Our interview with the cast of Wizards Of Warna Walk has just ended and as lead actress Emma Sofea turns to her TV mother Carmen Soo to bid her farewell, she exclaims, “Bye mummy!”
Indeed, Emma and Soo, along with the rest of the cast Datuk Afdlin Shauki, Mia Sara and Idan Aedan have become very much like a real family.
After all, the quintet spent around two months on set playing a fictional wizarding family earlier this year in the Malaysian adaptation of the popular American series, Disney’s Wizards Of Waverly Place.
Set in Kuala Lumpur, the 14-episode Wizards Of Warna Walk chronicles the magical adventures of the peranakan D’Cruz family.
Mum and dad Jasmin (Soo) and Norman (Afdlin) are wizards who run a kopitiam, Little NyoNyum. Meanwhile, the kids, Amelia (Emma), Alissa (Mia) and Aiden (Idan), have to navigate between school life, being teenagers and learning to use their magical abilities responsibly.
During an exclusive interview with StarLifestyle, the cast spills the beans on what it took to land their roles, what went on behind the scenes on set and the challenges they faced bringing the show to life.
Talents far and wide
Three hundred and fifty. That’s the number of children who vied for the three spots to play the D’Cruz siblings.
As it was an open casting, kids from all walks of life were considered and mulled over by producers in the span of seven weeks.
Idan, 15, describes the casting process: “For me, besides acting, I was asked to sing and dance as well. There were a number of callbacks and at times, we would be grouped with different sets of ‘families’ and we’d go through a scene together.”
Arriving at a decision was no easy feat, especially for the part of the show’s lead Amelia – the same character in the American version that first catapulted pop phenomenon Selena Gomez to fame. At just 13, Emma, who had no prior showbiz experience, prevailed.
“We tested many girls for the role of Amelia, and as she is the anchor for the series, it was important that we cast someone that audiences across South-East Asia can relate to,” says Christopher Ho, The Walt Disney Company South-East Asia’s director of multi-platform programming services for media networks.
“We found Emma’s acting style to be very natural, and for someone with no formal acting experience, she really impressed us with her abilities and range.”
Wizards Of Warna Walk, which features a peranakan family running a kopitiam, marks the first time the original American series is getting a localised adaptation. Photo: Disney
Seasoned comedian-turned-director Afdlin also sings her praises: “When I heard that this was her first time, I was like, ‘Are you for real?’
“Because she’s so comfortable on set. And as a director, you know if somebody is good or not. She’s really good.”
It’s been a while since Afdlin last appeared in front of the camera, focusing on directing and producing instead. He talks about returning to the spotlight: “Last year, I starred in (comedy-action film) Bikers Kental 2 and I caught the acting bug again.”
The 48-year-old was approached by producers to audition for the role, something he hasn’t done in a while.
“I grew up with Mickey Mouse. So it’s a childhood dream to be a part of Disney, and I thought, ‘Yes, of course, I’ll do the audition’.”
Incidentally, unknown to Afdlin, his real-life daughter Mia, had auditioned to be a part of Wizards Of Warna Walk earlier. “We didn’t realise we were doing the same show until later.”
Mia, who first forayed into showbiz in 2016, was initially nervous about auditioning.
“I would audition for a lot of things before but never get called back. When it happened, it felt like things are finally falling into place and all my hard work paid off,” says the 19-year-old.
Parents in fiction and in life
Soo, who played a hoity-toity socialite in the 2018 Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, inhabits the role of a caring mum this time around.
In real life, the 41-year-old actress just welcomed her first child last year.
After taking a year off to care for her daughter, she talks about getting back to work again.
“I started work again filming a Singaporean drama series and then I got this.
“So I was shooting two projects back to back. It was quite hard juggling my baby and my work,” recalls Soo, whose 18-month-old daughter was with her at Pinewood Studios, Johor, where Wizards Of Warna Walk was filmed.
Despite her busy schedule, the actress says she enjoyed being on the series, adding playing an on-screen mum even taught her a thing or two about being a mum in real life.
“As a new mum, it’s very interesting when I play this role. I look at my three teenage kids and I’m like, ‘OK, this is how it’s going to be.’ So it’s quite a learning experience for me.
