Before Only God Forgives, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam had never acted. The 30-year-old Thai pop singer has been in the entertainment business since her first studio album at 16. She has a staunch fan base in Thailand with nearly half a million Instagram followers.
In director Nicolas Winding Refn’s violent crime thriller, out in theaters today, she portrays Mai, a stunningly beautiful prostitute who has an unconventional relationship with Ryan Gosling’s soft-spoken character Julian. She gets involved in his shady life in Bangkok, where he runs a boxing ring that also serves as a front for drug smuggling. Mirroring Gosling’s acting style in this film—he speaks very few words and channels raw emotion—Phongam relies on her facial expressions.
“He’s like my mentor and my brother and my first teacher in Hollywood,” Phongam says about Gosling. She enjoyed watching Gosling’s The Notebook and Blue Valentine before meeting the actor, who she says has a “very good sense of humor.” On the first day of her shoot, she arrived sick and feverishly red. He asked if she was blushing.
Phongam’s first scene wasn’t easy: it took her 30 takes to walk down a hall successfully. “I started as a singer, so I didn’t have any skills as an actor and this was my first time in front of camera,” she said. “But the good thing is I always want to learn and I always want to try. I’m a talkative person. I always asked Nic what he wanted while working on set.
“It’s really helped me a lot because sometimes you don’t know things and you’re trying to get to know things, and it’s a good experience for yourself,” she added.
In a pivotal scene in the movie, Julian introduces Mai to his overbearing mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) for the first time, and in a painfully uncomfortable exchange, Crystal ridicules Julian for having a small penis and Mai for having roots in prostitution.
Mai sits back and takes it all. Phongam’s inspiration during this scene was the idea that “silence is louder than speaking,” and that Mai loves and respects Julian so much that she needs to resist the urge to fight back. Phongam says she and Mai are both proud Thai women who find it important to have a sense of dignity. However, Phongam considered herself more “lively,” and if she had been in the same shoes, she “would have slapped her [Crystal] in the face.”
The actress wasn’t too concerned about Thai fans being critical of her role as a prostitute because she says Only God Forgives is “totally different” from other American films shot in Thailand such as The Hangover Part II. “Mai has some sort of dignity, and she never, ever lets Julian touch her body,” she says.
Since Only God Forgives, Phongam has starred in a few Thai films and soap operas, including a scary movie called Second Sight, which will be released next month in Thailand. A self-proclaimed horror-film fan and sci-fi nerd, she hopes to one day get the opportunity to work with director Steven Spielberg. Star Wars and Star Trek are on her list of favorite movies.
“Nowadays, I’m more of an actress than a singer,” she says.
Ironically, Phongam was once adamant about not getting involved in the entertainment business because her mother, Noi Phongam, was a famous comedic actress and constantly working. Phongam didn’t want to grow up to be like her mom, but her love for singing eventually led to a nearly 15-year career performing pop music. Cliff Martinez, the composer for Only God Forgives, even produced a track featuring her vocals on the soundtrack.
She looks back fondly at her entire experience shooting the film. “It was the first time we were rolling the camera, the first step when we were in Cannes together—I think almost everything,” says Phongam, remembering her most-cherished moment.
“I always told Nic I don’t know where I will go from here,” she says, “but I think I had the best director, the best co-star, the best team, and the best production team already. It was just only my first step. They will always be with me from here to where I don’t know. It’s a good memory.”