On the eve of Anna and the King's Dec. 23 première in his hometown, Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat chatted with TIME reporter Stephen Short about the fun and challenges of the film
TIME: If this had been a remake of The King and I and still a musical, would you have taken the role?
Yun-fat: No, I would have advised them to use Andy Lau or Aaron Kwok, they'd be far more practical in a musical.
TIME: You did release a CD though, didn't you? I know because I've got it.
Yun-fat: Oh god, it's awful, It's awful, it's awful, awwwful!!
TIME: Yes, I've only played it once.
Yun-fat: You must be one of the few people with a copy of that. I don't think they printed too many.
TIME: Your English is terrific in this movie and your Thai as well. When we last met after you'd made The Replacement Killers, you told me you found it impossible to say "my condolences."
Yun-fat: My condolences.
Yun-fat: I was lucky that Andy Tennant changed a lot of the dialogue. The original draft had language the way Rex Harrison speaks, talking in old Oxford English, it was almost like Shakespeare, but Andy modernized it. Every single articulation he wanted as clear as possible. We had some problems but every sentence worked I think.
TIME: Jodie Foster must have helped?
Yun-fat: Yeah, particularly with the dialogue and her having to affect an accent as well. She kept telling me simpler ways to say words in scenes and that made things a lot quicker. Off and on camera she was terrific in every way.
TIME: How difficult is it to express your words in a separate language with any great feeling for them as an actor?
Yun-fat: Some of the substance of English words, I just don't understand at all because the culture's so strange to me. So once I memorize a line, I just try to use my imagination, then simply say it. That's so different in Hong Kong when I'm using my own mother language, I can treat the line in one thousand different ways, with many different reactions. But when I'm speaking English, it's very hard to understand the substance of the language you're speaking. This is still a big barrier for me and it is for a lot of foreign actors.
TIME: Do you genuinely enjoy acting?
Yun-fat: Yeah, very much. As an actor we're just like workers in a factory, we provide our services to directors. But I must do my job perfectly, and I love what I do. Working in front of the camera keeps me alive. I couldn't care less about actors' trailers and food on sets and stuff like that--I just want to act. That can be frustrating in the States as they take so long to set up every single shot. You wait four hours between shots, not like wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am Hong Kong where every set is so quick and it's like one big family.
TIME: Do you feel more vain for that reason when you're shooting in the States? Do you feel more self-conscious?
Yun-fat: Yun-fat feels you just have to cooperate.
TIME: Would you play James Bond?
Yun-fat: Why not? It would be a lot of fun, sunglasses, toothpicks, guns--I could be 008 from Shanghai.
TIME: As the man who seems to have almost everything, what's on your New Year's wish list?
Yun-fat: I'd like to be 25 years old all over again.
TIME: But you don't look a day over 25.
Yun-fat: Thank you very, very much.
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