Asian-American actor Russell Wong is still remembered for the bad-boy swagger that he brought to the film The Joy Luck Club (1993). In person at the press conference for HBO Asia mini-series Grace, though, he comes across as unassuming, even shy and nervous.
But, like it or not, he was the leading man of the media event held at Conrad Centennial Hotel yesterday.
Co-star George Young gushes: "Russell's a legend, he's great. He comes in just super relaxed, super chill and is just a nice guy, there's no ego about him."
And off-screen, he jokes, there was "a lot of sexual tension".
When he adds that the press conference is turning into The Russell Wong Show, Wong buries his head in his hands. And then he quips: "It sounds like I'm dead, let's move on."
The atmosphere was convivial and in contrast to the spooky, chilly vibe of Grace, a family drama in the horror genre. Or "Fatal Attraction meets The Shining", is how Wong describes it.
He plays the lead role of Roy Chan, a man devoted to his daughters, and Young, 34, plays the husband of the eldest daughter. Also present were Constance Song, 39, and Pamelyn Chee, 31, who play Roy's wife and mistress respectively. Grace premieres on HBO on Oct 17.
Wong, 51, was drawn to the project for a few reasons. He says: "I like that it's Asian content in English. And sometimes in the States, there's still a little bit of stereotyping going on and trying to fit into the martial arts genre at my age is not working so well."
He broke out in the small-screen adaptation of the bestseller Tai-Pan (1986), went on to work with director Wayne Wang in Eat A Bowl Of Tea (1989) and The Joy Luck Club, and then landed the lead role in the TV series Vanishing Son (1994), in which he played a Chinese political activist exiled in the US after the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.
"It was a unique time for me, being the Asian lead guy, some sex appeal and all that and doing the action. It was well- produced and it was one of the highlights of my career and kind of helped to propel me out there a little bit," he recalls.
The following year, in 1995, People magazine included him in its list of 50 beautiful people.
He still keeps trim and fit with dance and gym sessions several times a week.
He has never been comfortable with the sex symbol label, though. While the exposure helped, he says: "I was just trying to establish myself as an actor and to be regarded as a serious actor. I wanted to focus more on the material and the acting."
He credits his mother for his career choice as she was into musical theatre and encouraged her children to take up the arts.
From his restaurateur father, he got his practical streak. And so, he is "trying to make a business out of being an artist, basically".
He muses: "Show business is not easy. Trusting yourself and staying inspired and motivated is important. Everyone goes through a journey and there are ups and downs, but it's also useful to learn that because it's the elements that help make you a better actor."
His younger brother, Michael, 49, is a familiar face in Hong Kong cinema, but there has never been a question of sibling rivalry. Indeed, they do not even go for the same roles. If the chance came up though, Wong says they might produce something or act together.
And that might well happen with him considering being in Asia more often. He says: "There are options here for sure, and it's lucky that way that I can be both East and West."
Maybe he could further broaden his range by considering comedy next.
Describing the experience of filming Grace, Chee says: "Every day is a mystical experience. Nobody really knows what they're going to do until they yell action. I start the exploration of the scene only then, so everything is really fresh and that is captured on camera as nothing is really rehearsed."
To which Wong quips: "If you have a big budget, you can rehearse."
Grace premieres on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Oct 17 at 10pm.