LSA100: Joy Sparker Siti Saleha wants to start paving the way for stronger women in film

With over a decade in the local TV and film industry, actress Siti Saleha asks a pertinent question: where are all the ‘strong women’ roles?

Perfectly poised, polished and charming: this is the picture that greets us on a pleasant Friday morning as Siti Saleha — or Sally, as the media fondly dubs her — steps into the studio for our cover shoot. But don’t be fooled by the ‘demure young lady’ persona that we often see Sally portray on the television. She brings an arresting demeanour and vulnerable relatability that’s impossible to ignore into the scene of the shoot today.

“If you’re happy, it just shows, right?” Sally trills cheerfully, setting the mood right from the get-go. “And for a lot of people, happiness is really everything. I’ve been through a lot both in my career and in life, and I’ve come to realise that it just shaped me to be who I am right now — a stronger person emotionally, physically, spiritually. I’ve learned that it’s important to find true joy and happiness in yourself, first and foremost.”

There’s something so sure and sincere in how Sally speaks about the experiences that shape her, bringing to mind the likes of Anne Hathaway, in a ‘gritty, down-to-earth princess’ sort of way. Sally strikes the perfect balance between being humble and recognising her own talents and hard work that have gotten her where she is. “I’m happy now,” she assures, smiling freely; her joy is contagious. “More than ever. And I want to keep spreading this strength to everyone — women, especially — who think that it’s impossible to get here. Life is a long, ongoing process but it’s also important to know that there’s a light at the end of that tunnel.”

Sally has spent the past year healing and focusing on herself. As the nation recovered from the blow of the pandemic, she immersed herself in her work within the entertainment industry, taking on several regular roles on TV such as Love in Lockdown and thriller series Hilang, as well as landing a part in Mamat Khalid’s action flick Rajawali.

Siti Saleha in Tory Burch
Siti Saleha wears Tory Burch Holiday 2022

On finding true joy in acting

Very few people in this world can say that they were born to do what they do. While not classically trained, Sally has what most would call an innate talent, complete with a deep love and passion for the arts. Her childhood was the stuff of ‘theatre kid’ fantasy: singing and dancing competitions, back-to-back stage performances, and even television commercials throughout her high school life.

“Growing up, I was that girl who would be talking to herself in front of the mirror,” Sally recalls, laughing. “I would even get caught sometimes. I’d notice my siblings behind me, standing by the door going like, ‘What is she doing?’ I felt that I was pretty charismatic, and that I would eventually end up on TV at some point. I don’t know, I think I was just very much a dreamer all my life.”

While she always enjoyed making a presence of herself, acting was something Sally simply picked up along the way and fell in love with. “In the beginning, it was good money,” she admits. “But over time I realised, ‘Hah, I actually really enjoy this.’ Then slowly, with experience, I improved myself and worked on my acting, trying to make it more ‘real’. Authenticity is very important to me. It was not easy to start with, but I persevered. With this kind of thing, you need a lot of perseverance.”

It wasn’t until Sally got her first acting gig that she began taking it seriously. “Back then I felt like I had something to prove, you know?” Sally muses. “Of course, there was a lot of criticism in the beginning. But I saw that as a good thing, something to push me forward. I had no idea that ten years later I would make it, winning awards and all.”

Sally first rose to fame in 2011 when she played the titular role in the drama series Nora Elena, but it’s clear that the growth in her career has been a steady one, and her hard work has paid off. Just last year, she was hailed as the Most Popular Actress for her role in the TV drama 7 Hari Mencintaiku, and also earned herself the coveted Malaysia Model Star Award, given out by the Asia Model Festival at Seoul, South Korea.

On shattering gender stereotypes

Siti “Sally” Saleha is not one to be typecast. A damsel in distress, a spoiled, rich daughter, a ditzy and airheaded beauty… the list goes on. Having discovered herself through acting, Sally knows now what she’s after when it comes to choosing the roles she wants to play. Yet, as skin-deep as each role may be, Sally approaches them with her natural grace and fine craft, as seen through her slew of glittering accolades.

Siti Saleha at the premiere of the thriller series, ‘Hilang’ that released earlier this year. (Photo credit: Instagram/@sallywho)
Siti Saleha at the premiere of the thriller series, ‘Hilang’ that released earlier this year. (Photo credit: Instagram/@sallywho)

“After years of being in the industry, you tend to become more careful about picking your characters,” says Sally. “You don’t want repetition, and of course you also don’t want to give the ‘wrong’ projection or views that you don’t personally believe in. Of course, at the start you’ll have to go through the masses’ choice. But as you tackle that, you gain experience and you grow, so that you can pave the way for better roles.”

After Sally’s first acting gig and going into theatre, the bright-eyed new kid on the acting block worked steadily in local television, where her fetching looks and sweet disposition relegated her to one-dimensional girlfriend or ‘persecuted woman’ roles. “The TV scene is still very much ‘what you see is what you get,” she laments. “Unfortunately, there are still a lot of roles that are quite demeaning and even degrading to women. I’m starting to make better choices about that, which also means more sacrifices.

“Recently I had to reject a very promising series based on a book — the author is a successful bestseller in Malaysia, but it completely goes against my principles, you know?” Sally adds. “The main female character gets abused, just publicly humiliated for the sake of the plot. And it gets very tiring for me to keep seeing that. So, I had to turn that down. I want to stay true to myself and my own principles.”

