After two decades in showbiz, what exactly is Pierre Png’s thing? Maybe it’s being ridiculously good-looking. After all, Zoe Tay once declared on IG that he’s “the best-looking actor in Mediacorp”, so you know it’s true. Or maybe being popular is his thing. We know everyone loves him. Have you not seen him hanging out at the Rugby Sevens finals with Rui En, who’s famously selective when it comes to friendships? “That was pretty much our first date (laughs). She is a very respectable person and she had a spate of bad luck. I’m glad she’s happy and in a good place right now,” he says of the famously-private actress.
Pierre Png’s thing at this moment definitely isn’t finding the right parking spot with ease.
It is T-minus 24 hours to the Trump-Kim Summit and as the world is falling over themselves trying to predict what will happen during that bigly historic moment, Pierre has to contend with one of life’s greatest frustrations. He’s arrived early for the shoot to find no empty lots outside the location: boutique hotel Lloyd’s Inn, which is just a stone’s throw from the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy-filled and saga-fueling Oxley Road family home. (We didn’t mean for today to get so political, really.) Pierre then goes on to park his hulking Land Rover at the foot of the hill… only to see that a lot had freed up after trudging his way back up. So he hurries down to get his car, drives back hastily and… “Please don’t say that someone took the spot already,” I ask the actor in anticipation.
“No! I finally managed to park right outside,” he laughs, as he wipes the sweat off his brows.
You can say that the lot was always his — he just had to put in more work to get it. It only dawned on me later that the same can be said for Pierre’s career thus far. The actor, who turns 45 this year but is still the benchmark for what a boyishly handsome guy should look like, is one of those people destined to be famous. He may be the handsomest man on local TV, but he’s also the most hardworking.
Anyone who’s worked with the actor would know that’s his thing. His rise to Ch 8 A-lister status was always an uphill battle. This is the Baba boy who could barely speak Mandarin, who had to work doubly hard when it came to learning his lines compared to his linguistically-blessed colleagues, who never gave up, who finally ended up as one of Chinese drama’s most dependable leading men, and who now peppers his conversation with Mandarin phrases.
He can have all the parking lots he wants, if you ask us.
2018 marks the actor’s 20th year in showbiz. Not that Pierre was even aware of the milestone. “Now that you say it, there are suddenly a lot of emotions and thoughts going through my mind,” he chuckles, beaming that famously cheeky grin. The rest of the crew has not arrived yet so it’s just the two of us chilling out in the Big Skyroom, a duplex suite with pristine white walls and a sun roof that engulfs the room with natural light.
The St. Gabriel’s Primary and Holy Innocents High alum came to fame in that era where must-see TV actually meant sitting in front of the television at a specific time so you could watch your favourite star in the latest drama. Those days may be over — thankyouverymuch catch-up video and the Internet — but he still has that level of fame that his younger colleagues can only dream of. He is a household name that people in your household, from age 18 to 80, actually know and talk about.
Like when I was scouting for locations for this shoot and ended up speaking over the phone to a guy who didn’t sound Singaporean. Or at least didn’t sound like he watches Ch 8. When I told him it was Pierre whom we would be shooting, he immediately said in Indian-accented English, “Yes, I know who Pierre Png is.”
This fame thing started 20 years ago. In a Ch 5 talent competition aptly-named The Fame Awards, where the finalists included one Michelle Chong, who was the hot favourite to win it all. Pierre, then 24 and fresh out of NS and “egged on by his kakis” to take part in the contest, emerged the overall champion. “In the end, the one with the most telegenic look (and a memorable alliterative moniker) won,” 8 DAYS wrote back then about Pierre, whom we had also described as a “natural charmer”.
“I didn’t think I would win, but I also didn’t think I would lose,” Pierre tells me, as if the Fame Awards had just happened yesterday. “So just try lah ’cos you never know, right? And I just never looked back from there.”
Yes, looking back is not one of Pierre’s things. But he does like looking, though.
“I’ve never been here before,” Pierre says to me when we had met earlier at the Llyoyd’s Inn lobby. He looks around in wide-eyed wonder, taking in his surroundings. “How long has it been around? How did you guys find this place?” Here’s something about Pierre everyone should know — he’s always looking and observing, asking and learning. It’s like he’s downloading information into that thumbdrive in his head which he will somehow find a way to process into his craft.
