Grace Interviews: George Young and Constance Song


George Young and Constance Song, supporting players in HBO Asia’s horror drama mini-series Grace, sat down with F*** to talk about how horror projects aren’t so scary once you get a peek behind the scenes, the differences between acting in this and a Channel 8 drama, real-life spooky experiences (those unnerved by elevators, look away now) and an imaginary slap fight which George Young supposedly caught on tape.
What drew you to this project?
Song: [Whispers] because it’s HBO!
Young: Yeah, look at the quality they do…
Song: [Whispers] They produce good show!
Young: [Whispers] we should do the whole interview whispering [laughs]. [Speaking regularly] first of all, it’s HBO themselves. I grew up watching shows like The Wire, Deadwood, Entourage, The Sopranos, and then with HBO Asia, they’re coming up with great original series, Serangoon Road, Dead Mine and now, this is something that’s a mini-series and it’s something exciting, in a brand new studio we were filming in, Infinite Studios, those are great, high-quality shows, you can’t say no to it. Can’t say no to HBO [laughs].
What were some of the challenges on this show?
Song: This one I say for the fourth time already [laughs]. Because I’m used to do a lot of Chinese drama, English, only like a few. This time round, everyone is quite international, Russell’s from States and he’s [George Young] from UK and the director is Australian and I’m Singaporean and then some are from New Zealand. The biggest challenge is first of all, I have to speak properly, good English, perfect English and then I have to gel in with everyone’s speaking, accents and the way it’s delivered, the way it’s shot. Chinese drama is a totally different kind of acting. English is very different, movie is very different, TV is very different, this is like a combination of everything so I have to adjust for everything. Different style.
Young: What was great about it is that even though we all had a different rhythm and everything, we came in and gelled quite quickly and that was a testament to the casting, getting us compatible with each other, but also Tony, directing us with all those different rhythms, different energies, different ways of doing things, he composed it in a way that it all worked and I can’t wait for you guys to see the result.
Tony was saying that you didn’t have much time to rehearse. When you got together as a cast, did you work things out before the filming process, get to know each other and stuff like that?
Song: I think we gelled in quite quickly and fortunately, Russell did not have any airs. He’s really nice and humble.
Young: No ego whatsoever.
Song: It’s so funny, he’s got his own resting [green] room. So we have another one that we share, he always bring his food, “can I join you all?”
Young: Yeah, he wants to hang out.
Song: So it was very good, very lovely of him, so at least he break the ice, we don’t feel so pressure, so that was a very great way of bonding.
Young: In terms of me and Jean [Toh], she plays my wife in the series, we did some scene work beforehand. Just before [shooting], we’d go through the scenes, what we would do, sometimes we’d have suggestions that we’d pose to Tony – “hey Tony, I don’t think Charles, my character would do this” or “Jean’s character wouldn’t want to that, can we try this?” and he’d be open to it which is very rare, because usually you’d have to go to the script supervisor and you’d have to do all that sort of stuff.
Song: There was a lot of room for us to try different way[s] of acting. He’s very flexible. “Okay, okay, maybe here you do this…” he’s open to communication.
Young: It was the rhythm of it…
Song: And everyone works so well with each other.
As an experienced actress on Singaporean television, how did you use that to fit into the cast?
Song: I guess it’s the years of experience that gives me the courage, gives me the confidence.
Young: Because at 28 years old now [all laugh] I would guess you know what you’re doing. I can imagine, I can imagine.
Have you been involved in any horror projects before?
Song: This is the first. It’s not that scary after all. Whenever we watch,wah, damn scary right, but when you’re filming it it’s more like fun, comedy, you don’t really feel the horrifying…people who are watching it, they feel more scary, but when you’re filming it, it’s not that [bad].
Pamelyn told us that in between filming, she tried to keep away from the actors who were playing the family and she was only in contact with Russell to stay in character because she’s the mistress. So was there anything you did in between filming to preserve the character when the cameras were off?
Young: Constance and Pamelyn shouting at each other all the time, “stay away from him!” [All laugh] drama off-set.
Song: Whenever I was on the set, she would walk away [laughs].
Young: “Sure, you walk away!”
Was there an epic slap fight?
Young: I caught it on camera, I’ll send it to you guys [laughs].
Song: Cannot, cannot! I was sending this very strong vibes to her, and then she’d [makes tiptoeing sounds] go away.
She said that her character doesn’t come into contact with your character. How did you generate the tension in your character when the both of you don’t actually meet?
Song: I guess we already build from the start. Not seeing each other much, in fact she’s avoiding, the family sit down to have dinner, she don’t even join us! Dinner break. She’s already doing it, so…after all actors, actress we are very sensitive, so I know what she’s trying to do and she also know what I’m trying to do, so kind of like it build from the start, already, so it build from the start.
Young: I think in real life, you don’t really encounter the person…if someone’s cheating on you, you don’t necessarily meet them but you hate them anyway. There’s this animosity that’s felt even if you might not physically meet.
Constance, what was it like playing the matriarch of a family?
Song: It was easy for me. Why? Reason being, I am also the eldest in the family in my own life, yeah. So I’m kind of like the breadwinner so I’m so used to looking out for my family, so this one is really like Angela [her character].
Is she a very serious character?
Song: Yeah, very serious. Very powerful, strong woman.
Is it similar to how you are in real life?
Song: I can be quite serious, but I can be quite…it depends, everyone is acting all the time. Like if I go home, I have to play a role, being the eldest daughter. If I go out with my friends, I have to play the role of [a friend]. So everybody is constantly acting in different role.
