Pierre Png is all for authenticity.
In preparing for a shirtless scene in Mediacorp’s English historic drama, This Land is Mine, now streaming on meWATCH, the 48-year-old actor was trying to bulk up for the camera.
“I actually brought a kettlebell [to set],” Pierre tells 8days.sg over the phone. Then again, he was concerned about overdoing it. In fact, he wanted to shed weight instead. “If you think about it, the people back then were not that very nourished because food was scarce.”
By ‘back then’, Pierre is referring to Singapore’s post-Japanese Occupation period the 15-episode series — an adaptation of former Attorney-General Walter Woon’s 2011 novel, The Devil's Circle — is set in.
Pierre stars as Dennis Chiang, an up-and-coming lawyer assigned to defend a former officer of the Kempeitai (aka Japanese military police) accused of wartime crimes. Naturally, not everyone — including the legal eagle’s cousin, June (Rebecca Lim), who’s also the clerk in his firm — is happy about it.
The series — which is executive produced by Lee Thean-Jeen, the creator of Code of Law — also deals with a case inspired by the real-life custody lawsuit of Maria Hertogh that sparked the 1950 racial riots.
Did Pierre succeed in looking emaciated? Not really: if you ask us, he’s still pretty ripped in the aforementioned scene (fast forward to 32’30” in Ep 1 and 7’28” in Ep 3 — you’re welcome!) where Dennis is seen doing push-ups.
He thinks we are being kind. “Those scenes were shot in the dark,” he says, with a laugh. “I think I was very blessed to have a DoP [director of photography] who chose to light me in all the right areas.”
Did he find those bare-chested moments — whatchamacallit — gratuitous?
“In the book, Dennis is quite an introvert and doesn’t do much exercise, but he’d fought with Dalforce [the Singapore Overseas Chinese Anti-Chinese Japanese Volunteer Army],” he adds. So to explain that he can handle himself in brawls — and there a few where he’s confronted by street thugs — “the [writers] took it that Dennis does his own training.”
Even though he didn’t undergo an intense regimen as he did for that shower scene in Crazy Rich Asians (“Right now, my abs are absent”), he endured a different kind of workout that was just as punishing: wearing a three-piece suit in humid weather.
“That was crazy lah,” he says. “I cannot imagine how back then people wore three-piece outfits, going around doing their business in trishaws and in cars without air-conditioning.”
But he quickly adds that those four months of discomfort (or “torture” as he calls it) helped inform his character: “It was a very good experience to get an insight to what the people then went through.”
Elsewhere, Pierre got to flex his acting muscles in his scenes with Rebecca, whom he’d sparred with on-screen four times before.
He says, “As with any actor, [we] want to explore different chemistry and experiences with fellow actors and having worked with Rebecca a few times, I was actually more comfortable playing her cousin instead of her love interest.”
“When you play a couple you tend to have your own fights or moments you have to prove or show your love for your partner,” he continues. “But as cousins, blood is always thicker than water — you can say the dumbest things, the most hurtful things but it’ll be okay. They won’t take it personally because you mean well.”
This new dynamic came into play in a powerful scene in Episode 3 where Dennis persuades June to open up about her wartime traumas.
“If you like that scene, then you’d like the later scenes where June has to make even bigger decisions and Dennis becomes her voice of conscience,” Pierre teases. “It was really fun to see a different side of Rebecca. Playing her cousin gives me an insight and a very nice preview of what she can do.”
“Rebecca’s acting chops and range never fails to amaze me,” he elaborates. “Each time I get to work with her, I see her grow from strength to strength. Most importantly, she’s still humble and treats everyone equally nice”
Did Pierre, a self-confessed history buff, learn anything new about Singapore’s past from making This Land is Mine?
“If anything, it actually reinforced my thoughts on national pride, being proud of our forefathers who put down roots in a foreign land,” says Pierre. “It’s good during National Day that we remember their sacrifices and atrocities they went through to make Singapore our home,
“If you think about it, our road to independence did not start in 1965 — it actually happened in 1945, after the Japanese surrendered, packed up and left, and our forefathers had to pick up the pieces and start anew.”
The question of what makes a Singaporean Singaporean couldn’t be more timely amid the recent spate of hate speech and crimes and the cyberbullying of the athletes who represented Singapore at Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“I must say I am very disgusted, sad and borderline angry with comments about Joseph Schooling,” says Pierre of the toxic treatment received by the 26-year-old swimmer who failed to qualify for the semi-finals of the 100-metre butterfly event after winning gold at Rio 2016.
“I think Singaporeans really need to look at themselves in the mirror and stop hiding behind all these memes and very unnecessary comments about our national team that went to the Olympics to represent us,” he says.
“It’s a very sad moment to witness that just because they did perform to their standards. There are so many things that go into winning an Olympic medal. You never know what happens five minutes before the race, you never know what goes through a person’s mind.
“All you need to do is be there and support a fellow Singaporean. That is all that is needed. Anything else other than that you can keep to yourself. You don’t need to go out there and hide behind a name or some other comments and be a smartass.”
This Land is Mine is now streaming on meWATCH; it airs Mondays, Channel 5, 9.30pm.
Photos: Kelvin Chia