No More Mr. Tough Guy

Action-film superstar Chow Yun-Fat lays down his guns

By Dorinda Elliott

Chow Yun-Fat was sick and tired of acting with two guns in his hands. That was 1993, after he left superstardom in Hong Kong action movies for slightly less bang-bang fare in Hollywood. He played a hit man in "The Replacement Killers," produced by John Woo, and a dirty cop in Oliver Stone's "The Corruptor," but now he's dropping his guns entirely. As leading man in Andy Tennant's upcoming period piece, "Anna and the King," Chow is the first Asian star to land a serious romantic role in Hollywood. He's loving it. "Welcome to my palace," Chow says, hands together in modest Thai style. He is on the set of "Anna and the King" in Malaysia, wearing baggy shorts, sandals, a baseball cap (backward) and a big grin. "I am the king," he cracks, before disappearing into a makeup trailer, re-emerging minutes later as Mongkut, King of Siam, in a sparkling, gold-threaded kimono-style jacket, silk culottes and a crisp white shirt. "This is tremendous," says Chow, who's gotten his big break. "It's a dramatic film that will show that an Asian actor can act in an epic."

The affable son of a farmer from Hong Kong's undeveloped Lamma Island, Chow got his start in Hong Kong TV, then made it big as a macho guy in action flicks. But Chow was fed up playing formulaic toughs in his hometown movie industry. "It's like a great Hong Kong restaurant serving sharks' fin delicacies. They just stick to the old ways," he says. "They keep serving it and feed people the same thing until they give up. It's so boring." His role in "Anna" will be totally different. "This is one movie where I don't have to carry a gun," he says. "I'm holding concubines instead."

Growing up, Chow admired film actors who were cool but had some weight, too, from John Wayne to Jean-Paul Belmondo and James Dean. Chow's Singaporean wife, Jasmine, who manages his career and keeps watch on the set, says that his slick on-screen image as a killer and lady-killer never really fit his personality. "I know the other side of Yun-Fat. He's much better for drama," she says. "People think he's this passionate lover, macho guy. But at home he's really not that way. He's quite serious." The Twentieth Century Fox film studio, which is making "Anna," hopes Chow will be a huge draw as the king. "He's gorgeous, he's charismatic and he's got a regalness to him even as a hit man," says Lawrence Bender, the film's producer. "This movie will certainly make Yun-Fat. Most of America will know him as a romantic lead."

It's a big switch from Hong Kong, where budgets are low and scripts often improvised on the run. "I'm like a kindergarten student walking into a garden," says Chow, who is so approachable that folks back home call him "Brother Fat." The big change in Hollywood, he says, was the phalanx of managers and lawyers hired to "protect" him. "In Hong Kong, sometimes you can't collect your salary at all!" The regal set for "Anna" held another surprise. "With gun movies, there's more tension. You're worried about your life where the explosion is going to be. Here this is more of a dream world. It's all about love."

Jodie Foster, who plays Anna, says Chow is the "nicest actor" she's ever worked with. On the set (filming ended this summer) Chow struggles with the help of coaches to perfect his English and Thai pronunciation, his waltz step and his equestrian form so he can do justice to the regal King Mongkut. Every morning he shakes hands with all the crew members, and marvels at the swirl around him. "They work later and wrap later than me," he says. "So many people are setting up for me!" He's so popular that every time a shot ends, all 896 extras burst into applause. Chow is soaking it all in. "Once producers believe Yun-Fat can draw different audiences, then there will be romances and comedies," says Chow, the regular guy who's become a king.

Newsweek International, August 16, 1999