For this series, most of it was filmed on stage, the Egress Hotel was a set that was built. What was it like working in that environment and what is the impact of that location?
Young: I think the set design was fantastic. We filmed in a new studio, Infinite Studios in Singapore. And that’s a testament to how much Singapore has come in terms of doing international [productions] that can compete globally, that sort of production. When I went on the first day into that hotel and the sets, the way it was set up, the rooms and the hotel corridors and everything, just amazing what they’ve done with it in that space. For me it was just exciting to witness that in Singapore, in Asia, to get to do that, to get a global-quality experience on the production.
One of the things that I found interesting was the creepy confinement nanny. What elements of culture or tradition that were incorporated into the series did you find the most interesting? Tony was also talking about trying to make it accessible to viewers who might be unfamiliar with the culture but also authentic.
Young: For me, I have an Asian dad, a Greek mum but I grew up in England and have only been in Singapore for three years so I think it’s a good litmus test for me to experience what I read and what I saw, the confinement nanny, the different sorts of Asian themes and the ghost stories you hear, and as that sort of outsider to it but with a little connection to it, I could relate to it, I could understand it easily so that I think will relate to the audience members, so audiences members who may not be as familiar with it as [those] in Singapore and the rest of Asia. It translates equally as well to the other hemisphere, so I think I was a good litmus test, that sort of canary [in the coal mine] experience to experiment on.
When series with Asian themes are done in the west, there’s sometimes the danger of it being exoticised or there being an Orientalist slant to it, making things mystical and weird. How do you think Grace avoided that and how did you think it tries to be authentic in presenting this?
Song: I think it’s more like…it’s very different from Japanese or Thailand horror movie[s], it’s always that scary look that scares you. But this one, I think it’s more on suspense, thrill, that keeps you hanging there all the time. So I guess this aspect of communication, of keeping the audience watching, is strong enough. It’s not like very Asian any more, it’s like playing with you, psychology.
Young: What’s seen vs. what’s not seen. It’s a nice combination of it. Another thing is that yes, some Asian-themed series may go overboard with the Orientalism as you say, but this was shot here, shot in Singapore and with people who are knowledgeable about it. It’s an HBO Asia production, an HBO Asia original, so of course they’re sensitive to that and not going too extreme. They’re familiar with the territory so they get to play with it whilst understanding being sensitive to that sort of [thing].
Are you superstitious?
Song: Superstitious? I try not to [chuckles] yeah. But I believe in all this, I believe in the supernatural that they exist.
Have you had personal experiences?
Song: Yeah, I was sharing that there was once I encounter in the lift, it’s a lift encounter. Somebody stop somewhere, the door opens, but actually there wasn’t anybody there. So, I close the door, and then when I was about to close, the door open again, about three times. That was my scariest encounter.
With the family drama element, would you say there are aspects of a soap opera to this with the skeletons in the closet?
Young: That’s a good point. What they do, what I’ve found when I read it and we did it is that it connects the audience to this very real family thing which we all have, everyone can relate to a family relationship, the tribulations and trials that happen in a family. And they keep that real, they don’t make it into a soap opera thing with the dialogue or anything. And once they get you with that, the real element that grounds you, they can hit you with whatever else that comes that way. So that family drama is kind of the vehicle that leads you into whatever happens next, that’s how it works. And I don’t think it’s very sensationalised or anything, it’s kind of a real family.
Constance, how would compare the story of Grace to the stories of Channel 8 dramas that you’ve acted in?
Song: Like I say just now, Chinese drama always, the flower is red, we can take four pages to talk about the flower is red. But for English drama is like “okay, just two sentence” can tell everything. The difference is I think the actions is more than the words. They show you there and then what’s happening. But Chinese drama they use a lot of dialogues to deliver “what happened last night?” so that’s the main difference. [To Young] You enjoy Channel 8 right?
Young: Yeah, I want to do more!
After Grace, will you be doing more projects in English?
Song: I’m doing one for Channel 5, this time round it’s a comedy, not horror. I’m looking forward to that, it’s a character that I’ve always wanted to play.
George, what was it like working with the baby?
Young: Uh, the baby…
We see you in the series, you have a baby…
Young: Um, I don’t know how much we can talk about that. It’s something that is…I can’t really say much about it, I guess.
Grace takes place in an unspecified Asian location and Russell was saying that originally, they were thinking of making it take place in Hong Kong. What was it like filming in Singapore but knowing that in the story, it’s not really Singapore?
Young: I think that gives credence to…I mean compliments Singapore in a way that it’s increasingly becoming a scenario where you can film in Singapore for any sort of thing – futuristic, modern, past…you’ve got elements in certain elements in Singapore where you can film the historical side of Asia. I think that’s a good sign, because the fact that you can do that in Asia here gives more flexibility to Singapore and more productions as well. The fact that we can do that, you know that it’s in Asia, it’s got a very Asian feel and what they wanted that to translate not just in Asia, South-East Asia but the world, really this show, it can do that, Singapore can do that, so I think it’s a good thing.
Do you think this can travel well to the west?
Young: Yeah.

