This month, Dick Lee is giving us a major throwback to the super ’70s with his biopic Wonder Boy. CLEO sat down for an exclusive interview with the film’s stars Benjamin Kheng and Julie Tan to find out more about that sex scene they had to do, and what they got up to while filming in Penang.

So let’s talk about Wonder Boy. The film is set in the ’70s, but obviously neither of you were around during that time. Is there anything about that era that stood out for you?

Ben: I think that’s when a lot of people were infatuated with Western pop culture. That’s when the first Star Wars came out, and everyone’s familiar with it. That’s also when disco music first started going into a more hip-hop territory and, of course, pop music like Elton John started making its way to Singapore. And because of the whole ban on long hair and the clamping down of some local music acts in Singapore, I think there was this creative energy sort of bubbling under that needed to get out.

Julie: My parents were from that era, so I asked them to bring out their photo albums. I love the fashion of the ’70s – those big funky earrings, the bell bottoms, the bangles, stuff like that.

Did you have to do the wavy ’70s hair for the movie, or was it a shorter crop?

Julie: I had wavy hair.

Ben: The ’fro man, the ’fro. I got to have the ’fro… and it was embarrassing.

So, Julie, you play the love interest in this film. Can you tell us a bit more about the character?

Julie: She’s quite a rebel. She’s secretive and there’s a motive behind the things she does.

Ben, this is your second time playing Dick Lee. What’s it like revisiting this role? Is there anything you did differently this time?

Ben: It’s very different this time around. The first time was on stage. It was just a monologue recounting his life, and it was mostly a musical revue. This was a whole different ball game. Usually, biographies are based on people who are dead, right? But [Dick Lee] is not only very alive, he’s also directing the show. So I really tried to avoid asking him, “What would you do in this situation?” Similarly, he didn’t want me to do an imitation or a mini-play. It was really about creating a character inspired by him, so I was given a bit more free reign to go at it. It was a very cathartic experience, actually.

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There’s a sex scene in Wonder Boy that involved both of you. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Julie: That was actually our very first scene together!

Ben: Five hours, man. In the hot, stuffy room.

Was it awkward?

Julie: (Laughs) There was a “friendship gap” during the first take.

Ben: On the first take, we thought it was a close-up, right? So we were like, “OK, let’s just do some head acting and not worry about the rest of the body.” Then when we saw it on-screen, we realised it was actually a mid-shot and there was this massive “friendship gap” between us. Cannot, lah.

How did you prepare for it?

Julie: I was already aware of that scene when I auditioned for my role. In fact, I went over to Dick’s house before filming, and he took out a photo album and showed me the real-life person my character is based on. He showed me how she looked like, and briefly told me what happened and things like that.

What was your favourite scene to shoot?

Ben: There’s a scene where my band mate confronts me in the hallway of a school. It was one of those scenes where it had to be intense, and I was like, “OK, you want to do something physical, just go ahead and do it, but just let me know.” It was super intense but it turned out great. That was my favourite scene.

Julie: There was this bus stop scene where our characters meet for the first time. I quite like that scene because you can feel there’s tension in a very different way.

Ben: Also, we smoked a whole bunch of cigarettes!

Julie: Yeah, we just smoked, and I smoked in a school uniform.

Ben: We chainsmoked through the whole scene, oh my gosh!

Dick has said that the story is timeless, and would resonate with anyone who went through that type of struggle themselves. Do you see any parallel between the events of the film, and maybe your own experiences?

Julie: When I was reading the script, I felt really touched because the whole process of how Dick became who he is today resembles what I’ve been through as well. I’ve been through the lowest – like you know, from being a calefare then a part-time actress, to today, where I’ve gained a little bit of recognition and stuff like that. Nothing comes easy, but the thing is to not give up and press on to get to where you are.

Ben: Exactly. You realise that he messes up so much in this film, like, non-stop. And he’s so insecure too. I think the two biggest things about anybody who’s a creative is that your insecurities and mess-ups defeat you all the time. But he didn’t let them set him back. It’s, like, if you want your career to move forward, you almost clamour to make a mistake. So it’s a very different perspective and it’s quite cool to portray that.

How long were you guys filming in Penang for? Did you do anything fun or hang out off-set?

Julie: I stayed there for… I think it was three weeks?

Ben: I stayed there for a whole month.

Did you like it?

Ben: No! Because Penang food is good but I couldn’t eat any of it because I had to maintain a ’70s Dick Lee weight, which was 27 inches [around the waist]. So I couldn’t eat the amazing Penang Laksa. It was very painful. But it was good to just be in a different headspace. We had this nice hotel by the coast and every night, you can hear the waves crashing. It really puts you in a good mode to just clear your head and get inside your character.

How about you, Julie?

Julie: Yeah, it was quite good. My family is in Penang, so on some of my off-days, I’d go and visit my grandma and my cousin and stuff like that. I love the food there! Unlike Ben, I could eat, so I was quite happy there. We also went to do some sightseeing and stuff like that.

Wonder Boy releases on August 3, 2017.

Photography: Ivanho Harlim, Shysilia Novita
Fashion Direction: Janice Pidduck
Styling: Cheryl Chan
Hair: Ash Loi/Atelier Hair and Beauty using La Biosthetique Paris
Makeup: Keith Bryant Lee using LANEIGE
Fashion Assistant: Syimah Jasni
Location: Colbar
Car: Kombi Rocks
Additional Reporting: Karen Fong