DECEMBER 27, 1999 Time Asia VOL. 154 NO. 25

'I Felt Like Sisyphus'
The week Anna and the King premièred in Hong Kong (it opens Dec. 23), director Andy Tennant spoke with TIME reporter Stephen Short about how Anna Leonowens changed history, how he changed history and his penchant for Yankee actresses speaking with British accents

TIME: Was Chow Yun-fat as the King your first choice?
Tennant: Yun-fat was on board before I came on board. The chairman of Fox approached me after Ever After and told me they'd already signed him up for it. I knew him from The Replacement Killers, but the thrill was when I met him. Speaking from a purely heterosexual point of view, he is a really cool, sexy, strong, charming, funny guy. The other thing about Yun-fat was that when I learned King Mongkut had spent many years as a monk, there's a certain stillness and gentleness in Yun-fat that really captures the essence of that. I couldn't have been more pleased, considering he does two languages that aren't his own. He worked really hard with his dialogue coach. Some of that was done in post-production in Hong Kong. We did a lot of takes. It's a very verbose part and sometimes we thought, well, let's just let it go because he's a Thai King anyway.

TIME: Do you reckon Yun-fat could at long last make some inroads in the States with this movie?
Tennant: You just never know in the States. It's so fickle. You never know what somebody's going to do or say, you just have to hope for the best. I think he's super charming, he'd make a great leading man--my wife says he already is--and he shouldn't get pigeonholed as two guns blazing. More power to him.

TIME: In Ever After you had Drew Barrymore doing a great British accent. Here it's Jodie Foster. Do you have a peculiar penchant for Yankee actresses doing Britspeak?
Tennant: I can see that. It's not necessarily by choice. Originally we were talking to Kate Winslet, because Anna Leonowens is only meant to be about 28 when she got to Thailand, and because Twentieth Century Fox already had a good relationship with Kate Winslet from the Titanic movie. But the problem was that she'd just fallen in love and had been working a lot. She wanted to go home, get married and nest with her new husband. So she passed on the script. Then Jodie showed some interest, and then suddenly we had a megastar on our hands who hadn't made a movie for about two years. How can anyone turn that down?

TIME: How much is factual in the Leonowens story you filmed? The finale seems a little contrived.
Tennant: That's Hollywood. The license we took with the ending, we felt very justified in doing, because so much of her story before that is fictitious anyway. We had always known her story was the jumping-off point for a movie. We needed to clarify the political climate and make it one simplified story. Siam at the time was on the precipice of losing its independence and becoming colonized and the threat of British colonialism was enormous. It was in Mongkut's interest to befriend them. His philosophy was if we make them friends, we can destroy them as enemies simultaneously. But bloodless coups were de rigueur in those days. Indeed they still are in the U.S. We'll open as many McDonald's [restaurants] as possible everywhere we can.

TIME: So you decided to go for broke?
Tennant: We made a choice early on. It was a little bit of East meets West, that they both have certain prejudices. We still do now, never mind then. Did she change the country? As all good teachers do, they can change a student and she did impact Prince Chulalongkorn. He speaks fondly of her in his letters. It did speak volumes for her as a teacher.

TIME: Why did filming in Malaysia take longer than expected?
Tennant: The weather was against [us] and we had to change the story a little for the Thai government. [Originally the plan was to film in Thailand but Thailand rejected the revised script as well.] I felt like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill. Each week I thought this has got to be the hardest week, and then, sure enough, the next was the hardest, then the next and that went on for about six months.

TIME: You seem to like comic, magical, fabulous material. What about Psycho III?
Tennant: Yeah, I really should do a big, dark serial killer movie I think. I'm ready for a change. I'd done Fools Rush In, stuff like that, primarily I came from comedy. So I'd like to do a thriller, but no period pieces and not love stories. I'll do an anti-love story.

TIME: And to work with?
Tennant: I think I'd really want to work with Brad Pitt. I've known John Travolta for a million years, so I'd love to do something with him. I'd always wanted to work with Jodie Foster, but those dreams don't often come true so you just enjoy the miracle. Most of all right now, I'd like another job.