Interview: Karen Mok

With a jazz album in English released November 2012, a second Hollywood film to her name and a husband in London, Karen Mok is going global. She shares her jet-setting high with us

Interview: Karen Mok

If Karen Mok weren’t such a grounded star, she might be phased by the latest twist in her roller-coaster life journey. The slightly built, whip-smart Eurasian girl with the enviable wavy mane who spent her childhood as Karen Joy Morris, and her 20s and 30s in the limelight as Karen Mok (her grandmother’s surname) China superstar, now has a semi-secret new identity. She lives half her days quietly incognito in London as Mrs Johannes Natterer.

As those in Asia with an interest in Hong Kong celebrity gossip will know, a year ago this month Mok (or rather Morris) married the European boy she first fell for as a 17-year-old United World College student in Italy. The youngsters went their separate ways after graduation – he to his native Germany and she to read Italian literature at the University College London and then back to Hong Kong to cut her debut album in 1993 – but the sparks re-ignited a couple of years ago after a school reunion. With their love affair happily back on track after more than two decades, do they regret that initial parting. “No, we’d probably have killed each other,” jokes the celebrity half of the new Natterers. “We’ve both matured a great deal.”  

Johannes now works in finance in London and has three children from a previous marriage. “Ready-made kids – brilliant!” quips Mok. “No need to go through all the hassle [of having babies]. They are all teenagers so we are like friends, which is cool,” she adds, seriously. So, a loving partner, an instant new family halfway around the globe and a sharp increase in frequent flier miles for the versatile performer, who at 42 is not ready to rest her voice or hang up her acting chops quite yet. Incidentally, does anyone actually call her Mrs Natterer (pronounced Nutter by the English)? “My mum does,” says the star with a grin.

Mok today is more open about her private life than when we last interviewed her for this magazine (in 2005). Then, and on our first meeting four years previously, she had insisted, polite but firm, on not discussing her relationships, if any. She and actor-director Stephen Fung were dating at that time (indeed, for nine years), but ironically it wasn’t until just before their split in 2007 that they publicly acknowledged the fact. Another ironic quirk of fate: Mok and Fung were both making films about tai chi last year (Man of Tai Chi and the Tai Chi trilogy respectively).

Interview Karen Mok

"Keanu Reeves was completely focused, really knew what he wanted. And he's a really nice guy, so he never lost his temper!"

In 2005, Mok had just completed her first Hollywood movie, Around the World in 80 Days, with Jackie Chan. Fast forward seven years and the actress has a second international credit under her belt. Man of Tai Chi, which was shot in Beijing and Hong Kong last year, is Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut. It’s one of a slew of emerging joint US-China productions, but with a host of CGI special effects to add in post it will be another year before it plays in cinemas.

Mok was alerted to the role by CAA (Creative Artists Agency), which represents her in Hollywood, and met Reeves in Beijing to discuss it. “We just hit it off,” she says happily. She admits to being a bit of a Keanu fan girl going into the project, and more so at its conclusion. “I was quite impressed,” she says when asked about the directorial talents of the actor who has encountered mixed reviews in front of the camera. “He was completely focused and really knew what he wanted. And he’s a really nice guy, so he never lost his temper with us!” In the action flick, which charts the exploits of a young modern-day martial artist played by Tiger Chen, Reeves is the bad guy and Mok the Hong Kong cop. “I’m quite good at that; I’ve got this tough look,” she says deadpan, noting she has tucked away quite a few police dramas in her 40-something local movie portfolio.

Mok is no slouch at a number of ‘looks’, collecting acting award nominations for God of Cookery (1996), Tempting Heart (1999), Wait ‘Til You’re Older (2005) and Mr Cinema (2007). Her career got off to a bright start with a Hong Kong Film Award for best supporting actress in Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (1995). (In this early outing, and Around the World in 80 Days, she was mistakenly credited as Morris not Mok.) Filming Man of Tai Chi was not without its hairy moments. “One scene has a car tumbling downhill with me in it. This is done by CGI afterwards of course, but to get shots of the interior the car was put on this big spit thing so it could turn – like roasting a pig. I was stuck inside. It was like being on a new roller coaster ride at Ocean Park!”

