Rediscovering Jack Neo The Actor
Past midnight two weeks ago, out of the blue, I received a message from Jack Neo. ‘I won best actor. Just want to say thank you for believe in me at that critical moment. I have proven to u… I really done my best. cheers!’ He was in Kuala Lumpur, having just won the Best Actor at the inaugural Golden Wau Awards. Before I fell asleep, I reflected on the very eventful and successful career of Jack Neo. While his body of work as a director has its admirers and detractors, his work as an actor is mostly overshadowed, even overlooked. For ‘Homecoming’ I had to almost insist on using Jack as the lead actor. It was indeed a critical time. In this entertainment industry, you are as good as your last work. I knew then as I know now that his work will speak for itself. And you cannot keep a good man down.
Unpacking the last of the boxes of my house move, I came across a President Star Charity program when we staged ‘Beauty World’ in 1998. In the cast was Jack Neo. Who would have thought we would go on to work with each other for over a decade? Together, we were behind some of the most iconic breakout hits in the local movie industry. This role of Wan Choo in ‘Beauty World’ reminded me of his other role, Ah Gu, in Eric Khoo’s ’12 Storeys’. They were diversely different but both were scene stealing roles. Jack and I started our collaboration with ‘Liang Po Po The Movie’. By then he was already part producer, part director, part writer, in addition to being an actor. I have a feeling Jack can act even with his eyes closed. To him, it is the easiest part of his work. And I think it is also a part of his work we sometimes take for granted.
Now, most people will see Jack as an overall filmmaker and entertainer. Yet for me, from time to time, I would notice him just as an actor. He is natural. Real. But most importantly, as good to excellent actors do, he makes it look effortless. He makes it look easy. Especially when he has to be a woman. For example, the role of Karen Neo that just won him his first acting award. I remember telling him categorically that Karen needed to be an individual. There should not be shades of Liang Po Po or Liang Xi Mei. When I saw him in costume, and from the first scene we shot on the first day, I knew we had a winner of a character. It was also a role Jack took up after an absence of nearly 5 years in acting. Suddenly I was reminded how dedicated, detailed, serious and spontaneous he was as an artiste. And how good he was as an actor.
Jack’s acting approach makes me think of veterans like Fong Po Po, Siew Fong Fong, Wu Fong, even Woody Allen. There is an absence of vanity. The process is no fuss. Everyone just knew that he would deliver. That he would be good. Just that in many cases, he was not good. He was great. I remember specifically at a promotional event for ‘Homecoming’. We were giving out leaflets by the road. Jack was talking to me, in costume as Karen. Suddenly someone walked up to us. He stopped talking immediately and turned around. Without missing a beat, he became Karen. It was hot. He was perspiring. But he was already Karen, complete with all the mannerisms, voice change, balancing on high heels. All for just one person. At that moment, I thought to myself. He deserved to be successful. He was a real trouper. Being a complete professional was hard-wired in him. And all our young actors needed to look up to him.
With this acting award, I hope he will, juggling his producing and directing roles, take some time out, to just act. Congratulations, Jack! For winning the best actor award. It is long overdue.