Between Good and Bad: An Interview with Maxi Lim

Maxi Lim is best known as Aloysius Jin in Ah Boys to Men, the kiasu mummy's boy. What many don't know is that he can play a gangster or a loanshark to perfection. He's acted in more than 100 short films, many more shot form video content, and a string of feature films like Ah Boys to Men 1,2 & 3, The Lion Men, 4Love and Take 2, being the most recent film which just opened in cinemas on 26 January this year. In Take 2, he plays one of 4 ex-convicts who try to start life afresh after prison and gets to display some mean martial arts moves. Certainly an actor who has paid his dues, Maxi shares with me the rocky road and unforgettable moments in his journey as an actor, as well as that La La Land moment before he landed his role in Ah Boys to Men.

I read that you played numerous roles in close to 100 short films. What have you been commonly cast as? When did this journey start?

I finished national service in 2009 and started as a stunt guy. Back when I was in the army in 2008, I was practising some martial arts and I got to know this person who brought me into industry as a stunt guy. As a stunt guy on set, I had to fight with actors without causing any hurt, both on them and on myself. 

It was during that time that I felt I could do some of the lines better than the actors, so I thought to myself but I was too shy to express what I thought.

Because on set there were always producers around, so some of them approached me and said “Hey, actually you look quite suitable for this role, do you want to come and try?’’

Following their invitation, I went ahead to audition without any experience, though I knew what was required of an actor, from my experience in directing during Polytechnic. So I marketed myself as someone with directing as well as martial arts experience, but very raw yet willing to try and learn. I gave my best and some of them liked what I did and word got passed around about me. Paid or not paid, I would go for auditions.

What kind of roles did you often find yourself playing at that time?

It was very easy to land gangster roles back then and I played villains most of the time, such as loan sharks. Then I slowly moved on to serial killers and very dark films that required a lot of acting but no dialogiue. It was only later that I started getting speaking roles and I finally got my first break in Ah Boys to Men.

Was Ah Boys to Men the dawn of nerdy Maxi?

Yes, it was. That was the first time I actually played a good guy. (pause) And from then on, I started getting all the goody-two-shoes mummy’s boy roles.

And now you are trying to get back the bad roles? (laughs)

Not exactly trying to get the bad roles but just trying to break away from the nerdy stereotype. With a bit of effort put into research, I can actually do a greater variety of roles. Like last year, I played this autistic guy in a Temasek Polytechnic short film called I Believe. At first I was a bit relunctant because I was thinking why are they trying to stereotype me again with these quirky roles? (pause) Then I had a word with the director and realised what he had in mind was very different. He was actually a cell group leader and the autistic guy I was playing was his cell group member. (pause) On hindsight, I am quite glad that he trusted me with the role, because I think my audition tape was awful! (laughs) Until now, I still harbour a little fear of auditions.

But do you have to audition for most of the roles you play?

Once in a while, I still have to audition. But most of the time, it is more like a sit-down meeting in which they want to chat with you and get a feel of you. They may throw some lines to you or pair you up with certain people and see how to you interact with them. And most of the time when you are called for such meetings, it means you have most likely secured the role.

What have the biggest sacrifices you have made for the roles you have played?

I think one of the biggest sacrifices I made was for Ah Boys to Men 3:Frogmen. This is because I have a phobia of water and I nearly drowned a few times in my life before.  So when they told me I have to learn swimming and diving for the movie. I was like huh! According to the script, I had to jump several stories into the water too and I had fear of heights also. But there was a risk of substitution if I could not do those things.

I remember I was 75 kg then and I worked so hard to reduce it to 64 kg. So the weight loss and overcoming the fears were the toughest parts. Thankfully I had very good trainers from the Naval Diving Unit who held my hand and made sure I did the things right. I remember there were some really difficult challenges like going deep underwater to pick things up as well as passing some compulsory tests. We were training almost everyday. Pretty crazy times!

Ah Boys to Men was your first crossover to the mainstream right?

Yes, that right. During a period close to my getting the role of Aloysius in Ah Boys to Men, I had gone for many auditions for various feature films. I was often in the final shortlist but at the last moment, they would drop me. So I was quite depressed at that time and I was actually quite reluctant to go for the Ah Boys to Men audition. In fact, I had already played 5 or 6 army short films that required me to shave my head.

So I said to myself perhaps I would give it one last shot. If it does not work, I would just leave the industry and find other opportunities elsewhere. (pause) So thankfully it has worked out for me.

Have you watched the movie La La Land?

Not yet.

Explains La La Land’s plot.

That was your La La Land moment.

Yes, you could say that. Haha.

I sort of gave myself a deadline. I had already gone to so many auditions. So one day I received a call from the Ah Boys to Men casting directors telling me they really liked me and they asked me to come down for a second audition. At that time, I had auditioned for 3 other roles in other films and was shortlisted. But eventually, I had the same response from these producers – ‘’Oh you were good but we need someone who is a bit more well-known, someone who is already there.’’