Coup de grâce: Grace Press Conference


The stars of Grace dish on HBO Asia’s horror drama mini-series
3/9/14 Jedd Jong

This October, HBO Asia is hoping to add its own dash of spookiness to the usual Halloween festivities with Grace, its original four-part mini-series. F*** was at the Conrad Centennial Hotel Singapore for Tuesday morning’s press conference.
Revolving around what could be any upper-middle class Asian family, Grace shows how one man’s indiscretions doom his family to a series of eerie happenings. Present at the press conference were leading man Russell Wong who plays Roy Chan, Pamelyn Chee who plays Roy’s mistress Ya Yi, Constance Song who plays Roy’s wife Angela and George Young who plays Roy’s son-in-law Charles.

Grace features several alumni from last year’s HBO Asia co-production Serangoon Road, including Wong, Chee and Australian director Tony Tilse. With deejay Maddy Barber moderating the proceedings and everyone seated on couches decorated with HBO throw pillows, Wong jokes that it feels like they’re in for family counselling. The Chinese-American Wong, known for films like The Joy Luck Club and Romeo Must Die, leads a cast that includes many Singapore-based artistes in addition to Taiwanese actress Teresa Daley and New Zealand-based actor Yoson An.

Wong’s reputation as the roguish charmer from The Joy Luck Club precedes him, but it seems he has mellowed somewhat. Mostly shy and laid-back, he says “I had a good time working on Serangoon Road. It’s Asian content in English. Sometimes in the States there’s still a little bit of stereotyping going on and trying to fit into the martial arts genre…at my age it’s not working so well. So this works great!”

Young was the enthusiastic jokester of the group, making a crack about how there was “a lot of sexual tension” between him and Wong. “I wanted to give him some watermelons, ‘xī guā!’” Young says, alluding to The Joy Luck Club. “I gave him a couple, not during the scene though.” He adds sincerely, “Russell being mixed Asian-Caucasian as well, kind of similar to me, I see him and I want to learn from him.” Young describes Graceas a “Greek tragedy with an Asian twist”, adding this is perfect for him given that he is half-Greek and half-Chinese. When the cast is asked if they are superstitious, Young says he practices “touching wood” (get your mind outta the gutter) to avoid jinxing anything.

Pamelyn Chee says her character has no qualms ripping Roy’s ideal family apart. “It could just be my real life,” she jokes. Chee was given the script without being told which actor would play Roy, but she guessed Russell Wong and she was right. When asked if the emotional nature of the role made it challenging, Chee responds “I think emotions are overrated. I don’t feel like it’s about being emotional, that’s an easy sell for an actor, I feel like it’s portraying the different levels and layers that the character has and it doesn’t always has to be emotional, it can be scary, it can be wild and there are so many other layers that are under-explored by actors in general.”

Constance Song, who made her television debut in 1998’s The Return of the Condor Heroes, is a familiar face to fans of Chinese-language drama series on Channel 8. Stepping outside her comfort zone to take on an English-language part, she says that she practised with English-speaking friends and that “actually it’s not so bad after a while”. She called the chance to act alongside Russell Wong “unbelievable”, saying “Russell is always making me so nervous. I think it’s just his presence.”

Ever the gentleman, he said of Song “she has a great restaurant,” referring to the actress’ other venture, a tapas bar.
Song admits that she couldn’t help but crack up when Wong had to deliver some dialogue in Mandarin. When Barber asks the actor how his command of the language is, he replies “mó mó hú hú”, meaning “vauge”. Our expert tells us this isn’t even the right term, but far be it from us to play Chinese grammar police.

When asked if the Singaporean cast members would travel to the States to visit Wong, Young quips “yup, I’m crashing at Russell’s place. Russell didn’t know this, but I’m borrowing his car, he’s got a few, I’ll borrow a couple…” Apparently, the cast has gotten close enough to go out for dinner that evening on their own accord.

A journalist asks about the significance of the series’ name. Director Tony Tilse, sitting in the front row, takes over the microphone to answer. “It all came out of the concept of the story,” he says. “Ultimately Grace is about forgiveness, mercy, elegance, all those things. I think the idea of Grace is that it’s all those things, so in a way it’s about, because of the story we chose, we saw grace as about wanting forgiveness, the whole idea behind it so that’s the whole meaning behind it.”

Grace premieres Friday, October 17 at 10 pm (9 pm Thailand/Jakarta) on HBO and HBO HD.