Lim Kay Tong to play founding PM Lee Kuan Yew in the movie 1965

(From left)  Director Randy Ang, DJ-turned-actor Mike Kasem, singer Sezairi Sezali, actress Joanne Peh, actor James Seah and actor Lim Kay Tong at the press conference for the film 1965. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
(From left)  Director Randy Ang, DJ-turned-actor Mike Kasem, singer Sezairi Sezali, actress Joanne Peh, actor James Seah and actor Lim Kay Tong at the press conference for the film 1965. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Veteran actor Lim Kay Tong will be playing Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in the local movie 1965. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Veteran actor Lim Kay Tong will be playing Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in the local movie 1965. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
 The cast of 1965 include (from left) actress Joanne Peh, who will play a coffee shop owner, actors James Seah and Lim Kay Tong. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
 The cast of 1965 include (from left) actress Joanne Peh, who will play a coffee shop owner, actors James Seah and Lim Kay Tong. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Veteran actor Lim Kay Tong will be playing Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in the local movie 1965. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Veteran actor Lim Kay Tong will be playing Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in the local movie 1965. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

SINGAPORE - Despite an almost unanimous verdict among Singaporeans on social media that he is perfect for the role, veteran actor Lim Kay Tong admits he had to overcome cowardice before agreeing to play Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in the local movie 1965.

At a press conference on Wednesday, he says: "Two things in the 1960s that are stuck indelibly in my mind - the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Lee Kuan Yew's speech on the separation. Even as a child, you realise the significance of it, you see a different side to the man, a very human side. That press conference really defined him in a different way."

After reading the script, Lim, 60, thought he could take on the part.

He explains: "Lee Kuan Yew is a corner of the story. He frames the timeline, as to when the events take place. It is not overwhelmingly undoable, because it's just a handful of appearances stretched over the time in 1965 and maybe one other scene when he is much older. I overcame my cowardice, and said, 'Let's give it a go and see what happens.'"

Why cowardice?

"Because it's a real-life person, and it's Lee Kuan Yew. I hope he doesn't call me."

At the press conference, it was also announced that actress Joanne Peh would be cast in the movie, alongside her husband Qi Yuwu. Previously, the producers of the movie had unveiled a cast that included Qi and Malaysian actress Deanna Yusoff.

1965 is a movie commemorating Singapore's 50 years of independence. Its executive producer Daniel Yun has said it is not a biopic of Mr Lee, but "Mr Lee will be one of the characters in the film - and the movie will start and end with him".

The $2.8-million movie, to be directed by Randy Ang, who did last year's cop thriller re:solve, will start principal photography next month.

Of Lim's casting as Mr Lee, Mr David Lee, vice-chairman of Singapore Film Society, says: "Kay Tong is perfect for the role. 1965 has been five years in the making, and over the years, I was also thinking about who could play Lee Kuan Yew, and I actually considered Kay Tong as well. He has the gravitas required of the role, and he's English-speaking as well. You cannot cast a Chinese-speaking actor in the role, because the feeling would just be different.

"Years ago, there was news that Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu Wai would play the role, and although he is an excellent actor, I think many Singaporeans would feel that a Singaporean actor should play the part. The only thing I'm wondering about for Kay Tong is how he'll play the younger LKY. But I guess that's where movie magic comes in. Otherwise, he's perfect."

nggwen@sph.com.sg