Meet Thailand's American superstar
Josef Essberger of EnglishClub talks to Peter Tuinstra
Josef: You're a foreigner in Thailand - an American - who speaks perfect Thai. That in itself is pretty rare. But you're also known here in Thailand as a superstar and heartthrob who takes on roles acting the part of a foreigner, but always speaking in Thai. I'd like to talk about your acting career, with special emphasis on acting in a foreign language. But first, could you tell me a little about your background and how you came to learn Thai in the first place?
Peter: I was in the military back in the states. I joined on the understanding that I would be trained as a linguist. I got assigned Thai. I did not choose it initially. So I studied Thai for my first year in the military eight hours a day, five days a week. At the end of that first year I took a test and passed. After which I worked as a Thai linguist for the next three years.
Josef: At the end of that first year you were fluent?
Peter: I was fluent in speaking, listening, reading and writing, but not to the degree that I am today of course. I've been living it for over 6 years since then, reading and speaking it every day. But, yes, I was functionally fluent at the end of that year. It was a very intensive course.
Josef: Why and how did you start in acting?
Peter: I came here, and I immediately knew I needed to have a job. I'd prepared ahead of time and I knew that to get a job as an English teacher I should be qualified other than just being a native speaker, so I did take some Teaching English as a Second Language courses back in the States and I volunteered as an English teacher to foreign nationals who were living in Washington DC at the time. With that experience and a little bit of pocket money I'd saved up - not much! - I applied for English teaching jobs at about three different schools in downtown Bangkok, and one of them I chose, they agreed to hire me, it was nearest to home. In the course of that first month of teaching English I got approached by a modeling agent and I got a modeling job, and that led to more castings for modeling jobs, and one of the castings that came up wasn't for a modeling job, it was for a TV show-that's how I got into acting.
Josef: So starting in modeling and then TV was completely coincidental?
Peter: Absolutely. It was not planned. The agent was a very professional guy. He sent me a couple of castings. I went to the castings and got hired for the jobs. I got paid better than I was making money teaching English and I said "Oh, this is a ball!" I kept going to more castings, got more jobs and before long I had to cut back on teaching English because I had enough modeling work coming in. Then he said, "OK, you've got this TV job now", so I went to the casting for it and after three castings got my first TV show, which was the lead male role, almost unheard of in the Thai industry because, I mean, how many roles are there for foreigners speaking English let alone the lead role, right? So it was kind of a fluke thing. I came to Thailand at the right time.
Josef: And what was that first TV show?
Peter: It was called "Boonrawd". That was the name of the lead female. It was also the name of the show. And when the work on the show commenced full time, I was already having a difficult time fitting in the modeling and finding English teachers to fill in for me, so I was able to stop teaching English at that point about six months in to being here. And from that point on I was lucky enough to have work to do other things. That's how I got started.
Josef: Am I right in thinking you had some previous experience in acting?
Peter: My father, when I was growing up, used to teach drama. So as a young kid I did do a couple of small plays, but then it all stopped because I got into football, baseball and other things, and my father wasn't teaching theatre anymore. Then when I was in the military, a year before I came to Thailand, just for fun I decided to go take some theatre acting classes at the local community college. I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun. I did a couple of castings and got a small part in a stage show. So I had limited acting experience when I came to Thailand. I wish I would have had more because the past six years has been a learning experience all along.
Josef: What roles have you played here in Thailand, and what sort of shows do you tend to work on?
Peter: I've done about nine nighttime soap opera show in the past six years. Usually the roles are the foreign boyfriend or husband and/or the businessman who for one of those two reasons speaks Thai in the show. And on other occasions, something interesting, I played a general, and in one of the shows I played a bad guy who was a character in someone else's dream&I like those roles, something different and interesting.
Josef: Have you acted here in Thailand on the stage?
Peter: I have. A few years back I did a stage show at the Bangkok Playhouse on Petchburi Road. That was fun.
Josef: Is there anyone or thing that has really influenced you in acting?
