IT’S been 15 years since talented entertainer Tony Eusoff first made his screen debut in the movie Di Ambang Misteri and on the television drama Astana Idaman.
The 42-year-old Kuching-born actor, whose real name is Anthony Joseph Anak Hermas Rajiman, has since had many highs in his career that span both screens big and small as well as on the theatre stage.
He’s played the late national icon Tan Sri P. Ramlee in P. Ramlee The Musical (2013) and in the television biopic Saloma (2014).
Tony, who is of Bidayuh descent, had also starred in last year’s courtroom drama thriller series Jibril and the Malaysian-Singaporean remake of The Bridge, both of which were available for online streaming on Viu.
His latest movie is Shadowplay, which will be released on the online video platform Vimeo on Aug 27.
It’s touted to be a classic fairy tale retold as a metafictional detective thriller. Think The Neverending Story meets Donnie Darko and Drive set in Kuala Lumpur.
Taking inspiration from the cinematic style of David Lynch and 1980s-era Michael Mann, Shadowplay is a 90-minute feature film that also incorporates Malaysian elements into its unconventional story.
Aside from Tony, the independent film stars Stephen Rahman Hughes, Juria Hartmans, Radhi Khalid, Megat Sharizal and Chacko Vadaketh.
The cast is rounded up by Razif Hashim, Iman Corinne Adrienne, Susan Lankester, Suhaili Micheline, Tehmina Kaoosji, Gavin Yap and Stephanie Van Driesen.
“The movie is open to all kinds of interpretations. You watch it and judge for yourself,” says Tony when met in Bangsar recently.
The actor describes the film as a very ethereal story about a guy who discovers he has the ability to alter his reality through his dreams.
“He thinks he has a knack for detective work and it’s also about him trying to piece together what had happened to him during his childhood. He’s got repressed memories,” says Tony of his lead role as private eye Anton Shaw.
Anton must explore the deep dark depths of his own mind to uncover the truth around his childhood disappearance after taking on a case to find a missing university student.
The film, which is a heady mix of fantasy, crime and neo-noir, is directed, co-written and co-produced by Tony Pietra Arjuna.
Tony says that he had first got wind of the movie back in 2008. “I had just got to know Tony then after he directed an episode of Ghost for 8TV. He passed me an early script and said I’d be perfect for the role. The script was easy to like and it felt like something doable for me.”
But the movie stalled due to funding issues and had a false start in 2015. “I had actually cleared my schedule but the project hit a brick wall at the last minute so that was a bummer for everyone.”
Fast forward to 2017 and the movie was resurrected with a budget to shoot only 20 per cent of it. “So we got to shoot a conceptual trailer to get more investors onboard.”
The 80 per cent balance was finally shot in 10 days last year. “All the people involved were friends who just wanted to see Tony finish his movie. So everyone chipped in and the camaraderie was quite amazing in that respect. I’m just in awe of everyone’s endurance and patience. It certainly turned out better than anticipated.”
Tony, who was most recently seen in this year’s feel good football theatre production of Ola Bola The Musical: Restaging, adds that he’s glad that the film is going online first.
“Any work that can leave our shores and hopefully get noticed is a great opportunity,” says Tony. He happily reveals that The Bridge is now available on HBO Asia and that the 2012 Malaysian animated science fiction feature film, War Of The Worlds: Goliath, for which he voiced a Malaysian character, is currently on Netflix.
“There’s more variety now and I’m all for it,” he says about the projects he’s worked on that are way off from the typical Malay dramas and telemovies on terrestrial TV.
“The regular Malay dramas on TV have their own viewership. My mum is a big fan so obviously it works for many people. I think the online platforms serve to feed people with a better variety which is great and I hope more of these kinds of TV shows or movies from different genres get put out there,” he says.
As far as his dreams are concerned, he says: “As far as I can go, my dream would be to be involved in a Game Of Thrones-type show.”
“I really have no fixed target but the objective is to aim for the stars so at least you’ll get to the sky,” he says with a laugh.
Showbiz is no easy street though and Tony says that he has dealt with his fair share of rejections. He confesses that he didn’t make the cut after going for casting calls for last year’s mega-hit American romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, as well as the historical drama series Marco Polo on Netflix back in 2014.
