We went to Govandi, which is an area where there is a huge slum and people live in shacks on the side of the biggest landfill in Asia. I’ve seen poverty and underprivileged parts of society before, but this really was something that I’ve never experienced first-hand. It was shocking and eye-opening, as well as humbling to see these people with almost nothing smiling as we were greeted by them. The children are probably the ones who suffer the most. The sanitation and the quality of life for a child in these slums are extremely poor.
The charity has turned a bus into a classroom that can cater for quite a surprising number of children, and they travel around the slum every day educating these kids. It takes them out of the dark and depressing slums into an environment like a classroom, which is very lovely.
I met this one boy of 14 named Raja who, after joining the class in the bus, now wants to be a scientist. I saw his house, and it was surrounded by mud and sewage with a landfill beside it. I thought, well, something is going right here because, for a child to be living in such conditions and now have dreams of becoming a scientist, it comes from learning, reading and being told you can be anything that you want to be. We take education for granted in our world—I know I did, and I don’t now, absolutely not. It put everything into perspective in a very clear way. I’ve always wanted siblings—although I’m very close to my mum and dad because I’m an only child. But I guess I’m a big kid at heart anyway. My business is playing make-believe. I get to pretend I’m somebody else every day. I think that’s probably why I relate to young people and kids so well. They treat me as one of their own very quickly, and it’s probably why I’ve been drawn to causes that help underprivileged children and youth. They are our future; they are our great hope. You immerse a child in the right information and they can grow up to do great things.
On playing Gaston in Beauty and the Beast: I just hoped that they wouldn’t ask me to eat five-dozen eggs. I can’t do that. [Laughs] It was fantastic. I come from musical theatre and this was the first time I was going to sing in a film, and what better character to do it with than Gaston? I loved every minute of it.
It was a huge film to make and I’m very excited to see an audience watch it because it’s truly magical and delivers on all levels—to the new generation who’s never seen the Disney animation, as well as to us lot who grew up with it and loved every minute of it.
This article was first published in Esquire Malaysia's March 2017 issue.