Desmond Tan is holding a blowtorch in one hand and a steak knife in the other, a faint maniacal smile playing on his lips, and we’re legit getting worried. Behind us, the marketing manager for Hotel G looks on in fascinated horror. “Actor sets fire to himself and loses finger to steak knife.” Not exactly the kind of headline you want your hip boutique hotel to be associated with. In the hands of any other actor, these would just be props, but this is Desmond Tan we’re talking about. Yes, he of the enviable bone structure, inimitable smirk and death-defying dedication to method acting. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to hand him an open flame and a serrated blade. After all, he’s kinda fresh off playing a psychotic serial killer on the fourth season of Ch 5’s Code of Law. What if he forgets this is just a magazine shoot and slips into killer mode? After all, isn’t that what method actors do — live in their roles? What if Desmond decides to method act? He turns on the blowtorch and smiles at the sharp blue flame. Everyone around him simultaneously moves back half a step. Hey, you can’t be too careful.
Jokes aside, today’s shoot with Desmond Tan is serendipitous. When we set up the date a few weeks ago, we didn’t know we were going to be the first to do a photo shoot and a proper interview with the freshly-minted Best Actor — so fresh, you can still smell the new paint; so new, he hasn’t had time to unbox his feelings and really process the win. He tells us, “When I woke up this morning, I asked myself, ‘Was it a dream?’” Barely 18 hours earlier, Desmond held aloft his first Star Awards Best Actor trophy at the MES Theatre at Mediacorp, stammered through his acceptance speech, blinked through photo ops and flash interviews and stumbled back home, where some friends were waiting to celebrate with him. A good night’s sleep later, he’s here with 8 DAYS at Hotel G, raring to get into character as a sexy award-winning actor. Wait, he doesn’t need to method act to get into that role, does he?
The time it takes for Desmond to transform from friendly actor-next-door to dangerous Casanova leaning on a bar counter with a glass of wine in his hand and seduction in his eyes is, let’s just say, about the same as it takes for Thanos to snap his fingers and wreak havoc on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One moment Des is asking us to taste the steak — from Hotel G’s restaurant and bar Ginett — he has just finished stabbing for our cover (“Come, try leh! Not bad!”), and the next he’s brooding sexily into his Pinot noir like darkness is his BFF. Effortless. Smiling for the camera is for losers. When you’re Desmond Tan, Best Actor, you glare, smirk and scowl for the win.
Other things you do for the win is eat a whole raw fish and give in to your dark side. When we ask if he thinks he won Best Actor ’cos he famously ate a putrid raw fish — bones, scales, fins and all — for his role as a soldier in When Duty Calls, he smiles and quips, “The fish didn’t die for nothing.” The best thing, of course, is that he didn’t have to eat the fish at all. The smelly sashimi scene wasn’t in the script, and was something Desmond came up with to make his role more visceral, because, you know, method acting. Talk about a sucker for punishment. He gleefully regales us with the tale of The Fish for a good chunk of our interview. Highlights include: “I thought I would plunge my teeth into the skin and just pull out the flesh and swallow, but I didn’t expect so many scales that I couldn’t even bite through. There were bones and fins cutting my entire mouth, and my mouth was bleeding inside.” Yikes. Someone give this guy some top-grade sake and a Best Actor award already.
But macho as the 31-year-old may be, he also has his cheekily boyish side. As we make our way to the hotel gym for one of our shots, conversation turns to his two beloved pups, Hoshi and Udon. He lets on that they actually don’t get along. When we express surprise, he deadpans, “Hoshi and Udon are not friends. It’s like people think they are BFFs, but they are not. (Smirks) If you know what I mean.” (Smirks some more) Ba-Dum-Tss! Did he just do what we think he did and reference his ex-BFF? But more on that later in the interview.
For now, we’re enjoying seeing Desmond slowly coming to terms with his momentous win, while simultaneously teasing him about his new ‘status.’ He alternates between wonder (“Now I know why the top actors always want more — the high [of winning] is better than booze or anything!”), earnestness (“I will put more pressure on myself, push harder, and live up to expectations”) and self-awareness (When we josh that the life of a Best Actor is tough, he laughs, “Actor! The life of an actor is tough!”). Then of course there’s the method acting, always the method acting. While at least one actress we’ve interviewed has rolled her pretty eyes at Desmond’s methods (we won’t say who), we say don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. After all, there’s now a shiny acting trophy with Desmond Tan’s name on it, and you can’t roll your eyes at that.
