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Sunday January 2, 2011

Will Quah's Italian diary

Ex-MTV VJ Will Quah flies to Italy to star in his first Astro TV movie and falls for an Italian mama.

Watery splendour: Fountain of Tivoli.
William Quah, 26, has been a familiar face and voice in the Malaysian entertainment scene for over six years. Of Malaysian Chinese and Australian descent, he started out with a number of TV commercials and soon made the move to TV, working on two seasons of TV2’s first English Music Chart Show, Star Trax. After being noticed during a number of high-profile celeb interviews (including Avril Lavigne, Missy Elliott and Matchbox 20), he was invited to join Channel [V] International, where he was the only male VJ, and also an executive script writer for both his own and other shows.

IT’S been a good year for me. After working for most of the first half with NTV7’s Breakfast Show, I finally decided to get to work on some other projects that daily mornings were keeping me from. Working in Singapore, and filming for motorsports TV on Astro around the world more than made up for the loss of interesting conversation in the mornings. In the later part of this year, I tried my hand at acting – first with Octopus, an American play that we performed at KLPAC to packed houses in December and also an Astro movie that we filmed locally and in Tuscany, Italy, called “Love, Nora.” It was quite an adventure, both talent- and food-wise.

AUGUST: Was in London filming for a couple of TV projects, running from one location to another when I got a text asking if I would be interested in doing a role for a local film. Was a little hesitant at first, so I asked for a sample of the script they’d be using for the audition. They didn’t send it right away, so to be honest, it sort of slipped my mind as my filming schedule was a mad dash across several European cities including Berlin and Paris.

SEPTEMBER: Returned to KL, exhausted. Managed to get the laundry done. A copy of the sample script arrived. Part of the script was the poem Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden – (it’s read in Four Weddings and a Funeral during the funeral scene, and is a truly touching piece). It was there and then that I knew I had to give it a shot. I read my part on camera and even managed a tear or two. The production house said they would be in touch.

Meanwhile, rehearsals for Octopus were in full swing and my mind shifted back to the stage.

OCTOBER: I got the part. Yippee! When they said “We’re filming in Tuscany” I nearly burst out laughing, thinking they were having me on. But no, it was true – we were taking a whole bunch of cast and crew to balmy, beautiful Tuscany, the jewel of Italy, to film the movie.

I am to play an Italian, who meets the love of his life while she is on holiday in Tuscany, where he lives. When she, a Malaysian played by Yasmin Hani, returns to KL, he’s so in love that he decides to abandon everything and follow her. They get married and live in bliss. But alas, it does not last. Tragedy strikes and the movie ends up chronicling his loss, grief, loneliness and the gradual rebuilding of his life as he gets in touch with what it means to be a part of the country he now calls home.

It struck me I would need to do an Italian accent. Secondly, the script said blue gray eyes and frequent need to shave. Thanks to my Chinese heritage, I am not very gifted in the facial hair department, and have eyes way too many shades dark to ever be called “blue gray”.

And third, he not only spoke English, but he constantly chatted away in Italian, and by the end of the film, he had a pretty good grasp of Malay. Did I mention how monolingual I am? I began to realise that this was going to be some pretty hard work.

Wonderful array: The many gelato in Rome.

NOVEMBER: The KL leg of the filming started in late October and ended early November. We filmed in a variety of locations which were all (thankfully) fairly close to the city centre.

The blue gray contacts were not nearly so hard to wear as I thought, and thanks to some intensive watching of Italian football coaches, players and politicians being interviewed on YouTube and a bit of Super Mario on the Wii, I had my quasi-Italian accent down pat. In the course of a week, I buried my wife, got married to her later that same day, learnt a language, fell in love, opened a restaurant, got acquainted with fake in-laws, read countless e-mails, had a food fight, arrived in Malaysia, and then left again. Talk about busy. We then broke for about a week-and-a-half, and then the big moment arrived – the Italian Job.

Our very first taste of Italy turned out to be some massive slices of pepperoni pizza from the fast food style Italian eatery at the airport, the local equivalent of a Papa Rich, I’m sure, but it tasted like heaven, if heaven tastes like thin crust, tomato, basil, mozzarella and pepperoni.

The drive to the villa where we would be filming took about four hours or so. It was pitch dark and frigid when we arrived, and jet lag was kicking in with a vengeance. When I rose the next day, the villa looked amazing in the morning light – a huge stone building set amidst lavish grounds a few miles outside of Cortona, the city made famous by the movie Under The Tuscan Sun.

Not only did we have the full run of the house, we also had a cook, whom we affectionately called “Mama”, who slaved away in the kitchen every evening preparing us mountains of the most delicious and authentic Italian food that’s ever passed my lips.

The first night alone saw us chowing down on homemade mushroom ragout pasta, fresh breads dripping with pesto and fresh olive oil, and tender stewed cuts of beef. If the jet lag hadn’t been enough to send us all into comas, then the full bellies did, and the first night ended with deep sleeps and dreams of the work to come.

Over the next few days we alternated between filming and eating and sleeping. As beautiful as the villa was, being nearly 40 minutes down winding mountain roads to the nearest town made getting out to do anything pretty impossible. Also, the weather had taken a distinct turn for the worst, and the wind was enough to freeze the blood in your veins despite the cheerful sun (still looked great on camera though, luckily).

Mama cooked up a storm – we had nearly every kind of authentic Italian dish that one can imagine, from thick homemade lasagna covered in creamy béchamel to light beef parmigian, soft and tender despite being coated in light cheesy crumbs of batter.

There was a growing murmur of plans to kidnap her and drag her back to Malaysia to make sure our quality of dinners didn’t have to drop. Even the more health conscious amongst us couldn’t help going for seconds.

Desserts were no less impressive – everything was from cooked from scratch using locally-produced grappa and cream from the farm next door to sweet crust fruit pies using produce from the very garden outside that we’d filmed in that very morning. Cooking and eating in Tuscany, and indeed in most of Italy, is like getting fed by Mother Nature herself.

The ingredients were fresh, the quality without peer, and the preparation was not so much cooking as it is accentuating the natural flavours and letting nature’s tastes and colours and textures fill the plate for you. It felt very much like we were eating Tuscany itself, only not in a Godzilla type way.

The only night when we broke away from the usual Italian goodness was when we decided to do some maggi mee goreng, fried rice, and curry, just to get a taste of home. As good as it was, the addition of bruschetta, gelati and some leftover pasta sort of spoiled the authentic asian-ness, but it seemed only apt to mix cultures considering the story we were filming.

Crunchy delight: Bruschetta

After filming wrapped up, some of us popped into Rome for a few days before flying back to KL. While Rome may be worlds apart from KL – they treasure their history, instead of knocking it down and building malls over it – one thing that struck me as similar was the food culture. After hitting the town for a night of clubbing (imagine chatting Italian hotties up within view of the Coliseum), I was amazed at how late the cafes and corner restaurants stayed open – grabbing a coffee, a pasta, or a pizza at 4am was as common there as popping to the mamak for a teh tarik and Maggi mee goreng.

It’s funny how sometimes you find that the world is not so different after all – the menu may be different, the weather a lot colder, and the people may all sound like Mario and Luigi, but noodles are noodles, and they always taste good at 4am after a good night out.

Love, Nora debuts on Astro Citra on February 14th next year.

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