Asking questions. Actually, that should be Pierre’s thing. At times, it can feel like you’re the subject matter instead of it being the other way around. He wants to learn everything about you — What sports I do, how many siblings I have, what does my sister do, what schools I went to, if it was fun being in a boys school, which Ch 8 shows I liked, and if any of them were his — but it never borders on being intrusive. What you do feel is his sincerity and eagerness to connect.
It’s why we end up having a conversation instead of an interview. And at the end of it, it feels like he now knows me as well as I know him. The only thing missing? That there wasn’t a six-pack of beer.
2018 may also be the biggest year in Pierre’s career. Apart from starring in three Toggle series and one Ch 8 drama, You Can Be An Angel 3, he will also be seen on the big screen in the Hollywood movie, Crazy Rich Asians. The film, adapted from Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name and which also stars Henry Golding, Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh, centers on the crazy rich lives of Singapore’s wealthiest elite. In the Jon M. Chu-directed movie, Pierre plays Michael Teo, a dashing former army guy-turned tech entrepreneur who is married to a woman from one of Singapore’s richest families. Pierre says there are a lot of similarities between him and Michael, one of which is that they “both married up”.
Now, if I were to ever have a daughter, I would want her to find a man like Pierre Png. Seriously, being a great husband has to be his thing. Just listening to the way he gushes about Andrea DeCruz, his wife of 15 years (and partner for 19), is enough to make us feel bad about our own relationship. “I’m very grateful for her ’cos she understands what I do,” he says of Andrea. “She has made me believe that I can do whatever I set myself out to do. I mean I already know that but she made it believable, she made it possible. So she really is my sanctuary, my rock. If I think I can’t do something and I talk to her about it, she’ll say, ‘What’s there to worry about?’”
They have one of Singapore’s most famous love stories, but here’s the abridged version: They first saw each other in 1999 at a hair salon — he recognised her but feigned indifference, she noticed him but was talking to someone else — but were only introduced to each other backstage at a play some time later. They had only just started going out when he got into a motorbike accident while on his way to meet her. He was still holding on to the bouquet of flowers he had gotten for her when she rushed to see him in the hospital. And the TLC she showered him during his stay sealed the deal for him. At that point, their relationship was kept a secret from the public but then came the Slim 10 saga in 2002. She suffered liver failure after taking the slimming pills and he decided to donate part of his liver to her despite the high risks involved.
His selfless act not only saved the love of his life, it also made him a national hero… and a national heartthrob. As if women needed more reason to swoon over Pierre Png. It’s why a whole generation of Singaporeans will forever think of Pierre as the knight who saved his damsel-in-distress.
After the shoot, he gives me a lift home, because a) it’s on the way and b) he’s a good guy. It’s actually my second time in Pierre’s car, though I’m not sure if the star would remember. It was a number of years ago when Mediacorp was still on Caldecott Hill. I had stupidly decided to leave via the back entrance but because they had already shut the back gate, I had to walk the route which would take me past a row of deserted and very creepy warehouses. It was getting dark fast, though not as fast as the dread and paranoia filling my head. After all, we’ve all heard stories of how notoriously ‘dirty’ this part of the old campus was.
Suddenly, a car stops next to me and out pops Pierre’s head. “Hey, why are you walking this way? You know what, hop on. I’ll give you a lift,” he says. And just like that, Pierre Png came to the rescue. Now that has got to be his thing.
8 DAYS: Can you believe it’s been 20 years?
PIERRE PNG: (Smiles) You know, when I was younger, NS was the longest thing I ever committed myself to. The next longest thing would be my marriage (laughs). You know, 20 years of doing something [for me], yes it is… a record.
This is your first full-time job right?
(Nods) And I hope there will be more years to come. But yeah, 20 years. It makes me think, “Am I that good?”, “I can only get better”, or it just reminds me of my expiration date (laughs). So many thoughts!
You started in 1998. What would you have kept in a time capsule from back then?
I would have keep the scripts from the first and last seasons of Phua Chu Kang. And also the script from my first Chinese drama just so I can compare the notes I wrote on it compared to [the notes I write] now. I still can’t believe I did my first Chinese drama!
Why did you throw them away?
’Cos they were so horrifying (laughs).
Even the PCK scripts?
