Henley Hii lets us in on his tenacious journey from music to the big screen and his latest role in the action-thriller film, The Assistant.
Behold Henley Hii. Everyone else seems to be. He’s a busy man, composing music, releasing singles, rushing from one movie set to another, and squeezing in a magazine photoshoot or two. Smart, candid, and unfailingly gracious, Henley is exactly what comes to mind when picturing your typical East Malaysian – someone without airs because entitlement is an unfamiliar concept.
He first shot to fame on Astro Talent Quest in 2005, a singing competition that has launched many celebrity careers. Since then, Henley’s gone on to carve a niche as a talented actor with roles in PASKAL: The Movie, Wira and Red Storm. Previously he had been involved with several well-known projects like The Cage, The Great Lion Kun Seng Keng, and Kepong Gangster (and its sequel).
“After the Astro Talent Quest in 2005, I was actually asked by producers to be part of a boyband. Together another two East Malaysian singers. That lasted about three months before it was called off.” says Henley. The kicker? He’d also told his family it was going to be the start of his pop career. “I didn’t want to upset my family. I had sold my car in Sabah and basically moved here on a one-way ticket to make my career. So I started working in cafes to support myself.”
What you might not know is that Henley’s businessman father had always encouraged him to find a “proper” job, one that clocked in at nine and back out again at six. In fact, he’d convinced the singer/actor to enter the quantity surveying sector as a means of securing his future. “My dad had told me before, you don’t have to love your work. Nobody loves their work. But when you do a good job and you see the money, that’s what motivates you to work harder,” he says with a chuckle.
Of course, Henley had to follow his passion, no matter where it would take him. After his Astro performances, that place was a previously well-known open-mike cafe. But he wasn’t under the spotlight there. Instead he was buzzing around tables as a waiter. By chance, several patrons recognised him and said, “Hey, aren’t you that guy on Astro? You should sing something for us!” After his boss heard him croon, he promptly told him to put down the drinks tray and focus on belting out songs instead.
“It was a great experience but I was ready to give up and go back home. My dad had always wanted me to take up the family business and I was close to saying yes when I saw a competition on 8TV at the end of 2006. It was another talent show but this time with over 500 participants. After numerous rounds and eliminations, it was finally whittled down to the top 24 singers.” Project Superstar would eventually lead to a contract with EMI, several studio albums, and the proper launch of Henley’s career.
“I didn’t tell my family anything but back home, I said, ‘Hey everyone, let’s watch some TV!’ and of course they suspected nothing. So we all sat down and they were happily surprised to see me on the show. In fact, I think my father enjoyed that moment more than anyone else. He actually started calling his friends to say, ‘Hey! My son is on TV,” Henley says in amusement.
To date, Henley has released five albums in total. The first in 2007 was composed by professional singer/songwriters. Since 2010, Henley has started composing and writing his own music. In fact, he’s even releasing a Malay single this year. In between, he’s been the frontman for a travel program, did several TV series, and even managed to spend some time in Taiwan where he improved his Chinese and recorded a TV show.
When asked to weigh the responsibilities and demands of acting versus singing, Henley says, “I prefer to work in a team and you can find that in acting. But singing is pretty much a solo thing. I find acting more comfortable for me. But you have to have a solid script that tells a good story. Then you can really bring out all the emotions when required.”
“I prefer to work in a team and you can find that in acting. But singing is pretty much a solo thing. I find acting more comfortable for me. But you have to have a solid script that tells a good story. Then you can really bring out all the emotions when required.”
You wouldn’t have guessed it but as a child, Henley says he was quite introverted. His brother was the superstar of the family, adding “I was actually happy to play the wallflower. My brother was always the center of attention and he was also great academically. I remember in Primary 6, being a prefect, the teachers had announced that every prefect had to read something on stage in front of the whole school. I panicked and quietly spoke to one of the teachers saying I am not ready for this. He was kind enough to let me off!”
When asked about his most challenging scene, Henley recalls a single fight sequence – from the upcoming action-thriller The Assistant, directed by Augustman’s Men of the Year award recipient Adrian Teh of PASKAL and Wira fame – which took six days to shoot. “Most fight scenes take maybe a few hours or a day. For this one, I had to work out twice a day and diet for a whole month. It was weight lifting in the morning and fight choreography in the evening. Fight scenes are like a dance, the important thing is to sync up with your partners to create a smooth experience.”
“Most fight scenes take maybe a few hours or a day. For this one, I had to work out twice a day and diet for a whole month. It was weight lifting in the morning and fight choreography in the evening. Fight scenes are like a dance, the important thing is to sync up with your partners to create a smooth experience.”
What’s next for this hardworking personality? “I’ll be going to Italy for the world premiere of The Assistant at the 24th Udine Far East Film Festival, and then in June we’re going to Turkey to shoot PASKAL 2. It’s going to be another wild ride but I’m really looking forward to bigger challenges.”
* The Assistant, directed by Adrian Teh, starring Iedil Dzuhrie Alaudin, Hairul Azreen and Henley Hii, is set for release in Malaysia on 19 May 2022. In addition to being selected for its worldwide premiere and competition at the 24th Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, the film has also been selected to screen at the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF) in Switzerland.
Words by ZECH PHARAMOND; photography by ERIC LOO; art direction by JOYCE LIM; styling by GRACE NARAMOL; hair & makeup by JOEY YAP; watches by RADO; location courtesy of SHERATON PETALING JAYA