SENI FOKUS: Smitten With Sara Ali – An Exclusive With The Best Actress Nominee, Film Buff & Natalie Portman Stan
Exactly two minutes before we were due to have her in our offices, Sara Ali sends us a text saying she has arrived. Flustered, us at The Daily Seni rushed to the door to welcome the petite actress into our headquarters and sat her down while we stifled our excitement with zero cool.
Here was one of the nominees at this year’s Festival Filem Malaysia (FFM); we were huge fans of her work (Songlap, Teater Kompilasi Nam Ron Vol. 2) and it was quite alarming having to interact with the humble and friendly Sara Ali because she is so startlingly gorgeous and animated in person.
Only 25, the young talent has now scored two nominations for Best Actress at the FFM, Malaysia’s highest award given out in the film industry (you could say it’s our version of the Oscars). This year, her work in horror-comedy Kami Histeria garnered another nod from the jury and she starts by explaining to us that she wasn’t expecting it.
From humble beginnings to hysterical success
“I was quite shocked when I heard my name,” she recalls on being nominated this year.
“I was up there with Maya Karin, Lisa Surihani and Fazura! I thought that even if I were to be nominated it would have been for Best Supporting Actress.”
You see, when Sara signed up for Kami Histeria, she was locked as the second lead while Diana Danielle was listed down as main lead.
In the Shamyl Othman-directed film, Sara also got to work with Fazura (nominated for Best Supporting Actress this year for her turn in Kami Histeria), who she deems “extremely professional”.
“Kita rehearse dengan Fazura one day saja – I was like, nervous wreck gila babi,” she reveals.
“But she’s fun! She’s really good too – she’s punctual, skrip baca, dah makeup terus start rehearse. So lepas dia masuk set, kitorang dah takut sikit.”
Sara plays Bad in the film, a daring yet sensitive rebel (a tsundere if you speak anime and manga) who brings her bandmates to look for a particular langsuir (the Malay equivalent to a banshee). This came about after the band realizes that the langsuir‘s vocals gave an extra edge to their songs.
It’s a hilarious film which boasts some exceptional writing – it even made our Top 5 Local Movies list at the end of last year.
Kami Histeria‘s cast consists of mainly females: the film’s titular pop-rock band is made up of Laila (Diana Danielle), Bad (Sara Ali), Peanut (Nad Zainal), Jojo (Umie Omar) and Airin (Mila Jirin).
“Lima budak perempuan is a bit hard to control lah, Shamyl pun susah,” reminisces Sara, chuckling.
“Masa I shoot Kami Histeria, I was 22 or 23. We were shooting it at the end of 2012, it was during puasa and I was quite young!”
Sara credits how well it all went to production house RED Communications (REDcomm). The team helped her greatly by preparing everything necessary for her character, such as makeup, styling and wardrobe.
“REDComm cut and coloured my hair red so I get to play Bad, not Sara Ali. With them, you don’t need to bawa baju, diorang kasik baju so when I get on set, I automatically become Bad.”
The first major highlight of Sara’s career came in the critically-acclaimed Songlap, a REDComm production like Kami Histeria. She attributes her success in the industry to the production house, as well as Lina Tan and Farid Ramli.
“Without REDComm, I wouldn’t be here,” she graciously admits.
“Shamyl personally chose Nad Zainal for Peanut; he let Farid choose the other actors. I have to thank Farid sebab tak ramai casting directors di Malaysia.”
Kami Histeria is up for eight awards at FFM27, including Most Promising Actress (Nad Zainal) and Most Promising Director (Shamyl Othman).
But is she placing any hopes on a Best Actress trophy?
“Hope is a really dangerous word,” she begins.
“Let me just say that I’m grateful and honoured to be one of the nominees. I’m quite surprised, but not as surprised the first time I was nominated for Best Actress in Songlap, as that time I was new and was like what the hell! This time, to be nominated among these three superstars… I mean like, siapa perempuan ini kan?”
“I always thought I would be in an architecture firm. To be in this industry without any background in film or acting… I honestly don’t hope for anything.”
Sara got her first gig five months after graduating with a degree in architecture, and less than five years later has amassed two Best Actress nominations at the FFM as well as a Most Promising Actress nomination back in 2011 for Kabir Bhatia‘s Nur Kasih The Movie.
