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Monday, May 23, 2011

Charmaine Sheh: I'm lucky to live in the greenhouse, but I do not wish to be stagnant

[南都 South Daily 23/05/2011]

After surviving 13 years in TVB and filming over 30 series, Dongka Fadan Charmaine Sheh decides to change her contract to per series filming and getting rid of her 'biological daughter' identity. She struggled over a year with this decision to expand her acting career in Mainland China.

Charmaine is one of the shocking figures to join the TVB artistes migrating trend this year, mostly due to her status as TVB 1st Sister. However, the reporter discovered that Charmaine doesn't have much complaint against TVB, quite a huge contrast compared to Sheren Tang who criticized them heavily for the strict demands and surprising her artistic desire. Charmaine has considered expanding to Mainland China for quite some time and has been carefully planning her path. Some admires her for her courage to step out, while some regard her as stupid, as she is leaving TVB at the peak of her status. She will have to start from the beginning again in the Mainland China scene. It will take a lot of effort for her to reach the same status she enjoyed in TVB.

All the while, Charmaine's reason for leaving TVB was enshrouded in mystery. Recently, Charmaine shared her true feelings; her goals, worries, struggles with reporter in an interview after attending the promotional event of [My Sister of Eternal Flower]. Compared to the older, ex-batch of TVB artistes who left and explore Mainland China without proper strategy, Charmaine has clearer idea and knows the importance of teamwork. From Charmaine's manager of 10 years; Tina, the reporter found out that they actually have a detailed plan to expand in Mainland China.

A. The decision to leave the nest

"I do not wish to remain stagnant; I do not wish to waste the roles due to time shortage."

South: Earlier, you said that your decision to leave TVB is not related to money nor losing out the TV Queen in anniversary award last year. You hope people will not regard you with such shallowness. Can you share more about your reason for expanding your career in Mainland China?

Charmaine: Actually, I didn't leave. I merely changed the way we collaborate so I hope there's no misunderstanding here. I just want to go out to explore the world and not limit myself in terms of acting career. I’d like to collaborate with different partners and broaden my acting range.

South: Working in TVB for 13 years, you filmed many TV series and portrayed a vast range of characters. What is the limitation if this continues on?

Charmaine: If I continue to film in TVB, there would not be any chemistry between my onscreen partner(s) as I have worked the same batch of artistes repeatedly. I'm afraid I'll lose my motivation. I admire a lot of Mainland China directors and actors, especially director Zhnag Yi Mou, Hu Jun, Sun Hong Lei… there's really a lot of good actors in Mainland China and I hope to be able to collaborate with them, creating different sparks. I wish to provide myself and audience a refreshing feel. After spending over 10 years in TVB, I started to feel stagnant. I do not wish to dislike my job.

South: Have you experienced losing motivation and working for the sake of working?

Charmaine: It's not like that. I wanted a second peak in my career. However, this has to be a group effort, meeting different scriptwriters, directors, actors, filmography etc. Filming a series is not a one man show. Only by stepping out you can see a lot of different and fresh ideas out there.

South: In TVB, a lot of directors and producers said that your acting has reached the point of perfection. Do you still accept this compliment after you explore outside?

Charmaine: Actually, I never felt that my acting is perfect. There are always new characters and stuff that I have never experienced before. I still need to carefully grasp (the character) and do research. I can't immediately portray a character the moment I accepted the drama. Though I am grateful of their compliments, but I will treat myself as a newbie (in entering Mainland China market). First I am very curious and feeling different kind of freshness, and then it's the matter of attitude; I want to learn how to communicate with others. I have to continue asking questions and learning.

South: It was said that your fee in Mainland China series already exceeded 6 figures; 5 times more than what you earn in TVB. Is money one of the influencing factors?

Charmaine: Actually, I have already filmed outside series when I am still with TVB and I can (already) fetch this fee. Therefore the issue is not about money; but for my personal satisfaction. Because I am passionate about my work, I want to continue loving it. I wish to have more time in preparing for my work, regardless of TV series or movies. These require time so I can't continue leaving no space between my workload.

South: You had a busy 13 years?

Charmaine: Yes, very busy. I've experienced not sleeping for 3 days 3 nights. I have to film an average of 100 episodes per year.

South: Since when you realized you can't continue on like this?

Charmaine: Two years ago. There wasn't anything particular incident, but I know myself the best. My health is getting worse; my immune system was weak and it's very easy to fall sick. I also can't recuperate as fast. Well I'm no longer the same age when I enter the industry; aging is a norm of life. Human need rest. You can push yourself for a short period, but not 10, 20 years. I hope to give myself a break.

South: Being in a rush for so many years, any regrets?

