Man at His Best

The Road To Being Christopher Lee

He has been in the TV/movie business and as he hurtles towards age 44, we discover that in order to grow up, sometimes you値l need to fall.

BY Nicholas Ng | Dec 15, 2016 | Film & TV

Photographs by Joel Low | Styling by Eugene Lim | Art direction by Priscilla Wong and Janie Cai

 

There are these two guys, you see. They hail from the Old Country; one is from Malacca and the other from Kuala Lumpur. Good old Malaysian boys. The older one is Christopher Lee. Perhaps you’ve seen him. He’s an actor. Well-known in Singapore, Malaysia and China.

The other man, Nicholas Ng, is Lee’s compatriot; he’s here to interview Lee. Ng has often expressed a desire to interview Lee, to get to know him. He often says this to his colleagues, to people willing to listen. This isn’t the first time Ng has met Lee. They have exchanged pleasantries at social events, but Lee doesn’t have much recollection of their fleeting encounters. Who can blame him? He’s a busy man. Just look at his body of work—The Return of the Condor Heroes, Legend of the White Snake, Forgotten—or his family life— marriage to Fann Wong, the arrival of his son, Zed—or the accolades—Best Actor at the 2013 Star Awards, Best Leading Actor in a Television Series at the 49th Golden Bell Awards in Taiwan. It’s a wonder that he’s not showing the least bit of fatigue after travelling all the way to Florence, Italy.

So, in a sense, these two men will meet for the very first time. And to think, it’ll be in a location that’s almost halfway around the world.

 

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They are to be transported in a classic two-seater ’70s Alfa Romeo, from the city to a vineyard, with Christopher Lee behind the wheel.

Lee’s attire is perfect for a drive through the Tuscan countryside—a simple pair of white shorts, a shirt, a two-button midnight blue blazer. His prematurely greying coif adds to the chic nonchalance, but the mask slips when he sets eyes on the sports car. Lee reminds Ng of a child on Christmas morning.

The ride is everything Lee expected and more. He fawns over the beast, how it purrs, how smooth it turns. As the outside world of lush greenery and the azure overhead passes them by, Ng brings up one of Lee’s films, an independent flick called Kidnapper. Directed by Kelvin Tong, it saw Lee play a taxi driver who has to rescue his kidnapped son. Ng admits that it was the first film of Lee’s that he watched from start to finish.

“That was a rather well-made film,” Lee says. “I thought that I managed to discover another ‘self’, another way of interpreting my character.” He issues a laugh. “Even though the movie received generally good reviews, it flopped at the box office. But I’m still happy about it because that’s how you got to know me.”

Even when his words are laden with world-weariness, there’s something akin to joy. Bathed in the early afternoon light, he looks as though time has been kind to him. He’s older, yes, he has put on a little weight, but the wrinkles only accentuate his features.

Boldly or foolishly, Ng asks if life is good for Lee as he looks like he has put on a few pounds—“happy weight” if you will.

Lee chuckles, deep and full. “I am living the good life,” he says. “But it’s also from my recent role where I played a heavy-set man in his fifties.”

For his weight gain, Lee ate “without reservation”. So much so, that his agent and everyone around him worried for his health and welfare. After filming, he set about getting back to a manageable range, but after a certain age, your body revolts against your better judgement. Metabolism slows, but still the mind is strong. “I’ve already lost around 10kg,” Lee continues, “but that’s still 5kg away from my next role.” He shakes his head. Ng follows as well, an unconscious mirroring tic.

“I suppose the life of an actor can also have its downsides.” Ng offers by way of an apology.

“I don’t think it’s terrible. Presenting the best of ourselves is part and parcel of a professional actor, but when I go on a diet, I’m not the best person to be around. I get depressed. I feel lousy emotionally.”

Really?

 

Wool, modal and elastane coat, cotton shirt, and virgin wool, silk and linen trousers, all by BOSS; Drive de Cartier timepiece in rose gold with leather strap, and Love ring, both by Cartier.

 

“Ask my wife. She hates it when I have to go on a diet,” Lee grins. “Sometimes, I feel really down and disengaged. Even though I looked great on camera and was satisfied with my state of being, there will always be an emotional low waiting for me around the corner.

“Nowadays, I’d only go on a diet when the role demands it. And lately, my roles have been older characters, so looking thin on screen is less convincing.”

