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Singapore’s brightest, boldest and bravest actors talk big-screen dreams and triumphs.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Singapore’s brightest, boldest and bravest actors talk big-screen dreams and triumphs.

My Reading Room

Twenty-six-year-old Tan burst onto the scene from nowhere and immediately sent hearts aflutter with his big-screen debut, Ah Boys to Men. The heartthrob says of his meteoric rise to fame: “It’s been five years and the bunch of us are still taken aback when we think about it. We were fresh actors with no following, no one knew about us, and overnight it just went, ‘Boom’.”

What were some of the challenges you faced after becoming famous?

Adjusting to life in the public eye was a bit overwhelming at first. But I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve realised that not everyone is out to get you. It’s not always a bad thing to be on the receiving end of the attention.

How have you evolved as an actor?

I’m now comfortable with calling myself one. I felt embarrassed initially. I’d see more experienced and talented actors n ot attaining the success or popularity they so rightfully deserve. And here I was, this young punk getting all the jobs. I felt I shouldn’t be where I was. But after a while, I told myself, “Why beat yourself up over it? I have this opportunity. I’ve to make myself deserving of it.” That’s what I’m still trying to do today.

Which role took you out of your comfort zone?

I was in a film called 4Love. It’s a compilation of four shorts; mine dealt with divorce. My parents have been happily married for the past 40 years and I’m obviously not married, so it’s a foreign theme for me. But it’s a challenge we as actors love. You research and get into the psyche [of your character]. I’ve also suggested to a director that I want to be fat for my next role. I’m known for my physique, but I’d like to change things up.

Jacket; shirt; pants; scarf, Bottega Veneta. Shoes, Joshua’s own

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The thespian kickstarted his illustrious career when he landed a role in a stage production during National Service. “I finally found something that challenged me physically and mentally, in a way that I enjoyed,” the 62-year-old recalls. In the four decades since, he’s gone on to play a diverse range of characters in theatre, television and film— among them a memorable turn as Mr Tay in the drama serial, Growing Up. 

There’s a wave of nostalgia sweeping Singapore’s social media scene and Growing Up is often mentioned.

It’s very strange, you know? At that time, people sort of liked it, but it didn’t become the icon that perhaps it should’ve been back then. In retrospect, it was a good series. There was a certain integrity and it felt authentic. Maybe that’s why it appealed to Singaporeans… even foreigners! A couple of years ago, I was with my wife at the doctor’s and an Indian lady who’s probably a new immigrant told me she enjoyed the series. It opened her eyes to Singapore.

How much of acting is talent? And how much of it is a skill you can learn?

I think it’s a combination of both. But it’s also perseverance and sheer hard work to get to the level you want to achieve as an actor. There’s also luck—what projects you’ll encounter in your lifetime is also about chance.

What benchmarks did you set for yourself when you started out?

I wanted to be in international productions. That came quite early, when I was turning 30. But as time goes by, you realise the roles you’re going to play are very limited in the Western world. You have to be realistic. You need to make the right contacts, which I wasn’t very good at. You face countless rejections and begin to question your abilities. But it’s a fallacy because it’s how the industry works. I’m glad I went through it. It gave me very good insight about where I do or don’t fit in.

Jacket; sweater; shirt; pants; shoes, Louis Vuitton 

My Reading Room

He’s everything you want in a leading man: Dashing, committed to his craft and he steals the scene each time he appears onscreen. Png started out non-proficient in Mandarin, but today holds his own in roles that require him to speak the language. Case in point: The 43-year-old recently wrapped up Mulan: The Musical, the stage adaptation of the classic Chinese tale.

You mastered Mandarin and even learnt ballet for another show. What does each experience bring you?

I was having a conversation with my wife, Andrea (De Cruz), and I said, “Can you believe it? I’m doing everything that I never thought I’d do.” I did ballet and continued because I realised I love it. I feel like I’m a kid again. It’s such a wonderful feeling because not everyone gets the chance to do what they want. With acting, I play different characters. I experience a period of this person’s life. I live it. You feel the pains and the achievements of that character. You connect with it.