Peter: Well, there are lots of actors that I really like and admire, that are extremely talented and skilled, and that I look up to, but I can't say that I've watched and tried to emulate or anything like that. I've just admired and thought, "Wow it's incredible, I wish I had just a slither of that talent, something approaching their abilities". Edward Gordon Junior is a phenomenal man, Robert de Niro, but hey, there's a lot of good actors out there.
Josef: How do you get on with the Thai actors and directors?
Peter: Very well. I tend to get along well with anyone, for whatever reason. They've been very friendly to me, very accepting. So I've felt very comfortable with the people. You know Thais, how they are, they're very friendly and open. It's the same acting on the set. I never sort of felt that I was out of place, I was always made to feel comfortable which has made it all the more enjoyable. They're really helpful too. I mean I always get the script in Thai and sometimes I have questions. What does that mean exactly? I understand all the words, but what's it really saying? And I find, whether it's another actor, or the director or a stage-hand, everyone's always willing to come over and happy to help.
Josef: Are there any particular roles that you'd like to play?
Peter: Sometimes I think I'd enjoy playing something a little more sinister or evil, and be given the freedom to play it my way! I would enjoy playing something like that.
Josef: Let's talk a little more about language. How and when do you learn your lines?
Peter: Hmmm. That's a good question. I have to spend a lot more time than the Thais do on their lines. I get the scripts, in Thai, and I ask every production I do to give me a script as much in advance as they can. On occasions I've got it a month or so in advance but more often than not I get it a couple of days to a week in advance, and sometimes just before shooting the scene actually, so it's quite difficult. But when I'm fortunate enough to get it ahead of time I pore over those lines. I do my homework. You know, just like an English teacher, you don't just teach when you go into class, you have to prepare what you're going to teach, and your lesson plan. Same game in acting. I look at the script ahead of time before I shoot it to memorize the lines. I do it usually at home. And I've found that it helps to have the TV off and radio off and I actually say the lines out loud as opposed to reading them quietly in my head because if I do not they don't seem to stick. Sometimes I feel very confident. I'm walking down the street and think "Ha ha! I know my lines off by heart", but then I go to say them out live with my mouth moving and my voice coming out and I start forgetting them. But practicing them in my room actually saying them out loud - if someone were listening they'd think I was talking on the phone or something -- I've found that to be the best way, for me personally anyway, to rehearse my lines. It took me trial and error to realize that.
Josef: When you're doing that, do you also act the part out?
Peter: It was very difficult at first. Even today it's still a work in progress. But definitely for the first several years it was almost impossible to act. I was using 99.8% of my concentration to memorize the Thai lines and say them as clearly as possible, so I had very little ability to focus on the actual acting that I should be doing. And at that it should be something that comes naturally anyway. It's hard to be natural when you're trying to memorize you lines. In fact I remember that in the first couple of months of shooting my very first TV show I didn't even hear what the people were saying back to me. I was basically waiting for them to finish speaking and then spiel my next line. So it's been a learning process all along. Also, I've found that, at least in the Thai industry, it's almost impossible because it's not shot on a set, it's usually on location, so you never really know how it's going to be set up, or how the director's going to want you to be in that scene. I have thought in my head on occasion, "Okay, I'd like to do the scene this way", and I've prepared that way and I've got to the set and the director's had a completely different idea of how it needs to be done. And I mean he's the director so it's going to go his way, nine times out of ten! So I've found that whatever time I have to prepare is better spent just memorizing the lines and let everything else come naturally after seeing the director and how he wants the scene to be shot, where he wants me to stand, where he wants me to sit and all that.
Josef: Would you say you are now totally fluent in Thai?
Peter: It's a great question because people who aren't fluent assume that I am. But in reality no, not a hundred percent. For example, with the coup happening, there's a lot of vocabulary for the past week or two I've been going through my dictionary looking up Thai words for different types of coup. [Editor's note: Thailand had recently had a military coup d'état.] So, there are certain specialist subject matters that are going to come up where I don't necessarily know all the vocabulary. Another weak area of mine, having been classically trained in government school and taught by older Thai teachers, I know more formal vocabulary words but I'm not so good at the slang or idioms. Even though I've lived it for over six years I haven't quite mastered idiomatic sayings and slang words so much. But, yes, I would say certainly 90% plus fluency because I can go anywhere, I can talk about almost any subject matter with anyone, and if I don't know the vocabulary to deal with that subject I can usually talk around the subject.
