Today I am highlighting an interview one of the talented local actress in our film scene. She pours her soul and her frustrations in
this interview that published in May 15, 2008
Here is the full interview
Playing the part
Azean Irdawaty is convincing in any role. Not surprising therefore that she has won more than 10 awards in her 33-year acting career. Making her debut in TV drama Tiada Esok Bagimu in 1974, the 58-year-old veteran has appeared in more than 20 films, over 200 TV productions and more than 10 theatre productions. The mother and grandmother tells Bissme S. about the importance of perfecting a role, challenges in the industry, and surviving cancer.
What was your greatest challenge as an actress?
That is not a difficult question. There are so many challenges. But the difficulty is in deciding which one (laughs). If I have to pick one, I would say the attitude of people in this industry. Very few understand the meaning of professionalism. Most of them misconstrue professionalism as fussiness.
Give us an example.
The normal scenario is when the production house calls you and asks "Kak, you free? Kita nak panggil you berlakon." (Are you free? We have a role for you).
The majority of Malaysian actors will answer in this way: "Free. Bila?" (When do you shoot?)
Then they ask: "Besok free?" (are you free tomorrow?), and when you say yes, they give you the location and ask you to bring five sets of clothing.
It is taken for granted that a deal will be that easy. So when I ask: "Can I see the script?, What is the story like?, Who is going to be directing it?, Where are we going to shoot?, What is the schedule like?", I come off sounding like a fuss pot.
So they expect you to come to the set without first looking at the script?
Yes, but I don’t accept such offers. I insist on seeing the script first and having a discussion with the director. If I can get hold of the scriptwriter, I talk to him too. In this way, I understand the story and character better. I will know their expectations and try to deliver them. I am like a postman, so you have to give me the address, or I will not know where to send the letter.
Sometimes I ask about my image in the story, so I can bring the right clothes for my character. Each individual dresses differently. I cannot appear in Azean’s clothes when I’m trying to be someone else!
But they ask: "What image? Pakailah macam biasa" (wear your usual clothes). Then, if arrive in my kain batik and T-shirt, you will know! (laughs)
Sometimes the script is sent to your house two or three days earlier, which makes it difficult for a serious and committed actor like me. We need at least two to three weeks to study the story, the character and do our research.
You give me a script today and you are going to shoot in two days. How do you expect me get to know my character? How do you expect me to make my character sound real?
That is why when you watch local fare on TV, you find some performances that are so fake … so superficial. The actors are just in front of the camera and throwing lines that they have memorised without even understanding why they are saying what they are saying. I don’t accept this kind of bull****.
So you always get your script early?
Not always. When I get the script at the last minute, I hardly sleep. The moment I get it, I study it till I understand my character and the story better. In my more than 30 years of acting, my earliest bedtime has been 3am. That is before I had surgery (for cancer). Now I sleep like a log.
Are you happy with the scripts you get?
Sometimes the scripts are so loose. The scriptwriter writes without studying the background of the characters, so we get superficial lines. For example, if the character is a doctor, you would use some medical terms, but these would be missing from the script. If he is a fashion designer, he is bound to use fashion jargon, but it will not be there. So I always improvise on my lines. I get in touch with the writer to get his permission to change my lines.
How do you take being call fussy?
They don’t say it to my face, they talk behind my back. But I don’t care, I will say F.O. (**#@!) You are so dumb, you can’t grasp the necessity of being committed.
Are all production houses that way?
Not all. I can think of two productions houses that are really professional – Pesona Pictures (under Shuhaimi Baba) and A. Razak Mohaideen’s outfit.
Tell us about how actors get paid in the industry?
The payment is nowhere what you deserve. Payment depends on looks. It is not how many years of experiences you have and how many awards you have won. The younger and prettier you are, the more you get. I acted in one movie where an actress got eight times what I did. Of course she was very pretty!
The worst thing is when you have to haggle for payment. It can be so embarrassing. I always have to say "You can’t be paying me like this". I hate it when I have to bring up the fact that I have won more than 10 awards – no other actress here has done that.
But they will say the cast is big and the budget small. Most producers will leave the payment to production managers and 99% of production managers do not recognise talent.
So how do you handle this?
I look at my children and tell myself "God, if this is how much you want to give me to feed my family, I will do it". That is why God gives me more jobs and more friends. Of course the payment doesn’t match the cost of living. A Malaysian actor is a very poor person, always struggling. Sometimes you read in the papers especially in the gossip columns that this actress’ car kena tarik balik (repossessed) and this actor tak bayar hutang (is in debt). I don’t think they are being dishonest. The truth is they don’t have the money.
Can we change that?
We should have royalty payment. Each time our movies and dramas get replayed on TV, we should get some kind of payment. Singers get royalty payment. Why can’t actors?
I have been screaming about royalty payment from (ex-information minister) Muhammad Rahmat’s days. How many ministers have we had since then and there is still no royalty payment.
The re-run of my dramas and my movies could have made me very rich and I wouldn’t have to work any more. Just yesterday I was told that ever since I got sick, the TV stations have been replaying my dramas often. Good for the TV stations. But where is my money? We were told they have not passed the law on royalties. So buck up and sign it. What are we waiting for?
What role do you think the government can play in boosting the entertainment industry?
For actors, there is no EPF… there is no Socso … there is no insurance. The government should look into this matter. Make the people in the industry feel good and secure.
Set a rule that every time a producer has a project, he has to take out an insurance policy on his cast and crew. If there are any mishaps, we will be covered.
If you are really fighting for the anak seni (artistes), then ensure our welfare. Don’t just hold charity dinners. Give out a bit and pocket the rest.
