Joanne Peh recalls the time when she was told that she couldn’t act

The first-time director tells us about being able to empathise with what another fellow actor has been told

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Photos: Lawrence Liau, Joanne Peh

We’ve been given multiple sneak peeks into the work that first-time director Joanne Peh has put into her first short film through social media. Her posts, however, never addressed the question of why she decided to cast relatively less known cast members – and it was also her leading actor’s first official acting gig.

This mysterious leading actor, Pang CC, isn’t new to the industry – he’s been working behind the scenes for years, and Joanne recalled telling him many years ago that she would cast him as her leading man if she were to film a movie.

And now she’s managed to fulfill her promise.

Her movie, Under The Tree, is the last of six produced by local actors-turned-directors Bryan Wong, Romeo Tan, Shane Pow, Priscelia Chan and Ian Fang. These actors, along with various production teams, are part of Mediacorp’s Fresh Takes! initiative, which aims to enrich and support the growth of the local media industry.

Joanne shared, “There are a lot of people around us who are not what they appear to be, but we always take them at face value. This is why I wanted to write something that would celebrate the little talents of the very ‘ordinary’ people, which led me to cast fresh faces from all walks of life.”

“I think our industry needs all kinds of different people – people with different talents, people who look different – there should be more diversity which I feel is a bit lacking,” she continued. “I also wanted to hopefully convince more people that you don’t need a lot of special skills to act, and neither do you need to look a certain way. We can have a culture that embraces and celebrates everyone and at the same time, they’ll be able to shine in their own way.”

Her reasons for doing so hit close to home, as Joanne recalled a point in her career where she was criticised while doing the thing she loves – acting.

“Chase (Tan) has been in showbiz for five years,” the 35-year-old told us. I feel very bad for him because I was once a newcomer too, and I also had people tell me once that I couldn’t act. I’ve had directors get impatient with me because I couldn’t give them the expression that they wanted.”

“I’ve gone through that and I know what it’s like. Especially for him – when you have the heart to do this but everyone is hitting you down, I think the most important thing is helping someone like that shine,” the actress added. “I really think he does have the potential to shine, which is why I want to work long term with the actors, including him. We have a chemistry going. They’re very genuine and raw – if I could, I’d want to work on different projects with them so that I can bring out different sides of them.”

However, being a director is no walk in the park, as she admitted that her inexperience in this aspect has caused her to think twice about undertaking directing again.

“I’m simply not trained enough to be a professional director,” she said with a shrug. “My strength is in acting and knowing exactly what kind of mood and performance that I want. In terms of technical aspects such as camera placement, I’m not the best. I’m trying to think about how to best tell the story but what we are commonly used to in production is how we can use the least time to finish the filming.”

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“To me, it’s not about completing the filming, but rather to get the performance that I want. This is going to be a reflection of the actors’ work, and I genuinely want to help these young actors get noticed, discover themselves and for other industry professionals to say, ‘Hey, Chase isn’t bad. It’s not that he can’t act, it’s just that there wasn’t a role that was suitable for him.’”

For Pang, she wanted audiences to notice that actors don’t have to fit the tall, dark and handsome stereotype to look good on screen and be able to invoke an emotional connection.

Joanne laughed, “I do enjoy the process of working with actors and drawing out performances from them. When they can do something that they never imagined themselves to be capable of, it’s a very good feeling because I feel like I’ve helped them discover themselves, and this is the part of directing I enjoy the most.”

“However, if you ask me if I would embark on such a project again, I’d say that the most important point would be having a very experienced assistant director with me who could advise on everything else so that I would be able to focus on the acting,” she continued. “Otherwise, it would be a very difficult and painful thing for everyone that I would rather not do because I feel responsible for these young people’s careers. If I’m not confident of drawing it out for them, I don’t think they should invest their time with me.”

While we were speaking with Joanne, real-life couple Shane Pow and Kimberly Wang, who worked together on his directorial debut Remember Us This Way, walked past us, which spurred us to ask this question: Is there any particular reason why she doesn’t work with her husband, Qi Yuwu? After all, the last time they worked together on the same project was five years ago for SG50 movie 1965.

She paused for a moment, pondering, before she responded.

“It would be a great partnership if he and I were to work together on a project, but he’s also very respectful of me and the way I convey my ideas,” Joanne mused.” We have very different ways of looking at things, and he would be very good mentor to the actors because he has a wealth of experience and he’s worked with very good directors and actors in China. He has absorbed a lot from the industry that others might not have, and I think any advice or tips that he would be able to share is invaluable for the young actors.”

What about being co-stars?

“We are not resistant to the idea of working together, but we don’t actively try to make it happen,” she said with a grin. When probed for more, she explained. “It really depends on the role and what is required of us in our respective roles. There are certain things that we are uncomfortable with showing on camera as a real-life couple. I suppose if it’s very sad, broken relationship, or we have to fight, that’s something that we wouldn’t want to do.”

Fresh Takes! airs every Friday, 9pm on Channel U and Toggle.
Catch Joanne Peh’s short film ‘Under The Tree’, April 5, 9pm on Channel U and Toggle.

Ian Fang delves through painful past for first film
Romeo Tan borrowed a Sentosa Cove house and a Ferrari for his directing debut
Why Bryan Wong spent almost S$10,000 of his own money on his directorial debut
Cheryl Wee wants to have a second baby by this year
Shane Pow wanted to cast Aloysius Pang in his directorial debut

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