Charmaine: When I get a good role, but I didn't have enough time to prepare. I feel that I can do better, but I have no choice. Most of the time, I have to film another series in the same day I ended filming the former one. Where would I have the time to prepare? I can only read the script during meals. I even used the little remaining hours for sleep to read the script. The script is always on my mind, including when I’m driving and even taking shower… It was too tiring, so tiring that I can fall asleep the moment I hit the bed. I wish for more time to prepare my work, I do not wish to continue wasting good scripts and roles.

B. Struggling with the decision to leave the nest

"I'm thrilled to film series in Mainland China; just hesitant whether I can bear being away from home for a long time."

South: The pace of your transition to Mainland China was not as speedy as we imagined. Unlike Bowie Lam and Sammul Chan who left quickly, you seem to have considered this for a long time. You have mentioned that you struggled for over a year before you made the decision. Is there any reason for the hesitation? Any fears?

Charmaine: First of all, I am a woman. I thought to myself if I am suitable or can I adapt being away from home for a long time, can I really accept it? In addition, my mother wants to return and stay in Hong Kong. If I'm filming in Mainland China, would I spend a lot of time there? Will my mother be bored, no one will take care of her? There are other factors that kept me pondering for quite some time.

South: Do you still remember your first time filming Mainland China series? Working with unfamiliar director and co-stars, did you feel nervous or happy?

Charmaine: The first series was filmed many years ago. Of course I'm happy and excited, earning so much money! It's still the same now. However back then it took two months or so, while now I might be away from Hong Kong for over half a year. Can I do it? I do not want to fail doing so after accepting to film. Now I already made a clear decision.

South: You once stated in an interview that money gives you sense of security. Currently there is a lot of heavy investment in the Mainland China filming scene, will this delude the actors? With so many lucrative productions approaching you, what are your selection criteria?

Charmaine: I have never explicitly said that 'money gives me sense of security', perhaps it was misquoted. Regarding the investor, it's the agent's job to consider, not mine. I just need to choose the script, cast and director I like.

South: Virginia Lok once said that she understands your point of view, but she is worried that you will be cheated out there without career planning by TVB.

Charmaine: Yes, during our conversations she was particularly worried for me heading out alone. Because in TVB, she treated me like a family member; like a flower in greenhouse. Protecting me from harm and only requesting me to do my best in filming series. But I told her; life is short and we must experience more things in our lifetime. I still want to go outside and explore the world; to expand my horizon.

South: Has you been bullied or cheated while filming in Mainland China?

Charmaine: No, up until now it's been quite smooth and fortunate for me. Working in the industry for so many years, I think I am experienced enough to handle by myself. I’m the kind of person that won't get jittery when there's problem, I will stay calm. I must have courage to ask about other people's experience, cannot feel shy.

South: Last year you filmed two Mainland China series [Justice, My Foot!] and [Female Constables] in a gusto. How do you select the role and production, as your stepping stone in Mainland China market?

Charmaine: Firstly, the producer for [Female Constables] is Kwong Yip Sang. We have collaborated in TVB before. He really wants me to film the series. In addition, there are a lot of Mainland production with filming crew originating from Hong Kong such as the director, producer even the leading actor. The series [Female] has a lot of Hong Kong 'flavor' to it. I feel at ease with this combination style crew.

C. The strategy to explore the North

"Selecting project based on interest, comprehensive plan after signing contract"

South: In the two series, you are not the sole leading actress. Will you lower yourself to supporting character in Mainland China?

Charmaine: I think everyone should watch the series first before commenting, I do not want to explain. Selection of roles is based on personal preference, not onscreen time. For example 'Man Zhong Mou Yat' in [Justice, My Foot] is a righteous and straightforward female bandit. I feel that it's amusing as I've never portrayed such imposing and powerful character before. If the script moves me, then I will accept it. Now I placed more emphasis in my inner thoughts, seeking my personal interest. I like acting; I do not want to ruin this feeling and passion. Therefore as long as it's within my control, I will choose things I like.

South: Have you ever fallen sick filming in Mainland China (due to the different weather and environment)?

Charmaine: I never had such feeling. Instead the whole environment gave me a great sense of freshness. Mainland China is huge with a lot of beautiful sceneries. The palace and mansions feel authentic. All these you can't find in Hong Kong. You will get inspired the moment you step in the filming location, it’s a great help to an actor.

South: Do you have many friends in Mainland filming circle? Do you have any familiar production house planning your expansion? Have you thought of following the footsteps of Fan Bing Bing and Lee Bing Bing by establishing your own production studio?

