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A major pop star in her native Thailand, but mostly unknown away from home, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam is making her big screen debut in the sort of role many aspiring actresses would probably envy: playing the love interest of Ryan Gosling.
In Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bangkok-set, ultra-violent thriller, Only God Forgives, she plays Mai, a singer in a karaoke bar who is entwined in the disreputable life of Gosling’s Julian, who runs a Thai kick boxing gym as a front for an international drug running operation.
The film, which premiered in competition at Cannes and co-stars Kristen Scott Thomas and Thai newcomer Vithaya Parnsringarm, has drawn a visceral love-hate response from international critics, but it’s also left Yayaying much in-demand in the local Thai film industry.
The daughter of popular female comedian Noi Phongam, Yayaying grew up in an entertainment family in Bangkok and came to prominence after a guest appearance on a TV talk show where she sang a surprise song for her mom. That brief episode caught the notice of Thai record company Grammy Entertainment and led to her first studio album at the age of 16.
Since wrapping Only God Forgives last year, she’s shot five films, including erotic drama Jan Dara, ghost film Second Sight, which opens in August, and the comeback vehicle of Thai action star Tony Jaa, The Protector 2, in which she plays a Thai kick-boxing killer.
Shortly before the U.S. premiere of Only God Forgives on Friday, Yayaying met with The Hollywood Reporter in Bangkok to talk about overcoming her fears in her first film, singing karaoke with Nicolas Winding Refn and how Ryan Gosling came up with the movie’s most infamous line.
The Hollywood Reporter: So, Only God Forgives is your first film. How did you feel when you landed this role?
Yayaying: Well, I started as a singer and never expected to get so involved in acting, so it was pretty amazing. Initially, Ryan’s character was going to be played by Luke Evans. Then he dropped out. Only God Forgives was supposed to be a really small film. Nicolas was financing it all himself. But then Drive happened at Cannes and everything got bigger and Ryan came to the project, and yeah, I thought: wow. Of course, I’ve been a big fan since The Notebook [Laughs], and I really loved Blue Valentine. It’s all true: he’s a great guy — charming and very much the gentleman. And he’s a very experienced actor, so he was a great mentor and teacher to me.
THR: How so?
Yayaying: This is going to sound kind of… I don’t know… He taught me about dreams. Early on I mentioned to him that I’ve been going to the United States about once a year for many years. So he was like, oh that’s great, how are your auditions going? But no, actually, I hadn’t auditioned in LA at all. So he was like, you want to be an actress, but you’re not going to auditions? You shouldn’t just give up on your dreams like that. I told him that I guess I was kind of scared – you know, I’m from Thailand; I had no acting experience. But he told me, I should just try – that I have to try, and keep on trying. He was the first person who said that to me so directly, and encouraged me to take my acting dream a little more seriously. And since Only God Forgives, I really have been. I’m taking acting classes. I’m going to auditions. I’m doing everything.
THR: Your most important scene is probably the one at the restaurant, where Kristen Scott Thomas’s character goes on a crazy rant. What was filming that scene like for you?
Yayaying: Yes, I know the scene you mean. [Laughs] So, Ryan’s character Julian brings me to meet his mother, played by Kristen, who is a very evil woman. She tells Julian, her son, that his dead brother had a bigger dick than him. She says horrible things to me. It’s getting talked about a lot, because it’s so shocking hearing Kristen Scott Thomas say those things.
We had a meeting the day before we shot that scene, to try to figure it out. Nicolas asked all of us: what are the dirtiest words you guys can imagine? We all threw out some ideas. I saw Ryan thinking about it really intensely and then he said: ‘cum dumpster.” At first, I was like, oh my god, Ryan Gosling just said ‘cum dumpster.’ [Laughs] But it was perfect. So that’s what she called me in the scene.
I don’t say much, because I’m meeting my boyfriend’s mother for the first time and in Thai culture, with respect for family, you would never insult her back. Silence can also speak louder than words, I think. I tried to communicate everything with my eyes –- that I’m confused, that I’m very angry, but that I know I have dignity, even if my character might be a prostitute. Actually, in real life I would have slapped her in the face.
THR: As someone born and raised in Bangkok, what was your reaction to Refn’s vision of the city. Do you recognize your hometown in the film?
Yayaying: It’s beautiful. It’s dark, gritty, colorful. That’s Bangkok. It’s very abstract, but it’s real.
Also, playing a character who is a Thai prostitute was good for me, I think. It was interesting to put myself in that place. I don’t think I ever really imagined what that life is like. I have a deep respect for Thai prostitutes. It’s so easy for Thai people to judge them, but you don’t know their lives, their reasons.
THR: The relationship between Mai and Julian is quite mysterious. How did you see it?
Yayaying: When I first saw the script, my character was just a prostitute and I was actually supposed to get naked. But after Nic came and spent six months here and we worked together, the script and the story changed a lot. He knew that I could sing, so he changed my character from just a typical prostitute to also a singer in a karaoke bar. I was supposed to have some nude love scenes with Ryan. But Ryan mentioned to Nic that the relationship between a Thai prostitute and a foreigner is always like that — it’s always the same, just sex, just f—ing. What’s interesting about that? So he said, what if the two characters love each other, but they don’t touch each other. She knows that his hands are dirty, so she doesn’t want him to touch her. That’s how we ended up having this tense, mysterious relationship in the film. So Ryan actually helped my character become more interesting – not just another Thai prostitute in another American or European movie. And actually, after he touches me in the movie, everything goes downhill for him.
THR: Refn recently said in an interview that he and Gosling are like brothers.
Yayaying: Oh yeah, they’re really close. When we were in a karaoke bar one night Nic and Ryan started singing that Whitney Houston song, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and dancing on the sofas like crazy. It was really funny, they were so into it — like two kids. But they couldn’t hit the high notes. Then I requested a Maroon Five song to sing and when Adam Levine’s face came on the TV they both just started shouting, No, no, no! I think Adam Levine’s hot. But they absolutely wouldn’t let me play it. It was pretty funny.
THR: Are you working on any new music?
Yayaying: I might do a single sometime soon, but I don’t think I have time for a full album now. I’m putting all my energy into acting at the moment. I feel like I have to choose one or the other. I’ve been doing music for over 14 years. Acting is a new challenge. I love singing though; it’s what I do. I’ll come back to it sometime, even if it’s when I’m 50 and I release an album of love songs, or lounge songs, or something. [Laughs]
THR: How old are you now?
Yayaying: Oh, what a mean question! I’m 30. I felt really good turning 30 though – I had my 30th birthday on the flight to Cannes.
THR: What was your first Cannes experience like?
Yayaying: It was amazing. I kind of wanted to wear a really sexy dress, but I went with traditional Thai dress. It was my first step into that world, so I wanted to wear something that represented me and where I come from. The most amazing feeling, though, is leaving the cinema, actually, not arriving on the red carpet. Because, you know, after the standing ovation in the theater the cast and director are the first ones to leave. So you walk out into the night and there’s almost no one out there, just the empty red carpet – the soundtrack is playing and you see all that red as you walk down the stairs to your car. I’ll never forget that.
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