I recently got the chance to have a conversation with Gavin Yap, a Malaysian actor/helmer (he’s one half of the duo who directed Dendam Pontianak) who stars in HBO’s Southeast Asian anthology series, Invisible Stories. We talk about the episode he stars in which is set to premiere on HBO on 26 January 2020.
But first some backstory on the episode (Episode 4 — Keagan):
A quiet and reclusive man, Keagan epitomizes the ideal Singaporean – he has a high-paying job, owns a 5-room flat, and is married to a beautiful woman with whom he has an 8-year-old daughter. When his wife Wendy decides that they should “upgrade” and move into a private condominium, it should feel like a natural step. However, it becomes a trigger for Keagan and his secrets begin to unravel.
I read an interview you did with Time Out in 2014. You said that you had slowly fallen out of love with acting and were very eager to get behind the camera and direct instead. Now that you have directed a number of things including the highly successful Dendam Pontianak, has that reinvigorated your enthusiasm to be in front of the camera as well?
I mean, I suppose it factors into it to a certain extent, but actually they’re not as related as you might think. When I fell out of love with acting, it was because I just reached a point where it wasn’t fun anymore. And, you know, when I was talking about it at that interview, I was actually referring to a very, very specific point in time, which was around 2006. And in 2006, I did a play called Fastest Clock in the Universe at KL PAC. And there was something that clicked where I was just like, you know what? This is not fun for me anymore. I don’t want to act for the sake of acting. It’s not to say that I don’t want to act, but I reached a point where I was like, look, if I’m going to act, it needs to mean something. It needs to have some kind of personal connection. I need to feel like I’m being challenged.
And also at the same time, when I give that interview, my theatre directing career was starting to happen. And I was much more interested in telling stories than I was being a cog in the story. But in the years that have happened since then, I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve had the opportunity to do things that have allowed me to grow as an actor. So I think that that was where I was coming from when I was talking about that.
You know, it’s the same reason you fall out of love with a person, this is is because there’s nothing there anymore.
The passion has died down…
Yeah, the passion has died down, you’ve both moved on, you’ve both grown in different directions. So that was kind of how I felt about acting. It was like if I cannot contribute, if I cannot grow, if I cannot be challenged, then I really don’t want to do this anymore.
So, since going through that phase, do you think you’ve gotten stricter in the sense that you scrutinize the scripts more and your roles in the scripts you’re offered?
Yeah, for sure. Definitely. Because acting for me is very difficult and it’s very stressful. Like people get shocked when I say this, but I actually explained directing more peaceful than acting.
Really? That’s interesting.
Yes, I mean, directing comes with a lot of headaches, but you can see the big picture because you know where you’re going. Acting is a very insular experience and you don’t always know what you’re doing if you’re doing the right job or not. And of course, you have to tap into places that, you know, can potentially be painful or can potentially be disturbing. I’m not necessarily in a hurry to go to these places. So if I’m going to go there and I don’t mind going there, but if I’m going to go there is to be worth it for sure.
Do you think being a director has helped you in your career? Cause like you said, directors look at the bigger picture — it’s a different perspective. Actors, on the other hand, are generally pawns on sets. But now, because you’ve directed a couple of films, has your approach to acting changed? Do you scrutinize yourself more on set? Do you find yourself giving more creative input to the director you’re working with?
Actually, I think the biggest sort of shift that has happened as I’ve become more experienced as a director is that it’s actually a lot easier for me to let go because when you’re a director, you’re dealing with everything. You’re dealing with all the nightmares, all of that, all the crap. When when I’m acting, I’m like, hey, it’s your problem, man *laughs* I’m very happy to just act. You know what I mean?
But when I was just acting before I started directing, I was like a back seat director. It’s like “are you sure you want to do it like this?” Now I’m like, “dude, you got this. I understand you got more than your fair share of headaches and I’m just gonna I’m gonna let you do your job.”