Josef: And you understand everything that's going on all around you, on the telephone or watching TV&
Peter: Not 100%. I have found through my experience that different people have different natural gifts when it comes to languages. My natural gift is speaking, for whatever reason. I think it's genetic, that's my suspicion though I can't prove it. But listening has always been a weak area of mine. When I was studying Thai there were ten of us in a room together. Ten military guys. We all sat in the same room. Eight hours a day, five days a week for a whole year. But at the end of that year we all came out not only with varying degrees of efficiency and fluency but with varying degrees of skills in certain areas. For example, I was one of the best speakers in the class, but my listening was lacking. And the kid who sat right next to me and became a roommate later on, who should theoretically have had the exact same skills I did because he listened to the same teachers, for the same amount of time, in the same room, he could listen and understand 99% of what was said, but if you asked him to say something all his tones were way off, he couldn't get the accents right, and his speaking was just about half I'd say of what I could pronounce. His grammar was very good but his pronunciation was very difficult. So yes, again listening I would say is a weaker area for me. Now I understand, I would say, a lot better. When I first came phone call conversations were very difficult for me. Even though I could speak a good deal and I would make the other person usually feel quite confident, I'd have to tell him "Hold on, hold on, even though I'm talking with you my comprehension level isn't up to my speaking, please speak slower, what did you say?" I would dread direct phone conversations because it was harder than seeing that person. But now six plus years down the road I feel much more confident. I talk on the phone all the time and I get maybe 85% of what's said to me on the phone whereas I understand 95% of what's said to me face-to-face.
Josef: What you're saying is interesting, that people have different skills in language. Unfortunately it's not always recognized or, more important, accepted as something that's normal.
Peter: It's nature. The same as anything else, whether it's bodybuilding, whether it's football, or anything else, why should it be different with language?
Josef: How about writing? Thai has its own particular script. Did you learn to read and write with the Thai script in class?
Peter: Yes. I still read and write but writing is the skill I use least often so I'm most weak in that area, rather weaker than my listening right now. But I enjoy it, it's a lot of fun, and I strongly, strongly recommend anyone who wants to learn a Thai to learn the writing system. And even if they have no intent of ever using it, it just reinforces every other skill.
Josef: What do you think of the importance of speaking versus writing?
Peter: In my personal opinion I think it helps immensely to learn the reading system in addition to speaking. Most people are intimidated by it because they assume it's so difficult and it's never going to become something useful. But in reality you can look at it as support, like the base of a house. You don't look at the base of a house every day, but it's there. You may never learn the entire alphabet. You may never be fluent at writing. But I think it reinforces speaking. And it's never that difficult. If you just take three symbols a day and you memorize those three symbols and practice writing them as you say them out loud, come on, after a while it just sticks in your head, you can't forget it.
Josef: Accent. I presume you have an accent in Thai?
Peter: I've been told both things by Thai people. Sometimes, when I've spoken to somebody on the phone they've told me that they wouldn't know the difference. Other times I've had people comment to me, "Oh, you have an accent." So I think it depends on the subject matter I'm talking about, maybe the mood I'm in that day, maybe how much English I've been speaking for a couple of hours prior to having that conversation with that person. Various factors must influence it. But I've been told both so I'm not really the best person to judge.
Josef: Do you feel that being fluent in Thai, or any foreign language, changes the way in which you perceive or interact with the people?
Peter: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because you have a better understanding of what's really happening, what's really being said. No doubt about it.
Josef: Does it help you to understand the people themselves, their history, their culture, their way of thinking? Do you look at them differently, do you think?