All that she knows about acting she’s picked up from working with various significant local stars; her first film with Grand Brilliance (Sesuatu Yang Tertinggal) put her alongside actors such as Nam Ron and Beto Kusyairi, people she would openly ask for help. She claims that it wasn’t until Songlap that she finally understood the craft.
“With Songlap, I could go deeper and deeper [into character research] because of its script. Dekat situ lah I could question and understand why my character behaves the way she does, and I also learned that your script is your bible, or your al-Quran on set.”
Her strengths as an actress include memorizing dialogue. She tells us that she retains lines in her head easily, and sometimes even remembers her co-stars lines.
Progressing through a creative journey
Outspoken and extremely passionate, Sara goes to great lengths describing the things she’s seen – even getting out of her chair every so often to illustrate something at great length.
Within minutes of being in her presence, it becomes clear that she’s extremely taken by the world of cinema. In fact, Sara has watched many of the nominated films and have them all analyzed in her head.
“Terbaik Dari Langit is my favourite! It’s simple, it’s about friendship and the soundtrack is just perfect,” she confesses.
At one point during the interview, she retrieves her phone to play us a clip from the film, which features the character Berg (Bront Palarae). There’s a line in here that bears special meaning to her.
“Hidup bermula dari kesedaran, bukan mimpi atau angan-angan,” states Sara slowly, pre-empting each line playing from her phone.
“Disebabkan dialog ini, I tersedar suatu benda. I need to try out directing, cuma tak tahu bila. Masa Terbaik Dari Langit keluar, ramai orang yang suruh I direct. Even this year, around eight to nine people have told me that I should be a director!”
The thing is, Sara believes in callings.
Given the path her own life has taken, she feels that her next step is to be a director. This time however, the desire to direct has begun to manifest in her behaviour on set. During the Kami Histeria shoot, she kept focus on director Shamyl Othman and also took notes.
Sara gets absorbed in films quite intensely, often using it as an outlet for built-up tension. It’s a medium that’s extremely important to her, and it’s also one that has taught her most of what she knows in acting.
“Kalau you tanya macam mana I belajar, I suka tengok movie and feel lebih,” she divulges, noting that movies like Les Miserables make her weep in front of the screen.
“When I get stressed, I don’t go out with my friends. I release masa tengok movie, nangis.”
Her favourite performer of all-time is Natalie Portman, and she lights up whenever she talks about the Hollywood actress. Sara honestly believes that she can pull off all of Natalie Portman’s roles and she’s even spent a fair bit of time studying the way the actress portrays her characters.
“I can, I can! I bukannya cakap besar, I memang boleh,” she insists.
“Masa dalam toilet I dah hafal semua scene dia – I memang kuat berangan. I love her expressions, I love the way she delivers her dialogue. The way she says and expresses things is different from the rest. V for Vendetta boleh, Black Swan pun I boleh main.”
One of the projects she enjoyed working on was TV9‘s Luluhnya Sebuah Ikrar, in which she plays a rape victim who slowly transforms over the course of several episodes, becoming more and more disturbed. It was a 14-episode series directed by Joyce Lee and Ho Chee Wai, and it also starred Zul Ariffin and Ryzal Jaafar.
“When I did the drama, I got to play with character transition. When you work with non-Malay directors in a Malay drama, they’re very serious about things. They even did research beforehand to help me study the stages my character goes through.”
The trials and tribulations of Malaysian cinema
Unfortunately, it’s not all smooth-sailing in the world of Sara Ali when it comes to the local film industry. She notes that Malaysian films still have some way to go and she connects this to audience-pandering as well as filmmakers and producer who use the film industry to make money instead of expressing creatively.
“Kahwin, cinta tiga segi, sama ada kau kena rogol, kena kahwin, atau mak bapak suruh kahwin – in one of my projects I finally lost it, sebab I dah tak rasa. I had to take a break from acting just to stay away from the industry and live life.”
“We say we try to give audiences what they want, and this is the problem. Kita mengikut sangat apa yang kita fikir audience nak,” she notes.
“I believe most of us are still sleeping; kalau dalam Islam this reminds me of surah Al-Kahfi.”