“The casting directors were looking for specific Asian looks and I wasn’t here or there in terms of how I look,” he says of the stereotypical aspect of how people perceive ethnicities.
But being different is something that Tony is used to since he was a boy. “I personally think it’s a problem but only because society thinks that way but like everything it takes time to break that mould of what is perceived to be the norm. Things change all the time anyway.”
Tony grew up in a village called Kampung Sinjok in the Siburan district about 45km from Kuching, Sarawak. He went to a Chinese school for his primary education before finishing his secondary education at a regular government school.
“Nobody in my family spoke Mandarin so it was tough for me then,” says Tony, who grew up in a single parent family.
Siburan apparently houses the largest anti-Communist new village in the country. “It’s no longer there now but I remember growing up in the 1980s with fences surrounding the area.”
“It’s interesting that here in KL at any given time I’m almost always the only one of my kind in a room. Going through those little hardships back then got me used to life not necessarily being so proper or perfect,” he says ponderously.
When Tony was 8, his mother Christina, who at the time worked in the Sarawak General Hospital, took under her wing a baby boy from a mother who was down on her luck.
“As a kid it was frustrating since my brother Andrew Joseph was too young for me to play with. I had to babysit him and my two other cousins who were equally younger as well.”
“But it turned out well since my cousin Mildred is now my favourite cousin. If I need any help, she’s there. That whole sense of community is very real in my family and it continues to exist and I cherish that very much.”
“Every year we also take my brother to visit his biological mum and her family, so he never lost that connection.”
Tony says he heads back to his kampung about four times a year to visit his mother who is now 72. “She’s still strong and can’t stay still. After retiring at 60, she now works in the field by planting, harvesting and selling corn. She grows her own rice and vegetables. The only thing she buys are the meats.”
He lets on that his mother wanted him to have a secure job and work for the government. “She wanted me to work as a policeman initially but when I got a degree in architecture from UM, she told me to work at JKR.”
But Tony had to answer his calling as an actor. “I actually love acting and this is why I’m still doing it since I started in 2004.”
Meantime, the actor is also juggling his career with a food business venture on the side. “It’s a small startup that doesn’t really affect the acting side of things but also pays my bills. I started it two years ago with my business partner and we sell hot dogs, grilled cheese toasties and other foods at events.”
His darkest moment remains his time spent in prison though. The actor served five months and 10 days of his eight-month sentence for drug possession at Singapore's Admiralty West Prison in 2016.
It was a serious time of self-reflection and rumination. “I learn from mistakes. The most painful thing was watching my mum cry but it’s all good now.”
Looking back he can now laugh about the whole incident. “I currently weigh about 75kg. At the time I was released from prison I was 86kg, I couldn’t even button up my pants,” he says with a laugh.
“In prison there's no bigger commodity than food so when you get food you eat it.”
Tony, who shared a cell built for 16 with 19 other inmates and only had the floor as his bed every night, adds: “From my cell’s window I could see a KFC restaurant in the distance, in Stulang (Johor Baru) because of the bright lights, which taunted me every night.”
While in prison he saw all kinds of criminals, except for the paedophiles, rapists and transsexuals who were contained in other parts of the enormous building.
“The happiest criminals I saw were these two Singaporean Chinese inmates who were in for two years,” he says.
Apparently, rumour had it that the two were brought down by the US FBI. “I was told that they bribed Apple US to be the sole manufacturer and distributor of Apple’s charger heads for Southeast Asia.”
“Some other inmates said that by the time they were caught they had already made billions, which kind of explains why they were the only guys there that were all smiles everyday. Nobody dared to touch them since they could apparently arrange for things to happen to the families of those who did anything,” says Tony.
The only good thing about prison for Tony was getting reacquainted with the habit of reading. Just to kill time he read voraciously, finishing over 30 books during his entire time there.
“That was my only escape. I read Jane Austen, The Life Of Pi. I don’t know why there were Danielle Steel novels in a male prison but I read them too. It changed my perception of Game Of Thrones. I don’t like fantasy stuff but I read George RR Martin’s A Game Of Thrones and it got me hooked.”
He adds with a cheeky smile: “Besides that, there were no good takeaways from prison. But if I had wanted to get into a life of crime, then there were lots of really good contacts.”
Shadowplay premieres on Vimeo on Aug 27. Visit www.facebook.com/shadowplaymovie.