It’s the Christmas season and I’m approaching the Theatre Royal Stratford East and nothing is more lit up than the Merry-Go-Round in front of the Theatre which has its Pantomime, Cinderella. I’m about to interview a Jonathan Woodhouse who currently works at Stratford East. He also stars in the upcoming movie “The Lady” alongside Michelle and David Thewlis. The film is directed by Luc Besson, director of Cult Classic La Femme Nikita and the more popular ‘The Fifth Element’. Jonathan plays Alexander Aris, eldest Son, of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the last 20 years in some form of detention because of her efforts to bring democracy to military-ruled Burma. Not many Filipinos can say they’ve worked so closely to ‘A’ List Hollywood celebrity so I’ve come to discover who this young talent is.
Philippine Generations has already posted an initial interview of Jonathan Woodhouse, now we’re going to find out more about the young softly spoken man.
The film ‘The Lady’ is released in the UK on the 30thDecember 2011, directed by Luc Besson. How did you get involved?
I replied to an email. My sister encouraged me to reply to an email sent by Philippine Generations regarding an audition for a film directed by Luc Besson. I applied and then auditioned and it went on from there really.
How did you feel when you found out you would be working with Luc Besson and Michelle Yeoh?
I remember getting the call a ten thirty in the morning. I was still asleep because I think I stayed up all night just trying not to think about it. I was also finishing my last thesis, and working full time. I was told that Luc really liked my audition and loved to meet me and that he wanted to put me in his film. They couldn’t tell me what the film was about or even who was in it. Luc Besson just wanted to know if I’d like to be involved and obviously I said ‘Yeah, wow, yeah’. I just remember saying ‘wow’ first. Then sitting on my bed for five minutes, just trying to figure out if I dreamt it or not, because when you’re woken up by a phone call you’re not even sure if you’re really speaking to the person or not. And then I went downstairs and I just paced back and forth for about ten minutes and then finally plucked up the courage to actually tell someone, so I called my Mum. I think that day I couldn’t necessarily believe it and I was just happy to be a part of it. To work with Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis and others of this calibre. Now that the film is being released in the UK, I remember that I did it and how hard it was and how much fun it was, so it’s always a mixture of emotions towards it.
From the moment you were told, how much time did you have to prepare for the shoot? And how did you prepare?
I think it was about two months till shooting.
So,I did know of Aung San Suu Kyi’s story, roughly from school. I read ‘A Voice of Hope’ and a memoir and writings of Aung San Suu Kyi. I did a lot of background research, not just research on her, but Burma’s very rich political history. There wasn’t too much written on Alex. Once we started working on the film, I managed to get some archive footage and I was given photos. But I felt that had to be careful with finding out information about Alex because I didn’t want to pressure myself into doing an imitation or trying to be that person because I haven’t lived through their experiences, I’m only telling a story. Oh, and I gained a bit of weight, because the real Alex was a bit broader and I was on a student diet at the time so I was quite skinny.
What did you find uniquely challenging in this film that really stands out and pushed you?
The big challenge was knowing the socio-political context of it and knowing the history of that but also finding yourself as a person. Not a political figure, not the son of a political figure but just channel that this is a family and these are real people and this is a real story. How do you place yourself emotionally through their experiences. How can you make it seem that you’re really reacting to what is going on without any foresight to what supposed to be going on in the character’s head. They didn’t know so much of this was going to happen, they didn’t know that they would be parted for years and that their houses would be seized etc. So it’s putting yourself in that mindset and trying to think if I was living through this, knowing that an entire country wants my mum to be a great leader but I just want my mum to be a great mother and to be here for me, I think that’s the real challenge that I had. I admire Michelle (Yeoh) who’s playing Aung San Suu Kyi but also feeling that struggle that she had her duty as a leader and as a mum and wife.
Did people ask about your ethnic identity on set?
Yes, sometimes. I wasn’t necessarily always presumed to be Burmese. The casting call itself was very broad and I remember at my audition there were people from all sorts of backgrounds there and people did ask.
With your fellow actors from different parts of Asia, what was the one thing that you always compared with each other when it came to your cultures?
Always food. An appreciation of good food and sharing food. I love telling them of the last time I was in the Philippines where I would have five meals in a day. And I think that’s something specific to Asian cultures that I’m familiar with. I remember we went out for lunch and we had the biggest prawns I’d ever seen and loads of fish and it always a talking point: Our love of food and our family’s love of food and how family affairs were always big affairs. It wasn’t enough to have party balloons and music, always food.
Are you comfortable watching yourself?
The first time, I was a bit freaked out. But I was comfortable because I think I was getting ready to be uncomfortable. I think because it was shot quite a while ago and I’ve been getting on with other things, I’d forgotten what it was like to film or prepare to see yourself on the screen and I was initially a bit worried of how I’d look with seasoned veterans acting opposite seasoned veterans in front to the camera or one of the best directors of his generation. I was worried that I would look out of place and that I don’t look like an actor and I look like someone that’s just there. As soon as the first couple of shots went through, I thought, okay, it’s not in my hands; it’s in the hands of the director, the hands of the editors, the sound and music and what they piece together makes the film look good, makes us look good and makes them look good. After the first time I watched it I was taken away by the story and the performances so much that I forgot I was there. It was only the second time I saw it that I watched it as a film and a film goer and I could fully appreciate it without looking at what I or anyone else was doing.
How do you think this experience has changed you?
I think it changed me emotionally. The youngest son of Aung San Suu Kyi, was struggling to get a visa to go to Burma to see his Mum even though she had been released. And I think that took a toll on me emotionally because it was a real life story happening right in front of my eyes. All I saw was a family that just wanted to be together. I saw a grown man just wanting to be with his mum. That idea of a missing parent, I mean, I was separated from my Father at the age of 15, he left. And it was very weird because I very loosely had distance to relating to the idea of not having a parent around. I remember it was a nice evening out and I had to go to the bathroom and I broke down emotionally. I remember coming back and David had noticed that I was in a weird emotional state and Michelle noticed and they both talked to me as lovely friends would do. Both of them were basically saying to me that this was the difficulty of doing something like this. There’s only so much you can do, you can’t change the world for that person because the world won’t change just like that. All we can do as artists is do the best job we can and hope there’s other people who have the power to change that, and that’s what I realised. That’s what changed for me emotionally; you can’t change the world being an artist but you can encourage people to. That was a big emotional significant moment for me, when there was only so much that I could do but I was seeing the real story, not Hollywood, not Luc Besson, but just something real happening and it was really overwhelming for me. So, that really changed the way I looked at Art, Film, Everything.
Interview prepared and written by Vincent Fajilagmago
28 December 2011