Janice Koh On Practicing Her Cantonese In ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ “Every Waking Minute”
The former NMP and theatre and TV thesp, who plays Michelle Yeoh’s sister-in-law in 'Crazy Rich Asians', on heat stress, ‘butchered’ designer bags and clothes, and her Cantonese dialogue in the hit rom-com.
When Janice Koh recently uploaded on Instagram behind-the-scenes photos from the Hollywood rom-com Crazy Rich Asians — where she plays Felicity Leong, Michelle Yeoh’s sister-in-law — she made it a point to include fascinating factoids. For example, did you know that the party scene at the Tyersall Park actually served authentic canapes and hors d’oeuvres? And that she wore slippers between takes, instead of high heels?
She doesn’t always do that for other TV and movie projects she’s in, Koh tells us over the phone, but because “this is the first time [I’m] part of such a major movie that [I] felt that people would be interested in what goes on behind the scenes day to day.” For Koh, sharing details with the public is also a chance to walk down memory lane. “For us, of course, it’s wonderful to see the movie on the big screen,” she says. “But what we take away are the relationships, friendships and experiences that we had while doing [a certain] scene. If we watch the movie, it’s a very different kind of nostalgia.” Here, she tells us more about what happened when the camera wasn't rolling.
Wedding in progress: Janice Koh with Michelle Yeoh, Amy Cheng, Selena Tan, Lisa Lu, and Gemma Chan, in a scene from Crazy Rich Asians.
8 DAYS: Do you still remember your first day on set?
JANICE KOH: My first day was the party scene in Tyersall Park [the ancestral home of Henry Golding’s Nick Young]. That was my first day on set with 100 extras in the heat, dying in the house — because there were not enough fans (laughs). And I’m like, “Okay, how many more takes of this are we going to shoot?” (laughs). Thankfully, they brought in more coolers and it was fine after that. It was good to be introduced in that way sometimes when you’re working on a project, because the stakes are low — you’re just part of the crowd. There’s no big scene for you; you’re just getting to know the crew, the DP, and the assistant director. That’s always a good way to be introduced to the movie-making process.
You posted on Instagram the dress you wore in the scene. Did you get to keep that as a memento?
Of course not! They cost tens of thousands of dollars (laughs)! But what I found really surprising was how they would alter, cut and change the dresses as per necessary for the movie. So that really was heart-aching. [It’s like] the Louis Vuitton vintage bags in the opening scene. There were five to eight pieces of luggage all around us, and if they had to be completely drenched by water — because the scene required us to come in from the rain — they’d to be totally soaked! And I’m like, Oh my God (laughs). I guess the suaku actor is me! We don’t get to see these kinds of things, because we don’t have that luxury on local sets, right? But that’s how they roll in Hollywood, I guess. They can’t use fakes (laughs). And if it’s a Ralph & Russo dress that needs to be [altered], then they do it, you know? It was eye-opening.
Now that you’ve worked on a Hollywood set, does that raise your expectations when you next work on a local TV or film project?
No lah, not at all (laughs). There’s a context to everything that we do. So when we walk into a Hollywood movie, there is a certain way of doing things and it’s wonderful to be a part of that. For me, even working on an indie project, it’s not so much about the lavishness of the set, the props, or even the catering. For me at the end of the day, it’s about a professional attitude that everybody brings their A game, whether it’s a low-budget movie, tele-movie, TV series, Toggle, or a Hollywood set. If you do that every day, I’d feel like I can contribute and be very proud of this work. That, for me, is the most important. You don’t have to be paid a million bucks to bring your A game.
Can we talk about your Cantonese in the movie? In the opening scene, you have a line that loosely translates as “You can explore Hell, you dog turd!”, which is a retort to a rude hotel manager. How many takes did you do to nail that line?
It was really fast! Not many takes at all. My Cantonese is certainly not perfect; I don’t speak Cantonese. When I first got my script, they said, “Hey, it’s in Hokkien,” and I said, “Great, because I’m Hokkien!” I may not be very good at it but I don’t have a problem with the intonations. I think maybe one or two weeks before, they changed [the dialogue] to Cantonese, and that’s when I was like, “What?” Immediately on that very day I literally got in touch with someone whose Cantonese was very good. I got them to translate it. The next day, I got in touch with my dialect coach from Malaysia and I got him to send me a voice memo of how to read the line, and then for the next 10 days after that, I literally said it everywhere I went (laughs).
Every waking minute I could practise it, I did. Just so that when we finally get round to shooting it, I don’t have to hold anybody up. But the problem with a lot of these dialects is that the people who do speak the dialect will very clearly know that you’re a non-native speaker. But I just put in my best effort and hopefully we can pass lah. I don’t expect flying colours here. And the really Cantonese-speaking ones would come up to me and go, “You know ah, that line ah…” and I’m like, “I know lah, I know lah, I can’t do it as well as you guys,” but the fact that it was going to be my opening line in my first Hollywood movie, I was not going to let myself down (laughs).
Michelle Yeoh speaks Cantonese. Did she help you?
We had blocking rehearsals on the set. All dialect coaching was already done off-set. But my dialect coach was on site during filming to assist, when needed. Actors do not typically coach each other on lines or accents, when the director or dialect coach is present. Even for Michelle, she’s from Malaysia, so her Cantonese is very different from some of the Cantonese that you hear here. So you just have to be confident, speak with what you learnt, just go with it, and be prepared. Sometimes, some of the lines would be given to me or even changed on the spot, so it’s tricky. That’s part of the challenge of having to act in a language that’s not yours.
Going green: Koh takes a break with her 'sister-in-law' Michelle Yeoh.
Do you have a Michelle Yeoh story to share?
It’s really funny, but one of the last scenes that we shot was that big wedding at Gardens by the Bay. It was going to be the last time that all the cast would be together, and I remember when we were shooting some of the wide shots of the wedding party, at that time, Michelle was not supposed to be there because her character has taken [Constance Wu and Golding’s characters] Rachel and Nick aside to break the news about her father, right? But whenever the camera would pan to the wide shot, she was actually dancing with us in the crowd (laughs). You would not be able to catch her because it’s way too small, but she wanted to be a part of the party! Because it’s just one of the rare times that everybody was on set, she came along and she also partied lah — in her robe (laughs). You couldn’t tell from afar, but it’s one of those things.
I think it’s because our cast is pretty close and we hung out so much, and sometimes for those people, like [Tan] Kheng Hua or even Koh Chieng Mun because they’re only required in a two- or three-hander, they may not get a chance to hang out on set with the rest of the team. Then your experience of the whole film is relegated to those [scenes]. So for some of the main cast, including Michelle, when she came to Singapore and we were shooting these big scenes, she was very game and happy to hang out with us. Because, otherwise, all her other scenes were all the individual ones with Henry or Constance. I think it’s just because we were cool to hang out with. We’re fun (laughs). Awkwafina and Ronny Chieng were so much fun. We had a lot of laughs when they were around.
Photos: Warner Bros, TPG News/Click Photos, Janice Koh