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Coming soon to a theatre near you: Mui Wo resident actor Philippe Joly

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Mui Wo resident and actor Philippe Joly is getting ready to storm the Asian film industry – one death at a time.  Elizabeth Kerr reports.

Actor Philippe Joly is easy to spot; he’s the guy that looks like a far less weathered Vincent Cassel. He bristles slightly at the comparison – in China, he’s known as Lángsēn (狼 森 literally Wolf Forest) because his bearded look reminds people of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine character – but the similarities to Cassel are there, particularly to the untrained eye.

He sits down at a Landmark café, beer in hand, and launches into a series of baffling stories about filmmaking in Hong Kong and China – being told to behave in the wake of Fan Bingbing’s tax scandal, working 36 straight hours (the Screen Actors Guild would have a fit) and winging the signature Hong Kong spin action move for a television series. If you’re a filmmaker and you need Hong Kong’s Sean Bean, Philippe is your man.

“They need a bad guy in every movie, he’s often non-Chinese, and he often dies,” begins Philippe, quite gleefully, about his path to cornering the market on Hong Kong movie villains – often Russian or Italian mafia types. Philippe’s dark hair and salt-and-pepper beard give him the look, but he’s a chatty extrovert who’s got a funny story for every occasion and finds a lot of things “cool.” And the beard is key.

“I always have a beard or a goatee,” he says. “I shaved twice, and it jinxed everything. Worst experience ever. Never again.” He’s talking about getting cut from the recent Ghost in the Shell remake, which could have been a real bummer had the film been any good.

The go-to guy for the bad guy

Born in Moscow to a Russian mother and French father and raised in Paris, Philippe, now 43, has been in Hong Kong eight years. He took the circuitous route through Almaty (after bluffing his way into a job by claiming he could read and write Russian better than a kindergartener), Dublin and Milan, and despite his current gig, he did not land in the SAR looking to become a movie star.

“I watched Wong Kar-wai movies but I lived in Ireland for 10 years and I got into the start-up world,” he explains. “Then I went to Milan for a new start-up working as a consultant, and the owner asked if I’d live in Hong Kong. So I came for about three weeks, and I kind of liked it. Before that I’d spent time in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and thought, ‘Yeah, I could live in Asia.’ This is exactly where I wanted to live. There was no acting at all. I started acting in Hong Kong.”

That happened when Philippe stumbled upon a casting call for a gangster in a low-budget local production. “Movies have been in my life since I was a little kid, and I enjoyed the performing part. So I went to the casting call,” he says. “[Director] Lawrence Gray didn’t want me at first. I went back seven times.”

The film was Lust and Found, and Philippe never looked back, particularly after finding a way to marry acting with his innate entrepreneurial spirit. “After that I realised one, I loved making movies. And two, I saw a market in Hong Kong for… a need I could fill,” he says. He studied martial arts as a kid, his father’s military career made him familiar with weapons and, of course, he speaks four languages.

“There are lots of white guys but not so much acting skills, no added value and not many seemed to take it seriously,” he says. And in a move that would be anathema to most actors, Philippe was happy to hone his bad guy art. “Stay in that niche, master that niche, and you become the go-to guy for the bad guy,” he says. “Actors who don’t want to be typecast are not business people.”

On the precipice of the big leagues

Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. 2019 is shaping up to be a big year, with three major releases, six roles in the pipeline and more work on a book, fittingly titled The Art of Dying for a Living. After plying his trade in mid-budget films – From Vegas to Macau with Chow Yun-fat, Pound of Flesh with childhood idol Jean-Claude Van Damme – that taught him how to hit the ground and die without breaking bones, Philippe’s on the precipice of the big leagues.

At some point during the year, Juno Mak’s heavily anticipated Sons of the Neon Night and mainland director Wu Xiting’s actioner Ultimate Code will hit screens. The former is a long-delayed, post-apocalyptic climate event drama that also stars heavyweights Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Louis Koo. The latter is being positioned (in China) as the next Wolf Warrior and it’s Philippe’s biggest role yet.

“It’s very unique to have such an important role as a non-Chinese actor in a Chinese production,” he says of Ultimate Code. “It’s targeting Wolf Warrior and Operation Red Sea box office, which may or may not happen. I don’t know. But the story ticks the boxes and the timing is good. I’m in there, like, ‘Hello!’ No one in the cast is very famous yet, so if it takes off it’s going to change all our lives.”

Perhaps, but Philippe has no intention of packing up and heading to Los Angeles. His favourite movies may be Hollywood, but like a true entrepreneur he understands he’d be just another Euro-villain in LA. And besides, he’s already worked with Jackie Chan, John Cusack and Adrien Brody – Hollywood is increasingly coming here.

“If I reach a certain level here, I can work in Hollywood movies without moving to Hollywood,” Philippe theorises. Ditto for Korea. “I love Korean gangster movies. A psychotic villain [there] is really, really bad.”

Taking selfies with water buffaloes

So Philippe’s staying at home in Lantau for the time being, working in both Hong Kong and China. “I live in Mui Wo. I used to live in Discovery Bay – you know dogs and babies. But now there’s no dogs, no babies,” says the divorced father of two teenaged girls with a chuckle. “But I’m by the beach, I can hike around the corner. I can do selfies with the water buffaloes. I like to be able to do that, and I don’t mind the ferry.”

Philippe can pinpoint the movies that he holds near and dear, notably Guy Ritchie’s Snatch in which the Russian gangster was played by Velibor Topić. But as an actor does he want a Nicolas Cage type career, marked by thespian lunacy, or a filmography filled with “Oh, that guy!” roles?

“I think there’s no ‘next’ Tchéky Karyo. He’s French and somehow wound up in international, Hollywood movies as the bad guy,” Philippe says of the veteran actor best known for Nikita, Bad Boys and GoldenEye. “That’s the kind of character I play quite often, so if I can position myself as the French guy who’s kind of cool then I’m good. If I had to choose, probably him.”

And though he says nothing about his screenplays or the independent films he’s produced and directed, Philippe will admit to a strategic interest in branching out into other genres. “When the time is right, I’d like to be more than just the bad guy with a gun.”

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