Actor Adi Putra didn’t know that he had big shoes to fill when he accepted the part for Dain Maroola in Hanyut. The film directed by U-Wei Saari is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s book Almayer’s Folly.
U-Wei, 62, spent a decade developing the film before going into production in 2010. Set in the 19th century, Adi’s character is an aristocrat who promised to help Almayer – a desperate Dutch trader – find gold in Malaya. Along the way, he falls in love with Nina, Almayer’s half-Malay daughter (played by Diana Danielle).
Conflict arises when Almayer does not approve of the blossoming romance between his daughter and Dain. The film also stars Sofia Jane, Peter O’Brien, late Indonesian actor Alex Komang and Khalid Salleh.
“I was 29 at that time. I got a call asking to come in for an audition. Apparently, U-Wei spent a year looking for someone to play Dain. He had someone else in mind for the role but somehow that didn’t work out,” Adi, 35, shared during an interview in Kuala Lumpur.
That someone else was Eman Manan, a three-time Malaysia Film Festival winner for Best Actor, who previously starred in U-Wei’s Buai Laju-Laju (2004). When Adi learned the part was originally intended for Eman, he admitted to feeling the pressure.
“I wanted to know if U-Wei was crazy for casting me or was I insane for thinking I could do the role justice,” he recalled with a perplexed look on his face.
Adi shared that the cast went through an intensive training before the shoot. He was feeling stressed for months even before stepping onto the set of Hanyut.
“I wanted to know how to play Dain. But it was hard to understand what U-Wei truly meant at that time. He spoke through layers and metaphors. There was no direct answer. I was lost,” he said.
Being a relatively unknown actor back then (Adi was a lighting technician with Singapore’s MediaCorp and starred in several TV dramas before moving to Malaysia in 2004 to pursue acting), he really wanted to make an impression on U-Wei. But U-Wei was not very forthcoming.
“He told me Dain has to navigate through politics, romance and cultural differences. And that he was a man looking for sulphur to make weapons. Then U-Wei said I could figure out the rest on my own. I went home and stared at the ceiling for hours.”
Hanyut costs RM18mil to make, with most scenes shot in Pahang. Adi had never experienced being on a local film production with a scale of epic proportions like Hanyut. For starters, he had his own trailer. There were also tents with air-conditioning set up for the production crew.
“U-Wei said don’t worry. Everything will be prepared for me on set. There will be people holding my script for me. There will also be people holding an umbrella for me. He said all I have to do, is bring him my gift. I thought ‘Oh God, is he talking about my performance?’,” said Adi.
To add on to the already mounting pressure, Adi learned that Hanyut was going to be shot with a Panavision reel camera. “Film is expensive. I know we can’t afford to waste it. At that time I asked myself: ‘Do I really want to waste precious reel just because of my own inability?’ U-Wei trusted me with this role. My responsibility felt bigger than ever.”
To do justice to the trust U-Wei had placed in him, Adi immersed himself in the role before production began. “I told myself to remain calm and stay sane. I didn’t want to be the one who was hanyut or ‘drifting away’ instead.”
He added: “On the first day, U-Wei was on top of a hill and I was stationed at the foot of the hill. Then I heard him say ‘cut’. I watched him walk all the way down from the hill to where I was. Without saying a word, he just touched my cheek. Then he went back up again.”
Adi said that was the sign he took that he was doing a decent job. Still, he hesitated to know for sure from the director himself.
“Till today, I don’t know why U-Wei picked me for the role. I’m too scared to ask!”
In a separate interview we asked U-Wei that very question. The director said Adi was cast at the eleventh hour even though he was unfamiliar with Adi’s previous acting gigs like in the TV series Haryati 2.
So the reason? This is all U-Wei offered: “I like his eyes.”
For Adi, it was the very pressure that became “the best part” about working on Hanyut. Also, having the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with U-Wei.
“I like to talk about the difficult parts first before going into the best moments. It was very important for me to be a part of a film like Hanyut. I feel that if you want to be complete as an actor, you have to work with U-Wei.”
He added: “Then again, he’d have to want to work with you first.”
Hanyut was scheduled for release in Malaysia in 2013, but it was delayed as U-Wei needed funds for marketing and promotion of the film here. It was however released in Indonesia in 2014, where the cast had a gala premiere.
“It was stunning,” Adi said of the film after watching it for the first time at the premiere. “I feel it would be such a waste if our audiences here were to miss it. After a long wait, it’s a huge relief to know that the film will finally be released here.”
Hanyut opens on Nov 24.