Lee strictly adhered to a regimented diet once. For 15 years, he was an active kid who represented his school in rugby competitions. He exercised daily to stay in shape. His staple diet consisted of fish soup, no rice. “Can you imagine that? I’m Asian. I love rice,” Lee says before barking out another laugh that’s carried away by the passing scenery.

After circumventing the winding roads, they arrive at Villa Le Corti in San Casciano. Restored to its original baroque greatness, the marblewhite villa is grand, imposing even. An agricultural Eden of olive trees and vineyards surrounds the estate. The villa used to be a fortified farmstead that belonged to the Buondelmonti family, but now is in the possession of the Corsinis.

A woman in her mid-forties, with salt in her chestnut hair, meets them. This is Clotilde Corsini, wife of Duccio. She beams as she bids them welcome to the vineyard.

Lee and Ng are ushered to a quiet corner of the restaurant on site. The room is half-filled with other wine connoisseurs, their stem glasses lined up like soldiers in a row. The two men take up a spot at the back, where food and wine are served to them.

They pick up their glasses of a ’92 Corsini Pinot. After the required sniff and imbibe, Ng asks about maintaining an image.

“When I was younger, it was mostly about presenting a polished image that was likeable,” Lee says.

“Like your early days of being a teen idol?” Ng asks in jest.

 

Wool, polyamide and elastane suit, alpaca wool turtleneck and leather sneakers, all by BOSS; Drive de Cartier timepiece in rose gold with leather strap by Cartier.

 

Lee gives a faint smile, nods. “I felt that way for a while. That’s why I always think the transitional stage from a teen idol to a mature actor is the most difficult, especially in emotional terms. I was lucky to make the move successfully in a relatively short amount of time.”

How did you pull it off?

“I quickly dropped the teen idol persona. I had a clear perspective of my industry and acting,” Lee says simply.

Did your marriage help?

The mention of his marital life spreads like a warmth across his face. “Of course,” Lee replies, “family life allows me to focus on my wife and child because my happiness doesn’t just come from my acting. To care for and protect those I love bring me greater satisfaction.”

Would another motivation arise from setbacks?

The mood takes a sombre turn. Heaviness appears in Lee’s eyes as he stares down at his drink.

“The incident,” Lee says as he locks eyes with Ng, “it was fortunate that it happened when I was young.”

Ten years ago, in the wee hours of the morning, Lee knocked down a motorcyclist due to suspected drunk driving. The driver and his pillion rider suffered superficial injuries to their faces and legs. Lee was arrested, and a year later, charged with drunk driving and other traffic offences. He was fined, had his driving licence suspended for three years, and was slapped with a four-week prison sentence (later increased to six weeks). His conviction led to him being dropped from the lead role in the Channel 8 TV series, Metamorphosis. The incident almost cost him his Permanent Residency (PR).

 

Wool, polyamide and elastane suit, alpaca wool turtleneck and leather sneakers, all by BOSS; Drive de Cartier timepiece in rose gold with leather strap by Cartier.

 

Lee sighs. “I was deeply affected by this episode. I was remorseful. Had this happened when I’m 50, I’m not sure that I would be able to bounce back. I learned an invaluable lesson, and it changed my perspective on things.” Lee hesitates for a moment before adding, “Kids sometimes need to play more than they study. During play, you fall and you try to get back on your feet. You can’t learn that in the classroom. To actively experience something is more important than book learning.” After the incident, Lee adopted a broader view of life; he didn’t care about the stuff that he previously regarded as important: how his audience perceived him, how he looked on TV. For an actor who is tainted by the misguided actions of the past, Lee sees what the flaws have to offer. “I see beauty in imperfection. I’ve learned contentment,” he stresses.

“You’re the result of your past,” Ng says to him. Lee nods. And that’s all that needs to be said about the matter.

The wine lubricates the conversation to a more palatable topic: home. Where the heart is, and how both men’s hearts are full and joyous.

“I do go back to Malacca where my family and friends are,” Lee says. “I miss the food back home.” He points to Ng, “You should know since we are both Malaysians who work in Singapore. Our connection with our hometown will always be there.”

Ng agrees.

“It doesn’t matter when I go back, the bond between family and friends will not diminish, the food back home will always taste better, and despite the current socio-political climate, I’ll remain a citizen of Malaysia.”

But when it comes to acting, ask Lee where he’s from as an actor and his steadfast reply will always be “Singapore/ Malaysia”. He has never stated that he’s a Singaporean actor, but he finds it odd that he has yet to work for a Malaysian production. We suppose it’s a mystery for another time.

