From Kabbalah to Christ: no wonder he hit a bit of hair turbulence
Jamie Dean Francis says people often mistake him for Jude Law, which would be a fair comparison except for the eyes - Law's are not as bright blue and eager as his.
But recently Francis, an English-born actor who has lived in Hong Kong since the handover, has looked less like the Hollywood heart-throb people mistake him for. Sporting shoulder-length brown locks and a sprouting beard, Francis is preparing for what he says is his most challenging role to date: playing Jesus in the musical Godspell.
The musical's whimsical portrayal of Jesus, based on the gospel according to St Matthew, suits the irrepressibly playful Francis.
'I thought he'd be fab for Jesus,' says Lindsey McAlister, the show's producer and director of Youth Arts Foundation (YAF). McAlister worked with Francis in YAF's production of Blood Brothers, and thought of him immediately when casting for Godspell. 'It's a mixed-genre show, like a patchwork quilt of music and dance and drama,' she says. 'Jamie is an all-around performer - a singer, dancer, and actor. He's stunning.'
Leading a cast of 11, Francis is leaping back onto centre stage after three years out of the limelight. Born into a family of performing artists, he began acting at the age of nine, followed by drama school and a short stint with a boy band that brought him to China in 1996. He came to Hong Kong 'just to be a part of history', one year later, and started a production company in 2000 called 2XL Productions.
The company was taking off, planning events with celebrities such as Olivia Newton John and Tom Cruise - 'but then Sars happened. I lost all my work in 24 hours. Entertainment is the first thing to go when a catastrophe like Sars happens.'
Francis ended up in hospital with a kidney stone. He knew then that he was done with performing for a while - he needed to relax and 'take time for my soul'. He began studying the Kabbalah in an attempt to harness positive energy in an environment racked with chaos.
'When the time was right, I would know when to perform again.' So, he took a teaching job to pay the bills and focused on writing and furthering his Kabbalah studies.
Godspell was the first audition Francis attended when he decided to return to the stage this year. 'I felt quite old compared with the people I was auditioning with. I was spellbound when I had a letter saying, 'Congratulations, we'd like you to play Jesus'. I nearly fell off the chair.'
After three years away from the boards, the actor had to resurrect his craft and begin his transformation. Trading his mohawk for hair extensions and coping with the itchy business of growing a beard, Francis developed his Jesus from the outside in.
'His hair has been a constant, turbulent journey,' McAlister says, joking. Francis refused to wear a wig, so, with just a few months to prepare, extensions were the only option. The locks have been twisted, tied, glued, ironed and otherwise anchored to his head during several sessions with a hair stylist. One fell out just before a photo shoot, he says, and he burned himself while trying to reattach it. Opening night is May 18.
Hair turbulence aside, Francis' rehearsal demeanour is a combination of focus and wit. Near the end of one dance number, the music and motion stop for his dramatic line: 'All your wrongs will be redressed'. As the moment approaches, Francis stands tall, blue eyes beaming, points to the audience ... and fumbles the line, sputtering out 'blah-blah' and laughing. But the piano picks up, and he's back in character, finishing the scene without a hitch. During breaks, he's still dancing. He revises and revises, marking the steps with the lyrics and correcting himself as he goes.
It's a difficult role, but he says he loves the challenge. Even after hours of rehearsal and training, the hardest part has been to truly feel it, he says. 'This role is the most challenging in terms of naturalism. I want to bring my own unique interpretation to Jesus. I'm not religious, but the show's message isn't about religion. It's about a spiritual journey.'
Having returned to acting, Francis says he intends to stay in Hong Kong for a few years, performing, writing and producing his own shows. He still dreams of being on Broadway and maybe nabbing a Tony Award - 'when the time is right', he says. 'I just try to continue the journey, from one project to the next.'
Godspell, May 18-20, May 24-27, Shouson Theatre, Hong Kong Arts Centre, $180, $240 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2734 9009