Nominated for Best Actress at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards for her work in Limbo and filming an action movie this summer, the Hunan native is well on her way to conquering the silver screen. She talks to Zaneta Cheng about her journey, why it hasn’t always been easy and what she’s learned along the way
(Scroll down for the Chinese version / 你可以在下面找到文章的中文版)
With the mercury easily exceeding 30°C each passing day, Hong Kong is oppressively humid and stultifyingly hot. Yet, while most people are trying to find ways to move less, 33-year-old actress Cya Liu is asking director Herman Yau for more action scenes – be they in front of the green screen or in the great outdoors – for her new film War Customised.
Playing an intelligence officer, it’s the first time Liu has appeared in an action movie so emblematic of the Hong Kong film canon. With a rather small, seemingly delicate frame, Liu could easily be mistaken for someone who is unable to handle the rigours of an intensely physical set.
“I think that in the summer there should be action. War Customised is an action movie but I don’t have any action. I watch Nicholas Tse doing all these action scenes every day but because I’m just an intelligence officer, I don’t have any. I’m actually quite jealous,” Liu says with a laugh, sitting casually in the hair and make-up room before our cover shoot. She’s had her lunch and hasn’t picked over her food like a rabbit.
The Hunan native is refreshing both in her attitude and in her speech. It’s evident that Hong Kong film directors think so too, as she counts War Customised as her fourth movie in the city and is currently nominated for Best Actress at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards for her role in Cheang Pou-soi’s Limbo, alongside acting veteran Gordon Lam.
Even on our set, Liu has her own take on what makes a photograph look good – talking with the crew about the feeling, mood and atmosphere that she wants to achieve with each snap. She’s more than up for experimenting with poses and it’s obvious that Liu approaches every opportunity in front of the camera with her own instinct and a drive to succeed.
And yet it’s taken the actress almost two decades to get to where she is today – something she’s the first to admit. There were moments she counted fame and awards as indicators of success. There were moments she needed to cling to her chosen profession. But then came the moments when she realised she wasn’t interested in the industry so much as she was the magic of the process.
In the two decades since Liu entered the entertainment industry having won an idol competition in Hunan in 2004, she has come to a uniquely tranquil agreement with her craft and the juggernaut that surrounds it. She doesn’t really aspire to awards anymore and she’s not so interested in fame. And it makes sense that in the absence of calculation, her roles come with the seasons: “If it’s winter or if it’s raining, I want to play marginalised characters. When it’s cold or humid, I think horror and crime movies suit the vibe. In summer, there should be action.”
Congratulations on being nominated for Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards. How do you feel?
Well, when we finished shooting the movie, I thought it would come out the year after. I was thinking that more opportunities would come from it and I’d maybe even receive a nomination for an award. But we shot the movie five years ago so I’ve been waiting for quite a while and in these five years, my excitement pretty much wore off. Of course, I’m extremely happy and grateful for the nomination but I guess the adrenaline has worn off since it’s been so long since I filmed it.
What drew you to the role of Wong To in Limbo? And to Leung Wai-yin in I’m Livin’ It (2019)?
There definitely are similarities between the two. First of all, the will to live demonstrated by these two characters is extremely strong. Frankly speaking, I was offered these two roles when my career as an actress wasn’t exactly flourishing, which is why at the time I felt a connection of sorts with the characters in these scripts. I wanted to survive. I wanted to survive in this industry. I wanted to stay. I only had myself to rely on and had to endure a lot of things alone. The aggressive survival instinct in these two characters and their determination to survive was formidable and inspiring, and it was something I could really relate to.
What do you mean when you say you were trying to survive and stay afloat in this industry?
I had to learn to embrace the state of being lonely and isolated – most of all it was just waiting for jobs to come in. In the beginning, it was honestly okay because I believed moments of hardship would count as valuable life experiences which I could learn from and reflect upon. These experiences have allowed me to learn and grow a lot as a person, and I firmly believe that one-day elements of the hardship I went through can be used and implemented in different roles and characters.
What other criteria do you have when choosing characters or scripts?
There isn’t anything special. It usually depends on how I feel at the moment. It’s hard to say because my goals and the way I feel about my work are different every year. For example, since it’s summer, action roles become more appealing as I find myself wanting to exercise and move more. That’s what I mean when I say I rely on how I feel in that moment. Most importantly, it’s to see if I resonate with the role and if the particular script catches my attention. It has to be a role with unique elements, not just an ordinary one.
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Many actors and actresses have mentioned that filming a Hong Kong movie is a unique experience, with its own pace and rhythm. Would you agree?
Typically, in China, the crew and cast live together in designated accommodations during the shooting period, kind of like a dormitory. In Hong Kong, most of the staff members come from their own homes like they would with any other normal job. It’s very fast-paced and professional here.
Also, the actors that I’ve co-starred with don’t purposely dress up like celebrities so when I’m with them, I don’t need to care about all those other things either bringing an assistant or dressing up. Nobody cares. Everyone’s there to act and to work. This casualness is something I think all actors should have. Even Gordon Lam (Liu’s co-star in Limbo) or Aaron Kwok (Liu’s co-star in I’m Livin’ It) – when come on set don’t bring numerous assistants to accompany them or purposely dress up to look like a celebrity just so they can look good if fans catch a photo of them – these are just distractions from the acting. The crew also treats everyone equally regardless
of whether one is a celebrity or not.