“I actually talked to Afdlin on set quite a bit about parenting too like, ‘How do you talk to your daughter about this and that when she turned a certain age?’”
Around 350 kids auditioned for the three spots to play the D’Cruz siblings. Photo Disney
Being a father of two teens in real life, Afdlin certainly had no problems tapping into his paternal instincts for his character.
At one point in our interview, Afdlin turns to Mia and asks: “Am I different (as a father) in real life compared to on the show?”
Mia responds with a smile: “Yes. This is the first time I’ve worked full time with my dad and I discovered, usually, he’s very quiet but when he’s on set, he keeps telling me jokes and he plays music.”
Afdlin nods in agreement with his daughter’s observations, before adding: “One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you must keep the energy up during the shoot and have a playful mood because it’s long hours.
“I do it because if you alone are going strong but the rest are tired, it still doesn’t work. That’s why I always crack jokes on set.”
Afdlin’s fatherly nature naturally showed on set especially when his younger co-stars needed help.
“When someone forgets their lines and there’s like dead air, Afdlin would lighten up the situation and say something like, ‘If you were on an island, who would you bring with you?’ So then we would improv, which helps us a lot,” says Idan.
For the first time in forever
For its younger cast members, there’s always something new to uncover on the set of Wizards Of Warna Walk, especially for first-time actress Emma.
“I’ve never been on set. I’ve never filmed anything. Period. So when I first stepped on set, I was surprised.
“For example, the temperature on the set is actually quite cold,” she shares.
“I learned that it’s actually to keep the lights on set from heating up and exploding.”
Asked if she felt the pressure of playing the lead and filling Selena Gomez’s shoes, she responds: “The way Selena portrayed her character was obviously outstanding. She did an amazing job. For me, being a first-timer, I didn’t know what to expect but I felt I just had to believe in myself and that I can do it.”
One of the challenges of filming the series for the budding stars is having to act with computer-generated imagery (CGI).
“We’re not familiar with working with CGI. It’s important to listen to the visual effects crew who will tell us exactly where to stand and what to do,” Mia says.
Idaan adds: “At first, it was quite tricky but we eventually got used to it.”
Filming spanned two months. Idan and Emma, who are still in school, made sure their studies were still a priority throughout this time.
Idan is homeschooled and is tutored by his mum when he’s not filming while a teacher comes over and keeps Emma abreast on her studies on her day off.
Wizards Of Waverly Place, which ran from 2007 to 2012, was wildly successful. Its grand finale drew in over 10 million viewers and launched pop star Selena Gomez’s (far left) career.
Wizards Of Warna Walk marks the first time the original American series is getting a localised adaptation.
Disney’s move to churn out more localised content might have been spurred by the success of 2017’s Club Mickey Mouse, the Malaysian adaptation of American variety programme The Mickey Mouse Club.
In fact, Ho says Club Mickey Mouse is the No. 1 show on Disney Channel in South-East Asia.
He talks about choosing to adapt the series over other popular Disney shows like Hannah Montana and The Suite Life Of Zack & Cody.
“Our strategy is focused on what we believe will be the most appealing for individual markets across the region, and which stories will resonate locally.
“We tested several formats and Wizards was the top pick. More importantly, the show was popular with both boys and girls. The fantasy and comedy aspects, together with the family values that are core to the show, have universal appeal,” he explains.
To resonate with Malaysians, a significant amount of Bahasa Malaysia is incorporated into the script – including the use of pantuns! – besides featuring locally-composed music.
More than just the language, the series tries to capture the Malaysian way of life.
“In this show, we place a lot of importance on Asian values. So viewers will be able to see a lot of the common ways Asian parents discipline their children, for example,” Soo offers.
Beyond Malaysia, the series will also air in Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
“It’s a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to work internationally and this is the first big step to get there,” Mia enthuses.
Well, anything’s possible. Just be sure to work your magic!
Premiering Aug 30, Wizards Of Warna Walk airs every Friday at 1pm on Disney Channel (Astro Ch 615).
Photo: Astro Gempak