Like fine wine and denim, veteran actor Pierre Png seems to get better with age — not just career-wise, but also in terms of his outlook on life. He talks about tackling his fears in his latest project, Mulan The Musical.

There are very few things that faze Pierre Png, be it taking up unconventional hobbies such as ballet and unicycling, or donating part of his liver to save the life of his then fiancé and now-wife, Andrea De Cruz.

The 43-year-old can boast of an impressive career, including being the only Singaporean actor to clinch two Best Actor awards in the same year — at the Asian TV Awards and Star Awards in 2014.

There is, however, one thing that causes his confidence to waver — his proficiency in Mandarin, despite having spent more than 10 years appearing in MediaCorp Channel 8 series such as The Little Nonya.

Png, who is of Peranakan descent, admits the language is his Achilles heel. As such, his decision to play a major supporting role in his first-ever Mandarin musical production came as a bit of a surprise, even to himself.

Written by playwright Tsai Pao-Chang, Mulan the Musical was first staged in Taiwan in 2009 and then at Taipei’s National Theatre in 2011. It has been adapted to suit local tastes for its overseas debut at Resorts World Theatre Singapore. The show runs on selected nights until Feb 5.

“Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) first approached my wife in September 2016 to ask if I would be interested in being involved in a musical,” recounts Png, as he attempts to lift a xiao long bao (steamed bun) with his chopsticks without breaking its skin. It is 4.15pm, and the restaurant is empty save for us.

“The first thing she said to me was: ‘Do you want to do a musical in Mandarin?’ I think my wife was clever in telling me [first] that it was in Mandarin because there is nothing to talk about if I’m not ready for something like that, right?”

Png was initially asked to consider the role of Hua Hu, Mulan’s father. “I said okay at first because I pretty much know Mulan’s story — where the father appears briefly at the beginning and maybe in the middle of the plot. Later on, I was told they wanted me to play the army’s company sergeant major.

“I was apprehensive at first as, from what I saw in the 2011 version, this involved much more stage time and there were only 28 days to rehearse. I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. After all, I am a TV actor, and stage productions involve a lot more work as they require a full-on performance,” he recalls.

It took some convincing from Khoo Shao Tze, RWS’ vice-president for resort sales and entertainment, before Png accepted the role. He agreed only on condition that he be allowed to play the character on his own terms.

“After what I observed of the company sergeant major in the 2011 version, I had a different take on the character and wanted to include more confidence… More of what I experienced myself during my National Service days,” explains Png.

“I come from an era when the enciks [a Malay term for ‘mister’ that is used to address company sergeant majors] were really a force to be reckoned with. You are so scared of them because they are regulars who will tekan [discipline] you and really whip you into shape. Back then, it was just one look from the encik and you’d be frozen with fear,” he says, explaining why he plays the character as stern and intimidating.

‘This is me; I’m Mulan’
Png’s apprehension of communicating in Mandarin is apparent when he describes his month-long rehearsal in Taiwan. In fact, he compares it to what the heroine, Hua Mulan, had to experience in the musical — going against the odds to discover unchartered territories.

“While alone in Taipei, ordering food with my limited Mandarin, I realised… This is me; I’m Mulan. I actually dived into the deep water and I made it happen, I made it work,” he says, laughing.

Aside from himself and Ann Kok, who plays a supporting role as Mulan’s pregnant elder sister, the Singapore edition of Mulan The Musical features an all-Taiwanese cast and crew. Png reveals they have become extremely close friends over the course of preparing for the musical and can barely contain his excitement when asked about their camaraderie. He calls them “very helpful, very loving, patient and warm”.

“I love all of my co-stars,” Png enthuses, before launching into anecdotes about how he acted as tour guide to his new friends, taking them around Singapore during their time off recently. Despite the initial language barriers, Png firmly believes those in the arts fraternity share a common tongue.

“I love their energy. You can really see the pride they take in their profession: They always come to rehearsals punc tually and go through the whole warm-up routine each time. From what I understand, it’s a lot of work for the salaries these guys are getting, but everyone does it for the love of the art, and for the musical. Feb 5 [the musical’s final date] is going to be very painful for me. I am going to miss them,” he declares.

