He’s fast becoming a local hero, taking to glitz and glamour like a drake to water. Zul Ariffin is proof positive that if you look the part, chances are good that you‘ll actually get it. A native of Taiping, Perak, Zulkifli Ariffin, as he’s fully known, is the youngest of four siblings. Coming from excellent Malay, Indonesian and Dutch stock, he left his quaint hometown at age 18 and secured work as a barista in Kuala Lumpur. In between serving flat whites and long blacks, a talent scout spotted his chiselled mug and decided he looked too damn fine to be whiling away the hours working an espresso machine. A lucrative stint in TV advertisements soon followed and the rest is resigned to history.
“I studied fine arts and graphic design at UiTM Melaka. I was 22 at the time. A production manager approached me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to do some commercials. Since I needed money for Raya at the time, I agreed to it. So I began to learn on the job about what it takes to stand in front of a camera,” he tells me jocularly. It might have been wanderlust, or the more dangerous affliction of ‘sophomore slump’, but Zul started questioning his purpose in life halfway through college. He didn’t have any answers but he knew a career designing logos would not do. So he quit UiTM without a plan apart from an immovable belief to be true to himself no matter what. If that isn’t a marker of movie star greatness, I don’t know what
is. He vividly remembers sitting at a mamak, telling a friend he didn’t know what to do next. In his own words, “Suddenly, a production manager came up to me and said he’d noticed me at the same stall many times before and asked if I wanted to act in a drama.”
That created plenty of momentum and his name became hot currency on the local scene, leading to several successful movies like Rindu Awak 200%, Penanggal(for which Zul won Best Newcomer at the luminous Malaysian Film Festival) and Tombiruo, Penunggu Rimba. For that last gem, Zul was only offered the role less than a month before filming began. Yet in spite of the restrictive time frame, he managed to cut a whopping 12 kg to play the shirtless jungle protector who was out to avenge his father’s death. If you’re kicking yourself for missing these awesome movies on the big screen, then don’t hesitate to catch his latest ass-kicking extravaganza, J Revolusi, released early this month.
“I got a call from the director who said it was going to be a dark and very realistic movie. Some actors wanted to read the script and get all the details but I was immediately sold on the idea. I mean, as a guy I’ve watched a tonne of action movies. So it was like a dream came true to play the lead actor in one of these productions. Anyhow, several months went by and there was no word. Suddenly a call came and they told me we were tying up with the police and it was going to happen,” he says.
In J, Zul plays the chief of a special police task force, or Unit Tindak Khas ( UTK), who must save his sister, who’s an undercover agent, from a ruthless criminal mastermind.
With real-world experience from police advisers, fight choreography from Hong Kong’s expert stuntmen, and guns that fired blanks, you can be sure the level of realism
got upped big time. There are even armoured personnel carriers loaned from the PDRM plus crowd control props that could instantly quash a small reformasi rebellion in between takes. Did I mention the addition of several ONE Championship fighters to top things off?
“Audiences will see a lot of Close-quarter combat. I trained for two months in judo, jujitsu, boxing, and Muay Thai. There were also morning runs and weight training in the evenings. One of the toughest scenes was the one I did with MMA fighter Peter Davis. The call time was 8am in Times Square. I was so exhausted but pumped at the same time. Peter was totally on cue and pushed me to meet the standard. When we wrapped up at 9:30 am, I just slept in my car for like two or three hours. I was drained!” he says. All in all, there were sprained knees, wrists, twisted backs and scratches from Zul’s insistence of performing his fair share of the stunts.
“I’m always out to try new things, whether it’s an action or a drama film. I watch a lot of movies and I love all genres.” he explains. I ask what’s next. “Well after watching La La Land, there’s really no limit if you apply yourself. I mean, why not musicals even? My only hope is that the local movie industry expands to the level you see in Thailand or Indonesia.”
Just before I let him get to work on those gorgeous photos you see here, I ask what words of encouragement he might share with those who idolise his work. “First or all, it’s not about idolising. Firstly you have to believe in yourself. Then you’ll realise, ‘I don’t really want to be like that guy, I want to be like me’. And most importantly, you have to love what you do. We all got bills to pay, but you have to love your work or you’ll ultimately be wasting time and energy.”