This is perhaps the reason why the role Sally took up earlier this year as Suzanna in the drama Love in Lockdown is one of her favourites to date. Set during the early stages of the pandemic, Mai Fernandez’s web series centres around the three households as they each face various challenges through the lockdowns. For Suzanna, her troubles involve her relationship with her husband and the disconnect that happens when they spend more time apart. And in an effort to mend it, the pair resorts to stealing brief moments with each other in between work.

“I play a doctor in this, a frontliner, and there’s a scene where I’m being intimate with my husband,” Sally explains. “It’s not explicit at all — the camera cuts to the outside, and you can just see the car shaking to imply something taking place. Then, cut to the next scene, we’re fully clothed and I’m fixing his hair. But the film ended up being labelled as ‘soft porn’.”

The scene in question, which is no more than three minutes at most, blew up on the Internet and became viral, drawing in criticism. Sally is not hesitant to point out the double standard that exists in this: “It’s like, if a man makes ‘inappropriate’ advances toward a woman, even when it’s non-consensual, it’s fine. It’s very degrading. But a woman has needs, too. And yet we can’t show that on screen. And why can’t we? That’s real. It’s a real thing, but it’s something we as a society tend to pretend doesn’t exist. It’s all taboo, very hush hush.”

Sally has since numbed herself to the backlash, remaining unfazed when numerous headlines paint the picture of Siti Saleha with words like ‘obscene’ and ‘indecent’, and all across social media she received negative comments. It’s all part and parcel of the industry, as Sally puts it. “It’s a certain type of mindset that exists, and it is very difficult to change. They ask me how I feel about what I did, like I did a crime or something, and I ask back, ‘Did you even watch the show and understand my character, or what she’s going through?’ Most of the time, they don’t. But it doesn’t get to me much anymore now. In one or two months, people forget and move on to the next sensational thing.”

Siti Saleha on the set of ‘Love in Lockdown’. (Photo credit: Instagram/@sallywho)
Siti Saleha on the set of ‘Love in Lockdown’. (Photo credit: Instagram/@sallywho)

On crafting strong female characters

In the background, the chorus of Coldplay’s The Scientist reaches its swell, and there’s a sobering feeling that fills the air. “Oh my God,” Sally says after a beat, laughing. “I’d say this is one of my most truthful interviews ever!” It’s refreshing to hear from someone within the industry about what can be improved; what is much needed to make it better.

When I bring up how we can create more meaningful and worthwhile stories for women, she says with a shrug, “Simple, we write it.” Her role in the ongoing drama series that won her the Most Popular Actress award, 7 Hari Mencintaiku (now in its third season) is such an example of the kind of ‘strong woman’ character that she wants to continue embodying in future projects.

“People loved that role,” she says. “And I’m glad. Mia, my character, is a very fierce and resilient type, very ‘I don’t give a damn’ kind of vibe. She’s dominant, but over time as she faces retain conflicts, she grows a lot as a person and becomes quite well-rounded in that sense. I think it’s all about the jalan cerita (storyline). It’s about telling a story and portraying good characters that can carry that story forward. When I read a script, I’m always like, ‘Where is the progress? Where is the character development?’ It’s not just about looking pretty on the TV screen. I want to be empowering. I want to leave an impact.”

It’s unsurprising, then, when Sally tells me that one of her biggest inspirations in the acting world is Reese Witherspoon. Despite going through toxic relationships and a divorce, the actress continues to use her real-life experiences to tell stories that other women can relate to, while still staying true to her bubbly, down-to-earth self.

“She went from being a very shy, Southern actress to becoming this very big-shot star, and she talks about women empowerment and so on, always from the woman’s perspective,” Sally gushes. “I mean, you can really see it from her work — from Legally Blonde to The Morning Show and Big Little Lies, she’s always emphasising the importance of women’s roles in society and doing more for women. It’s inspiring, and I really look up to her for that.”

With a sheepish smile, Sally shares that she hopes to someday write her own stories for women, and to be able to craft better narratives for female actors to work with in the future. Things are indeed changing, Sally affirms, but very slowly, so she wants to give the industry a bit of a push in the meantime.

“Maybe that’s my next step,” she says, by way of closing. Ever the free spirit, Sally merges her worldly wisdom with her dream to succeed. “I want to write something real. There are so many platforms now, so that could also mean that there is a lot more freedom, more room to write the stories that maybe would not get heard before. I don’t usually plan things, I let it find me as I go along. And I think that’s what makes life more interesting, if you don’t plan it. Just let it be, and life will take its course.”

LSA100: 100 Malaysians, 100 Milestones

Lifestyle Asia KL introduces LSA 100, an annual list that recognises Malaysia’s most influential names and celebrates their talents, contributions, successes and milestones. As the bellwether of style, travel, design, entertainment, business, sports, and more, these 100 Malaysians represent the next generation of go-getters who are paving the way for sharing their know-hows with the world through the power of digital media. LSA100 comprises five categories namely The Rule Breakers, The Joy Sparkers, The Dreamcatchers, The Rocketeers and The Explorers. Find out more about LSA100 Class of 2022, HERE

editor & creative direction MARTIN TEO | interview PUTERI YASMIN SURAYA | assisted by RONN TANN | production ERIC CHOW / BLINK STUDIO | makeup KF BONG | hair BIBIAN LEONG | stylist LYNDIA LEE | wardrobe TORY BURCH | special thanks DAUN & PETALS

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