Cars may be something of a sore point with Mok, literally. While the star is posing for our cameras in the plush first-floor lounge at Lanson Place hotel in Causeway Bay, her flamboyant longtime PA Joey Chen (employed, his card states, by ‘The Mok-A-Bye Baby Workshop’) relates with not-yet-forgotten horror how she was knocked down by a taxi while crossing a nearby street this summer; Mok called him from the hospital. Thankfully her injuries were minor.

 

Interview Karen Mok 3

"Everyone's career evolves as they mature, and as the world changes as well. In any case I can't do something over and over again. I'd be bored out of my mind."

While Mok is buoyed by her marriage and thrilled to act alongside Reeves, the launch of a new album next month is elevating her excitement to fever pitch. In a brave move, and one that fits neatly into Mok’s track record of doing the unexpected – she toured regional theatres as the lead in the musical Rent in 2005-2006 and in 2008 launched her own perfume – she is releasing a jazz album in English (her last seven recordings, from 2002-2010, have been Mando-pop).

“I fell in love with jazz at university, so this is a dream come true,” she shares. “I knew I had to do a jazz album at some point.” Indeed, she had told us so back in 2001 at our first cover collaboration, when her pop music career was still taking shape. Back then, she had also mentioned the desire to do a stage musical: Mok is one of those rare individuals who act on her dreams. The seeds of this year’s release germinated in a casual discussion with Max Hole, chief operating officer of UMGI, the international division of Universal Music Group (Mok moved from Sony to Universal Music in 2009). “We both loved the idea of a Chinese artist doing jazz,” she says, excited.

They chose to record the album – “we are still ‘fighting’ about the name” – in Shanghai because of its past connection as the Paris of the Orient. Two tracks are in Chinese and the rest in English; Mok wrote one herself. It will be released globally. “Jazz is a huge genre and we wanted to make it in a style of our own,” explains Mok. “I don’t want to be seen as the Chinese Diana Krall; that’s not the idea. We want to create our own sound. So we are using Chinese instruments like the guzheng (zither), which I happen to play, but with an electronic effect. It’s exciting; you know, taking jazz standards but spicing them up in a funky manner. I don’t think anyone has done anything like this before.”

Does she see it as a risky move? “I think Universal Music know what they are doing,” she says calmly. “I’ve been doing pop since forever and I like to try things and surprise people. Everyone’s career evolves as they mature, and as the world changes as well. In any case I can’t do something over and over again. I’d be bored out of my mind.”

Interview Karen Mok 2

"I just want to make people happy. It gives me immense pleasure when fans come up and say one of my songs make them feel better. I feel very blessed that I'm in a position to touch people's hearts."

Once she has conquered a new audience of jazz lovers – and made converts out of her younger fans who may be unfamiliar with the genre – what’s next for Mok? She smiles. “It depends on what opportunities come along. I don’t have a master plan. I never really plan – I go with the flow. I just know what’s right for me and what’s not.”

She also confidently follows her heart when choosing the causes her celebrity status can help promote. Mok has lent her voice to Enlighten Hong Kong, which supports epileptics, and the Animals Asia Foundation, particularly its program to rescue Asiatic black bears in China. She won’t wear fur or exotic leather, thus garnering the support of Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). In 2007, she presented a documentary against human trafficking in Asia produced by the MTV Exit Foundation.

While admired and respected for her good works, Mok is not one to preach. Speaking about her music, she says: “There’s no specific message I’m out to tell the world. I just want to make people happy. It gives me immense pleasure when fans come up and say one of my songs made them feel better. I feel very blessed that I’m in a position to touch people’s hearts.”

Of the man who touched her own heart, 25 years ago, and now, she is momentarily less eloquent. Asked to describe the traits that attracted her to him – apart from the fact that “he’s very good looking” – she searches for words. “Erm . . . I didn’t marry Johannes for any specific quality, except of course that I love him. He’s the right guy for me. We’re different personalities, so we’re a good match, I’m too hyper” – she laughs – “a bit extreme sometimes, a typical Gemini. He’s a good shoulder to lean on.”

Before Natterer came back into her life, Mok she was a workaholic. Now she is relishing dividing her time between Hong Kong and London, between hectic and laid-back, ambition and pleasure. “I loved my work, perhaps a little too much; there was nothing else in my life really. So I think it’s time to balance that out a bit.”

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