Trust the process.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, I’ve always scrutinized myself. I have always been my harshest critic in terms of acting… like I don’t like watching my own stuff. I can’t watch myself.
So, you don’t watch your stuff at all? So, like when you act in a film or a series like this one [Invisible Stories], are not going to sit around the TV with your family when your episode premieres on Sunday?
I am but I’m not going to feel comfortable about it.
You know, my wife had to deal with a lot of crap while I was doing this because when you’re acting and you’re trying to get into a role and there are certain things you need to do to get into it, it’s not necessarily easy for the rest of the people in your life that have to deal with you on a day to day basis. So, you know, they want to see it because they want to see what I was up to. And they want to see it with me. So like, I’ll watch it with them. But in general, it’s not something that I’m particularly comfortable with or have ever been comfortable with. I mean, a lot of this is quite common with a lot of actors. We generally prefer to not watch ourselves because all we see is what’s wrong.
Is it like how people don’t like listening to themselves on the radio but a thousand times worse?
Yeap. Although I will confess it’s gotten easier OK. It has gotten easier but it’s generally not something that I look forward to seeing. As a director, though, it’s a little bit different because you have to. You got no choice. You have to watch it. But also, if I’m not on the screen, it’s a lot easier to lose myself. As soon as I see myself on the screen, it takes me out of the picture.
That’s fascinating. I’d like to go back to what you mentioned earlier. You mentioned that when you’re prepping for a role, it’s not exactly the easiest thing for the people around you. So, what’s your acting process like? There are some actors who apparently sort of have a switch that they can turn on and off when a director yells action and cut. But there are also others who have to really dig deep and be in character constantly. Which side of the spectrum do you fall into?
I think I fall somewhere in the middle. My approach really depends on the project and the role. You know, there are some roles that, to be perfectly honest, you can just turn up on the day and do — as long as you’re on it. I think when it comes to acting, particularly on camera, because the camera just picks up every nuance of what you’re doing, I think what’s most important is that you’re able, to be honest and that you’re able to be in the moment. It all depends on the role. So, for a role like this, there was a certain prep that was necessary because you need to take yourself to certain places and you need to be able to understand what your character is going through in order to reach some degree of honesty and realism, you know.
But if you’re playing like a comic relief character, you just basically you do your thing. Because I’m a firm believer that if you cast me, it’s because you want what I’m gonna bring to the project. So I need to trust that. And just do my thing. But what is important is that I bring to it a degree of honesty and realism.
So for your character, invisible stories like you said you had to go to some pretty uncomfortable places. How did you do it and did it affect your personal life? Were there instances where you’re at home and your family members notice that you’re not yourself?
*laughs* Nah, it wasn’t so drama lah.
The people in my life understand what I do. And I am not about to expose myself to the people in my life if I feel I’m not in a good place. It was more just sort of breaking it down on certain things that you needed to do. So it started with the more external things like I knew I needed to lose weight. I knew that I needed to to be able to perform certain things that I myself was not used to. And then, you kind of go into the psychological aspect where you need to do some research and read some case studies so you can get an idea of where these people come from psychologically. But these things are just guidelines.
At the end of the day, you need to decide how you want to play it because everyone is different, regardless of what their psychological condition is or affliction is. I just try to figure out a way that I can take the information and project it on screen that feels — I keep coming back to this word — honest. So even though it may not necessarily be exactly what other people have experienced, that they can see that you’re not phoning it in.
On that note, what about the HBO’s Invisible Stories script, that made you go “I have to do this!”
Even just like the way it was kind of pitched to me was very, very attractive. Also, it’s the very opportunity to work with HBO. Because I’m a huge film fan and a pop culture geek. So to be on a show where you have that TV Static and then the HBO logo followed by **makes sound –you know the sound** is just kind of unreal. It was a simple yes.
But also, when the concept of the series was described to me, this huge on sort of this big ensemble piece where it’s all of these inter interconnecting characters, that kind of reminded me of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which I’m a huge fan of. So, to be involved in a Southeast Asian version of that was very attractive to me.
