Lim Kay Tong on playing Lee Kuan Yew in ‘1965’: My initial reaction was ‘No way!’

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Veteran actor Lim Kay Tong (right), 60, will be playing the role of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (left, pictured in a 2012 AFP file photo) in the upcoming film '1965'. (Photos: AFP file, Yahoo)

When veteran film, television and theatre actor Lim Kay Tong was approached to take on the role of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, he rejected it outright.
“I told Daniel (Yun, veteran film producer who pitched the role to him), look, I can’t do it,” he told reporters in an interview after a press briefing on Wednesday when the cast for upcoming feature-length historical drama “1965” was revealed.
Despite being widely-tipped within the industry to be cast, having starred opposite Hollywood actors like Sean Penn and Pierce Brosnan, he had his concerns. Pressure, for one, in playing a real-life person of former PM Lee’s stature; the fact that he would have roughly two months — where he would have preferred a year or two — to get into character, another.
“But after they sent me the script, (I recognised that) Lee Kuan Yew basically gives the time frame to the events that take place in this drama, so yeah, it’s possible… and would I ever be given another opportunity to do this? So I think that changed my mind,” he said.
Also, he acted on the encouragement of his wife, food writer Sylvia Tan. “It was less daunting once I saw it on paper, what I had to do,” he added.
The 60-year-old, who is the elder brother of fellow actors Lim Kay Siu and Irene Lim, will be playing Lee when he was in his 40s and in his 80s. Currently, he is scouring both on-screen and printed content about the founding father in the course of his research.
The actor says the short timeframe keeps on his toes, pushing him to be resourceful and research much more diligently to enter Lee’s character.
“It’s up to me to sort of find an internal part of the role… there is a public side, but it’s more understanding the many parts that he is. He’s a very complex man,” he said. “So hopefully I can get some of those qualities.”
How similar are he and Lee? Lim pays tribute to Lee in saying he is a “much, much cleverer man”, and a “much better actor” too.
“Put me in an improvisation situation and I’m struggling like any other actor. But this guy (Lee) has a much more public arena which he is standing in and talking, and there are very few politicians I’ve seen like that… who have that ability to just stand up and speak off-the-cuff and make a lot of sense to everybody,” he said. “He’s just a far greater figure, person, than I’ll ever be… There’s no comparison.”

Lim sure looks the part, though, even though he himself didn’t think he would so much. In a recent imaging session, he surprised himself with the resemblance he had to Lee at age 40, post-makeup.
“I got a bit scared when I saw the image in the mirror and I thought, wow, that’s not bad,” he said. “So it’s up to me now to give life to what the makeup people very impressively did; I was quite impressed.”

Lim Kay Tong at an imaging session for the role of Lee Kuan Yew, for the film '1965'. (Photo courtesy of Stardust Pictures)

Speaking at the press conference on Lim's casting, Yun said he and the casting team took the casting of Lee's role "very seriously".

"We met many actors and considered many different aspects of the character in relation to the narrative of the movie," he said, although adding that he knew Lim was the right man to play the role when he met him.

"He needed to be ready. He was probably not ready five years ago but he is ready now," he said. "Many artists can be intimidated by this role, (but) he is not. He is serious about playing the man, (and) since we confirmed him, he has been preparing. I am very impressed by his commitment to this role."

Ensemble key cast of '1965' pose for a picture with director Randy Ang (extreme right). From left to right: Sezairi Sezali, James Seah, Joanne Peh, Mike Kasem and Lim Kay Tong. (Photo courtesy of Stardust Pictures)

Lim joins a local cast with a variety of experience on the film, with Joanne Peh acting as Zhou Jun, a young and feisty coffee shop owner, Class95FM deejay Mike Kasem as Raj, a Pakistani reporter, former Singapore Idol 2009 winner Sezairi Sezali and young MediaCorp actor James Seah as Seng, all of whom were revealed on Wednesday. Seah’s character is a brother to the role played by Peh’s husband Qi Yuwu, who stars in the film opposite “Anna and the King” actress Deanna Yusoff.

"1965" is a dramatic thriller set in the years leading up to and immediately after the Singapore-Malaysia merger, where race riots broke out in the streets. It will follow the story of Khatijah (Yusoff), who is aggrieved after witnessing the death of her young son while Cheng, a police officer (Qi), stands by, triggering a host of other events and clashes affecting the entire community.
The film, directed by Randy Ang, will begin shooting in the middle of November, and is aimed to hit cinemas by August next year, in celebration of Singapore’s Golden Jubilee. Its S$2.8 million budget is partly-funded by the Singapore government as well as a host of corporate sponsors.