Is there something you’ll never do?

Never say never. I never thought I’d be dancing ballet at my age. But you find a way around it. I think my thoughts about life changed when I picked up Aikido, a form of martial arts. The philosophy behind it is to not go head-on against something, but to receive it. Whatever comes your way, you take it, be it an aggressor or a bad script. Then you feel it and react.

What do you want people to talk about when discussing your legacy as an actor?

I want people to remember me as a person who never gave up. If there’s anything inscribed on my tombstone, it’ll be: “Hard work; never disappointed anyone.” We need to give it our best. 

Jacket; sweater; pants, Hermès. Shoes, Bally

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His roles as a man in uniform in television dramas have captivated audiences for over a decade. But his most recent starring role, as correctional officer, Aiman, in Boo Junfeng’s movie The Apprentice, has elevated his career to new heights, what with the movie showing at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. The 36-year-old father of two has since returned to the stage, where it all began, as the lead in Prism, where he plays a cold-hearted housing official laden with the emotional task of evicting thousands from their homes and in turn, a part of their history, culture and lives.

How did your acting career begin?

By chance, 16 years ago. I was in school and saw an audition call for a Malay play, and even though I had no formal training, something in me was yearning to just try it out. That set me on an inspired path for a career in theatre, before expanding into television soon after. I’ve been very fortunate.

You won Juara, a talent competition hosted by Mediacorp’s Suria in 2002. What do you consider your breakout role since?

I’ve played a number of truly diverse characters, but it was my role as Johan in Malaysian drama, Ramadan Jangan Pergi in 2014 that has made me who I am today. Having to engage and impress a brand new audience—which was much, much bigger than I was used to— pushed my limits as an actor, and gave me the opportunity to work and learn alongside established actors and producers from across the Causeway.

What’s been the defining moment of your career so far?

Without a doubt, playing Aiman in The Apprentice—not only is it my first film, I got to play the lead, it premiered at Cannes, and got me a nomination for Best Newcomer at the Asian Film Awards. The first time I saw the movie, I cried. It was surreal and incredibly humbling, and the eight-minute standing ovation was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Jacket; shirt; pants; tie, Burberry. Shoes, BOSS

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In the early days of his career, Zhang took on the roles of producer, director, cameraman and video editor. His hands-on approach has paid off. With this YouTube sensation-turned-breakout star, popularity is now a numbers game. The 27-year-old has over 273,000 followers on Instagram tracking his on and off-screen adventures, and his most-viewed YouTube video has clocked close to a million views.

Was it an easy transition for you to make, going from YouTube to the big screen?

Yes, it was! I was already very comfortable in front of the camera. But in terms of production, there are some differences. TV is much faster. When we do dramas or travel shows, there’s less time to set the lights up to perfection. But for movies, every single scene is set properly. When I started my YouTube videos, they were very raw. But the whole scale of it has grown now. Nowadays, YouTubers bring a whole production team with them. 

Why do you think your videos were so popular among young Singaporeans?

I think it’s because I had no filter back then. I had a lot of things to say and I said them because I genuinely felt that way. I don’t censor myself these days, but that’s also because I don’t have as many over-the-top things to talk about anymore. But I still share my views on social media. A difference between our generation and the ones before us is that we have social media. We come from Facebook, Instagram, YouTube… it’s a new wave. I hope we are able to open new doors for others.

What do you think Singaporean audiences want to see?

They want somebody they can be proud of. Take, for example, Joseph Schooling and Nathan Hartono. It’s the phenomenon of doing well overseas or on an international platform that validates the Singaporean identity.

What are you working on now?

I’m involved in hosting a travel show. I visit different countries with [co-host] Wang Weiliang and we focus on lost languages. Every episode is about a new place to explore.

Jacket; shirt; pants; boots, Dior 

Hair and Makeup: Grego, Manisa Tan/PaletteInc, Red Styling assistant: Gracia Phang Fashion intern: Abielle Yeo 

Text Gerald Tan and Dana Koh

Photographed by Gan. Styled by Windy Aulia