BANGKOK, Thailand — In late May, Thanapat Saisaymar was toiling in Thai-Burma hill country. By day, he hacked sugarcane to pay off family debts to a local godfather. By night, he bunked with up to 40 other workers in a small village.
Thanapat, 42, seemed to be just another machete swinger eking by. But on May 24, word raced across the plantation, via TV morning news, that he’d starred in a film that just won some illustrious contest in France.
The award was Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or. The film was “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Thanapat hadn’t mentioned to the other cane harvesters that he played the title role in a movie competing for cinema’s highest accolade. They didn't even know he had ever acted.
“I didn’t see any good reason to bring it up,” Thanapat said. “I’m not much of a braggart.”
Before “Uncle Boonmee,” Thanapat was unknown. He appeared in local bank commercials, a few soap operas and one forgotten horror flick. He got into acting only several years back on a whim after hearing about a need for extras in a war movie.
The Cannes victory, however, was not the moment that propelled him into a life of fame and fortune. For Thanapat, in fact, the critics’ fawning has changed almost nothing.
Thanapat is the son of rice farmers. His jobs over the last 12 months include roof welder, actor and plantation hand — in that order. He now lives outside Bangkok with his wife and small child on a fruit farm, which he tends for less than $250 a month.
His $5,300 take-home pay for “Uncle Boonmee” was enough to buy a home in his native Sri Sa Ket, a farming province in Thailand’s poor northeast. It was instead spent on partying friends, an ailing mother’s medical bills and a second-hand European car, which has since broken down.
“I basically spent it all during Songkran,” he said, referring to a boisterous week-long Thai new year’s festival in April. So little was left from that splurge that Thanapat was back in the fields by the time “Uncle Boonmee” screened the next month at Cannes.
“Even now, I’m back on a fruit farm because there’s no acting work,” he said. “At least my boss is nice. He’ll let me leave if I land a part.”
Thanapat Saisaymar, a Thai day laborer and occasional actor, on the set of "Uncle Boonmee."
(Courtesy of Kick the Machine Films)
That Thanapat is unknown, and so devoid of movie star pretense, is the reason Apichatpong Weerasethakul, an experimental Thai filmmaker, chose him for “Uncle Boonmee.”
In the film, a man stricken with kidney failure beholds his possible previous incarnations — buffalo, princess, ex-soldier — as he slips towards death. He is visited by a long-lost son, transformed into a “monkey ghost” with glowing red eyes, who warns that the end is nigh. His dead wife returns to comfort him along the way.
The film anchors this other-worldly voyage with Thanapat’s character, Uncle Boonmee, a kind-eyed, commonsensical farmer.
Thanapat’s acting agency typically promotes him as a smiling hayseed. “I could tell this guy is used to playing the bumpkin,” Apichatpong said. “I liked him. I needed a real person, not a caricature.”
Thanapat also strongly resembled the real Uncle Boonmee, a non-fictional man reputed to have seen past lives while meditating in rural Thai temples.
In trading experience for rawness of character, Apichatpong knew his lead actor would stumble. The director’s dislike of polished actors is legend. He often fills lead roles with strangers he approaches in nightclubs, restaurants or Bangkok’s Victory Monument, a hectic bus depot and teen shopping mecca. Though seldom commercially successful, his work is devoured by experimental cinema fans. Two previous films, "Blissfully Yours" and "Tropical Maladay," have won smaller prizes at Cannes.
“I was hard on him, I confess,” Apichatpong said. “He had this set idea of acting that was very soap opera.”
Thanapat struggled to mimic a dying man’s movements: the weak gait, the hunched back, the whispery dialogue. One night, when filming was 30 percent complete, he prepared to flee the set without telling the crew.
“I thought I would just run away,” Thanapat said. “I was so ashamed.”
Instead, Thanapat took a chance on the supernatural. The wife of a crew member claimed she’d seen the real Uncle Boonmee’s spirit hovering around the set. While filming at night, technicians claimed they felt the dead man was near.
“I was desperate. I prayed to his spirit, saying ‘Please stay with me. Make me become you.’”
It worked. The next morning, the actor limped onto set as if transformed. “I wasn’t acting anymore. I actually was Uncle Boonmee. Every action pleased the director greatly.”
Thanapat is not the only “Uncle Boonmee” actor who has returned to a mundane life after the Cannes win.
An actor portraying Boonmee’s younger relative, recruited at a night club, has been working at a 7-Eleven. The actress who played Boonmee’s wife is back to singing at a Bangkok restaurant. Many actors before them have failed to find commercial success after attention at Cannes, which honors the experimental and avant-garde.
“My regular actors all struggle,” Apichatpong said. “They have to understand I’m not offering any path to stardom.”
But Thanapat understood that from the start, he said. He appears largely unmoved by the prestigious award and has only minor regrets about the fast-blown money. He appears either too humble, or self-deprecating, to have expected a longer glimpse at grandeur.
“You know, cutting sugar cane, that’s exerting a lot of energy,” Thanapat said. “Really, acting is nothing.”