From design school in Australia to movie sets in Hong Kong, Adam Pak has come a long way in the past decade. The model-turned-actor talks to #legend about living the dream, embracing his heritage and believing in the power of karma
Born and raised in Australia, Adam Pak didn’t seem destined for a career in Hong Kong cinema. After high school, he pursued a degree in arts and design and eventually found himself interning for a conceptual design firm in Amsterdam. It wasn’t until an uncle, who knew about Pak’s homesickness while in Europe, suggested Hong Kong that he decided to try his luck in the city.
Ten years later–and after many fruitless attempts to find design work – Pak has found success not only as a model but as an actor appearing in movies alongside such superstars as Louis Koo and Kevin Cheng and even in a recent music video for Cantopop diva Sammi Cheng. But the 39-year-old isn’t one to let it get to his head.
“I don’t particularly want to be the most well known just for being well known,” he says. “I really want to help the director and my fellow actors as a team. I’ve learnt that it’s not about showing off but how true you can be with the people around you.”
You came to Hong Kong in 2011, scored your first commercial, appeared in music videos in 2014, and then starred in a movie in 2018. People always talk about how it’s a long road in entertainment. How do you stay motivated? And how did the work keep coming?
Well, first of all, work didn’t keep coming. There are a lot of times when you go years without finding work. It’s about the dream, the hope – if you want to do it, you can do it. You just keep believing in yourself. Be as positive as you possibly can. If you get one job, you get another job.
Did you always want to be a model or an actor? What sparked your interest to set foot in the industry?
Honestly, it was because I couldn’t find design work. And because I’d just done my [design] degree, and to get another degree here would take a long time. So I listened to my friend’s suggestion, tried modelling and took some acting classes.
What was your understanding of Hong Kong films and TV shows before you entered the industry? Also, you mentioned the first movie you ever watched was Mr. Vampire. How did that influence you?
I watched Mr. Vampire as a three-year-old in the cinema with my parents. It’s with Yuen Biao – he was one of the biggest actors back then. Because that was the first film I’d ever seen, I didn’t know what to expect. And then these ghosts and corpses were jumping around and I’m holding my little yellow blanket like, “Oh my god”, but I loved it.
I used to love watching Raymond Wong Pak Ming’s films like All’s Well, Ends Well and Happy Ghost. These were all really funny films to me. And later on Steven Chow and Bruce Lee. They really inspired me because you’d see Hollywood films and Japanese films, then there are Hong Kong films, my culture, we can do the same thing, we can go worldwide too. And it really got me into watching Cantonese films and then eventually I ended up being able to participate so it’s a dream beyond a dream. I never thought I’d be able to do this.
You are likened to Takeshi Kaneshiro. Does that ever give you a bit of pressure?
Pressure? No, I don’t think of it that way. How many people can be compared to him? That’s the way I see it. It’s like getting close to the yellow brick road; it’s amazing to me. If anything, I have to do better. After all these years, he’s still so good-looking, he’s getting more and more famous, and his films – there’s a lot for me to live up to, so it’s a motivational drive.
You mentioned Bruce Lee. What about his movies attracted you?
I think it’s the fact that he could stand up tall in front of Western people. I watch a lot of American films and the Asian characters are typically assistants. In fact, Lee was in The Green Hornet. He was an assistant-type character, but then to see an Asian face be the main hero like Shang- Chi – it’s amazing. Anything’s possible.
[It made me realise that] if you work hard you can change the way people perceive you, and the way people perceive people that are like you. Because I spent a lot of time in Australia kind of wondering who I am – who’s that Asian kid? – to be able to stand tall in my own [race] is a very big thing for me. It was always something I wanted to achieve, but I didn’t really know how to go about it. And I love this since I’m going home [to Hong Kong] to find my roots. This journey is the best thing I decided to do.
You’ve had some pretty intense fight scenes in your movies so far, like in L Storm and Breakout Brothers. Did you study martial arts to prepare? And what lessons did you take from L Storm, be it in action or acting, to Breakout Brothers?
When I was younger, I watched a lot of Bruce Lee so I did as much martial arts as I could but it was just a few years here, a few years there. I took up kendo and karate for a bit, taekwondo and a bit of boxing because I really liked it, and I’ve always loved contact sports like football.
I’ve always been active but I haven’t really perfected myself in doing martial arts. Still, I thought, okay, I can move my arms and legs, let’s give this kung fu action movie a go. I went on set and the instructor said, “Show me what you got”. I showed him and then he said, “All right, we’ve got a lot of work to do”. Because even if you know martial arts, you might have strength but strength in front of a camera is a totally separate thing. And I realised I had to start from zero and learn everything again.
As soon as I did the acting, then my footing wouldn’t be in the right place and they’d have to correct every little thing I did. There were a lot of martial arts people I worked with, including the actual fighters, masters and actors. I learnt a lot from them and I still learn a lot from them today, like the wounds they get, how they practice and how they deal with rolling downstairs. There’s just so, so much to learn and I love being a part of it.
What are some of your memorable injuries and how did you overcome those during filming?
I remember getting my finger stabbed with a shiv in Breakout Brothers. It was just an accident but it was bleeding and I was like, “Look, just film it, just get it done”. So was I acting or was it real? But it was a great experience because back in the day the budget was extremely low and they didn’t have an extra to fill my position. [I thought to myself,] “Are you going to hold up everyone or are you going to get it done?”