Charmaine: There are such people; we are currently in discussion at the moment. However, right now I have not signed with any company. They will provide a comprehensive plan after I have signed with a company. Regarding establishing private studio, I have thought about it too. We have been approached by large corporation.

South: Some fans are worried that your position as TVB 1st Sister will be weakened after changing to per series contract, including your chances to win TV Queen Award. Ever feared that your hard earned status in Hong Kong television world will be reduced?

Charmaine: '1st Sister' is just a title labeled by other people; I do not put emphasis on such matter. I am satisfied being self-reliant and finding the lifestyle and occupation that I'm comfortable with. Some people will always write me as fighting for fame and fortune. It’s because they don't know me.

South: Your position in TVB can be likened to being the most outstanding student in the class. However by changing school you gave to start from the bottom again, did you feel exhausted? Worried about personal gains and losses? It’s still a new environment to you, there's still danger.

Charmaine: There are various stages in a person's life. For me, my current wish is not to hate my work. I do not want to be No.1 (in class) or class prefect. Please do not misunderstand. I only wanted to do things I like and in the same time, satisfies the audiences.

South: We are a bit curious. Most artistes will heavily criticize TVB upon leaving, but you defended your maternal home. Why?

Charmaine: Once you have chosen to become an actor, you will know that it's very strenuous no matter where you go. If you are talking about the low pay, I don't know how much the others are earning, but 80% of my current assets are contributed by jobs sought by TVB. I cannot find a reason to complaint. I'm considered very fortunate. It's expected to be strenuous, but I feel it is worth it. Plus I am very happy having the opportunity to stay in TVB greenhouse.

Epilogue: Charmaine’s Northern Expansion Proposal

At the same time Charmaine switches her contract to per series filming with TVB, her manager of 10 years; Tina also tendered her resignation from the company. They intend to explore the outside world together. After wrapping up the interview with Charmaine, the reporter had a few words with Tina. Though outwardly appearing to be moody and unfriendly, Tina patiently sought information regarding media relation, quality directors and production crew in Mainland China. In the past few years, she has been quietly sourcing information from working partners she came across with. Charmaine leaving the nest is not an overnight decision – her strategy includes when to sign with mainland agency; establishing production team has been draft out by Tina. "We will only make announcement at the right time once everything is confirmed."

Will not rashly accept series, must have clear knowledge of the package

"We go through many script offers every day. If the series is interesting and we would like to film it, we will then coordinate the schedule for Charmaine. However, we will not accept simply because the story and character is interesting, but we also need to take consideration of the entire package including behind the scene factor." Tina have a group of close friends with Mainland China production circle which we help her analyze: which production company usually collaborate with which investment company; the quality of their production; which television station will purchase the airing rights; the region to air the series; and the competition station that would not purchase the series in return. She knows which are the popular stations and the ratings guarantee; and how they will promote the series and cast on their variety shows; to provide more exposure for the artistes. "Due to the massive production rate in Mainland China series, some Hong Kong artistes will simply pick the script and character they like. In the end, no television station bought the series."

Understand the regulations, play by the rules

From TVB past experience in sending artistes overseas to film series, Tina came in contact with production team from various places. "During our discussion, I will find out about the local regulations, playing by the rules. We also have contact with Taiwanese stations, learning that artistes can appear on different stations unlike in Hong Kong. Mainland China market is large and we often met production teams. We must have clear knowledge of their entire package."

Tina feels that many TVB managers don’t know how to do this. She has seen many TVB artistes who have looks, potential and willing to work but never achieved popularity. "This is because when TVB promotes a series, they will only concentrate on one or two main characters. Some artistes are always left in a corner, forgotten.” Tina will introduce these artistes to various production teams in Mainland China. She feels that Charmaine doesn't necessary have to portray 1st leading actress. As long as the character is suitable, it will provide the opportunity to stand out."

Earlier while interviewing Huayi Brothers and Yu Zheng production house, South reporters found out that they have offered contracts to Charmaine. Facing so any offers from big and small companies, how will she choose? Tina has her own opinion: "We know which type of series is popular in Mainland China. For example Yu Zheng series will focus on one selling point and many stations fought over the airing rights. However, the hype will be over quickly. Therefore we are looking for directors with more established works and selecting projects with depths but not necessarily popular concepts." Reporters recommended famous directors such as Gao Xi Xi, Kang Hong Lei, Zhang Li, Jiang Wei – all which Tina noted down.

A lot of people are trying to find out Charmaine's next step in Mainland China but she refused to reveal which company she is signing with or whether they will establish a production studio for her, strengthening her career in Mainland China. However, all these are being carried out in secret. Tina’s friends in Mainland China will be guiding them along the way. They are currently discussing with various companies and will only make announcement once everything is confirmed.

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