Godfrey Gao – all 195cm of him – gets off the couch and greets me with a sneeze.
No, he’s not allergic to my presence; Gao is merely nursing a bad cold. But instead of bed rest, the Taiwanese-Canadian actor-model has to do a series of media interviews.
Gao, 32, was in Kuala Lumpur last month as a guest of Swarovski. He attended the lighting ceremony of the world’s first Swarovski Crystallised Merry-Go-Round in Pavilion KL.
(Each ride from the merry-go-round is priced at RM10 and proceeds are donated to Charity at Heart, Pavilion KL’s CSR initiative.)
As it’s for a good cause, Gao said “yes” when he was approached by Swarovski.
“And I am very excited about this merry-go-round,” he enthused. “Swarovski always puts up quite the show.” Last year, for instance, it showcased Asia’s tallest Christmas tree in the same mall.
Furthermore, Gao is already a fan of the Austrian brand.
“The first time I came across Swarovski, I was just a teen. My mum had a collection of crystals in her bedroom, and her prized possession was a swan from Swarovski,” recalled Gao with a wistful smile.
“When I earned my first pay cheque from part-time work, I bought a Swarovski necklace for my mum because I knew she liked the brand. She loves jewellery, so it was the perfect gift.”
Born in Canada on Sept 22, 1984, Gao was raised by a Taiwanese father and a Malaysian mother of Penang origin.
His humble beginnings in life can be traced back to Vancouver, where he graduated from Argyle Secondary School.
Then, at Capilano University (in Canada), his forays into the world of sports ranged from basketball and volleyball to taekwondo. Occasionally, he indulged in his love for playing the drums or deejaying (more on this later).
He modelled in fashion shows such as Mantique, Torino and Ecko, with early screen acting credits in Canadian productions Stargate SG-1 and Still Life. He then decided to base his career in Taipei, Taiwan, where his good looks were embraced by the industry. The rest, as they say, is history.
Popularly known in the Chinese-speaking world as Gao Yi Xiang, he rose to stardom through roles in Taiwanese TV serials Momo Love (2009) and Volleyball Lover (2010). His earlier dramas were The Kid From Heaven (2006), Love Queen (2006) and Bull Fighting (2007).
Gao became even more high-profile after modelling in Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2011 ready-to-wear campaign; he was the first ever Asian male to front the French luxury brand’s campaign. He was also the brand ambassador for skincare giant SK-II Men.
In 2013, Gao made his Hollywood debut in the feature adaptation of The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones. He played 800-year-old warlock Magnus Bane.
Gao revealed that when The Mortal Instruments was turned into TV series Shadowhunters, he was approached to reprise his role.
“But I was just too busy, and in the end, they decided to go with a brand new cast.”
Harry Shum Jr (of Glee) was hired to play Bane. “He made the character very much his own. I’m happy to see that it’s a popular show, and going into its second season.”
On the big screen, Gao will next be seen in The Jade Pendant.
Directed by Po-Chih Leong, the movie is a tragic love story, set against the lynching of 18 Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles in 1871.
“We filmed it in Utah, and it’s set for release next year. We are aiming for the international film festivals,” said Gao.
“Russell Wong plays my dad; a lot of well-known Asian actors are in it. It’s a very touching project for me, as it’s about the first group of Chinese who moved to America. They worked in gold mining and explored the country, but faced discrimination.”
The timeliness of the subject matter doesn’t escape Gao, what with the recent “whitewashing” controversy in Tinseltown. (For the uninitiated, Marvel’s Doctor Strange faced a backlash with its casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a character that is an Asian man in the comics. Similarly, the upcoming adaption of Japanese anime Ghost In The Shell was criticised for hiring Scarlett Johansson to play Major Motoko Kusanagi.)
“I think Tilda did a great job and from the looks of it, Scarlett’s going to kill it. But that’s Hollywood for you … the bottom line is still about the box office,” said Gao matter-of-factly. “To get ticket sales, you need to have familiar faces.”
