Man at His Best

Pete Teo’s tryst with Hollywood and mammon

A fine specimen.

BY jason tan | Apr 21, 2017 | Film & TV

Pete Teo woke up, opened his fridge and was almost killed by an avalanche of Mars Bars. We exaggerate for dramatic effect, but it happened. Pete had been flown to Wellington, New Zealand, for filming his part with Scarlett Johansson for Ghost in the Shell. One morning, he’d woken up, needed a sugar boost and asked for a Mars Bar from his personal driver (he also had a PA) who promptly got him one. The next day, the fridge thing happened. So now we know where an iota of the megabucks production budget went. Up close, Hollywood’s relationship with mammon was staggering even for a well-seasoned Pete. He’s really a budding organic farmer who’s forsaken Kuala Lumpur for, well, greener pastures. Who writes, sings, and acts. We catch up on groggy night to riff on nature, intelligence and artificial intelligence; the stuff of the movie.

ESQUIRE: What have you learned about nature since decamping to A Little Farm on a Hill? Go on, bust a few myths about nature for us.
Pete Teo: It’s all true and not a myth—nature is pretty special even without Richard Attenborough trampling around jumping into shot. It’s honest and good. The thing about the jungle is that it isn’t docile and obedient. It requires effort to live with and a willingness to learn its ways. Modernity tends to find the jungle threatening. I now find the opposite true. I’d rather deal with the remote dangers of being killed by a snake than death by 100 channels of reality TV.

ESQ: And the Malaysian jungle: how does it rate on the FOMO scale?
PT: The forest next to our farm is beautiful and magical. I rate it ‘10’, of course. I have no idea how to rate the rest of our Malaysian jungle. Is it still full of politicians and stockbrokers, like before?

ESQ: Are you an animal sorta guy? How do you relate to them since A Little Farm on a Hill?
PT: I’ve always loved animals. As a kid, I related to dogs better than to people. It hasn’t really changed. People are far more dangerous than animals. We have four farm dogs, a resident iguana that lives at the edge of one of our fish ponds, a family of hornbills nearby, loads of birds, boars and monkeys.
ESQ: Have you been eating more vegetables since being a farmer?
PT: Definitely. Fresh organic vegetables are particularly tasty when soil-grown, as all our crops are. We grow over 30 different types of fruits and vegetables at the farm and all of them taste better than their supermarket cousins. This isn’t necessarily because we’re great growers but because most conventional vegetables sold through supermarkets are in fact grown not for taste but for their ability to withstand the logistical rigours of transportation and market display. The types of tomato you buy at the supermarket, for instance, are hybrids with thicker skin and often harvested when still unripe. They aren’t grown or harvested for taste.

ESQ: Are you carnivore, herbivore, omnivore or something else? Terribly limiting labels!
PT: I used to love meat and not eat vegetables at all. But now I eat vegetables. I’m a born-again omnivore.

ESQ: Are you animal, vegetable or mineral, or all of the above or something else?
PT: I’m all of the above—an amalgam of carbon, water, nitrogen and minerals and enzymes and electrons. We all are.

Pete Teo with Takeshi Kitano on set in Wellington.

ESQ: Let’s talk about intelligence. The BBC recently had sensational coverage about Stephen Hawking’s warning about the threat of artificial intelligence to humanity. Do you think he’s bonkers?
PT: Arthur C Clark had an interesting angle in his classic novel Childhood’s End, where he put forward the idea that the destiny of humans as a species is indeed to give birth to and be replaced by a better versions of ourselves—intelligent robots. I’m not sure I disagree. We’ve been pretty rubbish so far and frankly need replacing.

ESQ: Speaking of shells: how much does Pete Teo identify with his body? And his mind?
PT: I’m both body and mind. Shell and ghost. I’m not certain one can do without the other, regardless of what Masamune Shirow thinks.

ESQ: Say something to plug the movie.
PT: My part in Ghost in the Shell isn’t big, although the character certainly was larger than life. They flew me to Wellington for a month—almost three weeks in the make-up chair and wardrobe, just to get the look, then a week of shooting. It was my first blockbuster Hollywood experience and nothing really prepares you for it—the size, the organisation, the professionalism, the huge number of people, and the enormity of the business. As with all film sets there was a lot of waiting around. Luckily my trailer was right next to Kitano Takeshi’s and I had a chance to spend time with him. I’ve been a huge fan of his for years and being able to talk with him was the highlight of the shoot. We spoke about his films and what I do, I played the guitar for him, he gave me an autographed present. Lots of artists diminish in size up close but not Kitano-san. He was a very shy man but funny. He was not at all disappointing.
ESQ: And Scarlett?
PT: My scene was with Scarlett Johansson. She was friendly, easy to work with and very sporting. You can always tell an actor’s character from their attitude to crew and fellow actors. She was always chatty and respectful. Pilou Asbaek, who plays Batou, is exactly the same. His career is on the up and you’ll be hearing a lot more of him.
Michael Pitt did an amazing job playing arch-villain Kuze. He’s a musician like me. We jammed in his room a few times. He recorded a live performance of me playing one of my songs on his badly tuned guitar—Shine. He said he’d send the recording to me. Still waiting! I must remember to remind him. He’s a hugely talented actor; very intense and very well prepared. I bought a guitar while I was on set just to help pass the time and wanted to give that guitar to Michael when I left. But I changed my mind because I’d fallen in love with it by then. I’ll buy him another next time we meet, if we ever. And I’ve no words to describe Juliette Binoche. From the moment she arrived at work, luggage in hand, to her first time on set and her general demeanour, she was just sheer class. Unfortunately we didn’t get much time to talk but she was amazing. I hope we’ll meet again. Anyway, the entire month was like “Pete went down the rabbit hole”. Fun, as you can imagine. As a bonus, the film turned out brilliantly too. Go watch it.