Although his passion has always revolved around listening and telling stories – which led him to work as a journalist in The Star in 2004 – Jon Chew realised in his late 20s that acting could be the career for him.
It was through his first acting project – an ensemble piece titled Stage Therapy in 2009, by the theatre group Electric Minds Project – that he came to the realisation.
“I was lying on my bed – and I couldn’t sleep – I remember clearly a particular electric release happening, like a collision of joy and fulfilment I had never experienced before. I would later call this my catharsis moment.
“I remember thinking, maybe I’ve found something here I could do for a long, long time,” he shared of his debut as a professional stage actor in an e-mail interview.
Fast forward nine years – now armed with a masters from The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda) – the 38-year-old is Prince Chulalongkorn in the West End production of The King And I, currently playing at the London Palladium until September.
The musical also stars Japanese actor Ken Watanabe and Tony-award winning actress Kelli O’Hara in the titular roles.
After his graduation, and having gotten an agent in London, Chew started going for auditions.
“It took me four auditions to get the role. Initially, I was asked to audition for the role of Kralahome, which is the King’s right hand man.
“After my first audition, they gave me scenes for Prince Chulalongkorn, the king’s son and heir, and the role requires me to sing a song. It was a difficult song for me as it was in a higher range, and I’m not really a singer per se.
“My third audition put me in front of the director of the show, Bart Sher, who is prominent in the American theatre scene. He took one look at me and said, ‘I want to hear you sing as the prince.’
“I waddled through the song that ended in what can only be described as a train wreck. So much so that after the song, Bart turned to the room and said, ‘Well, I’m glad we got that over with’.”
Having done more than a few auditions prior to The King And I, Chew laughed off the comment as he realised when it comes to auditioning, it is not entirely within his control.
However, three hours after that, Chew was asked to come in for another round of audition.
“Bart asked me to sing the song again. When he saw my reaction – ‘Like, what, really, you want to hear it again?’ – he said, ‘Don’t worry, we want you to succeed.’
“They lowered the song by a key, I sang the number, did more scenes, and left.
“About 20 minutes later, when I was downstairs waiting for another audition at the same studio, the casting director came down and told me I got the role.”
Born in London, Jonathan Chew Chien Wei grew up in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah for the first 10 years of his life.
The family then moved to Vancouver, Canada, for a while before deciding to reside permanently in Kuala Lumpur.
Despite all the moving around, the son of two retired doctors who are now full-time pastors, calls KL his home.
After deciding on acting as his career, Chew participated in a number of plays at KLPac and DPac (Damansara Performing Arts Centre) including Angels In America, Birdy, The Last Five Years, boom and The Bee.
Asked what is the biggest difference working on West End and in the Malaysia theatre scene, Chew said: “The scale is definitely bigger. For example, you have something like seven to 10 members on the stage management team, whereas I’d only work with, at the most, three people back home.
“Their props, costumes, sets are all very grand for sure. A lot of money and infrastructure are in place to produce and create a show like this. I mean, they even have people who help you get into your costumes during a show called dressers. So the scale of a West End production is massive.”
According to Chew, watching how Watanabe and O’Hara approach acting, and work in general, has taught him the kind of attitude he wants for his own craft.
Chew explained: “Ken has this combination of tidal wave energy and the playfulness of a big little kid. This translates to an actor who can turn on a dime, and is unafraid of throwing all kinds of acting choices into a scene. It’s amazing to watch, but even more amazing to react to.
“Kelli is so passionate about her work, yet so relaxed about its outcome. That obviously comes from being on stage for years and years on Broadway.
“She takes pleasure in almost anything that happens to her on stage, and doesn’t seem held back by any idea of failure.
“On top of it all, both Ken and Kelli are super kind, approachable people to boot. In short, I lucked out.”
While he says there are areas for improvement in Malaysia’s arts scene (creating more locally-relevant material, improving the training standards and infrastructure), Chew believes that the Malaysia theatre scene does not lack in talent.
“I would say our actors have the innate gifts to stand toe-to-toe with those working (in London). Which is even more frustrating, because there are so many obstacles back home.
“Hopefully, this will finally change with Malaysia Baru.”
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