“I’ve always been a risk taker,” says Malaysia-born, China-based actor Lawrence Wong in an email interview with Star2. “And I’m never one to be afraid of starting from scratch.”
Wong is talking about his decision to walk away from the acting career he worked so hard to build in Malaysia and Singapore to try his luck in China in 2016.
“It’s quite nice to be a newbie again and start afresh; be like a new piece of sponge and soak up all the new experiences and cultures,” the gutsy actor reasons.
“I had no backup plans. I was even thinking of leaving the industry anyway before I left for China so I figured that there’s nothing to lose.”
The actor’s go-big-or-go-home approach paid off when Story Of Yanxi Palace became wildly popular in recent months, racking up 530 million views on China’s streaming platform iQiyi in just one day, setting a record for highest single-day online viewership.
Wong played a supporting role – royal guard Hai Lan Cha – in the 70-episode period drama set in the Forbidden City. It was an opportunity that raised his profile immensely.
Wong walks us through his beginnings in showbiz, his bold move to China and his experience on the set of Story Of Yanxi Palace.
Johor boy dreams big
Born and raised in Johor Baru, Wong’s foray into showbiz started when he was cast as a talent for commercials.
“My first commercial was at 15. The producer (of the commercial) was my mother’s friend who suggested to her that I should try out for the auditions, which I did and got the job,” he says.
Wong continued booking jobs for print and TV commercials during his schooling years.
In 2009, he made his acting debut in MediaCorp telemovie, The Promise, and the newcomer was immediately well-received. His portrayal earned a nomination for Favourite Male Character at MediaCorp’s Star Awards the following year.
“After that, ntv7 in Malaysia got me over to do a drama and I thought it’d be so cool to come back home and act. I was supposed to do one drama and then go back to Singapore but as it turns out, I landed lead roles in dramas after dramas in Malaysia,” he explains.
Wong had been steadily building his acting career in Malaysia and Singapore since then.
But in 2016, the actor felt like he was hitting a wall.
“I was kind of lost during that time. I was working so much between Singapore and Malaysia yet I felt like I couldn’t see a future,” he shares candidly.
“I felt I have so much more potential to unleash and so much more to give artistically as an actor but there are no avenues and right opportunities in Singapore or Malaysia for me to show it.
“So, when the opportunity to go to China arose, I took it without thinking.”
That opportunity came in the form of a meeting with a management company from China.
“I met the bosses of my current China company in Singapore through a common friend. One of my bosses, Qin Lan, is also an actress in China; she is now famous for her role as the empress in Story Of Yanxi Palace,” he details the start of his career transition to China.
“I hit it off really well with her and her team and they felt that I will have a chance in China and asked if I would want to join their company.”
Wong says being under a management company before going to China made all the difference.
“This is very important because they will take care of all the visas, permits and housing issues for you. They are also the one who marketed and pushed me for all the dramas and movies I have shot so far. They literally changed my life,” he says gratefully.
Wong booked his first big role in Love And Passion (unreleased), a remake of a 1980s TVB drama starring Liza Wang and Patrick Tse, just two months after relocating to Beijing.
“I was prepared to fail when I decided to go over. I can’t emphasise enough how difficult the market is over there. They have a lot of artistes and everyone is better looking and more talented and most importantly, hungrier than you.”
It was the same management company that helped land Wong the chance of a lifetime, the much talked-about Story Of Yanxi Palace.
“My company introduced me to the producer who I guess liked what he saw and offered me the role on the spot.”
Amid the incessant back-stabbing, scheming and clashing, royal guard Hai Lan Cha, played by Wong, stood out as one of the kinder characters in the drama series.
“It was a conscious direction for me to play my role the way I did. I purposely made him comedic, cute and endearing because to me, I feel this character in the whole drama is one that can balance out the audience’s emotions,” the actor reveals.
“When you watch a lot of tense and nerve-wracking scenes of the girls fighting in the palace, my role relaxes you (for a bit) before you continue watching.
Wong adds he can relate to Hai Lan Cha: “I would say we share the same kind of innocence and sense of justice. But unlike him, I’m not so outgoing and cute. I’m more shy and quiet.”
Wong spent four months during summer filming Story Of Yanxi Palace.
“The main challenge for me was the dialogue as they were the olden way of speaking. I had to put in more effort to know what they meant and then to memorise them,” he recounts the experience.
“The other challenge was the weather. We wore so many layers of clothes but it was during summer.
“Imagine saying every line with the director screaming cut because your face is dripping with sweat and the makeup artist had to wipe it off.”
The series is known for its elaborate hair, makeup and costumes. He recalls getting ready each day: “It’s easier for guys as we don’t require as much makeup. But we had to glue the pig tails on our scalp everyday and use alcohol to remove it after we wrap for the day.”
Wong reveals he actually shaved his head for the role: “In fact, all the guys shaved their head for their roles. We have to shave every day because the hair grows out fast, especially our moustache and stubbles.”
Speaking of the guys, the actor says his character’s on-screen friendship with Fucha Fuheng spills over off-screen too.
“We got along very well (on the show) and we’ve become close buddies even till now,” he speaks about his co-star Xu Kai.
The actor weighs in on the overwhelming response Story Of Yanxi Palace has gotten.
“I knew it was going to be popular because audiences throughout Asia generally love this genre but I didn’t expect it to be such a phenomenon.
“This kind of hit only happens once in many years and I’m blessed to be part of it.”
His performance in the drama earned him the title, Asia’s Most Promising Actor, last week at the 2018 Asian-American Television and Film Festival Golden Oak Award in New York.
Wong is currently working on another period drama which will see him playing a mermaid.
He has two Mainland China series slated for release soon – Love And Passion and cruise ship drama One Boat, One World.
With so many projects in the works, does he still have time to visit Malaysia?
“I travel back mainly for work now. Actually, all my travels are for work. But I miss the food from Malaysia the most and make sure I only eat local food whenever I go back.”