Nick Cheung is such a loyal friend, he was almost beaten up for it

Great friends and work pals: Nick Cheung with Dante Lam who directed him in That Demon Within (above). -- PHOTO: CLOVER FILMS
Great friends and work pals: Nick Cheung with Dante Lam who directed him in That Demon Within (above). -- PHOTO: CLOVER FILMS
Great friends and work pals: Nick Cheung with Dante Lam (left) who directed him in That Demon Within. -- PHOTO: CLOVER FILMS
Great friends and work pals: Nick Cheung with Dante Lam (left) who directed him in That Demon Within. -- PHOTO: CLOVER FILMS

It is not hard to see why the actor is so popular: In real life, he is winsome and goofy, and work-wise, he is talented and hardworking.

Nick Cheung is truly the man of the hour.

At the Hong Kong Film Awards held last Sunday night, the 46-year-old star was named Best Actor for his boxer role in sports drama Unbeatable, to much cheering from the rest of the stars and industry players seated in the auditorium.

Before he took the stage to collect the prize, many people left their seats and surged forward to hug and congratulate him. In his acceptance speech, he was effusive and funny, and no one minded that he went on and on and on.

In fact, every time his name was mentioned in passing throughout the rest of the night, the audience would loudly clap and whistle in support.

It is not hard to see why he is so popular: He is utterly winsome, sincere and goofy in real life, a far cry from those serious, brooding characters that he has come to be known for in his films of late, including the latest work, That Demon Within, a cop thriller in which he plays a ruthless criminal.

Work-wise, there is no denying his incredible talent as well as diligence. To convincingly portray an ex-champion boxer-turned-trainer in Dante Lam's Unbeatable, he made headlines for undergoing nine months of gruelling physical workouts to transform his usually thin frame to become a beefcake.

No wonder he feels particularly proud of that role, he says in an interview with Life! before the Hong Kong Film Awards.

"When I die, I'm going to take my Shanghai Film Festival Best Actor award for the role to my grave with me," he tells Life! before bursting into easy laughter.

"A lot of hard work went into that role, but I really wanted to do it because finally, I could do something different from a police movie for once."

So why is he back in not just one, but two cop movies this year?

That Demon Within opens in Singapore on Friday and action blockbuster Helios, in which he plays a counter- terrorism cop, opens at the end of the year.

"For That Demon Within, I agreed to do it because it's a cop movie that is so different from other cop films. It's a psychological drama and talks of inner demons, so that's interesting," he says between sips of hot tea.

What inner demons plague him in real life? Ever the charmer, he is ready with a series of quips. "I've always wanted to be the type of guy who has many girlfriends. But I have to keep that notion only in my head, and not put it into action," says Cheung in a self-deprecating manner that suggests he knows he is no heart-throb. He is married to actress wife Esther Kwan, 49, with whom he has an eight-year-old daughter.

So incredibly polite, earnest and down-to-earth was he that the interview felt more like chit-chat with an old buddy.

The new movie is the fourth film collaboration between Cheung and director Dante Lam, after their acclaimed works together with Beast Stalker (2008), which won Cheung his first Best Actor nod at the Hong Kong Film Awards, The Stool Pigeon (2010) and Unbeatable (2013).

Lam, 48, who had been quietly seated next to Cheung for this interview, says that working with the actor is "always very enjoyable".

The film-maker adds: "Outside of work, we often chat and keep in touch, and we're also good friends. In fact, he is my only friend I really feel like I can really connect with."

Cheung is a person who clearly treasures friendships. Picking up his award at the recent Hong Kong Film Awards, he gave a shout-out to the other nominees in the Best Actor category - Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Anthony Wong, Louis Koo and Lau Ching Wan.

"They are all my good friends, my genuine good friends, not the kind you exchange a few words with and then curse behind their backs," he said at the ceremony.

Friendship, not to mention loyalty, is of utmost importance to him.

Years ago, he had gone to China to film a low-budget film, he recalls, and asked a Hong Kong director to go along with him to work on it.

In the midst of filming, the Chinese crew was very rude to the director and scolded him incessantly, causing an incensed Cheung to stand up for the film-maker and then get embroiled in an argument with them.

When Cheung and the director left the set to go back to the hotel, they got word that the Chinese crew had called in a group of people to beat them up and so "we had no choice but to escape back to Hong Kong".

"I never went back to get my money, but it didn't matter. I had to make sure that both the director and I were safe.

"They ended up finishing the rest of the movie using another man as my replacement - they just filmed his back. The movie was actually released."

yipwy@sph.com.sg

Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

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