story | Amanda Leong, Staff Editor
photo | Alysha Chandra
Everyone knows Chris Lis ‘21. In Singapore’s sweltering heat, he is only ever dressed in his trademark suit – an outfit that we usually only see people on campus wearing if they’re part of Yale-NUS Student Investment Group or Yale-NUS Consulting.
He has sharp, delicate features, like a high-fashion model, or an exotic bird. On special occasions, he lets his hair down from its tight ponytail. Watching his soft golden-brown hair cascade down his shoulder, one might feel as if they are in a Pantene commercial. Sometimes, he even lets me braid it. Along with his lean appearance, it may account for why Chris is commonly known as ‘Jesus’. Perhaps a deeper reason for this nickname is the miracle that he is still alive, despite his erratic sleep cycle and meagre diet of bread, vegetables and coffee. But perhaps everyone only thinks that we know him. I fell out of my seat when I discovered Chris’ shocking past.
“I think you’d be great at acting. You’re so good at controlling your facial expressions,” I told Chris. In discussions about what courses to take this semester, I half-joked he should take ‘An Actor’s Journey’ by Professor Joan Macintosh to embrace the full liberal arts experience and complement his set of Mathematical, Computational and Statistical Sciences (MCS) courses with some art.
Off-handedly, he mentioned that he was a child actor. “I thought I told you about this before.”
The Chris I know, MCS God and computing extraordinaire, is also The Boy in ‘The Boy on a Galloping Horse’, a Polish feature film by director Adam Guzinski which was screened at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.
“Oh, well,” he shrugs.
He tells me that he was invited for a casting call. Two people came to his kindergarten and played a few games with the children. By the end of the session, he was given a business card.
“So I came back home and told my parents that I was going to act in a movie. They were like ‘sure, whatever’. They probably thought it was a child’s fantasy. My parents believe in me, but maybe not to that extent,” he laughs. His parents were actually very reluctant to go for the callback because it was winter – the weather was awful and it was cold. But young Chris was insistent.
What was so special about Chris, who at six years old had no acting experience, that he beat out all the other child actors groomed by their parents for potential fame?
“I don’t think I was very likeable. I was always saying what I honestly thought about other people,” he says. At four, his parents were called in by a teacher because he told her that he didn’t go to pre-school to play with toys. He had better toys at home and he wanted to learn, and her job was to teach. “It never occurred to me that I could be embarrassed. I was just never embarrassed, I don’t know why. I still have this reckless sense of fearlessness.” Perhaps this fearlessness was already in Chris from the very beginning, when he was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck.
In the movie, the boy’s father, a writer by profession, faces writer’s block. This creates a financial and emotional strain on his marriage. When his son falls seriously ill, his father brings him to a city hospital, travelling out from the countryside where they lived. On their journey there, the initially distant and emotionally stunted father bonds with his son. Their eventual closeness is symbolized by the son finally getting a toy car he really wanted before arriving at the hospital. The movie is titled ‘The Boy on a Galloping Horse’ because the boy trips over a twig, which looks like a galloping horse with a boy on it.
“It was a pretty bad movie. I don’t know where the director is now,” Chris says. Nevertheless, Chris tells me that being in the movie was one of the major events in his life because it made him grow up.
There was a lot of drama happening on set. He saw a couple break up because one of them cheated. People were upset with him because he made an on-set staff member cry. “I was making myself tea but someone else was trying to help me do it. I started shouting at her and said some mean things. Then, she started crying. I didn’t really understand why and so they explained to me why it was wrong,” Chris describes.
Being stuck with only adults to talk to for two-and-a-half months broke up the division between the world of adults and the world of children. They treated him like an equal and mentored him. He realized he could be part of the world of adults if he wanted to be and started to prefer the company of adults to his peers. When he went back to his kindergarten, he felt like he could not relate to his peers anymore.
Furthermore, the fact that he was able to act in a movie without any experience also made him realize that if he wanted to do something, he could. There was nothing to be afraid of going out of your comfort zone.
“When I was seven, I played this video game where there was a ‘Harvard University’ in the background. I asked my parents what that was and they told me that was the best university in the world. I was like, I want to go there.” That was how Chris started being interested in studying abroad and how he ultimately ended up in Yale-NUS College.
When I ask him why he didn’t continue acting, he tells me that he was exhausted from the intensive months of filming, where he had to memorize lines on the day itself and have multiple takes of scenes alongside juggling his school work.
But in a way, perhaps he has never stopped acting.
“After that, every day is sort of another movie, right? It never matters what things actually are. What really only matters for other people is how they see it, what they think they are. After that, you sort of continue acting. You continue acting your life.”
I thought I knew Chris Lis, but my flippant suggestion led to me seeing a whole different side to the ‘MCS Jesus’ I was familiar with. Maybe Chris is right – what really only matters for us is not what things actually are but how we think they are. We all just continue acting our lives.