SINGAPORE (Sept 24): Pierre Png arrives at least 15 minutes before this fashion shoot starts and goes straight to hair and grooming. His professional approach towards his work and his laidback charm displayed during this interview show why he is well-liked by the local media. Png speaks clearly and gives direct answers. He pauses before answering any question. It is as if he wants to give the best interview that he can, and we know he has done many in his 20-year career. We loved him as Phua Chu Beng in local TV series Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd (1997 to 2009), in his stage role in Mulan the Musical and, most recently, in the mega hit Crazy Rich Asians. He tells Options, “Until today, I can still hardly believe this is happening. I mean, to be involved in a Hollywood studio film, my first ever,  and to play a Singaporean. It is the best role I could ever play and my first foray into a Hollywood studio film, so I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Even so, Png initially hesitated taking on the role of Michael Teo, who cheats on his rich wife, Astrid. Png grew up Catholic and attended St Gabriel’s Primary School and later Holy Innocents’ High School. He has been married to actress Andrea De Cruz since 2003. Before they were married, he donated half his liver to De Cruz to save her life.

Png had not read the book on which the movie is based when he auditioned for the role, as he wanted to give his own spin on the character. “When I auditioned for the role, [director] Jon [M Chu] liked the way I played it. At first, I was very reluctant to take on the character because this guy cheated on his wife... for whatever reasons. I didn’t know, but later on when I read the book, I realised why.” The movie is based on the book of the same name by Kevin Kwan. It took only a week for Chu to make his decision about casting Png.

For Png, playing Michael was not only mentally challenging, but physically too, as the character is often shirtless. To get into top shape, he had to go on a strict diet of no sugar, oil and salt. “It was difficult because I love my food. I’m Peranakan, so not being able to enjoy those tastes in my food was just pure torture. I had slightly below a month to get ready.” The effort paid off as his first scene in the movie — a shower scene — would have got many a pulse racing.

Options spoke to Png on his career, what the future holds and how his growing-up years in kampung Chia Keng made him who is today.

Do you think Asian-made movies can now hold their own against the big players from Hollywood?

As far as I’m concerned, Asia has always been producing good movies. I’m sure you have heard before that Asian horror stories are way scarier and way more interesting than Western ghost stories. There are so many Asian shows that have been remade. Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs was made into The Departed. Japan’s Shall We Dance, Ju-on, The Ring, Seven Samurai; Thailand’s Shutter; and Korea’s Oldboy were all remade. So, yeah, we have a lot of movies that were made solely for the Asian audience, and I think there’s no better time for Asian movies to be recognised as there is this sudden appetite for Asian stories now. Only good things will come after Crazy Rich Asians.

What would you say to aspiring thespians?

I would say go ahead. Experience it one way or another. Either be an actor or be involved in a production — it would really open your eyes. There’s nothing [better] than being hands-on, be it behind or in front of the camera. If you want to go into acting, I would say do it. You should try something at least once. Don’t be afraid because we have a lot of good people in the entertainment industry. Don’t be shy. I think when it comes to acting, you have only yourself to deal with.

How has your childhood shaped you to be the person that you are today? We understand from a source that you used to help your parents in the tuckshop at St Joseph’s Convent. True?

Yes, it is true. I used to joke and say that I’m more of a St Joseph’s Convent girl [than all the girls put together] because I grew up there. I was there since kindergarten. I worked, or rather, I kind of helped my dad out until just before I entered the army. I think my brother enjoyed the same privilege that I did: to enter an all-girls’ school. And it also helped that my dad was the only stall there that sold drinks. So you could say that my father, my brother and I, we were institutions. We’ve seen generations of girls pass through the school. Grand mothers, mothers, grandchildren, they all know my dad.

What did you learn from helping your parents?

If it’s anything that I still practise until today, it is to not worry about what other people are doing. You only have yourself to answer to. My dad always said, ‘You do what you are there to do and along the way, if you can help anyone, just do it’.

My mum would say, ‘If you’re walking from point A to B, don’t just walk with your eyes closed. If anything along the way needs your help or needs to be cleared, do it’. I grew up in a kampung and it was like the best experience ever. We had lots of fruit trees and when it came to harvest time, we would share it with the entire kampung. We lived with all sorts of animals; we dealt with snakes and owls in the middle of the night. We never closed the front door and everybody looked out for each other.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

Right now, I’m in between projects. I’m doing something for Toggle for year-end. I’ve a few engagements coming out so I’m doing promotions for them. I’ll be doing a commercial for a travel log and we were in talks to do some collaboration, which is something that I am very excited about. The thing that I’ve learnt from the past 20 years, being on Channel 8 or Channel 5, being in the local industry, working with the local boys is that there are so many talented people; I’m just feeding off the energy. Now, I think, with this Hollywood movie, it’s kind of like opened doors for me and I’m looking to more collaborations all over the world.

Would you ever go behind the camera, directing or producing?

I would love to if I am invited to come on board as a producer or adviser — be it as an acting coach or director. I think actor-directors make the best directors because they concentrate on the performance. They are not bothered by anything else other than acting. If you come in as a producer and you try to direct at the same time, you try to wear two hats; you have to make a choice sooner or later. So, I would like to come in and just solely direct or solely be a consultant and not worry about the money part. For now, let’s just say acting is in my blood. I don’t think I will stray too far from acting.

This article appeared in Issue 849 (Sept 24) of The Edge Singapore.

Subscribe to The Edge now