“However, it is getting better in Hollywood,” he added. “There are more opportunities for Asians on the big screen. You will see a big change and hopefully, I get to be part of this change.”
Pining for Penang
For all his international success, Gao is still very proud of his Malaysian “link”.
“I haven’t been back in a while. The last time was in 2014 during Chinese New Year … I was in Penang for two weeks, and I got to see all my relatives and connect with distant cousins.”
Gao’s trip to KL for Swarovski coincided with his cousin’s wedding in Penang. “It’s a special day, and I can’t wait to go this weekend. She’s younger than me, and she’s getting married before me!”
He perks up at the thought of yummy grub that awaits him in the Pearl of the Orient.
“I can’t wait to have the famous cendol; I’m going to have two bowls of that! And visit my favourite food court in Gurney Drive.”
On Malaysian food, Gao rattles off a list of his faves: char kuey teow, nasi goreng and roti tissue. “The taste of Malaysian cuisine is so unique, I love the spices and the aroma.”
Asked about his proudest accomplishment to date, Gao answered after a pause: “Making a name for myself.”
“Contrary to belief, it didn’t come easy for me,” he mused. “Some people might say it was easy because I am tall and have great hair, but it involved a lot of hard work.
“In the beginning, I had to struggle … even now, I still audition for roles and get turned down. I am lucky to be in a position right now, where I can do other stuff besides modelling and acting. When you build a presence, you have the power to make a difference.”
A project that Gao lends his fame to is FilmAid Asia. The non-profit humanitarian organisation uses film and other media to bring life-saving information and psychological relief to refugees and other communities in need.
“I have been involved with FilmAid for the past three years, to help raise money to buy projectors and trucks, and build theatres for under-developed countries. We use film to educate and entertain displaced people around the world. I really hope to be able to visit one of the refugee camps.”
A good sport
Being an avid basketball player in his teenage years, Gao is still passionate about the sport. His love for basketball is well-documented on social media; Gao currently has 386,000 followers on Instagram (@godfreygao). He also created an Instagram account (@badboytheodore) for his adorable Pomeranian Theodore.
“I run a basketball camp every summer in China. With me as one of the coaches, the camp provides kids with a good basketball programme to improve their skills. And we always invite an NBA star (such as Ray Allen) to attend the camp.”
Not surprisingly, Gao is a big believer in sports building discipline.
“I am a very sports-oriented person and it has taught me a lot. Basketball has taught me about friendship and life, and when you’re struggling, about teamwork.
“When I was in high school, I spent most of my time with my basketball coach. He becomes like your second dad, teaching you about life experiences.”
Music is also a big part of Gao’s life.
“When I first moved to Taiwan from Canada, I did part-time gigs as a deejay. It was tough at times, as I would deejay small events in between acting to earn extra cash.”
His genre of music ranges from hip-hop to R&B and old school funk. Given his celebrity status, he is now hired for special appearances; he has deejayed for the openings of H&M in Singapore and Taiwan.
“It’s one of the things where I can just let go and focus on the music. I don’t know if people listen when I’m a deejay, but they do take a lot of pictures of me,” quipped Gao good-naturedly.
On his fashion sense, Gao described himself as “a casual guy”.
“I am very comfortable in jeans and T-shirt. When I’m into a particular trend, like say, denim, I will be dressed in denim for a long time. Some days, I am into suede or vintage stuff, or plain and simple. But I pay a lot of attention to detail; whenever I buy stuff, I look at the cut and how well it’s made.”
His flair for fashion has resulted in Flagship, an e-commerce brand he established with three Vancouver-based friends. “The latest stuff we have is hats in different colours. We definitely want to expand our fashion line and create more streetwear.”
Gao has another fashion brand in the pipeline, which focuses on utility workwear for men. “We have waterproof blazers and biker jackets that come with reflectors. We want to be creative with menswear and tech fabric … I can’t wait to show everyone what we’ve done.”
On his advice for young people who want to follow in his footsteps, Gao replied: “Work hard, and be confident in what you do.
“No matter what field you’re in, always believe in yourself.”