Of all the actors who emerged during Hong Kong cinema’s golden age between the early 80s and the mid-90s, Tony Leung Ka-fai is the one whose star still shines brightest. No-one can match Leung’s record of a Best Actor award in each of the last four decades and none have continued to make quality films with as much regularity and consistency. The lead in some of Hong Kong’s most iconic films, Leung has done it all. He’s worked with the likes of Wong Kar-wai, Jean-Jacques Annaud and Johnnie To, and starred alongside everyone from Leslie Cheung to Maggie Cheung Man-yuk.
Not that you’d know this if you met the 30-year industry veteran. Despite all the accolades, Leung’s feet remain firmly planted on the ground. He’s the first A-list celebrity to arrive early to one of our interviews and whenever our photograph session at Hotel Tuve gets in the way of guests’ checking-in, he’s the first to apologise, even though everyone doesn’t mind in the least and just wants their own photo.
Thoroughly humble and mild mannered, Leung is once again on the interview circuit, promoting his latest film, Cold War 2. The original was the highest-grossing Chinese language film of 2012 and the role of deputy commisioner Lee won Leung his most recent Best Actor award. Arguably this year’s most anticipated local movie, the sequel picks up where the first left off and we get started by asking about that surprise ending…
The first Cold War ended on quite the cliffhanger. Where does the second begin?Although it’s been three-and-a-half-years since the original, the new story actually takes places just two months after what happened in Cold War. It picks up the story after Aaron Kwok has become police commissioner and his wife has been kidnapped, like at the end of the first movie. [Operation] Cold War hasn’t finished yet – the money, the van, they’re still missing.
Is there any reason why the sequel, set up so prominently in the first, has taken four years to arrive?
Actually, when the directors wrote Cold War, they didn’t make plans [for organising] a sequel. It took two-and-a-half-years for someone to say ‘we need to have Cold War 2’. Only then did they start to think about it. It’s not easy. Although certain mysteries were left unresolved, organising a shoot with many big name actors is very difficult.
At the end of the last movie, your character had decided to leave the police force. Where is he now?
I’m still a policeman, taking holiday before I retire. Following the kidnapping of his wife, Aaron Kwok’s character comes to me asking for help. But actually, I want to be at the police station, looking after my son, monitoring him. I still want to know who’s the power behind him. And I want to keep him alive. My character needs to see him face justice.
In the first movie, Andy Lau’s character claims that extreme situations call for extreme measures, whereas in the trailer for part two, we see Chow Yun-fat saying the opposite. Where does your character stand in this debate?
Those two are in two different positions. Chow Yun-fat is a retired lawyer. He represents the legal side. [His opinion is that one] must follow the rules laid down. Andy Lau is more about the security of people. Me? I’m just a policeman! [Laughs]
Arguably, the original movie is more relevant now than when it was made four years ago, what with events like Occupy Central. Do you agree?
Maybe that’s what the directors think…
How do you think your character in the movie would have handled the ‘fishball revolution’?
Actually, what happened in Mong Kok happened many years ago in Hong Kong. In the 60s there were big riots. People were on the streets, some burned cars. Those kinds of strikes happen in America and especially in France. They protest for human rights – not because they are against the government. They just aren’t happy with the government. And that happens every day, everywhere. So, I don’t consider what happened in Mong Kok this year a problem that makes Hong Kong an unsafe city.
Did you have much knowledge of the police force before these movies?
Nope. Cold War allowed me a whole new point of view for seeing the HK Police Force. Before that, Hong Kong had a lot of police movies but never one about high-ranking officers like this. I was like the audience. I’d never seen policeman in that setting. The production was so good, we even had real policemen on the set. When I walked into the meeting room [for a scene], I could really feel it. The look of them, their facial expressions – they didn’t have any! [Laughs] When I walked in for the first take and I saw real police officers sitting there, I really felt that I was their leader. It helped me a lot.
Did you get any tips from them about acting like a policeman?
Oh, I’m a good actor. [Laughs] I’ll give you an example. Many years ago, in my first movie, [Reign Behind the Curtain], I was an emperor of the Qing Dynasty. At that time I was very young. I was fresh. I had no experience of acting. But when I entered the Forbidden City with the director, when I put on the costume and I saw a thousand people there – all dressed up, walking to the Tai He Dian (Hall of Supreme Harmony) – when I saw this, I became the emperor.
A controversial opinion hinted at in Cold War is that unity within the police force is more important than making the public aware of danger. Do you think we’re supposed to agree with that point of view or condone it?
I agree with it. And you can see why with the terrorist attack that happened recently in Paris. They knew terrorists were active years ago, but no-one tells the public: “We have 15 terrorists living in Paris. They haven’t done anything so far, but they’re still terrorists.”
The first Cold War was quite serious on its themes surrounding the rule of law. Is the second equally cerebral or is it more action orientated?
