Who is Cleopatra Wong? An Interview with Marrie Lee

Who is this female action figure that captured the world’s attention? Who is this, who inspired Quentin Tarantino no less, when he created Uma Thurman’s character in the Kill Bill series? An upcoming actress who made waves in the international movie scene?

They call her Cleopatra Wong - was both her name and introduction film to the world.

Her nationality Singaporean. Her breakout year 1977!

Marrie Lee seemed to burst into the film scene from nowhere. She was featured in right-page ads in Variety, playing a sexy Interpol agent in a series of action films known as the Cleopatra Wong action films which generated a cult following.

Cut to 39 years later and Marrie Lee is back – out of nowhere again. This time to announce her feature directorial debut in the release of her first feature film “Certified Dead”

SINdie grabbed the chance to catch up with Marrie to find out more about the woman who was Singapore’s very own international action star.

The Past

Firstly Marrie, we have to start right at the beginning - how did you enter film?

Marrie: Well next year Cleopatra Wong would be 40 years old and she certainly had very humble beginnings. When I was young, I was certainly very active playing with wooden swords, blankets and I liked Cantonese Opera so much that my mum used to encourage me to go to Hong Kong to further my studies!

But life had other plans and I became an orphan at a very young age. My Dad passed away when I was 6 and my Mum when I was 16 years old. Hence although I had good results, I started working as a restaurant usher at a club venue downtown. My introduction into film was really rather unexpected - it just happened one night as I was holding the lift for a Hong Kong film group as they left. The director happened to look up at me, jump out and as the lift doors closed behind him, he asked if I could act! Being a young 17 year old, of course I grabbed the opportunity. It was only a minor role, in a Hong Kong produced film shot in Singapore, but the experience was new and it prompted a possible future.

And what about Cleopatra Wong? How did she emerge?

Marrie: Well after I had some exposure playing small parts, it was all down to an advertisement I saw for a lead role in a film that asked ‘Are you sexy, seductive and smart?’. I took a chance to go for the interview and audition. These were held in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, and I got the part. Out of all the girls who auditioned.

So here you were, a newcomer taking on a lead role?

Marrie: It was an absolute case of learning on the job. Producer/Director Bobby Suarez, was always sharp to spot a business opportunity. He saw potential and market in this story. He was keen to be among the first Asian films to travel to Europe and American.

He had a production company in Hong Kong and set one up in Singapore, hence having an actress from Hong Kong, Singapore or Malaysia was part of his strategy.

He also found my face easy to film and camera friendly. Perhaps part of the reason was an emotional connection that we both shared as orphans.

Cleopatra Wong is known for her action films? Did you have the requisite background?

Marrie: Absolutely not! Prior to filming I had no training except from sparing with siblings. It was all learnt on the job. In Philippines, I went through martial arts training where I was taught specific moves that featured high and flying kicks as well as local Philippine martial arts that used a long and short stick. Anytime there was no filming, I was always training.

And not only that, I was also taught some stunt riding and how to use a gun - a .45 caliber single handedly to be exact. I had action sequences that required me to jump a trampoline, catch the weapon, and cock it with one hand – all before landing. I certainly have the battles scars to prove it!

Additionally, in Hong Kong, I also had a martial arts instructor. Learn kung fu was the instruction from Bobby Suarez and so it was. There was no luxury of long rehearsals, in fact many a time rehearsal meant going through the moves one hour before the camera started rolling. To top it all off, there was on set dialogue changes. It was certainly a case of rolling with the punches.

Was it an experience that you expected?

Marrie: I was a total newbie – I knew nothing. I was really a director’s actress -  I was very good at following instructions to the letter. No changes and no ad libs.

In fact, there was a funny incident on the first day of filming. I was meant to stand on the mark with the gun, and shoot at the target. The director yelled cut and moved the camera but I just stood there. I stood there until someone commented – ‘Cleo you are very hardworking! you stand there and don’t move!’ and I said ‘huh, can move ah?’

I was boycotted a lot as a foreign actress but I won them over the hard way through just constantly trying. It was really hands on – no holds barred hard craft. At 17, I really knew nothing – there was no manager. I was very trusting and whatever they asked me to do, I did.

I was also considered a bit of a stunt actress – in those days body doubles were guys in dresses and in close ups, the audience could certainly tell the difference. Many times I narrowly escaped death – there were certainly no safety guards.

When you look back on that time could you believe what was happening?

Marrie: I never expected to achieve such a cult following. I finished my contract and came back to Singapore. Singapore was still young and there were not many opportunities. Although I did initially have an offer from Hollywood to make a TV pilot, ultimately unionized strikes in Hollywood caused a delay and by the time the opportunity presented itself again, I was married and my husband said no. After all, family came first.

