He arrives an hour late for the interview. That’s probably not unusual for an actor who has just debuted in an $25-plus million Hollywood production, written and directed by cinema heavyweight Matt Dillon.
US newspaper reviews of his performance are glowing, the stuff of envy among new names trying to breaking into the cut-throat world of cinema.
However, this actor’s beige police pants, tatty baseball cap—and his paltry paycheck—don’t really fit the profile of a Hollywood actor.
Kem Sereyvuth was paid just $6,000 for a role starring alongside Dillon, James Caan and Gerard Depardieu.
Nonetheless, he is a star.
He is the 38-year-old Cambodian whose moonlighting as a motorcycle-taxi driver landed him the role as Dillon’s sidekick in the US actor’s directorial debut “City of Ghosts,” which opened to some critical acclaim in New York late last month.
“If I didn’t get the part I didn’t care. I didn’t have any experience, you know,” says Kem Sereyvuth sipping a milky iced-coffee at the budget Capitol guest house in Phnom Penh and talking affectionately of Dillon.
The Capitol was the fateful place in late 2000 where Kem Sereyvuth asked Dillon if he wanted a lift. The ensuing ride took them both a long way.
“City of Ghosts. Where You Go When You Can’t Turn Back.” The words jump off the huge movie poster Kem Sereyvuth is struggling to hold open.
It was just sent from New York. On a cylindrical cardboard, container the sender’s name “Dillon” is stamped above his return address on New York’s classy Upper West Side.
“Matt, he is a funny guy,” says Kem Sereyvuth searching for his own name, which he doesn’t find, on the massive print.
“I am really happy to work with him, because he is a very simple guy. He’s not a proud guy; he’s just humble,” Kem Sereyvuth says.
Kem Sereyvuth’s tale is compelling, but his brush with stardom is not one of Cambodian rags to Hollywood riches.
His is a story of a poor Cambodian who got lucky, brushed shoulders with stars, earned several thousand dollars, attended film festivals in the US, then returned to Cambodia in March to pick up where his life left off: At a police station on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
That said, Kem Sereyvuth has no regrets.
Reviews of the suspense thriller have varied, but many praise Kem Sereyvuth’s performance as the character Sok, a cyclo driver who befriends insurance scam artist Jimmy (Dillon) and eventually becomes his guide, guardian and unwavering ally in this Cambodia.
Dillon discovered Kem Sereyvuth, so the story goes, after searching Los Angeles, Thailand and Cambodia for the right actor to play the part.
He found his future plot partner hustling for moto-taxi customers on Christmas Day 2000 outside the Capitol.
Kem Sereyvuth is tall, jocular and speaks English well. Dillon was impressed.
He took the moto-taxi driver’s photograph, wrote down a contact telephone number, and the rest is cinematic history.
Though Kem Sereyvuth had seen only one English-language movie and had never acted, Dillon found raw talent buried underneath the police officer’s uniform Kem Sereyvuth wore to his casting audition.
“Hey, man, where do you want to go? You want to take my motorcycle to check out the interesting place? Something like that,” says Kem Sereyvuth, recounting the conversation he had when he first met Dillon.
He points to a rather beat-up Honda motorcycle nearby. It’s the same blue-colored bike he was driving when he met Dillon: It has become his “magic motorbike,” he says.
“It is the bike I had the chance to pick up Matt Dillon from the hotel. It has a good engine. It is like magic to me,” says Kem Sereyvuth, adding that he intends to hang on to this conveyor of good fortune.
Kem Sereyvuth has other lucky charms left over from his experience with cinema.
Producing a handful of photos of Dillon and himself in the US, where they attended the Sundance Film Festival in the US state of Utah and visited the US cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas together, Kem Sereyvuth tells how he won $30 playing blackjack at the MGM Grand casino.
Testimony to his visit to Las Vegas, he produces a plastic card key for the MGM Grand hotel which he fashioned into a key ring for his motorcycle keys.
Kem Sereyvuth smiles as he talks about visiting nightclubs with Dillon in “LA.”
“Landing [James] Caan and [Gerard] Depardieu…may have been a coup, but casting Sereyvuth Kem was a miracle,” the Los Angeles Times said in a review of City of Ghosts last month.
“Dillon not only hired an acting coach for him, he also had to teach him how to drive. He was so good in his early scenes that Dillon expanded his role, and he became, in a way, the heart of the film,” the Times said.
The Boston Herald spoke of the policeman-turned-actor in equally glowing terms. “Dillon’s most crucial casting was to find a Cambodian to play a local guide. The filmmaker got lucky when he found taxi driver Sereyvuth Kem,” the Herald wrote.