Lee lands a firm pat on Ng’s shoulder. “For those of us who are Malaysians working in Singapore, don’t you think the ties between the two countries are intricate?” Lee adds with a smile, “This is the kind of feeling that both of us would comprehend. I don’t dismiss the possibility of applying for Make-up by Agnes Lee at Passion Hair Salon. Hair by Junz Loke at Passion Hair Salon. Photographer assisted by Alfie Pan. Stylist assisted by Carissa Marie Lim. Singapore citizenship in the future, but that decision will be based on my considerations for my wife and child.”

Ng doesn’t answer, yet he does not dispute what Lee has said. Even though he just attained his PR a few months ago, he can never fully uproot himself either. He is still tethered to the land of his childhood. And while his past is a familiar read, the future proves difficult to comprehend like the concept of marriage or raising a family. It is the uncertainty that prompts him to ask Lee about both.

 

Virgin wool, mohair and skin three-piece suit, virgin wool pullover and leather sneakers, all by BOSS; Drive de Cartier timepiece in steel with leather strap, and Love ring, both by Cartier.

 

Is that what drives you? Family?

A slow nod from Lee. “They give me a new life experience. The feeling that I get from that, I hope to channel it into future roles and make the best out of it.”

“Were there,” Ng begins in a manner akin to tiptoeing across a minefield, “any shifts in the relationship since Zed’s arrival?”

“Things pretty much stayed the same,” Lee says laughing. “We still find time to go on dates, and with the baby, it’s more enjoyable. All of us are fighting for attention.”

Do you harbour certain expectations for the boy’s future?

“Maybe… for the boy to marry early. I mean, look at how old my wife and I were when we got married. If Zed Zed (Lee refers to his son in this manner; so good you have to say it twice, we suppose) takes too long to tie the knot, we won’t be around to witness it. But… it’s more about hope rather than expectation.”

How so?

Lee rubs his knuckles. “We have a consensus never to force Zed Zed to do something that he does not want to do. He should live the kind of life that he wants to live.”

“A modern dad,” Ng says. “Given Fann’s and your different upbringing, do the two of you have differing opinions on how to raise Zed?”

“That goes without saying. It’s unavoidable that there’ll be disagreements over how to raise the baby, but it always turns out okay. I would prefer our child to explore and experience different things. Mummy tends to be overprotective.” Beat. “Okay, I do get paranoid more than Fann concerning our kid,” Lee chuckles.

You could have another. That might ease the worry.

“I hope to give Zed Zed a younger brother or sister,” Lee laughs sheepishly. “I’m trying my best. I’m not young anymore so I hope he will have a companion when I’m no longer around.”

Don’t you think it’s a handful to have kids at this age?

“Not really,” Lee says. “Then again, it’s because Fann and I have waited some time for Zed Zed’s arrival. It wasn’t that easy."

He continues, “The first three days of his birth were absolutely terrifying. As first-time parents, we wanted to do everything on our own. We learned a lot consequently, suffering the most in that first month, but right now, it’s fun to see Zed Zed growing up.”

The corners of his lips turn up as he continues with affection: “I’ll always remember the feeling when I carried him for the first time.

“And also the feeling of being peed on.”

Another round of laughter, another pouring of drinks. High-headed and misty-eyed, the conversation continues: the best place for Spanish food, about life, of shoes and sails and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings. Then, Lee has to be pulled away. He is required elsewhere, his minder says. Back to the grind. Lee thanks Ng for the interview. As he stands, Lee tells event organisers Cartier that he has downed a few glasses. “Could someone be so kind as to drive instead of me?

And that is how it ends. Without fanfare or a bang. Ng suspects that they will never meet again; the two men will return to their own lives, never the twain shall meet.

But a month after returning to Singapore, Ng receives a phone call. The person on the other end of the line sounds familiar. A measured baritone voice.

“Hello Nicholas,” Lee says through the signal, “I remember you mentioned a good Spanish restaurant. What’s the address? I’d like to bring Fann…”

We don’t hear the rest of their conversation, but we suspect it won’t be the last one between them.

Translated by Charles Wong. Edited by Wayne Cheong. Make-up by Agnes Lee at Passion Hair Salon. Hair by Junz Loke at Passion Hair Salon. Photographer assisted by Alfie Pan. Stylist assisted by Carissa Marie Lim.

First published in Esquire Singapore's August 2016 issue.


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