Keith Foo is proof that if you work hard and have bold ambitions, success will come.
There was a time in Keith Foo’s life when he was unsure if he would get a good night’s sleep. A struggling actor back then, Foo had to share accommodation with a few other actors. If he came home late from work, the sofa would then be occupied, which meant he had to settle for the floor.
The youngest of four siblings, Foo confessed that it was not a detail he’d shared with his parents whenever they call from his hometown in Gemas, Negeri Sembilan. “I never tell my parents that. Whenever they call from Malaysia, I just tell them that everything is okay,” said Foo, 32.
Over a decade ago, Foo was looking for his big break as an actor in Jakarta, Indonesia. “I was 21 when I got an offer to do a toothpaste commercial. I thought, why not take this opportunity to get into acting in Indonesia as well?”
Foo, who is of Chinese and Indian parentage, says he has always wanted to become an actor. “When I was young, I acted in church plays. I was the clown of my family-lah. I liked entertaining everyone,” he said with a laugh.
Foo was also an avid sportsman, having represented his state in volleyball as a teenager. He has kept up his active lifestyle, judging by his toned arms and muscular physique. It’s little wonder that Adidas recently appointed the actor as a new brand ambassador.
However, back then, his parents weren’t too keen on him going into acting as a career. “It was definitely something that they were worried about. But I took it as a motivation to work hard and prove to them that I could make it.”
But his smouldering good looks and charisma was not enough to guarantee a smooth passage into the Indonesian acting scene. “I was new and I was a foreigner. But I knew that I was there for a purpose and didn’t give up.”
Eventually, he landed his first acting role in Mati Suri, a low budget horror film released in 2009. He also starred in other films like Bidadari Jakarta and Perempuan Di Rumah Angker. In 2010, Foo had a part in Cinta Dan Anugerah, a 244-episode Indonesian drama starring Nabila Syakieb, Luna Maya and fellow Malaysian Ashraf Sinclair.
But Foo’s life as an actor then was anything but glamorous. “It took me two years to be able to speak Bahasa Indonesia and make it sound natural. I learned by reading the newspaper a lot. On sets, I asked a lot of questions, to the point that I got scolded for doing so!”
He refused to divulge on other unpleasant experiences on film and TV sets in Indonesia, instead choosing to focus on the positive outcome. “I’ve always believed in asking about things I don’t know. It was a good learning experience.”
In 2012, after 10 years in Indonesia, Foo felt it was time to return home to start another phase of his career. He insisted that it wasn't due to his dwindling popularity in Indonesia as other reports have suggested. “I used to come home only once a year. When it was time to come back for good, it was because I wanted to be here for my parents. They are my first priority.”
Coming back to Malaysia also meant starting from zero again in the entertainment scene. “Yes, it was daunting. It became a whole new learning process. I have to admit that certain aspects in the Indonesian scene and here are not the same. But I have to adapt. If I have to start from zero again, I’ll have to do it. Just like I did in Indonesia."
Foo had to work extra hard to overcome preconceived notions about him. “People had the wrong perception about me. I felt like they were saying things like ‘Oh, this is Keith Foo from Indonesia ...’ in a negative way. I couldn’t get a positive reaction from people around me. But I told myself, ‘It’s OK, let’s just go with the flow.’”
Foo finally got the affirmation he was looking for in 2013, when he landed the lead role of Tengku Adam in Ariana Rose. Foo portrayed a playboy who becomes a changed man when he falls in love a woman. “Slowly, doors were opening up again. I believe I’ve brought in high ratings for the TV stations,” Foo said confidently.
He was right. Two of the dramas he starred in, Ariana Rose and Love You Mr Arrogant, drew big ratings; the former pulled in 4.5mil viewers while the latter garnered 4.6mil audience.
News of Foo’s casting as the lead in a Malay-language drama has got some viewers riled up. Apart from him, only Hans Isaac – who is of Indian-Eurasian parentage – have played leading roles in Malay-language dramas and films. Viewers questioned if Foo had the necessary knowledge or understanding to be playing a role like Tengku Adam in Ariana Rose who eventually finds peace in religion.
“People questioning my casting is always going be an issue. Being someone of a different faith, I do feel that through my work as an actor, I get to learn more about other religious beliefs. The whole experience of playing a character like Tengku Adam has given me a new sense of respect for other religions,” Foo asserted.
He urged fans to look at the bigger picture: “I believe that’s a way for us Malaysians to stay united. Simply by understanding each other’s religions.”
Next on the cards for Foo is Langit Cinta, in which he stars opposite Nur Fazura. Due for release next year, Langit Cinta is director Osman Ali’s first film since 2011’s blockbuster hit Ombak Rindu.
“I’m very excited for it. This is my first Malaysian feature-length film. I play a spoiled rich kid who goes to an island where I have to oversee the construction of a hotel. There, I meet and fall in love with Fazura’s character. I’m a man who discovers that there is more to life than material things,” said the actor, who in real life is happily engaged to entrepreneur Kim Raymond.
Foo has also been offered a role in Singapore’s MediaCorp TV series Mata Mata. He mentioned that another TV3 drama is in the works but remained tight-lipped on details. “I have a feeling that it will be another phenomenon,” he said with a smile.
Foo has plans to take on more challenging roles – “If I have to play a softie or shave my head, I don’t mind.” – and be involved in productions that will enable him to reach out to a wider audience. “I don’t want to be limited to just one market. It would be great if I can get more people to watch and support local actors in every production, not just in Malay dramas.”
It doesn’t sound impossible. Foo has gone from a struggling actor to the star of a highly-rated TV3 drama and now a leading man in an Osman Ali film; he might just make it happen. “No, I don’t think about the odds against me. I simply believe if you put your heart and soul in something, people will notice your hard work. Just be positive.”