Peter: That's a tough question. I know that's the easy answer, but I'm going to lean towards the yes side and the reason I say that is because in Thailand anyone who studies the language will know within a short period of time that simply by adding "khrap" at the end of a sentence makes the sentence much more polite. When I was first told that in the States I didn't understand. I thought, "Why would that be?" But after living here for a while I see that in the culture you get a lot more respect and openness from people if you've a "jai-orn" [soft-hearted] attitude--and one small symbol of that is adding "khrap". If you didn't know the language you'd have a difficult time learning that. And there's a number of foreigners from wherever who don't learn that. They get angry easily, if their beer isn't on time, if their beer isn't cold, they'll immediately complain and shout "I want another one!" If you do that in Thailand, okay, you're going to get your beer, but they'll look on you with a very unfavourable attitude and over time it could have consequences.
Josef: You don't know what's in the beer, either.
Peter: Exactly! Exactly! But if you live here long enough and don't speak the language maybe you're going to learn some of those things anyway, but maybe not as quickly as you would if you spoke the language.
Josef: Do you have any tips for learning a language like Thai with its own particular writing system?
Peter: The biggest one that I would suggest, and I get asked this question quite a lot, is go buy those little kiddie books, that have the alphabet, you know the ones that have the letters of the alphabet in dotted lines that you trace over, with pictures of chickens and cats or whatever. And the country's full of Thai people so grab one, whether it's your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your friend, your co-worker, treat them to lunch and ask them to pronounce each letter for you and when you've learned how to pronounce it say it each time as you trace it, "gor-gai, gor-gai, gor-gai". Do that 20, 30 50 times and it's just drilling it into your brain. If you've got 3 letters a day, say 3 days a week, that's only nine letters a week. It's just a matter of time. Sooner or later some of that writing will stick. That writing's going to reinforce everything else. And as I say it I can hear the people complaining, "Oh, that's too hard! It's way beyond me!" But it's really not as hard as they think. Just get over that initial scare factor. Just do it and make it fun. After you learn 6 letters, grab a Thai newspaper. Just find that letter "gor-gai". Go through it. Every time you see "gor-gai", circle it. Another one, circle it. In a period of time you're going to know the letters. Once you know the letters it's just a matter of putting them together to start making words. Once you know the words it's a matter of stringing them together to make sentences. Just one step at a time. Its very logical.
Josef: Have you ever had to change the lines of a show, or make any other changes to suit you better?
Peter: Oh yes. I've had to change some of the vocabulary words. Sometimes I've had to change the way a sentence is spoken because I couldn't get my mouth around the sentence in time before we filmed the scenes. I've had to do that on several occasions. And even the girl's name in my very first show, "Boonrawd", I couldn't say that name so I asked the director, "Could we change the name of the lead female?" And he said "No we can't!" I said "I don't understand. Let's just make her name 'Manee' or something like that, something easier to say. I'm the main guy in the show, why can't you change the name for me?" But now I look back this was a very famous show. It had been done previously in Thai history and everyone knew that it had. It's like changing the name of the movie "Gone with the Wind". You can't! It took me a week or two of practicing "Boonrawd" before I could say that name right. It was difficult!
Josef: What are you currently working on?
Peter: A couple of things. I have one personal project that's taking up a fair amount of my time. In the meantime, I do have an Internet radio station that I'm involved with called whozaa.com. That's a 24-hour hip hop station under the banner of Virgin Radio Thailand. So that eats up a bit of my time. And then I field phone calls. That's how I get my jobs now. I have a scene in a film that's shooting this month. Then a guest spot on a television show that's coming up soon.
Josef: You're in great shape. How do you keep fit?
Peter: By going to the gym consistently. I love it. It feels good. And once you do it you get addicted to it, like coffee or anything else. So that helps keep me in shape.
Josef: Is there anything you'd like to add about language?
Peter: I'd just close on a positive note and say let's be grateful for the fact that we live in a modern day and age and can travel to faraway places. So, keeping that in mind, just feel respectful and enjoy the place as much as you can, and make an effort to learn the language as best you can. We all have varying degrees of ability but that's the easiest way to show respect and admiration for your host country, right? And be happy to teach English to those that ask you too, because, you know, give and take!
Check out Peter's Thai translation services at: www.thaitranslated.com