Romeo Tan hopes to help people understand more about Tourette’s with new drama

The actor says the aim is to portray his special needs character in ‘Happy Prince’ in a good light, not to make fun of him.

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When we spoke to Romeo Tan about his long-form drama Life Less Ordinary two years ago, he expressed his concerns about the challenges of playing a character with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism.

Fast forward to 2019, and the 34-year-old is set to take on another role as a person with special needs in Happy Prince - and he believes it will be an even bigger test of his acting capabilities.

In the upcoming Channel 8 drama, Romeo plays Wang Zi Le, a baker who earns the nickname “Happy Prince” (hence the title) due to his name (“Wang Zi” means “prince” in Mandarin) and optimistic personality. He also has Tourette syndrome, a neurological condition that causes him to make involuntary movements and vocalisations, or tics.

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“I’m still deciding what tics I want to use for my character because it’s going to be a three-month-long shoot, so I don’t want to do anything too difficult that might cause me to sprain my neck or something,” he quipped at the imaging session for Happy Prince early last week.

Romeo went on to explain that “there’s no right or wrong” when it comes to exhibiting the tics, as they can vary in type and intensity. “It could involve a lot of blinking or, like in the case of one of my friends, making certain sounds,” he said, giving a demonstration of the latter with a series of loud, sharp yelps. “But I think I’m going to go for something that’s subtle yet attention-grabbing enough.”

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According to the actor, Zi Le’s symptoms cause quite a few misunderstandings and inconveniences for him in the show. “For example, since he can’t control his movements, he might accidentally knock over a cup while serving customers, or a woman might mistake his facial tics as him winking at her,” he elaborated.

Because of this, Romeo hopes that with this role, he can bring more awareness to some of the struggles faced by those with the disorder. “We aim to portray him in a very good light, not to put him down or make fun of him,” he emphasised, when we asked if he is worried that some may be offended by his depiction.

“We want to help audiences understand more about Tourette’s and the issues that may arise from it, so I want to do more research to make my portrayal more realistic and natural.”

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Romeo Tan with Jeremy Goh, one of the people he met to find out more about Tourette syndrome. (Photo: Instagram/Romeo Tan)

Of course, part of that prep will involve speaking with people who have Tourette’s in real life, such as Jeremy Goh, whose story was featured in an episode of info-ed programme On The Red Dot in 2017. Romeo posted a photo from their meeting two days ago and wrote that he was “inspired by his willpower”.

When it comes to the technical aspects of acting, on the other hand, Romeo is pretty much all on his own. “For Life Less Ordinary, I just needed to be very naive and simple, with the mind of a kid,” he said. “But for Happy Prince, I’m actually very mature and say things that make sense, just with unusual movements and sounds every now and then.”

This means having to meticulously plan and remember where to display certain tics in the middle of chunks of lines in his script, which, in the long run, can be quite a challenge. “I think this role will really test my acting and my continuity,” he chuckled.

All the best, Romeo!

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Happy Prince premieres on January 15, 2020 at 9pm on Channel 8.
Catch it on Toggle-It-First from January 6, 2020.

Watch On The Red Dot’s episode on Tourette syndrome here.

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