Widely known for playing the role of a pious young woman in several movies and TV soaps, Zaskia Adya Mecca is taking on a more challenging role in her latest film, Sang Pencerah (The Enlightener), a movie about national hero Ahmad Dahlan.
“Zaskia, look over here! On your right, please,” shouted dozens of photographers as they tried to capture shots of her.
Clad in a yellow kebaya, Zaskia, now seven-months pregnant, looked fresh and stunning. She was at a media gathering to introduce the movie, and her pregnancy proved no limit to her activities.
Zaskia, the wife of director Hanung Bramantyo, kindly offered me a seat at her table.
“Please, sit down, mbak. May I eat my dessert during the interview? I’m starving after the press conference,” she said, putting a plate of chocolate cake in front of her.
Born in Jakarta on Sept. 8, 1987, Zaskia started her career in the early 2000s as a model for the teen magazine Kawanku. Her pretty face was noticed by a production house, which cast her in Bidadari (Angels), a popular sinetron (soap opera) starring young actress Marshanda.
In the highly competitive entertainment business, putting a premium on appearance, especially for actresses, Zaskia has gone her own way by wearing the hijab.
While other celebrities might fear that wearing the head covering would prevent them from getting work in the industry, Zaskia has shown that a more pious choice of clothes doesn’t mean the end of an acting career. She gets many offers to take part in TV series and films.
And she is an icon for more religious-oriented actresses in the country’s entertainment industry.
Her popularity rose when she starred in the religious TV series Kiamat Sudah Dekat (Doomsday is Near), directed by veteran actor/director Deddy Mizwar, followed by other soaps including Cinta SMU (Highschool’s Love), Habibi dan Habibah (Habibi and Habibah), Lorong Waktu (Time Tunnel) and Para Pencari Tuhan or PPT (The God-Seekers).
This is the fourth season Zaskia has played in PPT, also written and directed by Deddy. In this drama-comedy series, aired during Ramadan, Zaskia stars as Aya, a married woman afraid of getting pregnant and having a baby.
“The role is so me. I really like the drama series. I wouldn’t have minded taking part in it even if the producer didn’t pay me. Why? Because of the mission and the quality [of the series],” she said.
“Working with [Deddy Mizwar] has been an amazing experience. He’s like my dad. I’m a big fan.”
Zaskia’s big-screen credits include Kun Fayakun, Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love), Doa Yang Mengancam (The Threatening Prayers) and Menebus Impian (Catching Up On Dreams).
In Sang Pencerah, directed by her husband Hanung, Zaskia plays Ahmad Dahlan’s wife Nyai Siti Walidah.
Other members of the cast include Lukman Sardi, Slamet Rahardjo, Ikranegara, Sujiwo Tejo and Giring Ganesha Jumaryo, the lead singer of local band Nidji.
Zaskia spoke enthusiastically about her role in the film, describing Walidah as an extraordinary woman.
“I think she’s a very mature and strong figure. Nyai Walidah kept supporting her husband even in the saddest moments of his life. She also established the Aisyiyah Foundation, aimed at empowering women,” she said.
Zaskia Adya Mecca on the set of Sang Pencerah. Courtesy of Multivision Pictures
It is a challenging role for Zaskia because she plays Walidah in her 20s, 30s and 40s.
“I’m not sure whether I’m good at playing that role. It’s very nerve-racking,” she said.
Zaskia admits she didn’t know anything about Walidah when she was chosen for the part.
“I thought I was the only one who didn’t know much about the history of the couple, and was surprised to find that the other young actors were not familiar with them either,” she said.
“Only the elder actors, like Slamet Rahardjo and Sujiwo Tedjo, knew much about the history of Ahmad Dahlan and his wife.”
Zaskia tried to do some research about Walidah, but found it difficult to find information because her local libraries lacked resources.
“The thing is this country lacks history books. I heard that many of our original historic manuscripts are in the Netherlands. That’s a pity. How come we don’t have complete information on our national heroes?”
Zaskia hopes the film will encourage the government and public to always remember and be proud of this country’s national heroes.
“Why do Indonesians tend to be proud of other countries’ heroes instead of their own? I hope this film touches people and pushes them to get to know more about Indonesia’s heroes.”
During the filming, Zaskia was in her first trimester of pregnancy.
“Nyai Walidah was a big woman, so the role was perfect for my pregnancy. I had no problems relating to my pregnancy. In fact I felt like I wasn’t pregnant at all.”