Well [I threw them away] ’cos I didn’t think [PCK] would ever end. But all good things come to an end. I would also have kept the Fame Awards brochure. In fact, I’ve been asking around for the Star Awards booklet from the year I won Best Actor [for The Journey: A Voyage]. I didn’t keep it!
I don’t know! I’m a really for-the-moment [kind of person]. I just didn’t think about it. But I still have the trophy lah, thank goodness (laughs).
What do you remember most fondly about the ’90s?
It would mean I was still in the army? Yeah, that would be it.
Why is the army so close to your heart?
I really enjoyed it. If things had gone well, I would have signed on. I would have joined the commandos.
Your life would have been so different.
Andrea and I talk about this all the time. We think I may have just done one contract (laughs). I think I would have been more of a welfare officer. I’m all for having fun.
Why would you guys talk about this?
’Cos we say how our lives, our paths just crossed. We might have [still met] but Andrea is so sought-after. I mean….. doctors, lawyers… You know they would (pauses) and she settled for me. I would imagine the only time I would get to meet Andrea was at the NDP ’cos she hosted it so many times. And even then, I would be in uniform. Like hello, you’re just a lieutenant (laughs).
There’s a whole generation of people now who don’t know what the Fame Awards is. What do you remember of it?
I’ll tell you the events that led up to it. I was coming to the tail end of my NS and was about to clear my leave. One day, we were all in the bunk and one of my campmates said, “Eh, look at this James Lye. All he has to do is smile and he gets to hold and kiss all the pretty girls!” Then he said that there were auditions for this movie called Spider Boys, and asked me to go for it. So I went. I knew nothing about acting apart from lying to get myself out of trouble. So I took the script and memorised it. When I walked into the audition room and was about to start, this lady said: “Stop. What is your name again? Pierre Png… Are you related to…” And she said my brother’s name. For a split second I couldn’t decide if I should say I knew him or I didn’t ’cos I don’t know what he did to her (laughs). But I said he’s my brother and we started chatting about him. By then, my lines koyak already (laughs). Anyway, they called me back for a role, and by then director Glen Goei had decided to do Forever Fever instead. So I went on set and I was like, I could get used to this, man. You go in and people dress you up, take care of everything and there’s a buffet spread (laughs). From the movie, I got to know a bunch of actors and actresses and I started to become very curious about acting, so I enrolled myself in an acting course. Then came the Fame Awards and all these kakis just egged me on. Back then, you know no fear right? Didn’t know what embarrassment was (laughs).
Do you think you’d cringe if you were to watch your performance at the finals again?
Thank God this is not a recorded interview. I can just imagine what you’ll pull out (laughs). Sometime back, Andrea and I were watching TV in the afternoon and that season of Growing Up I was in came on. Aiyoh… I really wanted to run into a wall. I wanted to just wait for the nearest car to drive by and jump in front of it (laughs) It was bad ’cos I was wearing a very bad wig… what the hell was I doing?!
Your first Ch 8 role was in…
(Says in Mandarin) He Ri Jun Zai Lai (or In Pursuit of Peace, the 2001 drama about the Japanese Occupation).
How did you react when you were told you were going to act on Ch 8?
I was like, “Ch 8? As in di ba bo dao? A Mandarin show? I can’t speak Mandarin, you know.” And my manager told me it was going to be a small role. So I thought, “What’s the worst that could happen? That I would suck so bad that they would put me in Suria? Or they would want more and I would only get better?”
What do you remember of In Pursuit of Peace?
I remember really freaking out. Back then all the sets were built in the studios. And if they built a hospital set, all the scenes there would be shot in two, three days. Then they would take down the set and build another one. I had to play a character who was part of the rebellion and he was supposed to be very well-spoken. In Mandarin! I was like, “Wah lau!” And so I memorised everything by heart. I remember my first scene was with Qi Yuwu and he played a villager who was running around in just a singlet and shorts. I was dressed the same way too. And for that scene, both of us had to identify someone in the hospital. But ’cos it was so cold in the studio, and we were wearing close to nothing, even Yuwu’s voice started quivering. “Ni… yao… qu… na… li…” We did so many takes of it ’cos we were laughing so hard. It was so funny until it wasn’t funny. And ’cos In Pursuit of Peace was a da zhi zuo (big production), there were also outdoor shoots. May Phua played my love interest and ’cos I was so new, I didn’t know the orientation of the camera. So whenever May and I had to walk together, my orientation would be all wrong and she would be either behind or in front of me. Or I would be out of shot or blocked by her. And through no fault of hers, she would get a scolding! ’Cos she was the veteran! I felt bad but at the same time I felt that I was bullet proof and that I could do no wrong! (Laughs).
