Acting is really for everyone: Kamil Haque

Kamil Haque is a Singapore-based actor and film coach. After working and coaching for 8 years in Los Angeles, Kamil returned to Singapore in 2013 to establish the Haque Centre of Acting and Creativity (HCAC). Recently, Filmwallas had the opportunity to sit down with Kamil Haque for a quick chat on how he manages to juggle so many responsibilities. He also shared his opinions on the current state of the film industry.

Kamil Haque is a Singapore-based actor and film coach. After working and coaching for 8 years in Los Angeles, Kamil returned to Singapore in 2013 to establish the Haque Centre of Acting and Creativity (HCAC). HCAC is the first professional acting centre in Singapore and organises programmes and workshops to coach and mentor individuals who are passionate about acting.

On top of coaching over 1000 students, Kamil is also a producer, director and actor in various award-winning productions in USA, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. In 2014, he also founded Method Productions, the first presenting and production company in Singapore for all mediums of performing arts.

Recently, Filmwallas had the opportunity to sit down with Kamil Haque for a quick chat on how he manages to juggle so many responsibilities. He also shared his opinions on the current state of the film industry.

Kamil Haque, founder and artistic director of HCAC.

What inspired you to become an actor? How did the journey from being an actor transpire to become an acting coach?

The film that inspired me to become an actor was Dead Poets Society which I saw at the old Orchard Cinema when I was 7 years old. I was so profoundly affected by the film and I began asking my parents questions about the film on the ride home. I distinctly remember my parents being so shocked by the many questions I was asking that they stopped the car in the middle of the road and turned behind to check if they brought home the right son. In that moment, I realised, I was able to influence and elicit an immense reaction from people, simply because I was affected by a film that I saw.

Right there and then, I decided that that was the kind of work I wanted to do for the rest of my life, to have that sort of effect on people with acting. Very fortunately, not long after that, my parents were supportive enough to send me to acting classes to nurture my dream.

Fast forward to 2004, the year before I moved to Los Angeles (LA), I went to see childhood acting mentor, Julia Gabriel, who pioneered speech and drama education for kids in Singapore. At that time, I was lost, I knew I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t know how or where. Julia offered me a few names of acting schools to check out, but also suggested me to teach with her. I was initially hesitant, but Julia had faith in me, so I gave it a shot.

I spent that year teaching special needs children, which really awoke the idea of teaching in me and eventually I realised I got my love for teaching from Dead Poets Society as Robin Williams played a teacher in that film.

And that for me marked my journey from becoming an actor to being an acting coach. I still maintain both as often as I can, but I definitely coach more than I act now.

What are some films or actors who have inspired you to pursue the career of acting?

Apart from Dead Poets Society and Robin Williams, I am really moved by the work of Dustin Hoffman, particularly in the film Rain Man. There is something quite magical about the work that he did playing a special needs adult.

Another one of my favourite film is On The Waterfront by Elia Kazan, and that film really transformed what acting could be. It was real, believable, full, authentic

Last but not the least, my favourite actor of all time, is John Cazale. He was once considered as Al Pacino’s favourite scene partner to act with. He only did 5 films before he died, but his work is one that I truly am moved by because it’s so full of pathos.

Apart from acting and coaching, you have also been involved in different projects in terms of writing, producing and directing. How do you manage juggling so many projects and roles?

The truth is: it is really, really difficult, but at the same time, really rewarding, so I try and find as much time as I can. I sacrifice social life and time with my family, they understand that what I do is rewarding, not just for me but for the people I work with, so I guess it’s a necessary sacrifice.

Maybe one day, I will address the work-life balance, but for now, being able to affect people at a larger level with all that I do… it’s amazing.

Kamil in the midst of an acting lesson

Do you think there are lesser opportunities for ASEAN actors to succeed compared to Hollywood? Take Singapore for example, the acting industry is not as thriving compared to Hollywood or Bollywood, why do you think that’s the case?

An ASEAN actor trying to make it in Hollywood may find it hard to make it big in Hollywood for reasons such as the issue of diversity in casting. We’re also talking about English not necessarily being the primary mode of communication in many ASEAN countries, whereas films that propagate globally are mainly and mostly in English.

At a deeper level, in the ASEAN region, there are not many avenues for an actor to train. Beyond a 3 to 4 year acting degree, actors have limited access to private training where they can experiment and explore with no consequences or expectations from other people.

In Singapore, the acting industry is not as thriving as Hollywood and Bollywood. Budget limitation is often a cited reason, but I feel it is a cop-out. I mean, if you look at the nominated films for Oscars, they’re usually not big budget epics.

Stripping away budget and censorship, we are also talking about an acting industry here where directors have very little exposure talking to and dealing with actors. I deal with film schools all the time and majority of these filmmakers hardly get to work with actors in an environment where they get to understand the process an actor goes through. It becomes a problem as the director does not know how to elicit the appropriate response from the actor.

Also, I think what we are lacking are Asian stories for a global audience. I honestly believe it all starts with a strong story with great character development and dialogue.