8 DAYS: Congrats on your Best Actor and Top 10 Popularity awards! How did you feel when you woke up this morning?
DESMOND TAN: I had to ask myself, “Was it a dream?”
Let us pinch you. It’s not a dream. Do you think last night at the Star Awards was a validation of your efforts after all these years?
It’s a confirmation that the effort and commitment I’ve put in was not for nothing and that I’m on the right path. And to those who are naysayers of method acting, I want to bring awareness of [this method] to more people, and say that it’s just a different way of acting, of getting into a role. I humbly hope this is the start of more interesting projects and greater heights, both here and overseas.
Your method acting has taken you to some dark places, and made you do crazy things like going on mad diets to lose weight and, um, eating a whole raw fish. Guess it’s all worth it?
I’m glad it paid off for this role [in When Duty Calls]. As a fan of method acting, I must say that I can’t do it the full-fledged way here — only in situations where the schedule allows. Because of the way we shoot here, and the time needed for actors to get into the role, most actors don’t really use method acting. It’s very foreign in Singapore, and even in Asia. As for the fish, obviously, I didn’t eat the fish ’cos I wanted to eat a whole raw fish!
You ate it ’cos you wanted to win Best Actor, right?
(Laughs) I didn’t expect it to bring me an award! When I was reading that particular scene about my character being lost and starving in the jungle, I felt that it didn’t sufficiently reflect the love I had for Paige Chua’s character, and how much I wanted to come back and see her. That crazy idea about the fish came to me, and I thought, let’s just do it. It was all set up, but the shoot was postponed till later in the evening, and by the time I took out the fish from my cooler bag, it was stinking like s*** and some of the crew even started gagging. I kinda regretted it then! (Laughs) but there was no option to exit, so I just did it. I also starved myself the entire day before that scene, to make myself very hungry. I asked the director to just keep the camera rolling, so for two minutes or more, I ate almost the entire fish raw — bones, fins and scales. After that, even looking at fish made me want to puke, and I didn’t eat sashimi for a long time! (Laughs)
The past year has been pretty amazing for you. You’ve been in a number of diverse projects, from Ch 8 dramas like When Duty Calls to Ch 5’s Code of Law, Toggle drama VIC, and international projects like Toggle-ViuTV collaboration Bluetick and upcoming movie A Simple Wedding.
2017 was a landmark year for me. I was involved in so many things and I feel so lucky and blessed that the company has been building such a good foundation for me as an actor. I feel things are changing for me and I’m really enjoying this ride. When I hit 30 [in 2016], I start to review and reflect on my career. Some people would say I am an idol, but I actually feel like I’ve been idle, that I haven’t put in sufficient commitment into my career. I feel I could have done more. For my roles as rickshaw puller Luo Xiaoxiao [in A Song To Remember] and [opium-addicted coolie] Shi Tou in The Journey, I was attempting method acting, but my research wasn’t strong enough. I could have sacrificed a bit more of my social life and honed my acting more. So I set a navigation for myself for 2017, to do more, to put more into my craft, and I think it’s paid off.
You didn’t think you had done enough along the lines of method acting? Weren’t you the one eating nuts to lose weight for a role while your colleagues were feasting, and getting depressed and going to dark places for your roles?
I wished to go to an even deeper level of commitment, and I’m glad that after more focus, I feel the difference. I feel that I’m a different actor right now. I won’t say I’m the best or perfect, but at least I’m different from the Desmond Tan two years ago, and I’m glad people are seeing the difference.
You mentioned you’ve stopped going to the gym.
Yes, I really stopped. That’s why I look so thin. For the Star Awards, wearing that Givenchy jacket without a shirt inside… I was initially concerned. Would I look bad on TV? I mean, there’s still a little bit of vanity. When I’m not acting, I’m still vain and I still like dressing up. In my 20s, I would not have attempted the look — I’d have thought that my chest was flat, and that I look scrawny. But yesterday, when I wore the outfit, I thought I looked nice. I stopped going to the gym because I thought, “What’s the purpose of building muscles when the real work of an actor is the performance, the acting?” To maintain the body of a macho idol, you have to spend an hour in the gym every day, and that’s not including the time for travelling and resting. If you take one hour a day — that’s seven hours a week and 30 hours a month — and put that into refining your craft as an actor, into improving your language skills or your control of your facial muscles, wouldn’t that be more valuable? Muscles will deteriorate and disappear, but the craft of acting — these are things that will go a long way.
