Sarawakian Tony Eusoff returns to Kuching to play the titular role in P. Ramlee The Musical.
THE first time I met Tony Eusoff, he was not himself. He was P. Ramlee and was surrounded by journalists who were persuading him to sing. This P. Ramlee seemed soft-spoken and almost shy, while deflecting – with a certain degree of success – the request to break into song.
A few days later, I sat down with Tony for a chat about his role in the award-winning P. Ramlee The Musical that is staged in Kuching, Sarawak, starting today, in conjunction with the state’s 50th Independence anniversary celebration.
Away from the rehearsal studio, he was just himself – or at the very least, not P. Ramlee. And what a transformation it is!
Tony is eloquent, candid, frequently breaks out into hearty laughter, and has an easy ruggedness about him.
“I’m working very hard,” the 36-year-old says of his demanding role. “I know I look nothing like the man, so this is where makeup has to work its wonders. But for the rest, I’m trying my best to emulate his voice, his way of speaking and his way of singing. He is an exceptional singer and musician, so it’s quite a tall order for me. But I’m always up for a good challenge.”
The Sarawakian has proved himself quite the versatile actor, taking on varied roles in different theatre productions, including La Cage Aux Folles (2012), The Secret Life Of Nora (2011), Rose Rose I Love You (2007) and Tunku The Musical (2007). He also dabbles in movies, TV shows and commercials.
But perhaps a lesser-known fact is that before his foray into the world of entertainment, he was an architect.
“For all of 10 months,” he relates.
“I did architecture in university, came out to work, and then went on to sales and marketing. I was even a cabin crew member for seven months!”
Tony’s break into TV commercials was completely accidental. While having lunch at a mamak stall, he was approached by a casting agent who was looking for someone to star in a TV commercial.
“I went upstairs to the casting house, did my casting tape, and a few days later, I got a call saying that I got the job. I didn’t have any acting experience. I didn’t even know what ‘casting’ meant. The only kind of casting I knew was iron casting,” he relates with a chuckle.
He ended up doing about a dozen commercials in the span of six months.
“I was representing all kinds of products, left, right and centre. Not exactly the smartest thing to do. But I started from scratch, and it took me a good two to three years to learn enough about production to get by. It was really tough, but it was fun,” he says.
Having been in the entertainment industry now for a decade and counting, Tony looks back to those early days and recalls how adopting another name has worked in his favour.
Born Anthony Joseph anak Hermas Rajiman, the Bidayuh took on the name Tony Eusoff after his adopted mother in Kuala Lumpur suggested it.
“I initially used it as a homage to her, but it also turned out to be kind of a boost for my career when I was starting out. I needed a name to propel me in the right direction,” he says of his involvement with the Malay entertainment industry.
Not that he thinks there’s any setback with being considered a minority; he makes the best of it, and at times during the conversation, it even sounds like he relishes it.
“You get the upper hand of having to learn everyone’s skills, including languages, and to me that’s a bonus. I’ve been getting by pretty well, both in terms of making friends and going places. And there are no stereotypes associated with minorities – you don’t hear people saying, ‘You are as calculating as a Bidayuh!’” he grins.
Playing it real
Tony will be following in the footsteps of Sean Ghazi and Musly Ramlee in taking on the role of P. Ramlee in the musical.
Concurring that he has big shoes to fill, he says: “Playing P. Ramlee is something quite different from my previous roles, because those were fictitious characters and so were easier to make it my own.”
He believes that he needs to learn as much as he can about Tan Sri P. Ramlee in order to play him convincingly, which includes capturing that “timeless sense of fun” that the late entertainer projected.
Tony describes the beloved entertainer as “very grounded, not up there in the air at all”.
“All he wanted to do was to keep the music alive, keep the art alive. What he believed in was very universal. But after he left Singapore and came back to KL, his popularity started dwindling. His movies were not cutting it; people had already moved on to The Beatles and liking Western flicks. So he suffered from that, which is quite sad,” relates Tony, who used to watch P. Ramlee movies in his childhood.
Now, in preparation for the musical, he went back and watched them again with a different purpose in mind.
“I try to pick up on nuances; certain gestures, his way of singing, and his body language. I also read up on him and now know all these bits of interesting trivia, which is useful in helping me form an idea of him as a man.
You have to put yourself in his shoes, you have to imagine the times and the conditions he lived in. Because the better you can visualise that, the better you can execute,” he says.
Born and raised in Siburan, a little town about half an hour’s drive from Kuching, Tony is all psyched up about P. Ramlee The Musical being staged there.
“It’s really great to have this opportunity to perform back home. I feel like a homecoming queen!” he laughs.
P. Ramlee The Musical will be staged on Sept 9 and 10 at 8pm at Borneo Convention Centre Kuching, Sarawak. Entrance is free, on a first-come, first-served basis. Call 082-415 894 or 082-235 418 for tickets. The musical is part of the five-day Tribute to P. Ramlee (Sept 9 to 13) that includes P. Ramlee The Musical, a concert by Indonesia’s violin maestro Idris Sardi (Sept 12 and 13), and an exhibition on the life of P. Ramlee that will run throughout the five days.