Despite an almost unanimous verdict among Singaporeans on social media and in the film, TV and theatre industries that he is perfect for the role, veteran actor Lim Kay Tong admits he had to overcome cowardice before agreeing to play Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in the local movie, 1965.
Lim says: "Two things in the 1960s that are stuck indelibly in my mind - the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Lee Kuan Yew's speech on the separation. Even as a child, you realise the significance of it, you see a different side to the man, a very human side. That press conference really defined him in a different way."
After reading the script, he thought he could take on the part.
He explains: "Lee Kuan Yew is a corner of the story. He frames the timeline, as to when the events take place. It is not overwhelmingly undoable because it's just a handful of appearances stretched over the time in 1965 and, maybe, one other scene when he is much older. I overcame my cowardice and said, 'Let's give it a go and see what happens.'"
"Because he is a real-life person, and he is Lee Kuan Yew. I hope he doesn't call me. When you get into a role, you just want to be on your own and concentrate on getting it right. Hopefully, there's no intervention anywhere," he adds with a laugh.
Lim was speaking at the movie's press conference yesterday.
The $2.8-million movie, which is helmed by director Randy Ang and executive producer Daniel Yun, is slated for release next year to commemorate Singapore's 50 years of independence.
The movie, which will start filming next month, tells the stories of immigrants and natives during the time leading up to Singapore's independence.
Mr David Lee, 35, vice-chairman of the Singapore Film Society, says: "Kay Tong is perfect for the role. 1965 has been five years in the making and over the years, I was also thinking about who could play Lee Kuan Yew and I actually considered Kay Tong as well. He has the gravitas required of the role and he's English-speaking. You cannot cast a Chinese- speaking actor in the role because the feeling would just be different.
"Years ago, there was news that Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu Wai would play the role. Although he is an excellent actor, I think many Singaporeans would feel that a Singaporean actor should play the part. The only thing I'm wondering about for Kay Tong is how he'll play the younger Lee Kuan Yew. But I guess that's where movie magic comes in. Otherwise, he's perfect."
Lim is 60 years old. In 1965, the year Singapore gained independence, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was 42.
Although Yun, 55, says he met eight other actors for the role over the past two years, he always had Lim in mind before he finally confirmed the casting last month. He declined to name the other actors he talked to.
"There's a statesman aura and dignity surrounding Kay Tong. I also feel that he is at the right age of 60 to play Lee Kuan Yew in his 40s and in his late 80s. Lee Kuan Yew was 41 on the day in 1965 when Singapore gained independence.
"Kay Tong brings to this character a wealth of experience that would provide the depth that this character would need," says Yun, who adds that there will be about four scenes featuring Mr Lee.
Professionals in the television, film and theatre industries whom Life! spoke to say they cannot think of a better actor than Lim for the role.
Screenwriter and director Lee Thean-jeen, who worked with Lim on the Channel 5 series The Pupil, describes him as "an excellent choice".
He says: "When you look at Kay Tong's presence and the tenor of his voice, there are already many similarities between him and Lee Kuan Yew. Kay Tong is also very charismatic. They say that casting contributes to 70 per cent of the success of a role, and Kay Tong is definitely perfect for the role."
Actress Amy Cheng, 44, who worked with Lim in the popular TV series Growing Up (1996-2001), says: "Kay Tong is the perfect choice in terms of his demeanour and his standing in our industry.
"He also shares a loving and enduring marriage with his wife, Sylvia, as Mr and Mrs Lee did." Lim is married to food writer Sylvia Tan.
Actress Tan Kheng Hua, 51, says: "Kay Tong is an excellent actor and any project benefits from his involvement. By the time he agrees to a role, I am sure he must have seen something very worthwhile in it to spend his time on. I can't wait to watch 1965."
Actress Joanne Peh, who was part of the cast line-up announced at yesterday's event, is in awe of Lim. She has fond memories of watching him as the head of the Tay family in Growing Up.
Peh, 31, says: "Lim Kay Tong has always sort of been unreachable to me because I grew up watching Growing Up.
"He is like everybody's father. He had so much presence in the show and all of us felt like one of his kids."
Although her husband Qi Yuwu stars in the movie with her, it is rookie actor James Seah, 24, who will play her love interest.
On social media, reactions to Lim's cast announcement have been overwhelmingly positive.
On The Straits Times Facebook page, many readers commented "good choice", "nice" and "I love him".
Facebook user Naomi Salsabila wrote: "He has the looks... he has the character... good..."
No wonder Lim is already aware that this could be the role that defines his career. He says: "People remember me for my role in Growing Up, but it could be forgotten because of this role."
Additional reporting by Bryna Singh
Other possible candidates
It is the role of a lifetime, one that calls for gravitas and passion, and with plenty of drama packed in. The character is none other than Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, a towering figure in the narrative of our nation building.
For the upcoming film 1965, veteran actor Lim Kay Tong has been cast. Life! rounds up a few other choices who may fit the role of Singapore's founding father as well.
Really? The funnyman of Channel 5's The Noose?
Let's not forget though that Chua is also a serious thespian who has won raves for his turns in gritty plays such as Shopping & F***ing and Fundamentally Happy.
TAY PING HUI
It is no secret that Tay is an admirer of the People's Action Party and what better way to get into politics than by playing the party's founder?
Plus, he has the added advantage of height, given Mr Lee's physical stature.
He is in the running to play the man himself in the upcoming musical about Lee Kuan Yew by Dick Lee, so why not take on the big-screen incarnation as well?
It is a highly efficient move that ex-PM Lee would no doubt approve of.
How about adding some glitz and glamour to the role by having Lee take it on? Mr Lee's Cambridge-educated English accent might be too much of a stretch for the actor, though.
The film needs someone who can really come to grips with the role and deliver a meaty performance and Pang is surely up to the task. After all, he is a three-time winner of the Best Actor prize at the Life! Theatre Awards.
This article was first published on Oct 9, 2014.
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