Wow, you really are serious about your craft.
Yes, but if a role or an endorsement requires it, I just need two weeks to go crazy in the gym and get into shape. Otherwise, I don’t want to spend time on physical stuff, and there’s no need to be muscular, or what some people expect of male celebs. As long as I exercise sufficiently to be healthy, and have the strength to go kicking though the tough world outside, I’m fine. I’m inspired by the level of commitment of some of my idols like Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tony Leung — commitment that has brought them to where they are.
When you first started acting about 10 years ago, you struggled until people started noticing you. Then, you were the next big thing for a while, before falling out of favour and out of the Top 10 Most Popular list. So that was a bit of a low, and now you’re riding high again.
I have no logical explanation for [the career highs and lows] but I just realised that all of that made me appreciate this year more. Back then [during the lows], I didn’t understand, and I was asking God, “What is happening?” When I started, I was a nobody, which was a good thing, ’cos I could learn the technicalities of acting without the spotlight and the expectations. Then I was given a good role, that of the rickshaw puller, and suddenly people were like, “Who is this guy?” Things went well, but the main reason I didn’t sustain the high was ’cos I really did not know what acting was all about. Recently, I’ve been thinking of myself as stupid or a late bloomer. I didn’t know what was going on back then. I worked with a newcomer in Hongkong recently and she learns fast; she knows what’s going on. In my earlier years, I didn’t know what was going on. Most of the time, I was just nervous on set. Every day, my face was a nervous blank, and I didn’t enjoy acting and didn’t feel relaxed. The turning point was when I started to focus more and felt more confident about my craft. Then things started to change and I was more relaxed on set. When actors are relaxed, we perform well.
So all the lows have made this high all the sweeter.
When I woke up this morning, I was actually reminded of the years I wasn’t in the Top 10. When you’re nominated for the Top 20 and feel you have a good chance of clinching the award, and you don’t, you wake up the next morning with this weird and sour feeling and you feel alone in the world. Like life is playing a prank on you. That morning and this morning are contradicting yet complementing feelings. I feel like in 2015 and 2016, I was like a ball being pushed deep into the water. In 2017, things started to look brighter and it felt like the ball was coming to the surface. Then, in 2018, because of the pressure, the ball could bounce up into the sky.
No one can be high all the time.
Yes, you need to know the lows in order to enjoy the highs, ’cos if you are high all the time, you lose yourself. You get numb from being up there. That year , I woke up from a nightmare. This morning, I woke up from a sweet dream, and I really hope it’s not a dream! (Laughs)
We’ve checked the Internet. Confirm you won Best Actor.
(Laughs) That’s the fun thing about life — you never know what’s going to happen. The next Star Awards, I may not be nominated or win anything. I’ve prepared myself for that — I’ve already been on that roller-coaster. This morning, I was praying, like “God, What’s next? I finally know your plan from two years ago, and it’s made this victory sweeter ’cos I tasted the bitterness of the dark.” I am prepared to experience a low again — that’s actually fuel for an actor; the pain helps you to intensify your emotions when you act. The two years I was down, I was forced to mature. I use those emotions and that energy to perform.
We’re sure those emotions helped in your portrayal of serial killer Derek Ho in Code of Law. As a proponent of method acting, did playing a killer make you feel dark and depressed? There are all these scenes of you wielding knives and killing people.
Yes, I felt dark and depressed during Code of Law. I was doing research on serial killers, and when you watch interviews with them, they look normal, but when you read about their lives and backgrounds, and look at their eyes, they are in this very depressive and lonely world, and they honestly don’t feel they’ve done wrong. They need to kill to satisfy that need, to get that high. When I was playing Derek, I felt, not that I want to kill people, of course, but I tried to understand the world of a serial killer, and it was scary. On set, I would behave normally, but when I’m driving home alone at night, after doing scenes where I kill people, I would replay the scenes where I tortured my ‘victims’ on set, relive my enjoyment of it, and it gave me a certain high.
Yikes, sounds scary.
I had scenes where I pulled out people’s nails, blowtorched their fingers and strangled them, and there were times the director just allowed me to do whatever I wanted. There was a scene where the part-timer [actress] didn’t know how to portray fear, and it made my blood boil. I don’t whether it was as Desmond Tan or Derek Ho, but I started improvising. There was this wooden plank on the wall of my Kill Room, and I started knocking it round and ending up smashing it near the top of the ‘victim’s’ head as she was lying on the bed. The plank broke and sharp end landed right in front of her face, so she screamed like mad and that was the best take for her.
