A star is born: ML Piyapas Bhirom Bhakdi

ML Piyapas Bhirom Bhakdi never dreamed about becoming an actress. She did not harbour any ambitions, ever, to be a star of the big screen. And it certainly never crossed her mind, not even for a fleeting instant, that she might one day take the leading role in the most expensive film in the history of Thai film-making.

Yet here she is today in precisely that role. She’s more than halfway through filming Suriyothai, the historical epic based on the 500-year-old story of Thai heroine Queen Suriyothai, the wife of King Mahachakkraphat, who died in order that her husband might be saved during a Burmese attack on Ayutthaya.

Piyapas, of course, plays Queen Suriyothai.

When we meet in her oasis-like home she is quick to point out that she is not at all confident in her ability to act. “I’m still not sure if I’m good enough,“ she says. “It was really Her Majesty’s wish, this movie. She’s always been proud of Queen Suriyothai, a woman who sacrificed herself for her nation.” Piyapas’ mother, the late Thanpuying Viyada Kridakon na Ayudhya, was Her Majesty’s personal dresser, so the Queen has long known Piyapas.

Her Majesty encouraged Prince Chatrichalerm Yugala, otherwise known as Than Mui, to capture the legend on film around six years ago. And she wanted Piyapas to take the title role.

“My first thought was that I would ruin the movie. That’s what I am afraid of the most. It’s an honour that Her Majesty picked me, and Than Mui thinks that I’m okay. But at the same time I’m afraid that I might ruin everything. The other actors and actresses are top stars in Thailand, and the crew are the top people in the business.”

Her modesty is very real; there is a nervousness in her voice which suggests she might fear a quiz on the finer points of the trade. But while she may appear petite and even fragile dressed in her beige three- quarter length pants and white zip-up top, her physical movements suggest a certain vitality and strength. She excuses herself several times to answer the phone; her days are hectic and filled with numerous commitments.

After the initial shock of being cast was over, Piyapas says she didn’t hear anything further for some time, and thought the project had perhaps been postponed. Little did she know that those five years were being spent in painstaking research about the Ayutthaya period to make the film as authentic as possible.

When she got the news that it was going ahead, she spoke to Than Mui . “I said I don’t think I can do it. You had better make sure that I’m okay with a camera and I’m okay with acting.”

She had some basic training in the fundamentals just prior to filming getting underway last year. Since then, 15 to 20 days per month have been spent on the set, and there’s still around 30 per cent of the film left to shoot. “The big scenes haven’t been done yet – like the battle scene, which I’m afraid of!”

When I ask her if she’s been having fun, she answers thoughtfully. “It’s my character to have fun. Whatever I do, whether I like it or not, I try to get along with it. I try to feel that I like it, and that helps – it makes your work come out well while giving you peace of mind.”

She says she has gained a lot of experience by acting in this movie. “But, if you were to ask if I wanted to do it again, I would say no, thank you! Once is enough!” She laughs deeply – one certainly can’t imagine a director persuading her to appear in another film any time soon. “I am a movie-lover,” she says. “But before I didn’t realise that scenes that appear for two minutes in a movie can actually take three hours to make!”

Piyapas didn’t have a problem with Than Mui’s technique of giving actors the script just prior to filming, which he does to keep their acting fresh, as she wasn’t used to anything in the first place. What was difficult was the older Thai language the period-acting called for: “Nearly every day, before shooting, one of Than Mui’s colleagues would have to call a professor at Chulalongkorn to check whether what we were saying was alright.”

Queen Suriyothai’s existence is in fact disputed by some scholars. “For me, I believe in her,” Piyapas says. “I think she really is a part of the history of us. The details – I can’t say whether they are right or wrong, but Thai people have been told this story for hundreds of years. It is only some historians and critics who seriously question her. Perhaps she was created in the olden days because we needed a story to unite us – whether it’s true or not, it made us proud of ourselves. And you need to be proud of yourself, proud to be Thai.”

Comparisons with Anna and the King, given that they are both interpretations of Thai history, are bound to be made. Piyapat says the main difference between the two is that Anna and the King was made entirely by foreigners who didn’t understand Thai history. “I do understand why the committee made their decision to ban the film – they didn’t allow the film to be made here I the first place, so they couldn’t contradict themselves. I understand this. But, as I have seen the movie, I would like it to be shown here, just to show the people who disagreed with the committee – those people who believe Hollywood is God for movies – that it’s a lousy movie.”

Does she think the story could be a good film? She pauses. “It could be – but you have to understand that right from the beginning, even the book is wrong. Anna calls herself a governess – but she’s not. A governess looks after and lives with children. She was only an English tutor who came in to teach for a few hours a day. It’s wrong from the start.”

Suriyothai has taken up a lot of her time, and she does look forward to her life returning to normal. Her three children, Chitpas, who is almost 15, Nantaya, 12, and Naiyanobh, 10 have their own opinions about their mother-turned-actress. “They make fun of me, of course!” Piyapas says.

At the moment the children are studying in England at a school just outside London. They each left to study there when they turned 10. Her eldest child had suffered from allergies and digestive problems, and found that when she spent a summer there with a friend when she was nine, her health improved. The girls wanted to stay on, so the two families agreed to let them go back there to school “Because they were together, we felt better about it,” she says.

She laments that the house is so quiet without them, but believes she is giving them a big advantage in their lives by ensuring they have an international education. “When I do business with foreigners, I don’t have confidence with my English,” she explains. “If my children have the chance to study in England, they will have a good chance to know both worlds. They are Thai – and I believe that they should learn how to be real Thais. They have to learn how to wai, they have to respect older people, and learn our way of life. And I teach them our history.

“At the same time they know England, they know America and they know Europe. An education is the best thing I can give them – other things people can take away from you – what you have here,” she says, tapping her temple, “will stick with you all your life.”

Even with the children out of the house, Piyapas has a hectic existence. Married to Chutinant Bhirom Bhakdi, whose family owns the Boon Rawd Brewery enterprise, her time is spent helping to run the separate business the two of them own. She also owns an interior decorating business with a partner, although that has been scaled down compared to when they first started it.

In her quieter moments, Piyapas enjoys reading, playing a Gameboy or sleeping. She might curl up with a video – Moonstruck and The Thomas Crowne Affair are two of her favourites, while Audrey Hepburn is a favourite actress. She used to enjoy painting and drawing, and even took lessons, but these days does so more rarely. She tries to get away with her husband on weekends, when they like to go to Pattaya or Hua Hin, and a few trips abroad each year are made to England to visit the children.

The two were almost childhood sweethearts – their parents knew each other, and Piyapas was a friend of his sister. “We met when I was about ten! But nothing happened between us until I turned 19, then we became boyfriend and girlfriend.”

She turned down the opportunity to pursue her masters degree overseas when he persuaded her to marry him. Would she recommend marrying young to her children? “It really depends on the person. I knew my husband for a long time. I knew his character and his way of life well. We were boyfriend and girlfriend for almost three years before we got married.”

Her husband was worried about her acting in Suriyothai, and also about the impact it might have on their private lives – but he supported her nevertheless.

When I ask Piyapas whether she learned much about herself during the filming, her honest and straightforward answer is instructive of her strong character: “I think I had already learned about myself before the film.”

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