“When you’re an actress, there’s no age limit or beauty standard. There’s so much to try. When I start getting wrinkles at 50 or 60, I can still shoot movies”
— CHRISSIE CHAU, “ROLE MODEL”
Having transitioned from modelling to acting a decade ago, CHRISSIE CHAU has appeared in nearly 50 films and TV shows and firmly cemented her place among Hong Kong’s acting elite. With at least three projects debuting in 2021, she tells ZANETA CHENG how she worked her way up with a combination of fierce determination, infinite adaptability and the plain ol’ fact that she didn’t think she could do anything else
WE’RE GOING TO be seeing a lot of Chrissie Chau this year – on screens both big and small. First, there’s The Impossible 3 that’s just finished airing on TVB. Then All’s Well Ends Well 2020, the model-turned-actress’s first foray into Hong Kong’s popular Chinese New Year film genre, and finally the TV production Ink in Tai Pan (with Chau as the lead once again).
Having won accolades practically every year since 2011 – including Best Actress at the Los Angeles Movie Awards for Paper Moon (2013) and Asian New Media
Film Festival for i-Girl (2016) as well as Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards for the heart-warming female-focused 29+1 (2017) – you might conclude that Chau has had it lucky, if not easy.
But you would be mistaken.
When Chau arrives for our shoot on a weekday morning, fresh-faced and on time, the picture of politeness and professionalism, it’s easy to overlook the fact that she might be one of the hardest-working and most resilient actresses of her generation. Since gaining fame as a model in the early aughts, Chau has battled her share of ups and downs in an industry where judgements and criticism fl y as hard and fast as the kicks and punches she’s throwing in The Impossible 3 and All’s Well Ends Well 2020 put together. Anyone a smidgen less hardy would have buckled under the pressure.
Instead, now in her 10th year as a performer, Chau answers every question thoughtfully and thoroughly. There’s not so much as a speck of froideur or haughtiness that tends to develop in those who have seen such continued success. It seems she has withstood it all thanks to a combination of self-trained durability, unyielding ambition and curiosity for her métier that has kept her grounded and laser-focused on her professional aspirations. Sitting in her make-up chair having her eyelashes curled as she answers questions, Chau is in awe one moment about how far television acting has brought her skill set and chit- chatting the next about how much she’d like to go on holiday to Japan.
What was 2020 like for you? In what ways did you have to adapt, and did you encounter any difficulties?
The most difficult moment I encountered was when I was unable to purchase any masks.
At the beginning of the year, you mean?
At the beginning of the year there were no masks anywhere because of supply shortages. It was terrible because I was watching television and saw that people were fighting over masks, and robbing tissues and toilet paper. And I thought, “What is happening to the world?”
In terms of work, though, the biggest change was that a lot of movies couldn’t be filmed and many projects couldn’t be followed through on. But surprisingly there were more opportunities for me to do TV. I think it’s because people had more time to stay at home and TVs are still what people tune in to to check what’s happening in the world. Also, it’s still a basic form of entertainment.
Most meetings I had were about TV shows, so I think I was pretty lucky because I know many things were halted. For a moment, though, I did feel like I had suddenly lost my job. Even though it was quite unstable before, I never worried about what was coming next. Before, when I finished filming a movie, I would have an idea about other projects that were in the pipeline but this pandemic made me feel uncertain about a lot of things and I couldn’t prepare for any of it.
What’s the difference for you between preparing and shooting a movie versus a TV show?
There’s definitely a big difference. There aren’t as many exciting things happening in each scene in a TV show because the story is longer and told through multiple episodes. In movies, the story is told in one to two hours so everything is more condensed and every scene feels more exciting even when I’m reading the script. Even a single shot can portray a multitude of meanings in a movie whereas TV shows tend to portray the events of everyday life.
A TV show could focus on unassuming things like the people around us in our daily lives and there will always be someone who’s going to watch it. For example, my mum. I don’t know why she loves watching TV shows with unexciting plotlines. I tell her, “Life is already so sad. Why are you watching shows about conflicts between in-laws?” But she finds it hilarious.
TV shows are harder to film than movies for me. There’s more dialogue, so more lines to remember.
You also need to know the storyline sequence because if there are a lot of scenes in between that you’re not in, you still have to be able to piece the story together and figure out what happened in the scene prior to the one that you’re shooting and why you’re in that scene. I also feel that for TV shows you have to be even more expressive with your emotions compared to movies.
I also realised that in TV shows, a character’s emotions come and go really quickly. So if in one episode my character has to cry in multiple scenes, I will go crazy. But movies let you slowly develop those emotions. There’s none of that in TV. If you need to film 20 scenes that day, you can only run the scene once or twice before the camera rolls. I didn’t think this was possible for me before but after going through it I realise that it is. Once you film a show every day, you feel like you’ve become that person. Even though it’s fi lmed out of sequence, once you’re in a position where you’re forced to fi lm 20 scenes a day, you realise you can do it. I didn’t think I could memorise so many lines but I realised I could. So many things were forced out of me.
What made you decide to do The Impossible 3, which has just finished airing?
I loved the script because it felt like a movie. The story is very condensed – only six episodes. I thought the screenwriter did a great job and I like condensed stories. Every character’s appearance feels necessary to the story and the plot is different. It’s between fantasy and reality with a character that has two identities. I’ve always wanted a role as a special agent so I can show off my moves. I go to the gym regularly and I box so I thought it would be fun to shoot a classic police and criminal story where everybody has to hold a gun and look badass. I really like Lara Croft and it just so happens that in this show my character’s name is Lara so my dream kind of came true in this show.
You started off as a model before you dove into acting and now your repertoire includes romance, period Chinese and action. Have you always been so adaptable? Trying to master such a range is certainly not easy.
I would say that my adaptability is pretty strong. It might be due to my childhood and the various experiences I’ve had growing up. When I was young, I always had to live in other people’s houses. My parents came to Hong Kong first, and my brother and I stayed in Chaozhou with my aunt who raised us. So, since I was a baby I was living in different people’s houses. Then around nine or 10, my brother and I lived together by ourselves and for meals we’d go to our relatives’ houses. I think from even a young age I was able to quickly adapt to different environments.
When I came to Hong Kong, I had to adapt to Cantonese and a new school. After a year in school, it closed down and I had to go to another school and adapt to new surroundings again. I remember when I was young I would get car sick, but I realised after coming to Hong Kong that cars are essential if I wanted to get around so that meant I just had to get used to riding in cars. After a while, it felt normal.
Whenever I feel like I can’t do something I know that I actually can and it’s just a matter of getting used to it. I quite like going to different places and I think it’s led to my not liking to stick to one job at one place and that’s why I became a model. I could go to different places and fl y to different countries for photo shoots and I would take care of everything by myself.
Even now if I feel frightened, my expression remains calm. Maybe because I’m used to it. Ever since I was a kid, if I got sick I’d worry that my mum would have to come back and I didn’t want her to so I would stay calm and tell my relatives that I was fine. I feel like I developed a strong