That poor calefare.
Yah! After that, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry; I didn’t expect the plank to break!” But I really enjoyed the moment when the thing broke — I was like, (Shudders) “Ooohhh”. When I was driving home that night, I was reliving and enjoying that moment, and it scared me. I also had suicidal thoughts. Those are the times I get very worried about using this type of acting, and meddling in this very grey area. And I think about actors like Heath Ledger, who may have gotten in too deep and died.
Disturbing stuff. Let’s hope you never get in that deep. Was your family ever disturbed by your behaviour when you’re in one of these roles? I know you don’t really like to talk about her, but how about your girlfriend — is she bothered about having to live with you when you go through these darker moments?
I guess my loved ones do see this very terrible side of me. Imagine if, for months, the person you chose to be with or gave birth to would change and behave differently. The mood swings can be scary and as much as I try not do all these things, the character would bring me to different places. I can only say sorry to my family and loved ones and thank them for understanding. It’s not easy. And I’m not even a full-fledged method actor like Daniel Day-Lewis or Heath Ledger. It’s also why I only started getting deeper into method acting when I moved out. The last thing I wanted was for my parents to be worried and wondering, “Is our son okay?” Also, I haven’t seen my family for a month. I’ve been back in Singapore for two or three days, but I’ve not seen them yet.
Are you kidding?
No. I only got back to Singapore two days ago after filming Bluetick in China and Hongkong for a month. Then the minute I came back, it was work, work, work, for meetings, fittings and rehearsals for Star Awards. That’s why I looked tired and sleepy on stage. People asked me if I was high or drunk! If they had released me from the rehearsals, I think I would have looked much more handsome! (Laughs) We are now back in Singapore to finish the last leg of shooting for Bluetick. It was great working with an overseas team — there were like 60 people on set, when in Singapore, you’d get about 15. With such a huge team, you get to experience wonderful shots and a large variety of equipment. The bad thing was, I slept an average of four hours every single day. Even on weekends. In China, there’s a saying that unless the world ends, the filming doesn’t stop.
That’s nuts, but it’s the life of a top actor, I guess.
The life of a very affordable actor! (Laughs) I had a short break between the shoots in China and Hongkong, and they offered to fly me home or let me stay in Hongkong, and because I didn’t wanna break from character, I stayed. The moment you come back, you feel too comfortable. So I actually visited some places I’ve never been to in Hongkong. I always thought Hongkong was similar to Singapore, but when I was living in Yau Ma Tei, I saw a different side — the small streets, people screaming at each other, all sorts of interesting low–life characters. My apartment was so small that I couldn’t stay in my room to read my script, and the only place I could sit on was my bed, and the moment I sat on it, I’d fall asleep. So I’d go down to the streets at 2 or 3am, and you still see people walking around and some look a little crazy. This is great research for roles in the future. I really enjoyed sitting on the fire hydrant and just watching people. Bluetick is a mystery thriller, and my character is a happy-go-lucky person in the beginning, until he realises some stuff and becomes depressed and down — that part was more my taste. (Laughs) I like dark roles!
Do you think you’ve sacrificed a lot as an artiste?
To me, I don’t feel the sacrifice, but I feel sorry for my family and friends, especially my parents. They hardly see me now — they see me more on TV. The loved ones of artistes — they don’t have the same life as they’d have if their family member had a normal life. Masters like Daniel Day-Lewis, he’s said that his wife had a terrible life. He’s the legend, the method actor. He lives in his characters even when he’s home — imagine living and sleeping with him; you never know what’s going to happen. These are the things holding me back a little from going full-fledged Method. I don’t think my father and mother can take it if I’m acting as a drug addict and going into that state. Of course, the misunderstanding is that if you’re playing a serial killer, you have to be a killer too. No, it’s just the mindset. So when I was doing Code of Law, I was living with that mindset. It can be scary, living in a depressing world, full of suicidal and sick thoughts. Like when you’re driving home, or on your sofa eating, you’re letting the character take over and going haywire. I don’t have to take drugs or kill someone to get into the mindset of my characters — I use alternatives that are within legal limits, such as binge-drinking to get into the opium addict role. Yes, it harms your body, but it doesn’t break laws.
Have you gotten any resistance from friends or colleagues about your method acting, or has anyone told you to stop being crazy?