In the surah (found in the Quran), a group of young believers take refuge in a cafe to avoid persecution, where they fall asleep for over 300 years. When they finally wake up, times have changed: the region now welcomes their beliefs.
“Kita punya filmmakers hebat jugak, tapi where did it all go wrong? Apa salah kita, macam kena sumpah ni. Have we not learned yet? Film is a form of education for me – I used to ponteng sekolah to tengok wayang.”
“I know kalau kita nak educate the people out there, it’s going to take long and it’s not as easy as feeding them films like Terbaik Dari Langit and Bunohan. But the people up there who are really in charge of the industry, kalau diorang support us to continue making movies like these, lama-lama our audiences will be educated.”
On lagging box office tallies, Sara begs us to reconsider Malaysian traffic conditions which often make a trip to the cinema a downright chore. To her, the problem can be traced back to the advent of local shopping malls and how cinema has become part of the shopping experience.
“In Hollywood, the cinema gets its own place in town – it’s not just part of the mall.”
“This is a problem here, because if I say I want to watch a movie, I want to just head to a cinema and not go shopping. Also dengan MRT tak siap, orang pun malas nak pergi mall,” she adds, half in jest.
Sara may have her gripes against the standard of filmmaking in modern Malaysia but she’s also convinced that it’s getting better. For one, she states that the film selection of this year’s Festival Filem Malaysia is a big step in the right direction.
“I’m seeing positivity in our industry. This is the first time Kabir Bhatia has been nominated for Best Film and Best Director. Personally, I’ve worked with Kabir, and he’s very good. Liew Seng Tat is quite good too; he’s a Chinese guy who understands Malay culture and I want to add that I saw nothing wrong depicted in his film.”
Geeking out over Hollywood blockbusters
We steer the conversation into Hollywood and ask Sara some key questions.
Eventually, we learn that her favourite directors are Danny Boyle and Christopher Nolan, and here she spends a good ten minutes or so gushing on Christopher Nolan’s directorial choices in Insterstellar.
“With Interstellar, Nolan has outdone himself,” she starts, highly enthusiastic.
“He’s going to have a problem for his next film! It’s almost like he’s saying “screw you, Gravity!” with this film. I’m not power gila in science, but I could believe the logic of Insterstellar.“
Sara is detailed in explaining what she likes about the film. She describes a scene in which Matthew McConnaughey is crying, and lauds how the film chose not to show him face-front, instead opting for shoulder and profile shots.
“And Matthew McConnaughey: dia terer lah sekarang! Macam mana dia boleh jadi gempak gila?“
“When I watched Insterstellar kat Bosnia, I was like, f**k, Nolan…! If I get to meet him, I am going to ask him what’s his next project because I don’t know how he’s going to make something better than what he’s done.”
As for Danny Boyle, she’s impressed by his ability of turning a book like 127 Hours into a riveting film. The Oscar-nominated film featured James Franco as canyoneer Aron Ralston who was trapped by a boulder in a desert for over 5 days.
While not completely enamoured with Steven Spielberg, she has very high regards for Lincoln.
“I think he told the story of Abraham Lincoln the best. Selalunya directors akan letak the big speech at the end of a film, but Spielberg chose to start the film with it instead. At the end of the movie, he manages to find a brand new speech – one that isn’t as well-known – and make it a huge moment.”
She adds, “It’s interesting when we get to watch something done in a smart way that doesn’t feel like propaganda; Spielberg has managed to show Lincoln as a character.”
The most recent film she’s seen? Ant-Man. While initially unenthusiastic by the film’s promotional campaign, she felt that the story was well done and by her standards, it qualifies as a good film.
Before we knew it, an hour and a half has gone by in the blink of an eye, and we’ve spent more than twice our allotted time with Sara Ali, discussing film – now was time to bid our farewells.
Before she leaves, she has just one last anecdote to share about her obsession with cinema.
“Once, my cameraman asked me a question that to this date I cannot answer. He asked me if I do anything else outside acting and film in my spare time,” she says to us.
“I answered that I also read books, but he made me realize that while I’m reading I’m still composing and compiling shots in my head and seeing stories play out like they were movies. Even when I’m here, looking at you guys, this is like a movie. “
“Sampai sekarang I masih tak tahu if I boleh lari dari filem.”