“The best thing was his attitude, his determination to learn and get it right. My producer used to say, ‘I think we got an angel over our head on this film,’” Dillon told the Herald.
Despite a meandering plot about fugitive US con men hiding out in Cambodia, “City of Ghosts” is beautifully shot and highly atmospheric.
“Dillon doesn’t tend to play the brightest bulbs in the room, and the notion of him making his directorial debut with a Graham Greene-style mystery set in Cambodia—the first film to be shot entirely on location there in 40 years—sounded like a joke,” Entertainment Weekly wrote last week. “The joke, however, is on anyone with lowered expectations. City of Ghosts turns out to be a supple, intriguing, and beautifully staged movie,” the Weekly wrote.
While few residents will recognize the movie-set Phnom Penh that actors Dillon, Depardieu, Caan and Stellan Skarsgard inhabit in “City of Ghosts,” there a many touches in which Cambodia rings true.
And the film includes a strongly acted scene by Phnom Penh Post publisher Michael Hayes.
Critics have blasted the loose plot, the tagged on and rather depthless characters played by Depardieu and Skarsgard and contend that the movie had “literary” pretensions it could not live up to.
But, as a first-time writer-actor-director, Dillon did not turn the production into a vanity project, the critics said. A good effort that was lost in its own execution, would probably sum up many critics’ sentiment.
Dillon is back in the US giving interviews about his experience while Kem Sereyvuth is back in Cambodia as anonymous as he once was, albeit $6,000 and a world of experience better off.
He recently finished an English language course at the Regent School of Business that was donated by overseas friends who he met through his acting role.
Until another acting opportunity opens up, Kem Sereyvuth is working at the Ministry of Interior’s transport office in Phnom Penh.
He says his wife and two children, who live in Takeo province, depend on his small, but steady, police salary of some $25 per month.
“City of Ghosts” did not make Sereyvuth Kem rich.
But Kem Sereyvuth says the pay was enough and the money has already been wisely invested: Some paddy fields, repairs to his farm in Takeo and some livestock.
“I love my farm. I love cows, bulls and hanging around in the peaceful village,” he says.
“I am very pleased for that compensation for the movie. Even if I just was paid $2,000, $3,000, I would be pleased,” he says, adding rhetorically “a Cambodian taxi driver like me?”
He wants another role. But in Cambodia’s acting circles—without youth, good looks or the right connections—it’s not likely to happen, he says.
Hollywood also has little influence over Cambodian audiences.
“Most Cambodian people have not seen the film…because the problem [is] they don’t understand the language. Promotion is very important,” Kem Sereyvuth says.
“City of Ghosts” has been available for the past two months on DVD and VCD format at markets and stores. Sales staff last month reported strong sales of the movie that retails for between $2 and $4.
Though the film did ruffle some feathers in the US with its portrayal of Cambodian women, it has yet to draw the same attacks in Phnom Penh.
Arizona State University Professor Melinda de Jess said she found the movie “very racist and problematic,” according to a report in the New York Daily News
“Cambodia is a backdrop for a story of white masculinity. There are almost no other representations of Cambodian women except as prostitutes in this film,” she said.
Dillon had hoped to screen the movie at Arizona State University in March, but the university refused.
When Dillon showed his movie off-campus, de Jess led a group of mostly Asian students who confronted Dillon on his directorial choices in a question-and-answer session following the screening.
According to reports, de Jess was particularly disturbed by the young ages of the girls portrayed in one scene set in an everyday Cambodian massage parlor.
Dillon defended the scene saying the depiction was a factual representation of the situation in Cambodia and called the professor a “paratrooper of political correctness,” the Daily News reported.
Commenting on the confrontation with the professor, Dillon said: “They offered me some books to read. Women’s Studies or something. I think they were being a little too politically correct.”
Kem Sereyvuth was at the showdown in Arizona, and remembers that Dillon was so angry with the feminist critique that “he couldn’t speak.” Kem Sereyvuth said he had a chance to answer the professor.
“It was for a dramatic point in the movie,” he explains. “We have the massage place like that. It is true in Cambodia. You don’t know about this?” he asks.
Has the experience changed Kem Sereyvuth’s life?
“I feel a bit different, but if I can’t get something different I must stay as before…. Just sitting and drinking palm wine in my village,” he says with a smile. “I love my palm tree, my mango tree.”
For now, Kem Sereyvuth wants to keep his job in the police force. If he stays until retirement—more than 15 years from now—he can get an Interior Ministry pension.
Of Dillon: “We are close, we are pals,” he says.
Of Sok: “I loved my character, because…I saved Matt Dillon’s life,” he says.
Finishing his iced coffee, the one-time movie star drives off on his magic motorcycle, is swallowed by the traffic, and is gone.