Being in Crazy Rich Asians — which opens in the US on August 15 and Singapore on August 22 — is quite a coup. How’re you feeling in the lead-up to the premiere?
I’m excited. It’s every entertainer’s dream to make it to the world stage. To be in a Hollywood production, and on top of that, one that’s billed as being the only movie with an all-Asian cast after Joy Luck Club, is amazing. And to play a Singaporean in my Hollywood debut? It’s more than I could ever have asked for.
The first thing we see of you in the movie is… your character Michael Teo stepping out of the shower, practically naked. This is, as you say, your introduction to the world stage. Did you ever imagine that you’d be making such an entrance?
(Laughs) Well, I sure wish I’d had more time to train for it! To be honest, it sure beats playing some tired old role Hollywood has imagined for an Asian guy — a triad gangster, a shrewd Chinese businessman, or a pimp. I played a true-blue Singaporean, someone who was born and bred here. I’m happy that my entrance in the US market was as a Singaporean.
What were you actually wearing in that scene?
A G-string. I guess director Jon M. Chu wasn’t prepared to see more than my butt. For everyone’s sake, I guess, I was in a G-string. I’ve been in a G-string onstage in the past. It was for the musical Mulan, and — come to think of it — that was also for a shower scene and in that production, I essentially mooned the audience. I really should get an endorsement for G-strings now!
How did you prepare for your scene in terms of exercise and fitness?
I was made to go under a very strict diet and to train under a personal trainer. I am, by nature, on the scrawny side. I had to bulk up within a short time — three weeks. So, I was eating right (no salt, no oil), getting as much protein as I could into my body via supplements. I would carry heavy weights, and the trainer really helped me concentrate on the right muscles to get that sculpted look. That’s Hollywood for you.
The prep didn’t kill me, but it was tough. I was made to work out on alternate days and rest in between, and then work out as much as I could in between shoots. If I wasn’t working, I would spend the morning or evening working out. If I couldn’t do that, I would do as much as I could — for instance, finding a room and then doing push-ups in a room to fatigue. I gave it my all.
In Crazy Rich Asians, you play Michael Teo, the husband of a rich socialite who finds it hard to keep up with the lifestyle she’s used to. Can you relate to that kind of pressure?
I can very much relate. When I was growing up, I got to know some of these kinds of girls. A whole bunch of friends and I would go to their houses and it was like Disneyland — huge places and such. I felt that if I and one of these girls got to dating, I would feel like there would be that level of expectation that my character, Michael, faced.
Asians are brought up to want to do our best. It’s a rite of passage as a man to be able to take care of the elderly folk, our wives, our children. That sense of responsibility, where you will one day step up and be the man of the house and take care of everyone, is very real. I can understand the complexity of Michael’s feelings — it’s uncomfortable to be in a situation where expectations are above what you can deliver.
Let’s talk about your own marriage. You and Andrea face a certain pressure in your own lives, too. You donated part of your liver to her in 2002, and Andrea has said that statistically in 20 years, her body might begin to reject it. Is this something that weighs heavily on you both?
I have good news — we just met a health professional who told her that her liver will last however long she wants it to last, as long as she keeps herself in good health. Those statistics that Andrea referred to were based on a survey and on estimates. The professional said there is actually no reason that her liver will fail. It’s made us really happy, and it’s pushing us to plan for other things.
Other things such as… children?
Andrea and I have actually accepted that we will not have children of our own, and we are not close to adoption. We also have so many nephews and nieces that we are not searching for a way to have children of our own. Besides, we already have a very happy family, it’s just that our kids are ones that walk on all fours.
You’ve recently moved into a new terrace house in the eastern part of the island. What’s your favourite part of your new home?
I love every part of my house. We moved in just before Chinese New Year. For the first time, we have a family room where my newphews and nieces can gather. We have a big dining room where everyone can gather. I have a garden I tend to, and even have an area with a chin-up bar and gymnastics rings. Actually, we also have a steam room on our first floor which I haven’t actually tried out!
Where’s the place you go to when you need some quiet time?
My bedroom — it’s big and spacious, and has an open-concept bathroom with lots of sunlight and ventilation. We have a bathtub and so I can soak in it. My room is like a bomb shelter — I can survive in it for ages.
Where does Andrea banish you to when you’ve had a fight or you’ve been ‘bad’?
The doghouse? (Laughs) I guess it’d be the family room. I can’t complain — it’s got a day bed and ceiling fan and it’s really nice in there. I would go there if I came home late and didn’t want to disturb Andrea — after a night out with the guys, for instance. To be honest, Andrea doesn’t ‘banish’ me anywhere but if she did, I guess it’d be to that room. It’s even got a camera in there, so she can see how contrite I am.
Where do you banish the dogs when they’ve been bad?
This is terrible to say, but they can do no wrong! They might get a tongue-lashing or a soft smack or something. But then it’s over.
Andrea is the director of hair salon Cinq, and you a co-owner of 3O1 Bar & Kitchen. What does it take to be successful multi-taskers like you guys?
Find out everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and play on those. For me, I don’t have a lot of time and I don’t have restaurant expertise. My role is to support, to hire the right people and reward them for a job well done.
You’ve been married 15 years. What is the secret to a long and successful marriage?
You have to both want it to be a long and successful marriage, and even learn from other people’s mistakes. I think you have to accept that you’re both individuals who are constantly growing and changing, who have different reactions and emotions. You’ve got to work as a pair with that. A friend told me it’s like swimming in a pair — you constantly have to constantly turn to see where your partner is. If you don’t, you could lose track of where they are entirely. I’ll also say, the grass is green where you water it, not that it’s greener on the other side.
Now, if someone were to flirt with you, how would you deal with that situation?
I’ve got to tell you, I’ve not been picked up in a really long time! But I avoid confrontation… If anyone was daring enough to try to pick me up, I would try to make a joke of it and tell them to please, stop. Maybe I would try to introduce her to a friend!
You’ve pointed towards home-grown actor Chin Han (based in Los Angeles) as someone you look up to. Why?
He’s put our name out there for casting agents. As a Singapore actor, it’s so great to see a Singaporean face in so many American productions. I admire him and his abilities, and I feel that he has been at the forefront of my industry, an amazing example of what a Singaporean actor can do.
What’s your ideal role?
(Laughs) In English or Mandarin? If it’s in Mandarin, probably a mute, because my skills at the language are still so sub-par!
Crazy Rich Asians opens in cinemas on August 22.