Although they are at different stages in their lives, both Heidi Tan and Dominic Lam Ka Wah share similar cultural backgrounds that have affected their chosen profession of acting.
Thirty years of acting experience and a career as an ex-policeman on the streets of Hong Kong prepared Dominic Lam Ka Wah for his role as the doggedly tenacious and ever suspicious police inspector in the Chinese crime thriller Overheard, which recently premièred as the Opening Night Gala at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival. “Audiences these days, both in China and North America, want the real thing in the story, dialogue and character. I gave them all that.”
Emigrating to Canada twenty-one years ago with his wife Jumbo, Dominic settled in Richmond Hill, Ontario, in the hope of providing his son with a better education. He has remained active in the role as host of local Chinese radio and television programs and still travels to Hong Kong to appear in television and feature films.
In Overheard, Dominic would have preferred to play the bad guy because “he always thinks of himself as the good guy. The bad guy never thinks of himself as the villain. Everything he says and does, in his mind, is good.”
Dominic and his family plan to remain in Canada, as the Hong Kong film industry has gone from producing 300 to 400 films per year ten years ago, to only 30 to 40 today, due to the downturn in the world economy, competition from Hollywood movies and illegal DVD sales.
To get through these difficult times, Dominic has a motto he lives by, “Love. I love my family and I love my work.” On a film set, he will always be a team player, “I talk to everybody, from the director down to the coffee person.”
Dominic arrived at our interview looking stylish and fit for a man who is not quite as young as he looks. For a greater part of his fifty-something years, his wife has been his image designer and also a consultant for other artists and celebrities. She regularly works as a television art director both here and in Hong Kong.
What is the glue that has kept their marriage together for twenty-five years? They both confided, “Trust, consideration and communication. You need to tell your partner what you are thinking.”
When asked to recall and share a special story or moment he will always treasure relating to his acting career, Dominic paused and then warmly recollected, “Fans will still approach me in the street and remember film roles I played twenty to thirty years ago. They know the characters and even the lines I spoke. It’s unbelievable but touching. Even if they tell me I was bad, I will say tell me how bad am I?”
Judging from Dominic’s burning up the screen Overheard performance, “bad” is a word he may be removing from his vocabulary.
Heidi Tan laughed nervously when I told her that the worst piece of news parents could hear from their son or daughter after seeing them through and paying for their university education, in hopes of them obtaining a secure future, is to hear them announce, “Mom and Dad, I want to be an actor!”
She experienced a similar fate, after graduating with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from York University. Dissatisfied, she turned to an acting career via photography and modelling.
An ACTRA (Association of Canadian Television & Radio Artists) member for four years, Heidi recently completed a starring role in The Ache, which premièred as a feature presentation of The Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival on November 15, 5.30pm, Innis Town Hall.
She performs the role of Sherri, a Chinese Canadian who is secretly employed in a fetish parlour. An encounter with a mysteriously freakish woman leads to a most bizarre relationship and forces Sherri to discover a shocking family secret.
Heidi prepared for her role by finding what both she and her character had in common – they both loved their parents. This flash of insight became the driving force and heart of her performance.
The twenty-one day shoot and experience of acting in The Ache taught her several lessons; how to work with the camera, knowing her way around a film set, “hitting your mark,” basic blocking of a scene and of course, working with various personalities, actors, director and production crew. Heidi sums it all up, “But ultimately, you are there to tell the story.”
The theme of perverse sexuality, which pervades The Ache, was “easier than it looked in spite of my conservative upbringing. I learned to be more comfortable with my sexuality because the film is not gratuitous in nature.”
Heidi concludes that there are more roles for Asian females than males in the Canadian film and television industries. Her own auditions are more for open ethnicity than specifically Asian and she approximates her acting range to be from late teens to early twenties. Her main complaint revolving around being an ethnic actor is that “you can’t do period pieces as readily or be the lead girl because the casting director has to find Asian actors to be her parents, if the script demands it.” She has also branched out as a producer of short “teen comedy” films.
Heidi ended our interview by sharing that she is “grateful for the opportunities her Chinese parents have given her, after building their own lives from scratch.”
Whether “starting from scratch” in your early career or “still discovering how good or bad you are” in your later years, an actor’s journey after every completed role always leads back to square one and is never over, even when it’s over.