Karena Lam didn’t set out to be rich, famous or – what one might assume, given her nearly 20-year career on the big screen – an award-winning actress. A 14-year-old Lam was simply hanging out at her mother’s restaurant in Vancouver when a Taiwanese talent scout handed her a business card and suggested she get in touch.
“I thought it was a hoax,” recalls Lam, the second of four sisters who grew up in the Canadian city. “But that winter break, I went back to Taiwan with my classmates. She’d said to check in with her and then all my classmates were like, ‘Go, go, go!’”
Lam went, was signed on the spot and one year later released a record with PolyGram. Despite spending almost 10 years in Taiwan, Lam never felt comfortable as a singer. “I didn’t really know what I was interested in, but it wasn’t singing. It just didn’t feel right. But [I was told] that’s the quickest way to get people to know you, so I just went with it.”
After so many years as a “puppet”, Lam scored her next break when producer Derek Yee asked her to audition for a role as a precocious student in the Hong Kong drama July Rhapsody. She flew to Hong Kong, her father’s hometown, got the job and found a new calling as an actress.
Now, 17 years after July Rhapsody swept the Hong Kong Film Awards with Lam winning Best Supporting Actress and Best New Performer, the 41-year-old is set to wow audiences again with her starring role in this month’s thriller Declared Legally Dead.
Lam’s success in the Hong Kong movie industry, which includes more than 30 films and multiple acting awards, is a testament to her hard work and dedication, not only to her craft but also to learning Cantonese from scratch. “I’m still learning,” she says. “But it’s nice to be able to pick up Cantonese over the years, because once you feel like you can relate to the words, then you can really fully express yourself.”
Besides a new language, acting also brought out something in Lam that singing never had. “I could feel my heart pounding and my blood was boiling. I was like, ‘This is it; this is what I want,’” she recalls of her first day on set with director Ann Hui.
“Her way of directing is, she doesn’t tell you specifically what to do. She just says, ‘Oh, the framing is from this wall to this chair.’ So you’re free to move. It felt so liberating. You know the silence between lines when your co-star is just watching you? That’s what I enjoy most. It’s not only the words but the silence between the words.”
Lam went on to film two to three movies a year after July Rhapsody, and became a regular on the awards circuit. But acting came so naturally to the budding star that all the accolades didn’t quite make sense to her. “I remember being on stage [at my first awards ceremony] and saying, ‘I’m not worthy,’” she recalls. “I didn’t understand what was happening. I just followed my intuition and felt like I was actually living a different life [when I was acting].
“When we still used film, I remember going to see the dailies. They have no sound, and I saw me and my co-star Jacky Cheung kissing. I was thinking, it’s so weird because I remember this happening just the other day and why is it on the big screen?”
It wasn’t until she’d completed her 10th film that Lam knew she needed to step away and take back control of her life and career. She decided to go to Paris for six months and study under renowned physical-theatre professor Philippe Gaulier when he was working at Jacques Lecoq’s theatre school. “Everyone around me was like, ‘Are you crazy? This is the time where you can maximise your chances and your profits. And you’re going to take six months off to go back to the theatre?’ But I had to, because I felt this big impulse that if I continued, I’d end up hating what I really love, which is acting. It would become something that I hate.”
Lam used that time to learn, observe and explore acting in the safe environs of the rehearsal studio. “You can go to the unknown and no one will judge you. You can just try a lot of things,” she says. “You see so much and it all goes into your library [of experiences]. I still miss those days, and I’m so glad I took those six months off.”
The next time Lam took time off was several years later, after she started a family with her director husband Steve Yuen. The couple took their two daughters, now aged six and nine, back to Canada for a year and then returned to Hong Kong, where Lam took another four years off from acting.
“I wanted to experience a lot of their ‘firsts’,” she says. “I wanted to be very hands-on. You know in Canada there are no helpers, right?” she says. “I’m breastfeeding and then I’m pumping right after to keep every bit of milk. Then I’m holding my baby and picking up remote controls with my toes. But I really cherish those times, because if you’re going to be an actress, I feel like you really have to live life. For me, those five years are something I’ll never forget.”
Lam first met her husband on an advertising shoot, but the pair didn’t start dating until eight years later. Now they’re together in more ways than one, with Lam starring in and Yuen directing Declared Legally Dead. It’s a delicate balance for Lam, who knows Yuen’s every move yet still wants to retain an element of surprise.
“I deliberately hide certain things from him,” she says. “He’s always keen to ask me how I want to do a scene. So he’ll prepare the camera blocking and I’ll deliberately not tell him what I’m planning to do. That’s the exciting part. I want to let him know there’s still so much more to me. Making films together is so adventurous.”
For her role in Declared Legally Dead, starring opposite Anthony Wong and Carlos Chan, Lam had to transform into a partially blind woman who walks with a limp. Her preparations included visiting a casino – in Macau – for the very first time, and practicing the various physical elements.
“I remember I wanted to practice the walk, so I put some weight on my left leg as I’m sending my four-year-old to kindergarten,” says Lam. “I was walking with a limp and I remember her saying, ‘Mommy, what game are you playing?’ Then we were both limping and her teachers were at the door like, ‘Are you OK?’” she recalls, laughing. “It’s so funny. This is for sure not your everyday family. There were times when I wanted to practice having my left eye out of focus and my girls would know what I was doing and what’s involved.”
Lam also studied the women who visited the small casinos in Macau in the afternoon: “After they lose their money or win their money, they go home and cook. And no one knows. I prefer not to get my references from other movies. I prefer to meet [real] people.” She also ate “a lot” in order to gain around 10 pounds and have a thicker waist.
But no matter the role or the movie, Lam has learned to follow her intuition. Which means that no matter how much research or homework she’s put into a role, once she’s on set she puts that aside and follows her gut. “It’s instinct. You do all your homework and then you throw it away, right? I always find that hard to explain. Like you’re acting out your intuition. It takes a lot of practice.”
When it comes to awards, Lam is similarly detached. “I’ve always given them either to the movie company or to the director, because I don’t want constantly to look at the award and remind myself of what I once did. I let go of the past, but I don’t fantasise about the future yet because I’m always living in the present.
“Of course, there’ve been a lot of remarkable moments for me throughout my career, because making films is a beautiful process. You work with creative people, and each and every one counts. It’s like this big family working together. As for awards, going on the red carpet, all that’s a bonus. It’s always been about making something beautiful.”
Photography CK at Secret 9 Production House
Art Direction Sepfry Ng
Styling Christie Simpson
Stylist Assistant Angela Leung
Hair Hin Wan
Make-up Will Wong