The directors were a lot fiercer back then, right?
Yeah, it’s like the army. Back then our enciks were all… they called it tekan but now it’s called ‘mentoring’. (Laughs)
Did you get tekan-ed then?
Oh yes! [Back then] I had people who had nothing else better to do but just watch us record our shows in the studio. And from up there they would make comments and push your buttons and make senseless contributions when it was already so stressful and volatile on set. I’d also always press for the scripts and the rundowns early ’cos I have a life after work and I can’t just put my life on hold for the next two months. And ’cos of that I’ve had people tell me, “Don’t let your shortcomings be a problem for us.” I had no comeback for that. ‘Cos I know I really need more time to prepare. But aren’t we all on the same page to get the show up and running? (Sighs)
Which was the toughest drama to shoot?
From what I could remember, It would have to be Wu Hua Guo (or The Score, a 2010 mystery drama that also starred Paige Chua). I played a pathologist, which meant a whole new set of lingo. It was the worst when we were in the studio and we had to shoot all my jie pou shi ti (autopsy) scenes and so all the medical terms came out in that one week. And bearing in mind, studio shoots would start in the afternoon. But in the morning I would be shooting [on location] from morning till lunch, after which I would run to the studio and shoot all the way to midnight or 1am. I was averaging like four hours of sleep a day. And it’s not like I would get home and go to sleep like that (snaps his fingers). I had to remove my make-up, try to decompress and then prepare for the next day’s work. And the next thing I know, I was back at work again. I think that was one of the times I experienced what my seniors went through’cos they used to do a lot of 24-hour shoots.
2014 was a good year for you ’cos you were named Best Actor at the Star Awards (for The Journey: A Voyage) and at the Asian Television Awards (for Ch 5 drama Zero Calling). Did you see it as vindication for people doubting your acting abilities?
I think when that year came and went, it made me realise that things were not that bad lah. While I was celebrating, I looked at myself in the mirror and I realised that I had won an award when some of my colleagues never even got a chance to come close. So I it reinforced what I believed about the industry and the hard work that I put in. It made a difference in my career but the very next day, you’re are back to work and it’s the same thing all over again. Sure, people tease you about it but you also realise that the standard has been raised. I tell my nephews and nieces that what I learnt from this is that, if you want to be good, you gotta be better than good. When I was young and learning taekwondo, I used to kick really low and my instructor would say, “If you kick so low, when you get tired, wouldn’t you be kicking the floor?” So you should always start kicking high ’cos you’ll eventually start kicking low when you are tired.
Do you still take Chinese lessons?
I do but only for difficult scenes or roles. I only stopped lessons two years ago. Now I ask a friend to record my lines — the lengthy ones — that I would play back and learn from. Can you imagine how for In Pursuit of Peace, I was still cha zi dian (check the dictionary) and count the bi hua (strokes)… (Gasps)
How long did it take you to memorise a page of lines back then?
Not back then. Even today, there are times when it takes me two, three days to memorise a difficult scene.
To begin with, I was never academically inclined. I found it very hard to study something that is dry or something that is not easy. Or something I didn’t have interest in.
Do you envy the new stars who are all effectively bilingual?
Yeah I do! In fact, I wish the language was not such a hurdle ’cos it makes all the difference when you can contribute [more to the scene], or when you can say the lines better. When you can colour the characters with different shades. But if you only know what’s in the script or if you can only say what’s written in the script… I would like to make the whole process smoother. I would like to be able to help. Like, if someone forgets a line, I can jump in.
I think a lot of people don’t realise how much tougher it still is for you.
I think people do. But ’cos the final product of what they see, through very clever precise editing, comes out very well, they tend to overlook the preparation.
But your Mandarin has clearly improved tremendously. How different do your scripts look now?
You know, when I started, I would bring all the scripts with me on set and in between takes, I would just be studying for the next scene or the scenes that we’d be filming. Now, I would only bring the scripts I need.
What did the other actors say when you would lug all your scripts around?
