Interview

In Conversation: Leon Jay Williams

 

Prince’s Calling

These days, only in the rarest of instances can the classic Prince Charming be played straight and done right, and Singaporean model-turned-actor Leon Jay Williams certainly has what it takes. His potent combination of matinee-idol good looks, determination and sincerity has made him a star in many a Taiwanese idol drama, often playing the debonair rich boy, which earned him the moniker ‘Prince William’. But his rise to royalty was far from smooth, as MEN’S FOLIO finds out. In fact, when he started out, all they wanted was somebody who looked good in a suit.

Photography LESLIE KEE | Styling TOK WEI LUN 

Below: ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA wool jacket; HERMES silver and leather braceletLeon Jay Williams

MEN’S FOLIO: You were telling us your foray into acting was anything but rosy.

Leon: When you’re in Taiwan acting it really drains all your energy because the shows air as they go along, so you’re not allowed to get sick or take leave or anything. But that’s how they make people shine, that’s how they make a movie or TV star.

What kept you going?

Definitely the fear of failure. When I took the job, I knew it was going to be hard. I didn’t speak Chinese that much, so I had to put in a lot of effort. It was like going back to school and having a Chinese exam every day for six months non-stop. I had scripts to memorise, and my management would sit down with me for at least two hours a day to go through everything. It’s also a matter of the people who are there. You don’t want to disappoint your management. You don’t want to disappoint your family either. Initially, they thought it was a crazy idea giving myself this much of a challenge, but halfway through my mum flew over to Taiwan to stay with me for a month, and her presence definitely helped.

Are you surprised with your success now?

Very! Initially I thought I’d just do one drama and say, ‘Ok I’ve done this in my life, I can probably move on.’ I didn’t expect to do the second one, let alone continue doing it for ten years. Whenever I auditioned for Mediacorp, my feedback was always, ‘Your Chinese is not good enough. 你学华语以后才回来.’ So I wanted to prove to myself and to others around me that I can actually do it. But I’ve never thought of it as a career. 

You’ve grown and succeeded in Taiwan. 

Probably because of the whole bilingual aspect. They initially wanted me to speak both English and Chinese, and up until then no one has ever done that before. So I brought a bit of freshness into the 偶像剧. And I think the audience kind of related to me. I was this guy whose Chinese is not good but is trying very hard making an effort, and when the Taiwanese audience watch me every week they can see me improving. Your imperfect Mandarin made you stand out more. Actually, yes. I didn’t have a proper Chinese accent and I would say things upside down. It’s quite funny, because on set my co-workers used to laugh at me whenever I say something wrong. But it lightens the mood. I’m never afraid of people laughing at me because I know that I’m doing something with a slight handicap. 

When did you realise that this was something you could do as a career?

Honestly even up till my last Taiwanese drama in 2009, I was still in two minds. At that time I was doing both Chinese and Taiwanese shows simultaneously, so it was very taxing. I had to shuttle between both places and still had to find time to come home. It was sapping the energy out of me and I had to ask myself what I wanted in life. Do I really want to carry on doing this very stressful job? Yet this is an opportunity a lot of people would kill for. I think in the end I just didn’t want to give up. I had gone too far to give up, and when I decided to concentrate more on the Chinese market and started doing movies about four years ago, that’s when I realised I really want to do this, hopefully for the rest of my life.

Below: GUCCI poly poplin sport windbreakerLeon Jay Williams

‘Prince William’ – is that a blessing or a curse? 

Definitely a blessing! There are probably worse roles to be typecast in. I get to play the rich guy in a suit, so it’s pretty much a very good thing because I get to look good in every role! I’ve tried a few other different kinds of roles for the big screen as well, so I’m quite satisfied. When I do TV, I’ll show what the audience wants, which is the whole ‘guy in a suit’, and on the big screen I’ll do roles that I want, like playing a gangster or doing a 年代戏. My next movie coming up in China is called Who Moved My Dream, and it’s a comedy where I play an effeminate fashion designer – that’ll probably shock a lot of my fans! 

Are you a prince charming in real life?

It depends. I’ve had a girlfriend for nine years and she’s definitely marriage-material, so hopefully to her I’m Prince Charming. But I’ve always just been myself and I’ve always put priority on my family and love life. Career-wise, it’s never been number one for me. I feel that family and all that is much more important. That’s why I’m not with someone from the industry; I don’t use that to try and get publicity. I keep it separate.

Are there times when you’ve displayed less than princely behaviour?

I’ve got a pretty mild temper, so it’s quite hard to set me off. When I was younger, I’d have quarrels with ex-girlfriends and all that, but on hindsight it’s kind of lame. These days, I just don’t like getting last minute schedules, but in what we do opportunities are always around the corner, so it’s something you cannot really control. A few years ago when I did the movie Jump [2009], I took over Edison Chen’s role and that was very unexpected. Because of his [then] scandal, he had a little ban in China and his movies couldn’t be released there. So they looked to me to fill his role. It was an opportunity, but it also upset a lot of my schedule. It must’ve been quite last minute. There was pretty much no time. From the moment I received the first phone call to the time I’m on set, it was about two weeks. That’s usually not enough to prepare for any role. Luckily, it was a role where they just wanted me to look good in a suit – I was the playboy – so I still managed to do it. I just wished I had more time to prepare. It was a Stephen Chow production, and you don’t say no to Stephen Chow.

Below: LOUIS VUITTON cotton T-shirt, silk blend bomber jacket, wool pantsLeon Jay Williams

You’ve modelled, acted, and even recorded an album. You must be quite talented.

These things develop as you go along. I never thought I could sing; the acting led to it, which is quite common these days. When you’re popular as an actor, record companies would look for you to produce albums, and that happened to me in Taiwan. It’s nice to know that I have certain other skills, but I don’t think I can ever really say I’m a singer. I’m still first and foremost an actor; singing is just a hobby for me. As for modelling, I’ve been doing that for so long so it comes quite naturally these days. 

Any icons growing up? 

I’ve watched a lot of Hollywood movies from before. Even now, I was never really into the whole Chinese drama and movie thing. Growing up, I was watching Al Pacino and Mel Gibson, and they would be my 标准 if I wanted to be an actor. It’s very ambitious but you have to aim high if you want to get somewhere. Despite your image in the media, you also grew up just like any typical Singaporean living in a HDB flat. 

So which is the real you?

My friends and family know me as the guy-next-door, the guy who grew up in a HDB. I don’t think I’ve changed much. I still go back and live with my mom sometimes; I grew up there so it’s very nostalgic. Generally, I think I’m both, but if I had to pick one, I’ll definitely return to my roots. I’m still the HDB boy; I still live a simple life. The acting is just a job. Of course, there’s always pressure when you meet the media, but I’ll never give anyone a false appearance. I may be in a suit, but everything else is still the same on the inside.

Speaking of suits, yours have become almost as famous as you.

Generally, when I’m attending events I like very clean lines and things with colours. Men shouldn’t ham it up too much or try too hard. For accessories…a watch or even a necklace, if the attire is suitable. I’m not the kind that will overdress, but I will dress for the occasion. I might be more daring in that I’m willing to go for a pink or suede look, but that’s probably the limit. On my own, I’m a very T-shirt and jeans/cargo pants kind of guy. In fact, when I’m home in Singapore I usually take out my berms, because I’m always dressed up in China and Taiwan.

Below: LOUIS VUITTON cotton shirt, wool check suit, cotton pocket squareLeon Jay Williams