Zul Ariffin had less than a month to get into tip-top shape for his latest action-thriller flick, Tombiruo: Penunggu Rimba.
The 30-year-old actor has to go shirtless – wearing only a wig and three quarter pants – throughout the entire movie to portray Tombiruo, a mysterious character living in the "jungles" of Keningau, Sabah.
“I can’t be running around in the jungle with a flabby belly. It would spoil the movie. Who would want to buy a ticket?” he says candidly during a press event promoting the film.
Zul was only offered the role less than a month before filming began and despite the short time frame, he managed to lose a whopping 12kg.
“I weighed about 92kg to 93kg before the project and I’m now down to around 80kg,” reveals Zul who is in the middle of filming the movie now.
The usually bulky, muscular Zul says he wanted his body to look more trimmed to fully embody the role. “He (Tombiruo) can’t have a body that’s too muscular, as he grew up in the jungle. If he’s too muscular ... what gym is he going to in the jungle?”
Zul says his physical transformation is part of an effort to tell the story better.
“I take this (not wearing clothes and wearing a wig) as a kind of costume. If it works and the audiences are convinced, we’ve scored on that. And then I concentrate on the acting.”
To get lean, Zul says he trained on his own, doing cardio exercises twice a day, eating only once a day and cutting out rice completely.
“The shooting process so far hasn’t been so much of a challenge, the challenge is in controlling my diet. I have a strong appetite,” he shares. “I do feel tired at set so I’ll have a sugary drink to give me energy before I start shooting.”
And while Zul’s body is in full-display on the film, the handsome actor’s face is completely hidden by a mask.
The actor, who got his big break from playing the dapper pilot in the 2014 romantic drama Rindu Awak 200%, joked: “When I have to shoot a romance drama, people want me to have this and that kind of hairstyle to look handsome, but when I shoot a film like this, my face gets covered.”
Tombiruo: Penunggu Rimba, which is based on a novel of the same name by Ramlee Awang Murshid, begins with the death of Tombiruo’s father, causing him to seek revenge on those responsible. His need to don a mask has to do with Tombiruo’s troubled and lonely persona.
Zul spoke of the challenges of playing the masked character. “I only have my two eyes and my body language to communicate with the audience. I don’t have much dialogue, just four or five speaking scenes, and I need to be convincing and effective.”
The actor isn’t the only cast member who is playing something different from what they’re used to.
“What’s interesting for me is I get to play a journalist. It’s my first time,” says actress Nabila Huda, who plays a TV journalist trying to get a scoop on the mysterious goings-on in Sabah.
“She starts out chasing the story for selfish reasons – she wants to be a top journalist, and as she begins to learn what’s going on, she hunts for the truth,” she describes her character’s motivations.
To prepare for the role, Nabila observed journalists around her in action. “I think it’s hard. Although I’m used to being interviewed by reporters, it took me almost a month to get references and understand my character,” she says.
The film, scheduled for release in 2017, is helmed by two directors – Nasir Jani and Australia’s Seth Larney.
Nasir, who last directed Kembara Seniman Jalanan (1986) and Rozana Cinta 87 (1987), is taking on the role of a director for the first time in almost 30 years.
“After 30 years, this is my comeback. I know films have changed a lot and I’m taking this opportunity to prove that I can make a film that is relevant to the viewers of today,” he says about coming on board the movie.
“Seth is more on the technical side. I’m more on the story and acting,” Nasir talks about their responsibilities.
Larney, who was a technical supervisor on The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is making his directorial feature film debut with Tombiruo.
“My hope is to try and bring some of that international sensibility, vision and aesthetic to what I think is an incredible, beautiful Malaysian story.”