“Wa ni hao yong gong ah? (You’re so hardworking)” Yeah, yeah, yeah… (Laughs). It was so demoralising! People would be there cutting their nails, eating, laughing and playing games or driving out to buy makan for other people. I could do none of that! I didn’t even have the mood to talk to anyone. Now, I can at least join in the conversation. I can maybe like not bring my script if it’s a simple scene.
You turn 45 this year. Do you feel 45?
I don’t feel… Okay, I feel very energised, very driven, I feel very happy and comfortable with where I am right now. I don’t think I’m 45, but my body tells me I am 45. I take a long time to recover. Last time, when I worked out and I tried a different exercise… Normally I would ache the very next day. But now I only ache a day after. It’s so weird! I also require less sleep. And my eating habits have changed. I feel like I don’t need to eat nonsense. I don’t want to eat nonsense.
What was 45 to you when you were younger?
That it was something that would never happen ’cos it was so far away. When I was younger, I always thought I would own a house, and maybe drive a car and have like six kids. I thought I would own a landed property lah. And it took me… I only just achieved it. I didn’t think it would be so much of a struggle and that it would be close to impossible for most people.
Speaking of kids, is it still something you think about?
I think the amazing thing is that when one door closes, another opens. So not being able to have our own children has kind of opened us up to caring for our nephews and nieces better. There are people out there who call us mummy and daddy and we take care of them. We have more time for friends and we have more time for people who are our juniors, people who look up to us.
Surely you guys have considered adoption.
That has always been an option but I’ve said it in my interviews that I would leave it to Andrea to decide. ’Cos ultimately, it takes two hands to clap. So if she is not ready or if for some reason we both feel that we don’t have the time or the commitment, we won’t do it. ‘Cos it’s a lifelong commitment, it’s a lot of responsibility.
There has been a spike in the number of celebrity couples in Mediacorp in recent years. Which pairing surprised you most?
(Laughs) Okay, to be fair, I’m so out of this whole thing. But I would have to say Jeremy Chan and Jesseca Liu. I mean I always thought that Jesseca had something for me so when she announced that she was going to marry Jeremy, I was like, “Hmm okay… (Guffaws).”
You’re starring in Crazy Rich Asians this year, and if it takes off…
It will take off.
Okay, when it takes off, right, it could very well be your big Hollywood break. Is this something you think about?
It is. I look at [Ng] Chin Han and I say, “Man, I want to be like him”.
Yeah! His roles may not be leading roles but they are important and pivotal roles.
Would you say you are prepared for the second wave of your career?
Yes, I think so. And with it will come a lot of challenges, a lot of disappointments, and I’m all for that. I look forward to every opportunity. I mean I have been with Mediacorp for 20 years, so it would be good to apply whatever I’ve learned in Hollywood.
Some of your ex-colleagues like Tay Ping Hui have ventured to China. Has that ever crossed your mind?
Not China. (Laughs) I’m predominantly more up for anything that’s in English. But never say never…
What was your experience on the set of Crazy Rich Asians like?
It was really good! I think I spent less than a week shooting. The director and the crew… everyone was so pro and so good. It’s like when I did Forever Fever, it just reignited something in me, that this is the Hollywood standard.
So what they say about craft services is true?
Very true! I’ve got vids and pics of how the trailers were all lined up — and you have your own trailer. It was like a moving circus. It would go from one location to another and they would set up camp and the buffet spread would be there. There’ll always be food and there’s always someone taking care of everything for you, so you just have to perform. You just have to act.
How do you go from that and back to eating take-out on set?
Simple! It’s what I started off doing. And I’ve always been very level-headed. Sure, you miss it but it’s not difficult [to move on].
How much did you really want to be in the movie?
Honestly, looking back and being involved in this Hollywood production, I would give an arm [just to go] for another audition. Just to speak to the director, read him a few lines and show him what I can do. I originally auditioned to play Nick and his best friend Colin, and when they called me in to audition for Michael Teo, I had no idea who he was. It was only after I read the book that I realised, damn it, this has got to be the best character to play after the lead. What better role to play in my first Hollywood movie about Singaporeans than to play a Singaporean. I could relate to him ’cos when I was growing up, there were a lot of these functions where you go to people’s houses and I got to meet a lot of well-spoken, well-brought up people from well-to-do families. And I could imagine, if things worked out, I may have been a Michael Teo (laughs).