Celebrating the release of ‘Two Sisters’, Emily Lim speaks about her acting career thus far, how she stumbled into acting, and what it was like working with some of the biggest names on the Malaysian independent scene.
Hi Emily! How did you get started in acting? Was it a part of a bigger plan from a young age?
I am an accidental actress! I thought I would be climbing the corporate ladder in business after I graduated from Universiti Putra Malaysia. Never in my life did I think I would be an actress!
How did your career get started, then?
It all started because my father had owed some people a huge amount of money. There was even one point when I was almost taken away from my family because of this.
That’s actually some pretty serious stuff.
Yes. And then I saw the Miss Malaysia Chinese International Pageant on a magazine cover, with the prize of almost RM200k. I decided to give it a try in order to settle my dad’s debt and also to save my own life!
It’s very noble of you, actually!
After gaining exposure through the beauty pageant, a television commercial agent got in touch with me, and I ended up shooting some commercials. That got me more exposure, leading to a Singapore-based producer Paul Yun finding out about me and getting me into drama acting
Did this mean that your plans changed, that you would see this as a long-term thing?
I thought I would not stay in the acting industry for long, because I wasn’t that passionate about acting at that time. All I wanted was just fast money to settle the debts. I didn’t even dare to call myself an actress. After a few years of working in the industry, I realise that I was being very naïve, as the income was not consistent and there were a few tough times for me to make ends meet for my family.
Can you give an example of the tough time you mean?
I was constantly on crash diet in order to look slim in front of the camera. Because of that, in 2010 I had a hormone disorder and my weight skyrocketed. I lost all my television commercials and acting jobs. I thought that this would be the end of my acting career.
What was the next step for you?
I decided to pursue my study in nutrition in order to know how to save my own health, instead of just taking hormone pills for the rest of my life. It took me almost a year to regain my health and normal weight.
But, evidently, you remained in acting.
Then I was offered a role in a MediaCorp drama. I decided to give it a try again, so that I could know if I really like acting. I somehow constantly felt that something was lacking in my acting performances. I decided to take up courses at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC), and eventually decided to go to Universal Studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles, for a 6-months film acting training programme.
What was that experience like?
Los Angeles was the place that opened my horizon about acting and performing. It was where I got to be involved in short films, independent films, and do some behind the scenes work such as editing, scriptwriting and producing. I think that it was only after I returned from Los Angeles that I dared to address myself as an actress.
Why is that?
Because I do think that being an actress is a professional title, just like a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. Proper training and experience is a compulsory for me to call myself an actress.
In terms of other actors or actresses, were there any you looked up to as an inspiration, of sorts?
I love Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Emily Blunt, and Jennifer Lawrence. I love their acting style and choices! But on a personal level, if you are talking about inspiration. I would say Philip Keung from Hong Kong. We once worked on a short film project, and I could remember how passionate and hardworking he was in order to make the character livelier and believable. Not only was he taking care of his own acting part, he also helped me in my acting, as I was inexperienced that time. He encouraged me a lot when I had difficulties in my work. He told me in Cantonese: “May you never give up so easily and never choose to be ordinary.”
Such inspiring words became a platform for you, I think, because you have since acted in a number of well-regarded independent film over the past few years, such as ‘Second Lives of Thieves’ and ‘Floating Sun’.
‘Floating Sun’ was the first psychology horror that I was in. Edmund Yeo directed, and it was produced by James Lee. This is actually my very first short film in the Malaysia independence scene. I must thank Edmund Yeo, as he was the first person to get me into the independent scene, and regaled me with all kinds of interesting stories. I must thank James for constantly giving young directors an opportunity, as well as giving me the opportunity to be involved in interesting short stories like ‘Breaking Point’ and ‘She’.
How useful was all this in preparing you for ‘Two Sisters’ and your character, Mei Xi?
Besides many years of drama acting, independent films were definitely a big help for me in ‘Two Sisters’. I was advised by the director not to refer to any films or characters, because he wants it to be original. I am not a method-acting actress, either, so I must take this opportunity to thank Pearly Chua, my acting coach, for helping me dissect the character. The director, James, was also helpful in preparing me for the role during our script reading and rehearsal days.
Speaking of which, what was it like working with such directors? Were there any kind of similarities and differences you could briefly identify?
To me, they are super talented and great at multitasking. I love to work with directors who write their own script, and that’s one thing the three of them share in common. I am very blessed to work them. They have always given me a huge space to explore the character, and also to make my acting choices for the character. The three of them have their own very unique styles to communicate the story.
Of course, you’re now starring in ‘Two Sisters’. Can you describe for us the moment when you first heard of this production, and how you came to act in it?
I first heard about ‘Two Sisters’ from producer Kenny Gan. After reading the script, I had to reject the offer, because I can see ‘them’, and I had to ask help from pastor to close my third eye. What made me change my mind was James’s willingness to make a switch; instead of horror, he modified it to become a psychological thriller. Also, this story is based on a true story, and I love stories that have a social responsibility as the undertone. I am touched by the story.
Mei Xi appears to be quite a multilayered character, with a certain amount of depth and subtlety. I don’t imagine that to be easy to pull off, so I wonder whether you faced any particular challenges in doing so.
Yes, of course there are many challenges, especially when there is a very intense scene where you need to work with camera angles, everyone had to work as a team in terms of helping me not kick the camera stand! I think because the director had prepped beforehand quite well for the character. Also, I was internalising the backstory and had visualised it in my mind so many times, so the details, the emotions just come quickly and naturally to me. So it seemed like I was just reacting to the situation and reacting to the trauma.
What was working with Mei Fen like?
This is my first time working with Mei Fen. We went through a few script readings and rehearsals together with the director. The rehearsals we had together, as well as the improvisation we had during rehearsals, had kind of built up the chemistry and also the trust we had for each other. Sharing the backstory together helps us both believe and react as sisters.
Of course, I fully expect a film like this to also have a number of positive moments. Can you paint the picture of one such incident? Maybe it was a particularly difficult scene that was finally achieved after a long day on set, perhaps.
This was actually filmed about a year ago, so I truly couldn’t remember much, other than the emotional scene where I needed to work with the cinematographer, Tan Teck Zee, to try a couple of times in order to get it right. I remember after the scene, when the director finally got the shot he wanted, my whole face, brain and even my neck and shoulders were numb. I think it was so energy draining and emotionally tormenting that I so wanted to escape from the character!
Having seen the film, it feels like it could be a landmark achievement for both you and Mei Fen. Does it feel like that for you as well, or am I misreading the signs here?
It is my first leading feature film, and to be nominated as a best actress at the 30th Festival Filem Malaysia was a surprise. Apart from my husband’s proposal, this was one of the sweetest surprises in my life! As an actress, I always make it a point that I gave my very best during filming, as if this film is my last film. At the same time, I am constantly looking for a breakthrough for my next film.
What’s next for you? Are you working on anything in particular right now?
In terms of film projects, there are two still at a very primary stage of discussion. I will be attending the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy. Other than that, I am always working as a nutritionist, giving consultations to my clients, and also to keep writing columns about nutrition and wellbeing.
That’s all for now. Thanks very much for your time, and good luck for the film!