We don’t necessarily have the kind of stories that are full of depth with credible authentic interesting characters. The kind of stories we do get are often caricatures, racist stereotypes, one dimensional clichés and the kind of scenarios they are put in are mainly over the top physical comedies. You could have an Asian character but the kind of story that he/she is portraying should be relatable to an international audience, as opposed to the typical men and women in uniform stories, family around the dinner table stories, Housing Development Board (HDB) stories.

Surely, there must be more stories in a cosmopolitan country like Singapore, that can transcend our regional boundaries. Look at Yellow Bird, The Apprentice and Ilo Ilo, they have managed to transcend our regions, because at heart, what you’re seeing are interesting characters in Singaporean-specific scenarios, but the stories they’re exploring are universal. Stories that even an audience member in France can see a little bit of themselves in them, instead of a Singaporean story just for Singaporeans.

There are problems at all levels, casting, acting, writing, directing, producing, but the good news is we are slowly beginning to see changes on all fronts. I am optimistic, perhaps in 10 years’ time, we truly can see changes across all these levels.

What is the most interesting lesson you learnt from your students in Haque Centre of Acting and Creativity?

I learn that acting is really for everyone. To be honest, I first started with the intention of having my centre only be for actors and actors only.

As it evolved over the years, I realise more and more people from all walks of life have attended the productions and workshops and now I call them creative double-lifers. They represent people who have a 9 to 5 job, they come here after 5pm, not wanting to be a lawyer, businessman, banker, or doctor, but wanting to be an actor, writer, director, or producer.

Kamil and a student in midst of acting at HCAC

It’s inconsequential what their profession is; if someone has a story and they’re passionate enough to tell it, then it will be compelling to watch. That’s what my students have taught me, and I am extremely grateful for that. In an interview, you mentioned you faced challenges being casted into stereotypical roles due to your Middle-Eastern looks. How has that experience enriched the way you coach students at the academy or influenced the content you have produced?

Well, I used to be very angry at being cast at those roles. And then I realised those roles were not who I am, that’s simply how the industry saw me.

What it taught me and what I began to teach my students is that ultimately, it’s not about the kind of roles you play, but how you can begin to humanise the most monstrous of characters. Fight for your character, as opposed to, fighting against playing your character.

I can help create and produce work for people who do not necessarily have a voice, even if they are vile human beings by society’s standards. In some way, through my work I can showcase perspectives that people would not have otherwise considered, shedding light not just on criminal stereotypes, but also people you don’t normally think about, such as migrant workers, struggling artists and expat wives. I am able to show that all these people have a story and all you have to do is open your heart and mind begin to see that there is a lot more grey in the world than we have been led to believe.

Kamil teaching his students

The variety of roles I played also gave me invaluable experience of being on set, and that’s not something that any class could have taught me. I translate that into teaching my students-- how to behave on set, what to expect on set, and that outside the bubble of a classroom, there are certain expectations people have of you professionally and how they can begin to meet and surpass these expectations.

Do you think the current state of ethnic representation in Hollywood has evolved over the years?

Yes, what we’re are beginning to see now is that there is a lot more awareness from casting and finances. Producers are realizing how having a more diverse casting can affect your box office, and how more diverse casting can provide more authenticity to the parts.

From a casting perspective, more people are waking up to the idea that of giving people of colour opportunities to play lead roles instead of token roles and still have the content win at the box office. You begin to see, what is being produced, are films that are more authentic, stronger, and making more money.

What was previously a white, male-dominated industry is slowly starting to include people of colour, different genders, physical abilities and ethnicities. We still have a long way to go, but we’re making inroads and I am more optimistic about ethnic representation than ever before.

Do you have any future projects? What can we expect from you over the next few years?

I am currently directing a one-woman show called Force of Choice, that is coming out in the middle of November. It’s Star-Wars themed and takes place between episode 3 and episode 4 of Star Wars, when the Jedis are being exterminated and a woman who is part of the Jedi temple is forced to question her existence and purpose in life.

I am also particularly proud of another project, The Singapore Monologue Slam, which is the first-ever monologue competition in Singapore, and possibly, in Asia. People from all walks of life, are trained to present their favourite monologues from TV shows and movies or even original written pieces. That for me is exciting, because we are democratising acting, making it more accessible to everyone and not just for actors but for everyone. We aim to hold this competition at least once a year.

The participants and team behind Singapore Monologue Slam 2017

The next couple of years, I hope to do more directing for both stage and film across various scales. I would also like to create more content, across all genres, be it stage, film or social media, that features people I have trained, and give them more opportunities to create work of their own.

How do you think digital platforms will transform the film and acting industry?

In a major way, the power of making films is no longer in the hands of 5 or 6 major studios in the West, but is now literally in everyone’s pocket. Anyone can start making a film using their cellphones and this is a huge advance in technology. We are now able to tell the stories, when previously we didn’t have the access to equipment, or the know-how to do so.

By being able to make a film and instantly upload on digital platforms such as Vimeo and Youtube, we will see a far greater diverse range of voices and film styles and film techniques.