When director U-Wei Saari was looking for an actress to play the part of Nina in Hanyut in 2009, his requirements for the role (according to a Bahasa Malaysia daily report) were “pan-Asian and beautiful”.

Diana Dianelle got the role.

In a recent interview, Diana – who turned 25 on Nov 22 – confessed she’s aware that some people perceive she scored the part because of her looks.

“Perhaps that’s the only reason why (I got the role),” said Diana, who was born in Texas in the United States, and grew up in Kuala Lumpur.

Far from being self-deprecating about it, Diana shared that she did feel somewhat apprehensive about being a part of the prolific director’s period piece, which is based on the novel Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad.

The actress was only 19 when Hanyut was shot in 2010, and she plays a key character in it. “The pressure came from realising that I’m in a film with a production budget of RM18mil. Then you hear names like Khalid Salleh, Alex Komang and Sofia Jane attached to that film. How do I fit into this puzzle?”

Set in 19th century Malaya, Hanyut tells of Dutch trader Kaspar Almayer (Australian actor Peter O’Brien) who has a child with local woman Mem (Sofia).

He sends his daughter, Nina, away to be educated in a foreign country. Years later, Nina comes home only to fall in love with a local man (Adi Putra). This, above all, distresses Kaspar who has other plans for Nina.

To prepare for the role, Diana went through two months of intensive rehearsals. She was determined to prove that she’s more than just her “pan-Asian” looks. Part of her determination was also fuelled by initial fears of being replaced.

“I kept thinking that one day U-Wei was going to say ‘You’re not playing Nina. Go home. I’m going to find someone else’.”

When U-Wei was informed about Diana’s fears, he just smiled and said: “Good. All my actors should feel like that.”

However, he was more reassuring on set when Diana had expressed her self-doubt to him. “He told me ‘I chose you for a reason’,” she recalled.

Diana also had the guidance of actress Sofia, who has worked with U-Wei as his leading lady in the award-winning 1993 film Perempuan, Isteri Dan ….

But first things first. Diana was obviously starstruck at her first meeting with Sofia. “She is so beautiful. I told her that she looked like she could play the daughter and I should be the mother,” mentioned Diana with a laugh.

What ultimately landed Diana the role was understanding what Hanyut means to U-Wei. She knew U-Wei had spent a decade developing Hanyut before going into production, and that the idea for the film was given to him by his late wife Diana Gail, who passed away earlier this year.

“U-Wei is the heart of the film. It took him years to find funds to get this project started. He went all out for this film. When we saw how much soul he put into Hanyut, it made us want to work that much harder,” Diana explained.

Hanyut was completed in 2012 and its local premiere had been delayed as U-Wei needed more funds for marketing purposes. Just like U-Wei, Diana had been bogged down by questions about the movie’s release date. She admitted it was hurtful to hear some of the remarks.

“People often asked, ‘Hanyut dah hanyut ke (has it drifted away)?’ ” she stated, accompanying it with an eye roll.

Hanyut was released in Indonesia in 2014 and Diana – who attended the gala premiere with her husband, actor Farid Kamil – said the film got a standing ovation from the audience.

“Farid was very proud. In fact, he said he has never enjoyed any of my other movies. I loved his honesty so it didn’t make me feel bad. To me what he said was true. Hanyut was very unexpected. If Farid was not impressed, I would’ve beaten him up,” the mother to three-year-old Muhammad and one-year-old Nur Aurora added.

Diana Danielle was 19 when she was cast to play Nina in Hanyut.

Diana Danielle was 19 when she was cast to play Nina in Hanyut.

For Diana, being involved in Hanyut changed the course of her acting career. When she was cast at 19, she didn’t have any other significant roles to her name. She described how she was often offered parts that didn’t carry any weight.

“After Hanyut, I felt like I was offered more leading roles. I was thankful to be cast in Sembunyi: Amukan Azazil and Kami Histeria. I guess (previously), people thought I couldn’t act.”

Now that Hanyut is finally released in Malaysia, Diana described it as a “huge relief”.

“I can finally say ‘There, Hanyut tak hanyut lagi (it’s no longer drifting away)’!”