But Hanung, who sat next to her during the interview, revealed his fear about Zaskia being on set.
“There was a scene in which she had to get into a traditional carriage. The thing that worried me most was that the wheels of the carriage were made from wood, not rubber. So, it shook violently when it moved,” he said, glancing at his wife.
“She also lacked sleep because she always wanted to be on set, even though a pregnant woman should rest a lot.”
With experience of having a child from his previous marriage, Hanung is a doting husband who pays attention to his wife’s health.
During the interview, for instance, the 34-year-old encouraged Zaskia to eat her dessert.
“C’mon, honey. Don’t forget to eat your food,” he said, putting a spoon of chocolate cake in her mouth.
Zaskia, however, had her own reasons to keep busy on set. Besides acting in the film, she also is the casting director.
She says working in casting has been her longtime dream from when she started in entertainment.
“It is the casting director who chooses people for particular roles in a film. Since the very first time I was auditioned, I promised myself that someday I wanted to be that kind of person.”
Before securing the position as a full-time casting director, Zaskia had previously worked as a part-timer for Hanung’s projects Get Married 2 and Menebus Impian.
She found out that it was not easy to choose people for all the roles in a production.
While Hanung chose the three leading roles — Ahmad Dahlan (played by Lukman Sardi), Kyai Penghulu Kholil Kamaludiningrat (Slamet Rahardjo) and Nyai Walidah (Zaskia) — Zaskia did the rest.
“It’s difficult to pick the right actors to fit for all of the roles, because I myself had my own visions as well as the writer, director and producer,” she said.
Zaskia added that she also had to consider the commercial aspects, and mixing senior and junior actors.
“Luckily, my husband is the writer and the director of this project so I could consult him about everything, anytime, anywhere,” she said, adding there were no problems working with Hanung.
“It’s more comfortable because I know what he wants, I know what kinds of actors he desires.”
When asked about the hardest part of being a casting director, Zaskia directly said, “Budget negotiations. Second, I have to deal with actors who all have different characters and personalities. It’s a tough job.”
But she enjoyed both acting and casting.
“In terms of money, you make more money through acting. But if we talk about their contributions to a production, a casting director gives you more satisfaction,” she said, adding that acting in films was more of a hobby for her.
“I took the role in this film from the beginning. It’s like my own film because I chose [most of] the actors in it.”
Zaskia said one thing she had learned was to appreciate the crew more than ever before.
“[The crew behind the scenes] works much harder than actors, but they receive less money than them,” she said.
Zaskia said she was serious about building her new career in the casting world. In future, she plans to take part in her husband’s upcoming biopic, depicting the life of Kartini, a leading figure in the history of the Indonesian women’s struggle for gender equality.
Many people might assume that Zaskia got the job easily just because she is Hanung’s wife. Hanung responded to this assumption calmly.
“I’m the kind of person who doesn’t easily recruit my relatives except when they are qualified enough for a job. But if they can do their job well and show good performance, why not?” he said.
Zaskia herself said she wouldn’t get complete satisfaction in her work if she only worked on her husband’s productions.
“I want to work with other filmmakers too, for the different nuances and I would gain a better reputation [as a casting director] once I’m recruited by other filmmakers,” she said.
While Zaskia still has many dreams ahead of her, in the near future she wants to focus on taking care of her baby.
For now, she isn’t motivated to continue starring in soap operas either, even though contractually she still “owes” hundreds of episodes to a local production house.
“I signed a contract to play in 800 episodes, but I have just finished seven of them. Now, I’m expecting a baby and the producers understand my situation,” she said, adding that she had no idea when she would resume the remaining episodes. All Zaskia wants now is to be a good wife and mother, she said.
“After I got married, I didn’t think much about my movie career or fame. I don’t know why. It seems like it’s not important anymore,” she said.
Zaskia affirmed that she still wanted to be in the entertainment business, but said she just wanted to work behind the scenes as a casting director. She also said she would let Hanung face the media and fans, saying that she preferred to be at his side.
“I was from a big family. When I was still single I lived in my parents’ house with my six siblings. You can imagine how crowded it was,” she said.
“Now I only live with my hubby and a housemaid. I get lonely at home, so I follow Mas Hanung wherever he goes.”
Hanung smiled at this, teasing her by saying, “You’re lonely? How about if I take another wife?”
Zaskia quickly retorted, “No way!”, punching her husband’s arm playfully.
Well, it seems Zaskia has already got what every woman wants: a good career and family.