THE AIR IN THE Kwun Tong studio is heavy with emotion and Olivia Cheng Man-nga is in tears. Then reality kicks in as the director calls for a break.
One-time movie star Cheng is rehearsing the upcoming production of Closer, the award-winning drama by British playwright Philip Marber. Still in character, she retreats to a dark corner to pull herself together. It's her first acting role since quitting show business 14 years ago - and her first foray into theatre.
Cheng has taken on a demanding production for her stage debut. An intense work, Closer explores the nature of desire, love and betrayal through the relationships of two couples: photographer Anna (Cheng) and her dermatologist husband Larry (Stephen Au Kam-tong); and a struggling writer, Dan (Desmond Tang Wai-kit), and his stripper girlfriend Alice (Perry Chiu Woon).
But while some viewers were disturbed by its hard-nosed examination of infidelity - as depicted in the 2004 film version starring Julia Roberts - Cheng says the material doesn't bother her. 'In real-life relationships, the issues are more serious and complicated. Some of my friends are in similar situations. One is aware that her husband has an ongoing affair with her friend, but keeps quiet. And two other couples I know, the partners are having affairs with each other.'
Despite the long break, the 45-year-old says her return to acting has been stress-free. 'I don't have a great desire to return to films since I have appeared in so many,' she says. Cheng has received many offers to work in mainland film productions, but rejected them all. It's too much of a grind, she says.
As a teenager, she set the Hong Kong record for the high jump and was crowned Miss Hong Kong in 1979. She was the first local movie star to be photographed nude. Maintaining her interest in sport, Cheng went on to coach golf.
Closer producer Perry Chiu spotted Cheng's photo in a newspaper and thought she would be ideal for the part of Anna. 'I found her very feminine, attractive and she has an unusual air,' says Chiu, who is staging the play in collaboration with local company Spring- Time Stage Productions.
Cheng not only loved the idea of being on the stage, she was also drawn to the complexity of the story and the script's sharp dialogue. 'The couples use very harsh language, but it rings true,' she says. 'These are things people say to each other, but they're seldom used in plays or films. This drama brings them out.'
Cheng, who had mainly appeared in light comedies, helped translate the script into Cantonese, along with the appropriate profanities. 'The role requires me to talk a lot about sex, but normally I don't speak openly about it, or swear.'
The director, David Jiang Wei-guo, was struck by her determination. 'Sometimes, I'd suggest an improvement, and she'd be ready to do it the next day,' says Jiang, who is also dean of drama at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. 'She has made great progress.'
Cheng may have inherited some of her perseverance from her mother, Tsang Kee-yung, who, after her husband died, worked as a cleaner to raise her seven children.
But the actress attributes much of her determination to her high-jumping career at school. 'I was afraid of the height of the bar,' she says. 'But later, I realised that if I kept thinking about the difficulty of the jump, I would never clear it. I told myself I could do it.'
Cheng went on clear 1.58 metres in 1978, which remained the Hong Kong record for three years.
Nominated by a friend, she entered and won the Miss Hong Kong contest a year later while still in Form Seven. At that stage, Cheng had no intention of entering the movie business, having earned a place to study for a communications degree at Baptist University.
But within three months, she quit the course. 'I didn't want to burden my older siblings with having to pay my schooling,' she says. 'My mother was getting old and couldn't support me. I also thought that I could learn more outside school.'
Cheng went on to make nearly 40 movies, many of them box office hits. Most were light romances or comedies such as 1982's Till Death do We Scare, with Alan Tam Wing-lun, and A Family Affair (1984) with Sam Hui Koon-kit.
Unlike her fellow actors, Cheng seldom socialised in entertainment circles. 'I like acting as a job, but I don't enjoy activities people in entertainment favour, such as playing mahjong, smoking and drinking,' she says.
Instead, she developed wide-ranging interests: from film and theatre, she turned to travel, pottery and photography. The latter led to a venture that raised many eyebrows - nude portraiture. She was 26 and wanted a personal photo chronicle.
The island of Boracay in the Philippines, then relatively undeveloped, was her choice of backdrop. 'It came naturally,' she says. 'The place was so beautiful and you naturally wanted to take your clothes off.'
The photos of Cheng clad only in bikini bottoms and an artfully draped scarf became the talk of the town. Some 50,000 copies were sold on the first day alone. 'It was overwhelming,' recalls Closer cast member Tang. 'A lot of my secondary school classmates contributed money to buy the book.'
Cheng says the project was about keeping a photographic record rather than sexual liberation. Nevertheless, it encouraged a number of actors to pose for more revealing portraits.
In 1991 she discovered golf. Then 31, she quit showbiz to spend more time on the sport, winning a number of international prizes along the way. She became an instructor five years ago.
As a golf professional, Cheng maintains a healthy routine. She's up at six every morning to get to the greens early and is normally in bed by 10.30pm. At weekends she visits the Pinehill Advanced Training Centre in Tai Po, where she helps teach mentally handicapped children to make pottery as a form of art therapy.
Cheng and her husband, business executive Jeffrey Yu, have been married for 14 years. A devoted couple, they often travel together. 'The most important skill in nurturing a relationship is treating each other with respect and giving each other space,' she says.
It's her way of getting closer.
Closer opens tomorrow and runs until Jan 27, City Hall Theatre, Central, 8pm, $190-$290. Inquiries: 2793 1123