And also the for the last 10 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to go to work in Singapore quite a few times and to get to know Singapore culture a little bit. So I understand the whole sort of like HDB culture. And the director had a very specific idea about… you have this these HDB flats and all of these different characters behind closed doors. Because I think a lot of people have this picture-perfect idea of Singapore.
Yeah, cause it’s shoved down our throats *laughs*.
But the thing is, is that life isn’t perfect for anyone. And I was just really, really sort of affected by it. I mean, to be perfectly honest with you, I wasn’t given the script upfront. I was given bits of information one little bit at a time because people were naturally very secretive of the project because they didn’t want stuff leaking and all of that.
So like I had a very, very long audition process to try to get the role. I was doing a show in New York and was away from KL for a month and a half. I was approached about the job the week before I left. So I was auditioning for this role the entire time I was in New York.
Yeah. So, for a month and a half, every day I was sending in a different tape from New York. And so after a while, it just got to a point where I’m like, I’m like, you know what, I need to do this.
So, how did you feel when you actually got the role?
Honestly, it was very surreal. It didn’t feel real. It wasn’t until I got back home because as soon as I got back to KL, like within two days of getting back to KL, I was on a plane to Singapore already [where the show is shot]. It really, really was a very surreal experience. And it’s like you’re peeling the layer one by one and it feels more and more real until it’s like oh my God, I really can’t drop the ball on this! I want to work with these people again.
What was it like working with Rosalind Pho?
Ross is awesome. I don’t have anything but really wonderful things to say about her. She was really, really, really, really amazing. So much fun. Such a fun person.
And, she plays your wife on the show, right?
So, what was the experience like developing a chemistry with her?
Here’s the thing about chemistry. It’s either you have it or you don’t. You cannot rehearse chemistry. And I’m talking as an actor and a director. You cannot rehearse chemistry. You can try your best to sort of make it work well with each other. But in terms of natural chemistry, it’s either you have it or you don’t.
I think what’s great about Ros is that she’s just such a generous actor that she that she’s just open to whatever you’re going to give. I like to perform that way as well. Like, we can do the take the way we’re going to do the take, but let’s also play, let’s see what happens. Let’s see what happens if one of us does something different. And yeah, she’s awesome, I would love to work with her again.
What do you hope audiences take away from your episode?
I generally don’t like to tell audiences what to take away because everyone’s experience will be different. I think people are going to take different things away based on their principles and beliefs. Ultimately, I do feel that it’s a story about self-discovery and acceptance and that all of us are just trying our best. All of us have demons. All of us have, certain aspects of ourselves that we are trying to deal with or trying to come to terms with because we think we need to be able to be true to ourselves before we can expect anyone to sort of go the extra mile for us. And I think whether or not you agree with Keagan’s philosophy, you will know what is important to him.
So the whole thing that Keagan goes through with his wife. It’s a big deal because before, you know, Keagan needs to sort of come to terms with who he is and he needs his wife to accept it so they can move forward and so that they can take it to that next level. All right. I think that I think if you’re not accepted at home, it’s very difficult for you to move beyond that. But if you feel that you have a strong support system within your family, it gives you the courage to go… and also be empowered.
What other projects are you working on?
There’s nothing I can officially reveal this point. There are things in various stages of development. I did Dendam Pontianak with Glen Goei, so he and I are developing our next project. I’m developing a couple of projects on my own. I directed a play called Gold Rain & Hailstones last year and we’re gonna be restaging that this year. I’m committed to doing theatre in Singapore until May. There are some interesting things in the burner but I’m not ready to make any official announcements just yet. But once things are set in stone, don’t worry, I’ll be shouting them all out!
The INVISIBLE STORIES: KEAGAN episode debuts Sunday, 26 January at 10pm on HBO GO and HBO (Astro Ch 411/ 431 HD); new episodes air every Sunday at the same time.