So I was very thankful Jack had in mind to cast completely fresh faces. We were actually all quite worried at that point in time. We were not established like Mark Lee or Henry Thia.

When the movie exploded and you had new found fame, how did you deal with it?

I think I was quite apprehensive at first. I had no idea how to deal with so much sudden attention - people coming up to you, getting stopped every 20 to 30 metres. And I had no public speaking experience.

But you still get fan mail?

Yes I do. And they still come down to support us for our subsequent movie promotions. It’s also interesting because back then they were younger. But now they are older, so they have been sort of growing up with me, getting into relationships, entering the army.  It was a nice process to see them growing up.

Did the new-found fame dilute your journey as an actor? Did it distract you sometimes?

I admit I was. I was carried away for a bit after Ah Boys to Men 2 was released. I saw good money and fame and thought to myself, maybe it was time to chill. Now looking back, I thought my performances were the worst during this period. I didn’t particularly like how I performed in Lion Men. So that was a lesson for me to work harder for the next project.

What makes you more nervous? Doing a dangerous stunt or acting beside Jackie Chan? (if you had a chance)

I think it would be acting beside Jackie Chan. I mean although we would be ├žolleagues on set but there would certainly be moments I would lapse into fan-boy mode. Even recently, I had those moments acting with Vincent Ng. I watched many of his shows growing up.

Who is the most famous person you acted with?

I acted with Danny Chan once. He played the goalkeeper in Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer and also appeared in Kungfu Hustle as well. It was for a teaser for a film project but the project didn’t materialise in the end due to certain reasons. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly acting with him. I was his stunt double. I had to learn moves and show it to him.

How different is your role in Take 2 from your other roles?

I think the main difference is for the bulk of the film I still have my hair (laughs). On a more serious note, it is having to speak in Mandarin. That is quite a challenge for me. If you remember, I spoke mostly English in Ah Boys to Men. So that was challenging for me. And it was tough to memorise the lines and lines got changed on the go. There was this scene I had to deliver a long monologue. It was about 3 to 4 pages long. That was an incredible challenge.

What kind of research did you have to do for your role? Did you speak to real convicts?

I did. And also prior to Take 2, I had the opportunity to speak to some people from the Yellow Ribbon Project to understand what kind of problems they had. In my own life, I also have friends who have served time in prison before for various reasons.

Any funny or memorable things happened with you on the set?

In Take 2, I played a teacher. I actually had a teaching stint before - I was teaching filmmaking in polytechnics as well as primary and secondary schools. In this film, I had to teach Maths. Though Maths wasn’t my strongest subject in school, I thought how hard can it be to play a Maths teacher. Then one night, around midnight, the crew suddenly sent me a whole bunch of Maths questions and asked me to memorise them! I had never done A Maths before and my call time was 6am! I was required to solve these Maths problems on the blackboard so I needed to know how the formulae worked. Everything overnight!

Also, initially, I was a bit worried because there was a caning scene. (pause) I was worried about whether I had to bare my butt again.

Haha! And you just bared for the camera in Ah Boys to Men3: Frogmen!

Yes! And the funny thing was the nude scene in Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen was not in the script at all and filming had already wrapped for 2 weeks! Then Jack had this idea and the production team called to tell me I had a number of new scenes and one of it was this scene. And you know because we had wrapped for 2 weeks and I had been cheating on my diet for 2 weeks so I started to panick! (laughs)

They told I had to put on a green thong and they will use CGI to complete the nude look. (pause) And when I was there, I realised they bought the wrong thong. So Jack said why don’t you just do it completely nude! Then thankfully, the crew got me some ‘coverage’ using some socks. So I was walking around like this for about 8 to 10 hours. And in this scene, because I just had my shower, I had to keep my body wet constantly. And I was feeling very cold because it started becoming very windy!

Finally, what would you say to new aspiring actors?

I would ask them what are they in for - are you just in it for the fame or do you really enjoy the craft of acting? These things are always on my mind. You have to be a glutton for rejection - 20 auditions, no roles, finalised for 3 feature films, didn’t get. And as you know in this industry, there are some bad paymasters, and you have to chase for payment. That could kill you financially. I was juggling many other part-time jobs to cover up for the jobs that took a long time to pay. If you are willing to put in the hard work, then you could give this journey a try.

Any plans for the future?

Honestly, as an actor, it is difficult to plan your career. You just give your best, hope it works well and more opportunities come. Having said that, now that I have a new body frame, I am hoping to find new opportunities in action films!

Go catch Take 2 in cinemas now!
Check out our feature on Take 2 under January's STOP10, which includes an interview with director Ivan Ho.

Interview by Jeremy Sing
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