I would imagine a lot of the martial arts instructors, if they get hurt, they go back on set and they keep going. For instance, Max Zhang Jin in Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, he twisted his leg but he went back to work. The least I can do is man up.
What inspired your perfectionistic mindset of sticking it out and making dramatic changes to your physical appearance if it means you can continue acting and being on screen?
I try to be a perfectionist but I can’t take all the credit. My previous manager said, “Look, if you want to get fit, you need to go to personal training.” And so she introduced me to a personal trainer. I learnt that I don’t know everything. With certain things you need help, and I think admitting that you need help is a very brave step.
Through training, talking to other people – Louis Cheng helps me a lot – you gradually learn how your body is different from everyone else’s and how to make your body as fit as you can. So I think it’s a process of self-education and self-enhancement that you need to keep doing. I’ve improved slightly but I could be better.
As an actor, I believe that if there’s a role in front of you, the best you can do is accept it, learn about the character and perhaps change yourself in order to better play the role. Because if you drop your ego, there’s a lot to learn. And maybe there are even more boundaries you can break that you previously thought you couldn’t, so I think it’s a perfect process to get better at being human.
What about acting and being on screen brings out this dedication of yours?
My teachers like Liu Kai Chi and Leung Wing Chung, who’s a very funny guy, and other mentors that I have worked with. When you go to learn about acting, you think you’re going to learn about certain skills, how to talk loudly, how to be brave – and I think that’s what’s different with Cantonese acting teachers.
I’ve had Western acting teachers like Glen Chin, before he passed away. He taught me a lot. But what I learnt from Cantonese people is that it’s not just about learning how to earn money or how to look good in front of the camera. It’s learning how to be a better you, how to live life, how you make decisions in real life, how you’re going to make decisions as an actor, and whether or not people are going to want to look at you is based on those decisions. Liu was such an amazing and patient person – depending on the character he played, he made decisions about how he treated people around him, how he respected them, how he didn’t respect them. And it was just mind-blowing.
I didn’t think acting was about that in the beginning. I honestly thought it was about looking good and how famous you can get, which was a very shallow way of looking at it. Liu taught me how to survive in the industry, how to survive as an actor and how to have worldly wisdom, which is much more important than any acting skills you could ever learn. Of course, acting skills are very important too.
When you talk about acting, there’s a light in your eyes, but it probably hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Were there moments when it was disheartening or you felt discouraged? What did you do then?
All the time. I like to go to the ocean and yell really loudly. I get frustrated with the Chinese words I don’t know, with not being able to speak Mandarin as well as everyone around me, with not being able to remember the lines. Or if I remember the lines, I go to set and I forget to do the most basic things like listening to people or how I’m supposed to stand. I bottle them up and I yell out the frustration while I’m running. I think for every film project I do, I always reach a certain low point that breaks my heart. You want to do really well but then the director catches you on things that you should already know.
I’ll tell you a story. A seasoned actor once walked up to me and told me, “You’re not as good as you think you are.” He didn’t say those exact words but he was like, “You can improve a lot more to get to a basic level, but you’re not quite reaching it.” And honestly, I needed to listen to that because I always thought that you learn your lines, you know the blocking, the scene, how everything’s going to go and that’s it, you wing it from there. And it’s not like that.
There’s a new thing I’ve learned – you’ve got to tell yourself on set that “I’m going to get this right. Two pages of stuff that you need to say, you’ve got to get it right, perfect.” By then I’ve done the homework, I know how everything is going to go down but sometimes I forget to improvise just a little bit and it just becomes robotic. So that’s what I’m learning. The idea is to be done in one take. Why? Because it costs a lot of money and you should be ready anyway.
Other than acting, which you probably spend most of your time doing, do you still make time for design?
I do. I’ve never stopped drawing – not commercially, just for myself. When I get tired, I do paintings of the skies, sunsets, the moon and recently I’ve jumped back onto [Adobe] Illustrator. I love to do this sort of thing but I have limitations because I need to sleep, I need to rehearse my lines. One time I was drawing so much I didn’t stop. I ended up having red eyes. It’s another challenge finding a work-life balance.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully still working! I know that some careers can be very short. I’m grateful for every job and I always hold strongly that every job that comes in will lead to another one. And I feel that there’s karma. If I respect every job and honestly do my best then someone will see – I’m talking spiritually – someone will see it and give me another chance. And so far, that belief is working and I sleep easy at night.
I feel like it’s picking up, I’m meeting more people that I never thought I could meet and I’m doing more things that I could only imagine myself doing in the beginning. So it’s getting better and better. And I think in five years’ time, it could get better and better so long as I keep a positive attitude and don’t do anything wrong.
Who’s your #legend?
It’s got to be Sammi [Cheng]. It’s not just about becoming famous in one season or a couple of weeks; she’s been doing this for so long. And she’s been through everything. I think that’s the test of time, that really proves whether or not you’re supposed to be in this industry. I only just started proving to the world that I’m worth my weight.
Please savour responsibly.
Creative direction: Zaneta Cheng
Photography: Max Chan
Styling: Perpetua Ip
Hair: Kolen But
Make-Up: Little White
Photography assistants : Mo, Chow
Styling assistant: Star Ng Gaffer / Hsiao