Dr Mahathir is a good actor

Opinion  |  Thor Kah Hoong
Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | Prime Minister Najib Razak says Dr Mahathir Mohamad is a very good actor. For once I agree with the PM, but not in the same way.

The PM equates acting with pretending, suggesting Dr M is a chameleon, playing different roles at different times, presenting a false front hiding Machiavellian motives.

For what it’s worth I have over three decades of theatre work (including as a lecturer) and over two decades of film work, and what I have learned – and learned right at the start from Joy Zinoman, my lecturer who studied in Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio, the fount of Method acting – is that a good actor is not pretending, he IS that character.

As a kid in Brickfields in the 50s, I was Zorro, the fastest draw in the West, a Spitfire pilot, Tarzan – the nearly Lido cinema determined what adventures or battles took place in Jalan Rozario. That was pretending.

Badminton racquets became guitars so we could swing like The Shadows or The Ventures when the wooden-box, Rediffusion, played ‘Apache’ or ‘Telstar’.

If there was no money to buy a plastic, easily broken Hong Kong-made gun that fired rubber-sucker tipped projectiles, or a small cap pistol that had a roll of ‘bullets’ that puffed and cracked when the gunpowder was struck, an outline cut-out from the wooden side of a crate or carton sufficed.

Heck, even the house broom would do if a rifle was needed to fight the American Civil War. A catapult became Robin Hood’s long-bow.

It was all in the mind.

What the PM was suggesting is that acting is skin-deep, not heartfelt. He is right about much of local drama.

Years ago, an English friend was flown in to see if he could save a bloated soap-opera series.

After the first day at the studios, he told me they were not ready for him to start work, so he was free to see the work going on, a Malay and a Chinese production.

Not knowing Malay or Mandarin, it must have been gibberish for him?

Not at all. He found the scenes very easy to follow because all the emotions were signalled large on the faces. It was only skin-deep and the eyes were vacuous.

That’s the kind of acting the PM knows.

Mentally gruelling role

The kind of acting I strive for or enjoy sinking into is when I don’t see actor or technique, but is engaged fully in narrative and emotions.

The most challenging role, certainly the most gruelling mentally, was when I acted in Gavin Yap’s production of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Homecoming’ a few years ago.

Besides bullying his brother, three sons and a daughter-in-law, the brutish man hints, in Pinter’s characteristic elliptical fashion, that he was an incestuous paedophile.

Wonderful! Besides the several weeks of rehearsals grappling with making this obnoxious character believable, my typical day for the two-weeks run was try and deal with the other parts of my life in the morning, but by 2.30 or 3, unable to focus on anything else, I started sinking into his twisted soul and his scenes, and he is in the car with me driving to KLPAC in the evening, motorists seeing him talk to myself, doing voice warm-ups, dialogue.

The bastard didn’t leave me after the applause, not after the long post-mortem suppers, not even after a showered, tired body because after so many hours he was not easy to evict.

Even if I were to crash out after 3 and a few hours of numbing Astro, there were troubled dreams.

Two weeks of this hell to receive the best review I ever got for a role.

After a performance, two young women were collecting autographs from the director and cast members. They saw me, and one of them snapped: Stay away from me you nasty, evil man.

They scurried off. Half an hour after the play and they still saw the character.

How does Dr M do it?

That’s why Dr Mahathir is a good actor. I believe him when he says his mission is to hold the PM to account for his financial mismanagement of the country.

He is not pretending. The emotions are not just skin-deep. It’s heartfelt.

A man in his 90s just want to main-main, play-play like a kid? Popping up all over the country to address Malaysians in town and village just for fun?

The common refrain I have heard for weeks – how does he do it?

The man is driven, as anyone who wants to lead our country should be. He’s for real.

Today, nomination day, is the kind of acting the PM is thinking of – a mass of supporters decked in their colours, flags waving, insults traded, a noisome show till the candidates emerge from the nomination centre for the requisite media shot of the candidates, smiling, touching hands, promising a clean campaign focusing just on issues.

The next day they revert to sneering, mocking, badmouthing, insulting, pitying their opponents for being such sorry excuses for human beings.

I am glad this sandiwara will be brief. I can’t believe there are still many voters waiting to be persuaded one way or the other.

A ripple or a tsunami of Malay votes for the opposition? Just colourful political chest-beating to drum up spirits.

All I want is a tsunami of voters to make a stand, even if they are mentally-challenged Neanderthals who do not share my political views.


THOR KAH HOONG is a veteran journalist.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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