Army daze
Png has said before that acting was not his first choice of career. He reiterates in this interview that, if not for acting, he probably would have signed up for the Singapore Armed Forces, specifically the Singapore Navy, or as a commando. “And if I didn’t sign up for SAF, I might have actually have gone to work at the zoo,” he says earnestly. “Or perhaps a theme park… I’m actually hoping that RWS will give me a call [for a job interview] after this!”

During his years as a diploma student in tourism studies at Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre, Png did a nine-month attachment at the now-defunct Underwater World oceanarium in addition to a stint as a bartender at Hard Rock Café. Prior to acting, he had worked part-time at jobs ranging from scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins to wrapping hampers and zipping around on a motorcycle as a dispatch rider.

“One of the best lessons I learnt was also from the army,” he continues. Png relates that he had doubts about being able to run long distances during NS as he comes from a family with a history of respiratory difficulties.

However, two weeks into Officer Cadet School, Png discovered he could significantly improve his timing for the Individual Physical Proficiency Test 2.4km run from about 11 minutes to 8½ minutes. This enabled him to finally achieve a gold award, as well as improve his timing for the SAF’s Standard Obstacle Course to 7 minutes and 45 seconds.

“I kind of developed a new ‘talent’ in that sense. Now I know that I can run. If there’s anything the army taught me, it was to believe in myself and to break those barriers. I just had to go through with it, and I just kept getting better.”

Lifelong learning
Png’s spontaneous personality can be attributed to his days growing up in a kampung (village). He says he is very fortunate to have spent his childhood years “playing in longkangs [drains], catching spiders and swinging on trees”.

“Life in the kampung just prepares you for the world out there,” muses Png. “If there’s anything I learnt, it was to clean up after myself. I grew up doing a lot of household chores. My brother moved out when he was really young, so it was just me and my second sister at home. Being the only son in the house, I had to chop trees and cut the grass and do so much work over the weekends. I remember I would complain and say ‘Why, why, why do I have to do all this?’ My dad would only reply, ‘Just do what you need to do’, and somehow that stayed with me.

“Today, I really don’t care what other people are doing, I just have to make sure I do it right and not at the expense of anyone else. I’m really glad that my dad taught me that lesson.”

He also credits his success to the people he has drawn inspiration from over the years. Aside from the army, his father and his growing up years in the village, Png stresses he has encountered “many teachers” — including Marcus Ng, who played his son in Phua Chu Kang, the production he is best known for. “He is much younger than me but was so much more experienced in terms of grooming. He would always come dressed well, knowing that at any time you might be stopped by a fan or meet a director you might potentially work with. He really embodied this whole ‘celebrity’ thing, and I couldn’t do that,” marvels Png, who calls himself a “shorts-and-slippers kind of guy” in comparison. “Every day, I’m learning something new from somebody, so in a sense, it makes all of these people my teachers.”

Evolution of the self
Looking back, the actor acknowledges he has gone through a myriad of changes over the years, mostly for the better. “I used to be a very angry person,” he reveals. “When I didn’t get the things I needed [for work], I used to pull out my hair and punch walls. Now, I don’t lose sleep over it; I don’t take it out on those around me anymore either. It’s not their fault as much as it isn’t mine, so why should the people I love have to suffer for it?”

His attitude towards his personal finances has also changed. It is the opposite of what it used to be, which was, in his words, “thrifty and always saving for a rainy day”. “People may not know this but I work really hard at what I do and I take pride in whatever I decide on doing, and so now I try to pamper myself a bit more,” elaborates Png.

While he stopped making New Year resolutions a long time ago, Png says he prefers “taking life year by year”. After Mulan the Musical, he will be involved in two MediaCorp television projects this year. He has also sent out his showreels in the hope of participating in two Hollywood projects.

“I’m really happy. I’m in a very comfortable and peaceful state right now. 2016 was a very good year for me. To me, what constitutes a good year is that my parents are still with me, as well as my wife… We all know that she’s on borrowed time,” says Png. Referring to the time when De Cruz suffered liver failure after taking slimming pills in 2002, he likens his wife’s life expectancy to a car’s certificate of entitlement: “Her COE expired, but we managed to renew it.

“In the midst of all the adversities and challenges [I’ve faced in the past], there was still light at the end of the tunnel, and that’s enough for me. I don’t need to succeed or win every battle and every fight. My family is still with me, and I’m very grateful for that.”

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 762 (Jan 16) of The Edge Singapore.