts herself “lucky” to be a part of not just a successful Hollywood movie but one that is viewed as a watershed moment by many Asian-Americans. “Everyone on set was thrilled because it had never been the case where you could look around and see every scene that was being shot, every role that was being played, was someone of Asian descent. I feel so privileged to have been given a role in this movie,” says Ms Koh, who was part of the pioneer batch of NUS Theatre Studies students. 

The AlumNUS catches the busy 44 year-old mother to two boys aged 12 and 14 — in between her rehearsals for an upcoming play by TheatreWorks and her fundraising efforts for W!ld Rice’s theatre and rehearsal space — for a chat about her role: 

Congratulations on the film’s success! Were you expecting such hype? 

I knew it was going to be a good film when we were halfway through our shoot, when the director John M. Chu showed us a 10-minute sizzler. Of course it was a special moment in Hollywood to have a story like this — starring an all-Asian cast — and that is funded by a Hollywood studio. But I think even the producers themselves didn’t expect [the film] to be so overwhelmingly embraced by the Asian-American community. It is a landmark movie in many ways — a movement, says Chu — which hopefully will trigger a new way of thinking about filmmaking and casting from the point of view of diversity and inclusivity.  

How did you manage to get the part of Felicity Leong? 

Like everybody else, I had to audition — twice. But I didn’t hear back from [the studio] for a long time, so I assumed that it wasn’t going to happen. The confirmation process had taken a while, and at the time filming had started in Kuala Lumpur, I was in a play. A scene I was to be in clashed with my schedule. I was very fortunate, however, that the producers and the director liked me enough to write me out of that particular scene in order to keep me for the rest of the movie. They could have easily re-casted but they didn’t, so I just felt very honoured and lucky.

How would you describe your character? 

She belongs to ‘old money’. But even though she comes from the ultra-wealthy world, she is extremely frugal. For example, she might be rich enough to buy a hotel but will not pay for a taxi when it is raining. I personally do not understand that! (laughs)

How did you prepare for your role? 

The main part of my preparation was learning the lines in Cantonese because I don’t speak the dialect. And half my lines were in Cantonese! So the first thing I did when I got the script was call my actor friend to get it translated. And I said those lines everywhere I went — in the car while fetching my kids to school and even while taking a shower — until the words came out of my mouth on auto-pilot mode. A US audience probably cannot tell the difference, but I knew that an Asian audience can, and I didn’t want to let them down. 

How was it like to be on a Hollywood set? 

The set was very well-resourced, which means there were people in charge of every aspect of production. A lot of the crew on the ground were local — Malaysians, Singaporeans etc. In that sense, I was very proud; it showed that we have the capabilities and the talent; we just lack that big Hollywood budget. 

The actors were very well taken care of. Every day I would be picked up and sent to the set, and then back home after I was done. All this so we wouldn’t be tired, so that when we arrived, we were ready to give our best. In that sense, it cut both ways. Much is given to you, but much is also expected of you.

Some have said that the film isn’t representative of Singapore, or Singaporeans. What’s your take on this? 

As a Hollywood movie, it could not be all things to all people. It is after all based on a novel about the 0.01 per cent of society. I might be Chinese but I don’t even feel the movie reflects me as I don’t come from that ultra-rich world. Ultimately, it is a fantasy. 

However, I understand where some of the concerns are coming from. I understand the desire by Singaporeans to be “seen” in an authentic way. The debate suggests that we have some deep-seated issues in our country — in terms of minority representation and class diversity and these need to be discussed. If the movie has provided a platform to start those discussions, great. I don’t blame people for raising these issues, but I also feel it’s naïve to think that Hollywood can solve all of our problems. 

Tell us about your time as a Theatre Studies major at NUS. How has that shaped your career?

After completing the Theatre Studies programme at Victoria Junior College, I knew I wanted to study acting and performance. But there was no way my family could have afforded to send me away, and at the time, arts and theatre scholarships were hard to come by. Luckily, the year I graduated from JC was when the Theatre Studies programme was started at NUS by Dr KK Seet. 

Going in, I knew the programme was primarily academic, so I decided from the get-go that I was going to find my performance training elsewhere. So all through my time at NUS, I was working a lot with TheatreWorks, and also doing workshops outside of my course. 

This being said, I’ve always been a theatre nerd. I love performing but also enjoy the academic part of it. The programme prepared me well for my Masters in arts administration and cultural policy which I took in England. Whatever they were teaching there, I thought to myself:  “Been there, done that!” On hindsight it was a good balance — there are things that school will never be able to teach you but at the same time, there is some discipline and critical analysis that would be helpful when you go into a project. 

What are your hopes for Crazy Rich Asians, or has it already achieved beyond what it sets to do?

It would be great if this movie becomes what Love, Actually is to many people, including myself. I already know the story but I will still watch it every Christmas. So it would be amazing if Crazy Rich Asians has that kind of longevity. To get there, the story needs to be good and well-told. Otherwise you won’t feel compelled to watch it again. I know of people who have watched it five times. So we shall see — time will tell. 
Adapted from Singapore-born Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians also stars other Singaporean actors including Pierre Png, Selena Tan, Tan Kheng Hua, Koh Chieng Mun and Fiona Xie. Spotted in the movie were shots of Shenton Way, Marina Bay Sands, Gardens By The Bay and even the Merlion.
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