“Pich” Witwisit Hiranyawongkul, from Siam with Love.
Can you tell us about where you are from and your educational background?
I was born and raised in Chiang Mai, the northern capital of the kingdom of Thailand. As a boy I attended Montfort College, a Catholic school, even though my family is Buddhist. But it did not really matter, in Thailand religions are really open-minded and I sometimes even attended mass in church, where we would sing. I guess my passion for music and writing poems came from a very early age, apparently from what I heard I started singing before even talking. I really found out that I could sing after I won a competition at age 16. Although I had a real passion for poetry, my real aim in life was to become a visual communication artist. I also studied Chinese and Japanese cause I’ve always had an attraction to foreign languages.
How did you get cast for your first film?
After I won the competition I was part of a music band in my school, but it was at first just for fun. Shortly after, I met Chookiat Sakveerakul, the Thai film director and screenwriter, who graduated from the same school, and happened to be a friend’s brother. He first recommended me to sing the original soundtrack of a film for children. In 2006, he came back to my school to do a casting for his next film project called “The Love of Siam”. He had written the script four years before, but all the producers he’d met had rejected it because the film evoked a love story between two schoolboys and this issue was quite taboo in Thailand at that time. Two weeks after the casting, he chose me as one of the two lead characters.
Was it a tough decision at such a young age to play the part of a male character who falls in love with another boy?
Well it was of course kind of risky, but I never expected the impact that the film would have. My mother was ok with it; the script seemed good and I thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At the end, because of its impact, I think it definitely opened a taboo in Thai society, and some families have since learned to accept their children’s differences, so a tough decision yes, but at least with a positive result.
What was the reaction of the audiences in Thailand at first?
Well, people did not expect the boy love story. Actually, the film’s poster was designed so that people would think that it was a normal teenager story, like in any other films featuring youth relationships. Some reactions during the screening were people leaving the theatre during our kissing scene. It really was something revolutionary and not everyone was ready for it!
How did your life suddenly shift from being an average schoolboy to becoming a celebrity?
Was it a tough change you were not really ready to face?
That hasn’t been easy at all; first I was not prepared for the film to have such a huge success. We had been filming while I was still in high school and it was released after I entered Thammasat’s Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication in Bangkok. Some fans started invading my privacy and gathered around my family house to take pictures. It went as far as the organisation of “The Love of Siam” tours, following the location of the film, my university and my home. I had never intended to become famous and, at first, the pressure was so big that I had trouble showing myself in public, I would lock myself in toilets in shopping malls when I was waiting for my friends to avoid having people run to me to ask for autographs and photos. At some point my privacy was so invaded that I even thought about withdrawing from show business.
What were the reasons that finally made you reconsider and stay in the business?
While I was in the process of reconsidering my career plan, I realised how lucky I had been to have reached such a high level of quality work and exposure at such a young age. It had taught me something and that was also the reason why I had come to the decision to study cinema at university [Pich graduated from Thammasat University, with a major in Film]. While filming “The Love of Siam”, I found myself very interested in ‘the behind the scenes’ work. It showed me how to make films and taught me how to interact with the crew when on set in front of the camera. If I were to quit my acting career but stayed in the film industry, people would recognize me anyway. That’s why I decided to keep going further as an actor and see where it would eventually take me. I also tried to understand and cherish my fans. After all, all they did was admire me and it is a positive feeling.
It was the first time in Thai film history that a film received so much international exposure. Also, you are one of the very few in Thailand to become successful in China. How would you explain this attraction of the Chinese public to you? Especially in China where there are already so many celebrities.
Yes, the film had a huge success in all Chinese-speaking countries, like Mainland China (even though it was never screened there), and Singapore but also in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
I guess in China, where they have only one child per family, many young people related to my character, who is an only child.
Also, “AUGUST”, the band that was created for the film and in which I am the lead singer started to exist for real after the success of “The Love of Siam”. Fiction became reality and we were invited to China and Taiwan for a few performances and television shows. The band eventually split up in 2011 because most of the members had to go on with their studies. Then, Mario Maurer, my partner in the film, was cast for the Chinese film “Love on That Day” and I was contacted to write the original soundtrack. In 2012, I signed my first contract with a film company. This is how my career as a solo performer started.
How big was the success?
Quite big actually, for the first album I had a promotion tour around ten cities around China, including Shanghai, Beijing, Changsha, Kunming, Wuxi, Nanjing etc.
I also had to promote the film on television shows where I had to answer interviews in Chinese [Pich speaks and writes Mandarin] and had live singing performances.
You have more success in China than in your own country. How does it make you feel?
I think it is lucky for a Thai artist to reach so much fame [Pich’s Weibo account gathers 1.5 million fans] and have so many opportunities in a huge country like China. Meanwhile I have the freedom to do whatever I want in Thailand with no pressure.
I heard this first album was in part written by you, that it was the first time you had the opportunity to conceive an album’s lyrics and music almost entirely by yourself. What were your influences for that first album? Did you write in Thai or in Mandarin?
Well, I usually write in Thai and then it is translated in Mandarin. I grew up with soul and Thai pop music, so my influences are mainly from soul and Japanese pop. I actually love Japanese singer Hirai Ken.
In Thailand as well as many other countries in Asia, celebrities are made to have short careers. When they reach the height of their career, if they cannot prove themselves or become a product, they often vanish at a very young age. What do you think is the key to last in show business?
First of all – do your own thing. To avoid being a product, one really has to focus on personal projects and make his or her own choices. You also have to prove that you can be creative and evolve in whatever direction you choose. As for me, when I signed my first contract in China, the company gave me creative freedom – because I insisted – I did not want to be a puppet.
It seems you have many different interests and role models, could you give us a few examples?
As I said I am really into soul music, but I also admire artists such as Marcel Duchamp or Salvador Dali, film directors like Maya Deren – one of the most important American experimental filmmakers and entrepreneurial promoters of the avant-garde in the 1940s and 1950s, Wong Kar Wai and Peter Chan. One of my favourite films would be “Raise the Red Lantern” from Zhang Yimou. As for an actor, I would say that I respect very much the late Leslie Cheung.
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects and your dream career opportunity?
I am scheduled to be the lead role in a Chinese-Thai production from director Chookiat Sakweerakul next year.
In January 2014, my first discography will be out, altogether 12 songs including 3 exclusive ones, all in Thai. I am also a writer for magazines like ELLE Men or Attitude, usually focusing on social matters such as mid 20s life crisis or facts of life in Thai society. But one my other priorities right now is to study French, so I also attend French classes, a busy schedule indeed!