“I’ve always been a writer,” says Vanessa who majored in English Literature at Nanyang Technological University. “In secondary school, junior college and even in university, I had a blog like everybody else and I like telling stories. I’ve always like words.”
She continues, “So [writing scripts for TV dramas] felt like a natural progression in learning to tell a story. With the help from her Lion Mums creator Jean Yeo, Vanessa made her scribe debut on @StarCrossed, a rom-com series starring Zong Ji Jie, Elaine Jasmine and Richie Koh.
Vanessa’s other credits include The Deep End, a drama about competitive female swimmers, and The Fifth Floor, a political conspiracy thriller which she also starred in. She usually gets her gigs through word of mouth. “The circle of writers here is a little bit small and there’s not a lot of us,” says the Aaron Sorkin fan.
And that was how Titoudao: Inspired by the True Story of a Wayang Star, landed on her lap(top) — “my trusty Mac Air” — with her penning three episodes of the biopic of Chinese opera icon Oon Ah Chiam.
Writing English dialogue for a show about Hokkien opera was a colossal challenge. “Because I’ve consumed western/Hollywood media all my life, my speech patterns — and by extension, my characters’ speech patterns — tend to be very westernised,” says Vanessa.
“Going into Titoudao, I was very conscious of making sure that my characters’ speech reflected their ethnic and social backgrounds of that period, which would be the Singapore of the 1950s-1970s. Of course I still slipped up and I had feedback to change some of the words I used.”
Any examples? “I think I initially wrote Andie Chen's character — who is about to burn down Sin Sai Hong and he holds out an open bottle of kerosene to Master Gwee for him to smell it — as saying something like 'You like? Top grade. Burns hot and spreads as easy as cheap whore.'"
If she weren’t writing the show, she would’ve loved to take on Ah Ngor, the troupe’s diva starlet played by Constance Lau. “I think I did audition for it but I think my way of speaking is not very wayang-like, not Chinese-educated. I understand that I don’t sound very local, and my accent can fluctuate quite a lot.”
Next level: Vanessa in a scene from The Fifth Floor. Does she aspire to direct? “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t think I have enough patience to be one. I think it’s very challenging, and I’m not there yet. If anything, I would like to be a producer. I like seeing the whole thing coming together. I would love to be a showrunner someday like the people I currently idolise — Reese Witherspoon, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Shonda Rimes. I’m now doing Shonda’s MasterClass.
While acting still interests Vanessa, she admits that there are times she identifies herself more as a writer. “It’s a bit up in the air with the labels, but I still love acting lah, so I can’t wait to start work on the fourth season of Lion Mums,” she says.
Any writing involved on that one? ? Nope, it’s a strictly in-front-of-the-camera job. After her “hectic” experiences on The Fifth Floor as both writer and actor, she’s happy to leave the Lion Mums stories to much more established writers to tell.
Meanwhile, during the Circuit Breaker downtime, besides catching up on reading and movies (“I just watched Interstellar for the first time and it was really long!”), she’s also busy spinning dialogue for her next drama: The Teenage Textbook Returns, a reimagining of Adrian Tan’s 1988 novel The Teenage Textbook. “
“I’m writing a few episodes for that,” she says. “Hopefully it will come out next year. It’s really fun!”
Before we call it a day, I ask if there’s a reason for shortening her name to ‘Vanessa V’ in the opening credits of Maisonette? Is it to differentiate Vanessa the actor from Vanessa the writer?
Turns out this is news to her. “I think that is just an anomaly lah,” she says with a laugh. “My scripts have Vanessa Vanderstraaten on them and so far, all my acting credits have been under Vanessa Vanderstraaten as well. But hey, maybe I should go by that from now on! Vanessa V on Lion Mums!.”
Call her by this name: Introducing...Vanessa V
Titoudao: Inspired by the True Story of a Wayang Star, Maisonette, Lion Mums, The Deep End, @StarCrossed, and The Fifth Floor are now streaming on meWATCH. The Mandarin-dubbed version of Titoudao premieres May 18 (Mon), Ch 8, 9pm.