Of course, this must be quite action orientated, because of Aaron! [Laughs] But the real war isn’t in the action scenes. The real war is what takes place between me and Aaron’s character. Am I the big boss, the person behind my son? Or is there somebody else, some other party involved? Aaron believes I am the one who is always against him, because I don’t want him to be to commissioner. That’s how he perceives the whole thing.
Without giving away details of the ending, do you think Cold War couldbecome a trilogy?
As I said, when the directors wrote Cold War, they didn’t think about Cold War 2. It was quite hard to organise the sequel, so it’ll be even more difficult to do Cold War 3. After I saw both movies in Beijing, I thought there could be a third, but it would have to be a prequel, to put in place everything that happened to start Cold War1.
Your schedule is still quite intense, so what do you do to relax?
I stay home. I like to stay home because I feel safe. I wouldn’t say I relax per se, I do housework too. I also take care of the dogs. They’re all adopted from the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), all seven of them.
That’s a lot of work!
It’s okay, I don’t need to walk them. There’s a mountain at the back of my house. Whenever I open the door, they all just go out and play. By dinnertime, they come back.
Do you ever think about retirement?
I’ve cut down a lot already! [Laughs.] One time, when I was working to a busy schedule, I took a long rest. When I stayed at home with nothing to do, I felt so lonely. I’d rather be at a film set, even if just to visit. Watching others make films makes me feel alive. Nowadays, though, I’ve cut down my work. I don’t think about retirement. Every new character I portray enriches me.
Do you think people worked too hard in the 80s and 90s?
Especially the actors! I was on three different sets every day and there were two or three years that I made 13 movies a year. I don’t miss that.
So four Best Actor awards – but is there a role you’ve done that you don’t think has received sufficient attention?
Nope, never. I work very hard in every film and on every character. Every time I finish a character or a film, I never look back. Maybe the movie isn’t great, but I always believe I do the character justice. I work very hard and I know I’ve tried my best, so I can say to myself that although I’ve worked on over 100 characters, I feel very fulfilled. I feel every character I’ve created has received an award from myself already. As I said just now, every new character adds to my life.
You’re the youngest-ever winner of the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor. How did that victory feel at the time? And how do you look back on it now?
I didn’t feel anything. It’s not me who did it, it was the director. It was sheer luck. I was the luckiest guy alive that moment.
Did you feel the same way when you won other awards?
I felt lucky the first time around because I didn’t choose the character myself. Now I don’t feel that any more. Now I do choose the characters. Perhaps everyone says this, but to be honest, to be nominated is to have the approval and recognition already.
What do you like about acting?
What makes me most happy about acting is that the different characters enrich my life. I can be a soldier. I don’t need to be a real soldier but I could feel what a war is like, get a sense of what battlefields are like. Those kinds of experiences fulfill my life.
Your mother worked in a cinema when you were young. Did that inspire you to get into acting?
My mother was the operator in a cinema. From when I was about eight-months-old until five or six, she had to take me to work. I was always placed in the cinema, at the top and at the back under the projector. And I cried! But I can truly say that I grew up in cinemas. I don’t know if it inspired me, but there must be something subconscious. When there was no-one in the cinema, I ran around it for fun. It was my big playground. I was always in the poster-painting workshop, too, where they painted the posters and put them together.
How did you get into movies professionally?
A director approached me. At the time, I was the editor of a magazine and I needed a cover girl. But I didn’t want stars. I wanted someone brand new. Eventually someone introduced a director’s daughter to me. I went to the girl’s home and we did the interview and photo shoot. Then the dad returned and asked who I was. He invited me to stay for dinner and he said: ‘I’m going to make a movie somewhere away. Do you want to come with me?’ I asked where and he said China. ‘For how long?’ ‘A year and a half’. At the time I thought he wanted me to be his assistant. As I knew nothing about movies, I thought all he needed was an assistant. [The offer] was so attractive, to go to China with this great director...
At what point did you realise he wanted you to be the lead actor?
The first week when we were in Beijing. He asked me to read the script, so I said yes, because I’ll have to know what’s going on to be his assistant, right? ‘Tony, go shave your hair off’ ‘Ha? How come?’ Okay, I did it. I assumed it must have something to do with dirt or lice. ‘Go to the wardrobe and have your measurements taken’. And that’s when I asked why he needed an assistant’s measurements. He said he wanted me to be the emperor. At that time, I was shocked. I said to the director: ‘I don’t know how to act!’ He said: ‘That’s exactly what I want. You only need to follow my instructions’. That’s precisely why, earlier, I said the award did not belong to me. It belongs to the director.
But it all turned out well...
I may not know how to choose my career but I know how to choose my boss. [Laughs] That’s a talent, too.
Cold War 2 is In cinemas from Fri Jul 8.
Art direction by Phoebe Cheng. Photography by Calvin Sit. Special thanks to Hotel Tuve