How did you fit into all of this and get yourself ready for your roles?
I think as an actress, the ability to sense and understand your environment, to understand your co-stars as well as your own role, is important. I think this is also because the entire team on set, their contributions and abilities are all extraordinary. When filming, they don’t need me to make adjustments for them because they’re there to film me and to capture me and who I am and what I’m doing as an actress. With directing, they don’t tell me how to act – they let me test the waters and it goes from there very naturally. It all works out perfectly.
But with movies like the one you’ve been nominated for, surely there is a dynamic that needs to be formed between a director and his actor – in order to convey the right moods and feelings?
The director for Limbo is quite flexible and free, and there wasn’t really a power dynamic between the director and the actor. If there was a scene we needed to work on, he would communicate with me, listen to my suggestions and we’d throw ideas around. There was a great deal of trust and respect and I think that’s what helped the teamwork.
So you don’t really prepare.
No, everything comes very naturally and that’s what’s so magical about it – the feeling that it’s real but not really real at the same time.
But then what happens in the time between getting the script and before you get on set for the first time?
I’ll look at the storyline but I’m not going to prepare in advance how to act out the scenes because I don’t know how the other actors are going to act out their scenes. I don’t know what props there will be on set that I might use for my acting. That’s why I wait until I get on set and just feel.
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Isn’t that tough? There’s so much to observe and take in and execute in a short amount of time.
It depends on the character. Take the role I’m playing now in War Customised – this method doesn’t work because it’s very different from real life. In action films, the characters are very different to normal people. I can’t physically experience these occupations, so I have to rely on my imagination. For this character, I had to prepare in advance because I have to use my imagination but for characters like Wong To, she’s a real person, so I can really rely on just my feelings and feel out the environment.
I heard it took you six months to really be able to leave that character Wong To behind. Why is that?
There are two reasons. The first one is because it’s been a long, long time since I’ve liked a character so much and committed to a character so much. I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to keep filming and I wanted to keep her alive and live like her for longer. I wanted to experience and feel more of her and her world.
Why do you like Wong To so much?
Because she’s a fighter. She’s a daredevil, she’s not scared of anything. Even though she’s a character in a movie, I think there are a lot of people in real life who are like her – wanting to stay alive, having that fighting spirit.
Were there any similarities that you and the character shared besides the challenges?
Our personalities. Aside from life experience, I think our personalities are similar. I also have a daredevil streak in me and I don’t admit defeat easily. If I want to achieve something, I’ll try my best to do it. I say this but I’m not actually a very goal-driven person. I don’t really have any desires.
No aspirations for the future of hopes and dreams?
I don’t have any now. I did when I was younger. Back then my goal was to win a Best Actress Award at 30 years old. I think all actors want to win an award for their films and back then, so did I. But that’s not the case anymore because now I think acting isn’t about winning awards. It’s about experiencing.
For me, the most important thing is how it allows me to feel and experience. I find acting super fun and winning awards, earning money, being famous – these things aren’t the most important. I don’t need them. They come naturally. They’re what comes with acting. But what I like the most is the interaction with the character and with the film crew and the entire filming process. That’s what I enjoy the most.
What have been some of the more memorable characters that you’ve played?
Wong To is quite memorable. Another memorable one is the character I played in my first movie. It’s a coming-of-age movie and I was around the same age as my character. It’s memorable because back then, I didn’t know what acting was and I was basically just acting as a version of myself. I was so happy for the entire duration of filming and I thought the acting was just so fun and so interesting. That movie, Thirteen Princess Trees, made me fall in love with acting.
So back then you didn’t know what acting was. How about now?
Now I find acting to be such a challenging thing to do because there’s no standard. Different people see different things.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I don’t know. That’s what I find so charming and magical about acting. Some actors might have amazing acting skills but the audience might not like it – maybe because of the way they smile or because they’re unable to put themselves in the actor’s shoes.
So how do you overcome that?
I don’t know. If you ask me if I think I’m doing a good job in my role in War Customised, I have no idea. If the director says it’s okay, then it’s okay, I guess.
What are your thoughts on the industry now?
A lot of people like to single out this industry and they think it’s glamorous but it’s really just like any other industry out there. There are unspoken rules. There are people who get their jobs or have it easier at work because they have connections and there are people who have talent and those who don’t. Much of what you see in other industries, the entertainment industry has it too. Where there are people, there are problems. We’re not special.
Who is your #legend?
Do I have to name someone? I don’t have one. I’ve asked myself this question countless times. A lot of people ask me who my legend is. When I was younger, I could name a lot of people – those good at acting or those good at singing. All of them are my legends. But then over time, I started to ask myself what is a legend? I once wanted to be a legend to others as well but now I think that my #legend shouldn’t be one person but more like a category of people. I think those who stand up for others in dangerous situations – are my legends. I always look at the news nowadays and ask myself, ‘If it were me in that situation, would I be able to do the same thing that he or she did?’ That’s why I think those brave people are my legends.
Creative concept and production / #legend
Digital Artist / FrankNitty3000
Photographer / Rex Tsui
Styling / Zaneta Cheng
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