The Present

Moving to today, you have actually produced and directly a number of films?

Marrie: After 30 years, I really never thought that I would go back to films. In those days it was not the digital age, hence film production was not an easy endeavor.

However, flash forward to Quentin’s quote in 2003 during his promotion for Kill Bill. After he credited Cleopatra Wong as an inspiration for his film, the world wanted to know who was Cleopatra Wong! In 2005 when I met Bobby again, we talked fondly about doing a reboot of the Cleopatra series, perhaps with a younger actress. However, we never got around to it and in 2010 he passed away. Since then I have felt compelled to continue the legacy. I took over the IP rights of Cleopatra Wong and looked for opportunities to relaunch the brand.

What happened next?

Marrie: My investment partner, who had experience in film production, eventually was too swamped with his own personal projects. Hence I realized that if I wanted to make it happen, I would have to do it myself.

I came across the website meetup.com and formed a social network group in November 2012. The group Reel Frenz currently has 500+ registered members who come from all walks of life. Initially we were just a social group but in time I realized we needed to push ourselves so we started to look for a script. We did not manage to find one so I wrote one! Little did I know that I could! In 2013 we started to film and to date I have written 7 and directed 10.

How was the transition to being behind the camera? How did you learn to direct?

Marrie: It was very much practical learning. I worked behind the scenes and gained experience. Thankfully I was able to put my past acting experience to good use. As many of the members are newcomers and inexperienced, I was fortunately able to show them how it was done.

For example, my lead actress in Certified Dead is very good! She can cry on cue. But I realized that you should always do the close-ups first - instead of the more natural sequence of wide, to mid then to close-up shots. The reason was a very practical one – if you did all the wide shots first, the actor would have run out of tears by the time you needed to do your close-ups! It was always about taking the hands on approach!

Having done both now, do you have a preference to either direct or act?

Marrie: I think today, I do not have a strong interest to go back in front of the camera as a lead actress. I have been known as an action star and at this age it is not always possible. I believe I have found my true calling behind the camera. If I feel I can add value to a film by being in it, I would certainly be open to a cameo or supporting appearance but not a lead role.

The Future 

What is in store for the future of Marrie Lee?

Marrie: I am currently developing two projects for the international market. I hope to be able to bring them to audiences soon.

As someone who has seen all these different aspects of the film world, do you have any advice for the young?

Marrie: Guts – you must really have the guts to just do it. Just like we did with Reel Frenz, it has been a ground up initiative and we are now looking to collect equipment and be self-sufficient.

Tell me a little more about Certified Dead which is the first feature length film that you wrote and directed.

Marrie: The story behind it is that I was hospitalized in 2013 with a minor stroke. After being in there for 8 days, I was released but then readmitted 4 days later with Bell’s palsy. I thought I was having another stroke! It was then that I wrote about death and second chances which resulted in Certified Dead.

Your relationship with Bobby – as mentor and mentee – it seems to have guided you well?

Marrie: I used to hate him! He was quite a tyrant. He used to tell me that the screen would put on 15-20% so I would have to lose weight. He even came up with the idea of not allowing me to eat rice. He told the caterer – no rice for Cleo! The caterer felt so sorry for me that she would give me two pieces of pork! Bobby was furious!

He certainly lost his temper a lot on set when he could not get what he wanted. But when he spoke to me in casual conversation, it was certainly very different. He would advise me to avoid picking bad habits from local films, to always speak unaccented English in films and to have as much of an international cast as possible – all this especially if I wanted to target an international market.

Through this journey – what is the most endearing memory that you have?

Marrie: I will not be able to pick just one moment.

When I was acting – as Cleopatra Wong, I remember travelling to Jakarta with my producer. I saw this building with me on it! It was this big poster, and it was me wearing the white turban dress. That was an overwhelming moment.

Another was about 10 years ago when I went to the Brisbane film festival to present a film. At my age, you do not expect to have fans but I came face to face with a number of ladies and they started to scream. I screamed. They were so excited. That was a really nice experience.

It was certainly an interesting afternoon spent learning about the journey of Marrie Lee – not only of becoming and being Cleopatra Wong – but also of the remarkable woman behind the character. A woman who takes no chances, is not afraid to get her hands dirty and who certainly moves with the times – trailblazing a path of her own.

While she is now so much more than her original tagline of 

She purrs like a kitten... makes love like a siren... fights like a panther. This side of the pacific, she is the meanest, deadliest and sexiest secret agent.

One thing has not changed.

They still call her Cleopatra Wong

Interview by Ivan Choong
Pictures and Images courtesy of Marrie Lee, and Singapore Cinema Pte Ltd.

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