When you are old and sick like me, then you have to beg. I have to write to foundations, and I have to send SMS to people, and I have to ask friends for financial help. That is so humiliating.
I need to live. I need to heal. This is not flu. This is cancer. And cancer treatment can be expensive.
On the one hand, you have to be strong to handle the disease, and at the same time you have to be emotionally strong to go out there and beg.
Why do you think local movies are far behind their foreign competitors?
In the past I used to think perhaps we didn’t have good writers. Now I have changed my mind. I think our writers are not given a free hand. There are so many restrictions. There are so many taboos. You cannot tell things as they are.
Can you give us an example?
When we did Waris Jari Hantu, some quarters came forward and asked why we had to talk about khunsa (hermaphrodite) and lelaki lembut (effeminate men). But such people do exist.
You cannot do stories about corruption. You cannot portray a certain authority as being corrupted and dumb.
Movies are about story telling. When you want to tell the stories, you have to tell the truth.
Creativity should not be curbed. It should be fluid and be allowed to expand. There are too many don’ts.
Do you blame the censorship board or society for creating the restrictions?
Both. The censorship board listens to society. And society pretends to be holier that thou. I don’t think those people who condemn are holy. They are just being bitchy. They are just being hypocritical. They will say you should not show this and your movies are corrupting society. But do you think society has never committed sins?
Recently I was talking to a friend who did a TV series based on local ghost stories. It will not be shown here. They are scared the show will be butchered badly by the censorship board. It will be shown in our neighbouring countries. That is so sad. Society and the board should grow up.
Do you think older actors here don’t get roles with substance?
Yes. Producers are catering to the young audience and thinking about making money. They say who is going to pay for and watch an old hag.
They bring in one veteran actor to play the father and one veteran actress to play the mother. These characters haven’t much to do.
How do you handle this?
I feel hurt. Here I give so much sincerity and you don’t appreciate it. They (producers) expect me to stay young and shapely all the time. Older people have stories to tell too.
Recently I watched The Bucket List, about two old men (Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson) who discover they are dying of cancer. So they go out and do things they have never done before. When you watch this touching movie, you forget that they are two old actors. Producers here need to be adventurous and allow writers to write more real stories, and allow the director a freer hand.
What advise do you have for budding actors?
I don’t have the quality to advise. If I may share my experience, I will say be very honest and sincere in what you do. That is what I tell my children (also actors). That is what I tell any budding actor who cares to listen, not many of whom want to listen today. They say "Okaylah, your time is over, so shut up".
Has anyone said that to you?
They do not say it to my face. But I am very good at reading body language. I have to. I study body language in my work (laughs).
Your three children are actors. Do you think they will be as successful as their mum?
Given the opportunity they can outshine me any time. They are better than I am. I am not saying this because I am their mother.
Often my children watch theater productions and movies. When they come home, they conduct a post-mortem of what they have seen ... for hours. When I listen to their views, I find they are far more intelligent than me. They are fast learners.
But our industry is so hooked on looks and my children have to fight so hard to survive. For example Ben (her son) doesn’t get certain parts because he is not a good-looker. The same goes for Elza (her daughter). She is not tall and sexy. Talent is secondary in this country.
Let’s talk about cancer. Describe your thoughts when you first learnt you had the disease last year?
I do not consider myself a victim of cancer. I consider myself as a fighter against cancer. I didn’t cry when the doctors first broke the news to me. But when I went to the cashier to pay my bill, I had some tears in my eyes. But my husband consoled me and said "this too will pass".
I have not broken down since then. If I cried, it would have been tears of joy. For instance, ( film producer) David Teoh once invited me and said they were holding a kenduri (dinner) for their new movie. I had lost my way. They waited for me to start the function. Then he called the ustaz (religious teacher) to pray for my health so I would get well soon.
The function was really for me. He even gave me a donation. I broke down. I was so moved.
You were bold coming out bald-headed in public. Some people thought you were being a little too dramatic.
I was not trying to be dramatic. I am dramatic enough in my movies. But I have never been a fake. I do not hide things. I do not believe in covering it up and being embarrassed about it.
Why should I be embarrassed about it? This is my head. I don’t have any hair at the moment. It is temporary. I know it will grow again. I have never been bald, so let me enjoy it. It is good and airy. I saved a lot on shampoo.
If you like me bald, that is good. If you don’t like me bald and feel uncomfortable, that is your problem. You have to deal with it.
I hear you are writing a book on your experience with cancer.
Yes. I like to share my experience. I have noticed that there are so many women who see breast cancer in a negative light, they fear it. I want to give them some support.
In fact Pride Foundation (foundation for breast cancer awareness) has invited me to talk to the public about my experience.
There have been accusations that you asked for larger donations for your cancer treatment. Did these bother you?
They can send auditors to check my bills. You don’t know the truth. I know the truth. Cancer treatment can be expensive, especially for my kind of cancer.
I have met people who have spent their entire EPF savings on treatment. I have met people who have had to sell their house to get cured.
I have never allowed what people say about me to bother me. I have never gone out and conned anyone. If I were that type of person, I would not be a struggling actor. I would have gone after a rich guy and lived comfortably.
What are the biggest misconceptions people might have about you?
They always think I am very rich, which I like. Because I think thoughts are like prayers. Let me tell you, this dress I am wearing I bought from a bazaar. I hardly go to boutiques. I buy cheap things. However when I wear them, I manage to make them look like they are expensive. I have the rich look. But I am not the luxurious type. I am not extravagant. My car is not new, it’s third hand.
With all these challenges, why do you continue to act?
For you to last as a Malaysian actor, you are either crazy or passionate. I am both. I am crazy about acting. I am passionate about my craft.