‘Tis the season to be jolly, and if you’re looking for some festive levity, Hossan Leong is the guy to look for. On stage, he’s directing A $ingapore Carol, a kooky take on the Charles Dickens’ classic, starting its run at the Victorial Theatre on Nov 23 (Fri). He’s also on the telly (or whatever device you consume entertainment these days): He's part of the cast of We the Citizens, Toggle’s new sketch comedy series that makes fun of Singaporean idiosyncrasies, premiering Nov 29 (Thur).
And if you’re not into Leong’s funnier side, you can check out his darker, more serious persona on Grisse, the eight-part HBO English-language series set in the 1880s, where a racially diverse bunch of people join forces to defend the titular East Javanese town from the Dutch army. (Think Deadwood meets Black Sails.)
Leong plays Zengwei, the right-hand man to Joanne Kam’s mamasan of the town’s brothel. Here, he tells 8 DAYS how he got roped into the Wild West-styled drama — aka Nasi Goreng Western — that was shot at Batam’s Infinite Framworks/Kinema Studios.
8 DAYS: First things first, how did you get involved with Grisse?
HOSSAN LEONG: It was quite interesting how I got the part. I’ve already known [executive producer] Mike Wiluan for many years; we always meet at social events. One day at a Christmas party, he came up and asked me, “You know, are you able to play anyone else other than Hossan Leong the comedian?” I was like, “Excuse me, what do you mean? Of course, I can — I am an actor (laughs).” He then said he has this role — he didn’t say it was for Grisse — that was different. I went, ‘Hmmm, can. I try lah.’ Then his production house texted me and asked for my availability. Then to double-confirm, they made me do a read. I shot in on my phone and sent it to [director] Tony Tilse. Next thing I know, we were scheduling dates.
You’ve done some action before on the 2001 mini-series The Monkey King. But the action on Grisse is more hardcore. You were really out of your comfort zone for this one…
I used to do karate. So this was just like a little refresher course on the fighting. The physicality of the action scenes were tiring but they weren’t the ‘cannot take it’ kind of fighting. It was fine.
Fine? I hear you broke a tooth…
It’s method acting but my method was too real.
So karate, huh? What rank did you reach?
(Laughs) Shy lah. I think it was brown… but [I did this] many, many years ago. Then I had to give it up because my mum made me choose between piano and karate. So I just picked piano lah.
There was a scene Zengwei playing the piano. So that was all you?
That was me okay! At least I finished my Grade 8.
Malaysian comedienne Joanne Kam, who plays the mamasan, said that even though you two hail from a comedy background, neither of you play the comic relief. How about off-screen? Some directors hire comedy actors because they believe their presence alone can keep things light behind the scenes.
For sure. It’s in our DNA to keep everyone happy and smiling. But I can’t do that 24/7; if I’m tired and I can’t up the ‘hey everybody, how are you doing?’, I just retire to my room until I am ready to face the world again.
Grisse has this really grimy, filthy visual palette. Every time I look at it, I feel like I need to shower.
I must tell you a joke. My first shot for Grisse was me running to the window to peer out [at a commotion across the street]. When I gripped the window grills, Mike and Tony shouted, “Cut! Stop! Hossan’s nails are too clean! Too clean! Dirty them up!” I thought it would be nice that I went for a manicure to look good for the camera. But no, waste my money, waste my time! I pity the housekeeping guys [cleaning] my hotel bathroom — it was all black, brown, muddy make-up all over the place. It took an hour to scrub it all off.
Zengwei doesn’t say a lot of things. Is that by design?
I think it was by design. My character doesn’t speak very much. When he does say something, he’s basically doing it to serve his own means. Most of the time I was in the background growling and fighting. Hopefully, if we do come back for a second season (laughs), maybe things would change.
And when he does say things, he has some really colourful lines, like “a samurai’s c**k is his katana”. That’s one for the ages.
(Guffaws) I never thought in my life I will be allowed to say things like that on camera. Of course, it’s unlike me to say those lines. I don’t say them in real life. Then again, it’s a character that says them, not me. So that helps a lot in articulating those words. At the end of the day, you say the line and the director says, “Cut!”, and you’re done for the day.
Grisse deals with Indonesia’s colonial past under the Dutch. Did you learn anything new from that period after working on the show?
I did History in school and I did know about the Dutch in Indonesia. But after having met and become friends with my colleagues from Indonesia, I didn’t realise how much the Dutch identity seeped into their culture, like the root words for some of the Indonesian words are Dutch. So it’s very interesting to speak to them and also to learn that there are many Dutch people who have put down roots in Indonesia.
Did you pick up anything about acting from Grisse?
I learnt very quickly [not to over-act]. What I thought I was doing correct [was actually not], Tony and Mike would say to me, “Tone it down.” I learnt that when I act in a drama on TV, where the close-ups are huge, you don’t have to do very much, in the sense that everything is seen through the eyes and the facial twitches. It takes very little to do a lot on TV dramas. I am very grateful to learn that little trick at the end of the day. I don’t want to say it but sometimes on some TV shows — everyone is over-acting. I realised that I have been doing it all along.
You’re a stage actor. You need to project your emotions…
I don’t think it has anything to do with my theatrical background. It has something to do with what we think and perceive from watching other TV shows growing up and suddenly we are also doing it. Drama, drama, drama. (In Mandarin) “Please don’t treat me this way!” That kind of thing. That’s what you watched growing up and you think that’s the way to do it. But, no. In order to stay true, you want the audience to empathise with you and understand where you are coming from, you got to be real. So none of the histrionics and staring-longingly-from-a-distance-with-a-tear-falling-from-one-eye kind.
Well, it’s not TV, it's HBO.
That’s why the acting style is different.
You’re now directing A $ingapore Carol? What’s next when you’re done with that project?
I’m preparing for my big concert — a one-man show — next year. I’m celebrating my 50th birthday next year, so it’s HL50! At the moment, it’s tentatively called Hossan-ah: It’s Been A Leong Time. I am currently actively looking for people to join me on this romp next year.
Hossan Leong turns 50. Are you mentally prepared for that milestone?
I don’t think that’s going to be a difference. Your body kinda breaks down once you hit 45 (laughs). So I know it’s downhill all the way, but at least my mind is happy (laughs).
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Grisse airs Sun, HBO (StarHub Ch 601), 10pm. It’s also streaming on HBO Go. Catch A $ingapore Carol at Victoria Theatre, Nov 23-Dec 15; tix from Sistic. We The Citizens premieres Nov 29 on Toggle.
Photos: HBO, W!LD RICE, Toggle