I’ve had people come to me, like, “Eh f*** lah, don’t do that, this is crazy.” Or “Don’t act siao on.” But the people close to me support what I’m doing, even if they don’t understand. Yes, some will think it’s not necessary, and it’s true that it’s not the conventional way of acting. I don’t think I have to please everyone. We all do what we think is right, and eventually the results will show. You are the master of your own fate — we have to sail on.
You’re now in a bright spotlight moment, but what’s been the darkest moment in your life so far?
The only thing I can think of is when I had suicidal thoughts while filming Code of Law. It was really scary.
How bad were they?
You start to wonder what the purpose of human beings is in the world. Like if I ended my life here, where would I go? What’s next after death? And you just wanna try it out…. (Laughs) I’m glad it was just a thought, and I don’t know if I should even be saying this!
Let’s get more positive. That was you going through the process as an actor but for some, it’s very real. Nothing to joke about.
Yes, I’m not encouraging this at all. As a voice in the public eye, we have to show concern for people. These thoughts could be happening to people — it could be people just beside you. They can look normal, but they are going through mental struggles. We have to help if we can. If these thoughts came to me when I was going through nothing, by just forcing myself into character, imagine what some people go through when their stresses and problems are real.
Every year, 8 DAYS puts a picture of the Best Actor and Best Actress winners together on our Star Awards issue cover, and this year, we didn’t have that picture. Why didn’t you and Rebecca Lim didn’t take a pic together? Are things still weird between you two?
It wasn’t intentional. We were talking about how we got ushered out and we didn’t even get a chance to get a proper photo together. The flow was a little strange, and it was my first time winning an acting award so I didn’t know what to expect. Then at the dome, it was too dark and the media were not allowed to enter. Our trophies were scattered everywhere. For one of the pics, I needed to borrow Paige’s trophy and her lipstick mark was still there so I kissed the place where her lipstick was. (Laughs) Paige is just awesome; she is so real.
So you and Becks. Used to be BFFs, but now, no longer close. It’s a mystery to everyone. What happened?
It’s not a publicity stunt, for sure. (Laughs) I guess in life, people get close, then drift away. Some enemies become friends and some friends lose touch with each other. To be honest, it’s as mysterious for me as it is for you.
It’s almost like a black hole. I can’t really boil it down to any incident… I guess it’s just us drifting apart. In the past, we’d meet up every few weeks, but eventually, she got busy with work and my career grew and we just drifted and the drift hasn’t brought us back… yet.
Do you think you will drift back together and be BFFs again one day?
We were branded as BFFs and that was very cringe-worthy for me. For guys, that acronym doesn’t work. Like, I wouldn’t say Pierre Png was my BFF. It became a term often used by the media and it was very easy to market and use.
Two photogenic newcomers at the time on their way up… I guess it was just convenient.
Yeah, so about whether we’ll ever be BFFs again, I’d say never. I don’t want to be branded as that again. But whether we can be friends again like in the past, I can’t quite answer that. I mean, it takes two hands to clap. For me, I’m pretty open, and I always welcome the surprises in life. It’s like how my career has gone in the past two years—this [drifting apart] may have happened for a reason. It may become a sweeter friendship in the future. I don’t know! I really can’t give you an answer.
It’s just that for the rest of us looking on, it feels like it’s awkward between the two of you. Like you didn’t just drift apart, but like something happened.
Hmm… we can’t answer or tell you what happened… It feels like a natural… drifting apart, like Singapore and Malaysia. (Laughs) I wish I could answer your question, but I think we should just let nature take its course.
You’ve won the Best Actor accolade. It’s what everyone wants. It means you’re at the top of your game. It’s better than being in the Top 10, ’cos it means you’re validated for your work and not just for your popularity. Do you feel there is a higher standard expected of you now?
Yes. Yes. I’ve not experienced it yet, but eventually… I think I will. It’s like I’m representing not just myself now but the Star Awards and the company. Especially since I’m working with overseas teams, I feel like I’m flying the Singapore flag. Being a perfectionist, I will put more pressure on myself, to push myself harder and live up to expectations. But at the same time, I don’t want it to affect my performance. Actors don’t need the unnecessary pressure —it should just be very comfortable on set. I’m glad I lived up to expectations when I was on set in Hongkong and China, before I won the award. I hope I can reach even greater heights. I want to maintain the consistency and be nominated for acting again the following year, and not be a lucky one-hit wonder. I want to be like Chen Hanwei, like Pierre Png. Like even before the nomination list is out, when people are wondering who would be nominated, I hope one of the names people think of would be Desmond Tan.